Tag Archives: Secrets of the Castle

The Medieval Mason



Interior Wall, Romsey Abbey


Stone buildings and stonemasons went together in the Middle Ages. It took skill and ingenuity to produce beautiful buildings, many of which have stood for centuries. It also took planning and the use of sophisticated lifting equipment.

Stone was an expensive material to use, even if it was quarried locally, and it needed skilled men to cut and shape it.

Different groups of men worked with the stone needed for a castle, a cathedral or a church. The stone had to be quarried first. Quarrymen were not masons. Their job was simply to get the stone for the masons to work on out of the ground. Usually, local stone was used, but occasionally stone could travel long distances, even from other countries. For Winchester Castle, for example, stone was brought from Selborne (18 miles away), the Isle of Wight (30 miles, but half of them on water), Haslebury (70 miles) and Caen (across the Channel in France). Transport costs, as well as the quality of the stone, meant that stone brought from far away was very expensive.

There were different classes of masons and the first two were the rough masons and the freemasons. The rough masons were unskilled and made the rubble walls, which were often used where neither strength nor appearance was considered important. Rubble was a low grade of stone, which could not be cut or shaped. Sometimes rubble walls were dressed so that an inner core of rubble was covered with smoothly-cut and close-fitting stones. This photograph shows a rubble interior.



Arrow Slit, Arundel Tower, Southampton


Freemasons could cut freestone to make squared blocks (ashlars) or complex shapes. The interior and exterior walls of Romsey Abbey pictured at the top of the post and below are made of cut stone. The freemasons put the stones in place and carved the decorative parts of a building. Freemasons earned more than rough masons, but they were not at the top of the chain.



Exterior Wall, Romsey Abbey


The master mason was in overall charge of the building site. He was the designer, engineer and contractor. He was the man employed by the patron to be responsible for all the building work. There would be a contract between the master mason and the patron which set out what the master mason was to build and how much he would be paid for doing so. He designed the building and took on all the men he needed to get the job done. He was paid by the patron and he, in turn, paid all the other men employed on the building site.

Some patrons wanted more of a say in the design than others and some master masons seem to have reused design elements from one building to another. They might even have been employed specifically to incorporate something that they had done elsewhere and that the patron liked.

Designs for decorative work were illustrated on a tracing floor. This was a plaster-covered surface on the ground onto which the master mason could trace the full-size design. From this he made a wooden template for the freemason to use as a pattern.

The masons worked in a lodge – a wooden structure on the building site that provided some shelter while they worked on the stone. It was also a place for them to eat and rest.

The cut stones were heavy. At ground level they could be moved on wooden rollers, but getting them to the tops of ever-growing walls required more ingenuity. A pulley was used to lift stones. Usually, this was done with the help of one or more men inside a treadmill. A hand winch could be used for small blocks of stone.

Most buildings were designed using squares and circles. The master mason used simple geometry to work out the proportions with a compass and a square. He did not necessarily need to understand the mathematics behind his design.

The working season was usually from the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas (2nd February), to All Saints Day (1st November). At the end of the season the work was covered, often with straw, to protect it from the elements until the next season. Work stopped before temperatures fell below freezing, as the mortar was useless once it had frozen.

Medieval building techniques can be seen at the archaeological project at Guédelon, where a castle is being built using techniques from the thirteenth century. The DVD Secrets of the Castle, which was filmed there, shows these techniques.




Filed under DVD Review

The Miller was a stout carl, for the nones


Millers were vital members of fourteenth century society. Everyone ate bread, and grain had to be ground into flour. This could be done by hand, using a quern, but it was very time-consuming. Powered mills (by water or wind) were labour saving devices, allowing the man who had grown the grain (or his wife and children) to do something else while the grain was being ground. The quality of the flour from a mill was also better, being more finely ground and containing less grit.

For the lord of a manor a mill was a source of income, if he had one on his land. Many had more than one. His peasants had to pay to have their grain ground and they were not allowed to grind it themselves. Many did so secretly, however, using a domestic quern, which had to be well-hidden. If they were caught they would be fined and the quern confiscated or destroyed.

This monopoly was resented by the peasants. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 some men forced their way into St Albans Abbey where confiscated millstones had been set into the parlour floor. The millstones were dug up and broken into pieces.

Mills were expensive to build. Watermills needed ponds, weirs and leats to provide enough water moving quickly enough to turn the millstone. The millstone itself had to be cut properly before it could be used. All of this meant that they could only be built by the lord of the manor.

Windmills were invented towards the end of the twelfth century. They were used in flat areas where the water did not move fast enough to turn a wheel.

The most famous miller of the fourteenth century was the one in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He is described in the Prologue as being a bit of a brute: tall, wide, and strong enough to break a door down with his head, and the winner of every wrestling contest he entered. He was not an attractive man, having a hairy wart on the end of his nose. He stole from his customers, overcharging them for good measure. The tale he tells is lewd, but very funny.

Not all millers were as dishonest as Chaucer’s miller, but he did represent the contemporary view that millers were thieves. Most of what is known about millers comes from court records, which contain mostly complaints about theft, dishonest weights and overcharging. Millers certainly had plenty of opportunity to steal from those who brought their grain for milling.

Millers either rented the mill from the lord of the manor, or collected the tolls and payments for the lord if employed by him. Some mills were by bridges and the miller would also collect the tolls from those crossing the bridge.

Peasants had to pay a multure to have their grain ground. This was sometimes a sixteenth of the grain or flour.  Freemen paid a smaller percentage. Despite the cost, freemen who did not have to use the mill took their grain there and paid to do so. Not only did the mill produce better quality flour, but it was also a more efficient use of their time than grinding by hand, even though it was considered inconvenient to take the grain to the mill.

Some mills used tidal water for their power. Tide mills were less efficient, however, as they could only operate for six to ten hours a day. Eling Tide Mill on Southampton Water benefited, and still benefits, from Southampton’s double tides in order to mill for longer. Travellers are still required to pay a toll to cross the nearby bridge. Although there has been a mill on the site for nine hundred years, the current building dates from the late eighteenth century.

Watermills were made of wood and there is rarely much left for archaeologists to find. Despite this, the team at Guédelon Castle decided to build a watermill as part of their project to build a castle using only techniques from the thirteenth century. Last year I reviewed the DVD Secrets of the Castle about the project. It shows the operation of a wooden watermill, as well the use of a quern. Some of the difficulties involved in operating a watermill are highlighted, not least the problems involved in producing enough power to turn the millstone.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

The Medieval Hall



Save for the lowliest, all fourteenth century houses and castles had a hall. This was the largest space in the house and, in larger houses and castles, was built to impress. They were high and long. The walls would often be painted with secular or religious images. In richer buildings they would be covered in tapestries, which served to decorate the room, to keep it warm and to demonstrate the owner’s wealth. Although built much later, Henry VIII’s Great Hall at Hampton Court is a wonderful example of this. Amazingly, Henry’s hall was for his household, not for him.

The hall was the heart of the house and served many purposes. Meals were eaten there. In great houses the lord, his family and the most important members of his household would sit at table on a raised platform with everyone else arranged on lower tables in order of precedence.

Meals were taken at what were essentially trestle tables and the household sat on benches. These were easily put away after meals and the servants slept on the floor of the hall. Most fourteenth century furniture was capable of being taken apart and moved.

In many houses the floors were made of beaten earth covered in rushes. Much thought has been given by historians and archaeologists to how the rushes were arranged, since they were probably not just strewn about on the floor. There is an interesting discussion about it in the Secrets of the Castle DVD which I reviewed here. I’m not sure how the solution posited by Ruth Goodman would work in a large hall, though. She tied the rushes together in bundles, which seemed to work well in a tiny, single-roomed dwelling. It’s difficult to see how effective it would have been when people were walking over them every day. Another theory is that the rushes were woven into mats and placed on the floor. In the homes of the wealthy, the floors would be made of stone or tiles, depending on which materials were available locally. The Secrets of the Castle DVD also has an informative section about making tiles.

The hall was also the place where the evening’s entertainment took place. Once it was dark, very little work could take place outside, so everyone was more or less confined to the house. Tales would be told, usually well-remembered stories or tales of people’s own experiences from wars, travels and pilgrimages. In wealthier houses the stories would be read aloud from books. Other forms of entertainment were singing, music, dancing, table-top games and gambling, depending on the season of the year.

In houses where there was no solar, the family would use the hall for their daytime occupations. For women this would mean sewing, spinning or weaving. The men were more likely to be outside during the day, training to fight, hunting or attending to their business.

The photograph at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. It’s a fairly modest house and includes a shop, but at its centre it has a hall. The hall takes up both stories of the house and a gallery runs between the front and back bedrooms on the first floor. Halls were high because, in the days before fireplaces became common, there would be an open fire in the middle of the room, and the height allowed the smoke to rise away from the occupants.

The owner’s wealth would be on display in the hall. This could take the form of expensive furniture or furnishings, but was usually made up of plate.


Filed under Fourteenth Century