Tag Archives: The Canterbury Tales

Medieval Innkeepers

The Wool House, Southampton

Some time ago I started an intermittent series about trades and occupations in the Middle Ages. I reallised that it has been several months since I added anything, so it’s probably about time we looked at another one. Innkeepers managed establishments whose purpose was to provide accommodation, food and drink to the people and animals who stayed in them. People in the Middle Ages travelled much more than we tend to think. Pilgrims, merchants, clerics and messengers were all on the roads, but so were men who transported goods from place to place and people who just had business in another town. They all needed somewhere to stay and they all hoped that they would stay in an inn run by a reputable man. As we shall see, innkeepers were not all made from the same cloth. Some were little better than criminals and others were entrusted with important commissions.

The best-known medieval innkeeper is probably Harry Bailly, the man from whose inn the pilgrims set off at the beginning of The Canterbury Tales. He’s a cheerful man who strives to keep the peace between the pilgrims and tries to manage the story-telling contest that gives rise to the various stories.

Not all innkeepers were as respectable as him, however. Some inns were not places where the Wife of Bath or the Prioress would want to find themselves. These were inns in which illegal gambling took place and a man who lost could find himself literally losing the shirt off his back, as well as all his other possessions if he lost beyond his ability to pay.

Inns themselves varied tremendously and could be large stone buildings built for the purpose with accommodation on an upper floor and stabling in the yard or a small room added to a tavern. We’re not really interested in taverns for this post, but we might come back to them later.

Inns were everywhere. They were in towns to provide accommodation for those who attended the markets and near pilgrimage sites to provide accommodation for pilgrims. They were also in places that people might travel to in order to petition the king or important and powerful clerics.

Accommodation was important to travellers. If there was no space for them in an inn or a monastery, they had to sleep outside the town, which might not be safe or particularly comfortable. Not that sleeping in an inn was always comfortable. Some inns had two rooms, one for men and one for women, but travellers generally shared one room with the innkeeper and his family.

As well as in towns there were also inns along all the trade routes and it’s the owners of some of these establishments who were at the top of the innkeeping trade. These innkeepers stored goods that came in bulk from one direction and were broken up into smaller quantities to be sent on in the other. They acted as agents of the merchants who owned the goods. Innkeepers organised the onward transport of goods where the method of transport changed. Goods might arrive by river and go on by road, either in carts or on pack animals and it was often innkeepers who took responsibility for this.

It wasn’t always possible for merchants to accompany their goods all the way from the place of production to the final market, possibly a thousand or more miles away, especially if the route passed through several countries and required different modes of transport. They were unlikely to have all the contacts necessary. They could, however, have a relationship with three or four reliable innkeepers wherever the method of transport changed. If, for example, an English merchant was sending goods to Italy, he might send an employee with them by sea to Bordeaux and on as far inland as the ship could sail. This would be Libourne on the Dordogne. Once there the cargo would be put into the care of an innkeeper and the employee would return to England with the ship and a different cargo.

The innkeeper, meanwhile, would weigh the goods, usually packed in bulk at this point. Then he would break the cargo down so that it could be transported overland by cart or pack animal. He stored it until he had arranged for a carrier to take it on the next stage of its journey, in this instance Montpellier in the south of France. He paid the carrier for the journey and his job was done.

The carrier delivered it to another innkeeper in Montpellier who took it in, weighed it and paid another carrier to take it to Aigues Mortes in Provence. From Aigues Mortes it went by galley to Porto Pisano in Tuscany. The innkeeper in Aigues Mortes paid for men and small boats to take the goods to the galley and that’s where his responsibility ended.

The English merchant only had to pay the innkeepers and he needed no local knowledge to transport his goods across four different countries with three or four different languages. He didn’t even have to think about how to prepare his goods for the different types of transport.

Innkeepers were prepared to store goods for some time, especially those in ports who had to wait for ships to arrive that were going in the right direction. Even inland innkeepers, however, might have to wait until a carrier with enough animals or carts turned up. They also had to pay tolls and deal with officials who would weigh the goods and tax them.

In order to operate as warehouses, inns needed to be large, like the warehouse at the top of the post, and secure. This, along with the necessity of paying carriers up front, meant that innkeepers had to be wealthy men. These were probably not men like Chaucer’s innkeeper, but men who had already made money elsewhere. Some of them were priests and lawyers, some were even nobles. However rich they were to start with, providing this kind of service made them much richer.

Sources:
A Social History of England ed. by Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Medieval Heraldry

I mentioned a while ago that I’m reading The Canterbury Tales and there are many things in them that are worth writing about here. In the first tale, that of the knight, two young men are identified on a battlefield because they’re wearing devices on their clothing. Chaucer, who had fought (and been taken prisoner) in the Hundred Years War, would have known this detail. It’s probably not too fanciful to imagine that his own value as a prisoner was recognised due to the livery he was wearing when he was captured. He went to France in the retinue of Lionel of Antwerp, a son of Edward III, and it was the king himself who paid Chaucer’s ransom.

As armour developed and covered a knight’s body, including his face, identifying him in battle became more difficult. Devices were created so that those around the knight would know who he was, which was useful both for his own men and o for the knight who would be identified to the other side as someone worth capturing for ransom rather than killing. Devices were shown on shields, banners and surcoats (open-sided tunics worn over armour, as shown in the picture above). They were also appliquéd onto banners, for those who had the right to bear them.

Originally arms were very simple e.g. the three lions of England, the fleur-de-lys of France, the three leopards of Anjou. There were also chevrons, bends, crosses and eagles. They were made in bright colours: red, blue, white and yellow. For the king, gold, silver and silk would be used. Subtle differences in colour could lead to confusion, however.

 When they were inherited by more than one son, the arms had to be changed to identify that son, so devices were quartered as sons took the devices of both their parents. Hence Edward III had three lions from his father as well as the fleur-de-lys from his mother, to show his claim to the French crown.

Heraldry was also useful in jousts so the audience would know who the competitors were. By the fourteenth century it was a sport and everyone liked to be able to identify the participants. Their identities were known because of what they were wearing, but also because the heralds would announce their names. The heralds at tournaments had to know how to identify foreign participants as well. It wasn’t just heralds who were supposed to be able to identify coats of arms, though. It was knowledge that every knight needed to have.

Arms were displayed everywhere: on silver, on the walls of halls, on embroidered vestments given to churches, on church windows, on church walls, on tombs and monuments. They appeared on the knight’s surcoat, his horse’s trappings and his shield. They were on tiles, wall paintings, seals, in manuscripts, on caskets, chests and plate. It was a way of showing that someone was a member of the elite.

Heraldic devices were originally personal, but became hereditary by the twelfth century. They changed from being a way to identify someone to being a sign of lineage, family honour and pride: a way of maintaining an identity. Heroic actions done by previous holders of the arms were attached to the arms themselves, increasing the reputation of the man currently holding them. Some people adopted the arms of the local nobility into their own to share a little of their glory. In Cheshire some families included the wheatsheaf that was used by the early of Chester.

In a battle, soldiers were identified by the arms of their lord. They were in small retinues, with each retinue leader answerable to a more important lord. It was vital for order that a coat of arms should not be used by more than one lord. At the beginning of fourteenth century notes and drawings started to be made about the arms being used so that the heralds could keep track of them.

Disputes about duplications of arms arose after the battle of Crécy at the siege of Calais. If the two knights bearing the same arms weren’t in the same army, it didn’t really matter if they had the same arms. Armies tended to be regional, so an army gathered to fight the Scots would come from the north and it wouldn’t matter if someone in Yorkshire had the same arms as someone in Hampshire, because they wouldn’t usually be called to serve together. There could only be confusion when both were fighting in the same army, which happened during Edward III’s war with France.

There was a court in fourteenth century specifically for trying cases of misappropriation of heraldic devices – the Court of Chivalry. It also dealt with questions about ransoms for men taken prisoner in France. In 1386 Geoffrey Chaucer was called before this court to give evidence in the dispute between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor. They were cousins and Chaucer said that he had seen both using the same coat of arms at Rettel. This was near Rheims where Chaucer had gone as part of Lionel of Antwerp’s retinue in 1360 in Edward III’s campaign to be crowned king of France. It was also where Chaucer was taken prisoner. The case lasted from 1385 to 1390 and was decided in favour of Sir Richard. Of the two he was the most distinguished, having served Edward III with distinction on his French campaigns. He had also been Richard II’s chancellor.

It’s no wonder that, when he came to write his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer remembered how important a coat of arms could be. Sadly, the two knights in his tale didn’t enjoy the happy ending that Chaucer himself had.

Sources:
Tournaments by Richard Barber and Juliet Barker
The Knight and Chivalry by Richard Barber
Edward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber
A Social History of England ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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The Serjeant-At-Law

This week we’re returning to The Canterbury Tales to look at another of the pilgrims. Unlike the situation with the pardoner and the summoner, I had a vague idea of what the man of law does. It was only when I read the General Prologue that I realised that he isn’t just a lawyer. He’s a serjeant-at-law, more familiar to us these days, or to me at least, in the (fictional) form of Matthew Shardlake, C. J. Sansom’s Tudor barrister and investigator. I have read all the Shardlake novels and never quite understood what he did and why it meant that he came to the attention of important people. I have taken this opportunity to fill that gap in my knowledge.

As with many odd-looking titles, serjeant-at-law a corruption of the Latin – serviens ad legem – law servant. Serjeant-at-law was the highest rank of English barrister and they were a very select group. In Chaucer’s time there were rarely more than twenty of them. The king appointed them after they had completed sixteen years of study and practice, and the justices of the court were chosen from among them.

They were the only barristers who were allowed to work in the Court of Common Pleas, the principal court in England, since they were the only ones who could take pleading cases.

The Court of Common Pleas was possibly established by Henry II in 1178 as a separate entity from the King’s Bench, or it might have been the other way round. No one is entirely sure how it happened, but it’s more or less certain that there were two types of court by the beginning of the thirteenth century. The King’s Bench heard cases that involved the crown and the Court of Common Pleas heard the ones that didn’t. Originally five members of the king’s council heard the cases, but this was later amended by Magna Carta, making the court independent of the king. It was given its own place to meet in Westminster Hall and by 1272 it had a chief justice.

If you’ve read any of the Shardlake novels, you’ll know that his rank is shown by his clothing and the same thing applied in the fourteenth century. Serjeants-at-law were known by their white coifs. This was a tight-fitting cap, as you’ll see in the illustration at the top of the post. They’re possibly more familiar to you as something that nuns wear under their wimples, but they were also worn by men in the Middle Ages.

Chaucer’s serjeant-at-law would, like his peers, have been very highly-regarded in fourteenth-century England. I’m interested to find out what he’ll get up to on the pilgrimage.

Sources:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer ed. Jill Mann

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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Available now:

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Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part Two

In the description of the the franklin, one of the pilgrims, I came across a term I’ve skimmed over in the past when I’ve encountered it. I didn’t really have much of an idea of what a knight of the shire was, but the notes of my edition of The Canterbury Tales told me that it was a member of parliament and that Chaucer had been one. So I did a bit of reading.

Two knights were chosen to represent each county at a parliament. They were supposed to be elected, but usually they were chosen by the county’s sheriff. As representatives of people in a certain location, rather than invited directly by the king, they were in the Commons. Parliaments were called by the king, usually when he needed to raise money by means of taxes. They could meet anywhere in the country, depending on where the king was, but Westminster was often its location under Edward III and Richard II.

Chaucer was MP for Kent in the ‘Wonderful Parliament’ from 1 October to 28 November 1386. It met in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey. Chaucer was only an esquire, however, not a knight. Knights weren’t always keen to act as knights of their shires, finding the obligations burdensome. Men like Chaucer, however, who was the son of a merchant and would never be knighted, were often extremely happy to take their place in parliament, since it was a great honour for them. Chaucer was paid 4 shillings a day for attendance and was never an MP again.

The other thing that I learned from the description of the franklin is what an up-and-coming gentleman had for his breakfast. The franklin was fond of a sop in wine for his first meal of the day. A sop was a piece of bread and it was dipped into the wine. This was, apparently not an unusual way for people with the necessary means to break their fasts. The wine would have been fairly weak, as was the ale that people lower down the social scale had with their breakfasts.

Sources:
The Canterbury Tales ed. Jill Mann
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part One

Canterbury Tales

When I started reading The Canterbury Tales I guessed that I would come across a few things I didn’t already know about the fourteenth century. This has proven to be the case,  even within the first few pages, but some of the things I’ve learned aren’t really enough to sustain a whole post. I thought, therefore, that I would do a series of ‘pick and mix’ posts as things arise. There is nothing to link the things I’m writing about, other than that I came across them in The Canterbury Tales and found them interesting

One of the pilgrims going to Canterbury is a friar. In his description in the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the friar keeps knives and pins in his long sleeves to give to women. This came as a bit of a shock to me. Aside from sounding rather dangerous, why was the friar giving things to women? The notes came to my aid here and it turns out that friars, who travelled from place to place preaching and begging for alms, were ideally placed to be pedlars. The friar carried his wares in his sleeves and was always ready to make a sale. Chaucer tells his readers that he made a fair amount of money in this trade. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

The friar also participated in ‘love days’. They’re not what you’re thinking. Instead, they were meetings between the parties to a dispute who wanted to reach a settlement out of court. Sometimes this was with the aim of avoiding going to court at all, and sometimes the love day took place after those involved had appeared in court but before a judgement had been made. The friar was an arbiter, putting him in a position where he could receive bribes if he wished, and we assume that he did so wish. Chaucer doesn’t have a very high opinion of his friar. Perhaps he had suffered at the hands of friars at love days. Chaucer made a bit of a habit of being in debt in later life and there are records of cases against him seeking repayment. Some of those cases would have been settled at a love day and not always in his favour.

Sources:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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What Did Pardoners and Summoners Do?

Canterbury Tales

Can you tell that I’ve finally started reading The Canterbury Tales? I’m reading it in Middle English, because I like doing things that are difficult. To be honest, it’s not that hard to get an idea of what’s going on, but you do need the vocabulary to understand the detail. Fortunately, the Penguin edition that I’m using has both a very good glossary and extensive notes. It’s a huge book, though, so it will take me a while to get through it.

I’ve only read a few pages so far, but I already have some questions that aren’t answered for me in the notes. To be fair, they might be answered later, but I’m beginning to suspect they might not be. This post will be the first in an occasional series about things relating to The Canterbury Tales. They might be things that I learn from reading the poem or questions arising from it about life in fourteenth-century England. Today’s post is the latter.

Although I haven’t come across them in the book yet, I know that two of the pilgrims going to Canterbury are a pardoner and a summoner.  What I don’t know is what they do, except the obvious that one pardons and the other summons. Who do they pardon and summon, though, and on whose behalf?

Here are the answers.

The pardoner was a secular clerk or friar, whose role was originally that of messenger, which we’ll come to later. By the fourteenth century he was carrying relics around with him, which he displayed for a fee. Anyone who knew anything about relics in the Middle Ages would have realised how unlikely it was that someone in such a lowly position would be travelling around with one, let alone more than one, relic. Even tiny fragments were kept in reliquaries or inside shrines and further secured within churches. Chaucer’s pardoner has a pillow-case he says is the veil of the Virgin Mary and he also has a bit of St. Peter’s fishing boat. I suspect that Chaucer’s contemporaries were very aware of what was going on with regard to false relics.

The pardoner also sold indulgences, which many people wrongly believed were pardons for sin. Their official title was questor (asker), since they asked people about their sins. The role was abolished by the pope in 1562, a little late, as the selling of indulgences was one of the abuses that figured largely in Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, which led to Reformation.

Indulgences were instituted with good intentions in the tenth century.  People confessed their sins to a priest and were absolved. They were then given a penance. Sometimes people were given penances that were beyond them physically and they could pay something in place of carrying out the penance. That was an indulgence. At first indulgences were specific to the person receiving them.

More general indulgences were introduced in the eleventh century. These could apply to anyone who met the conditions attached to them. The best known general (or plenary) indulgence is probably the one relating to the First Crusade in 1096 when Pope Urban II said that any man who set out to take Jerusalem for Christianity would have all his penance for the rest of his life cancelled.

Urban II also made use of partial indulgences for pilgrims visiting to specific churches and those who helped to restore a monastery in Normandy. During the twelfth century bishops started issuing their own indulgences to pilgrims visiting certain shrines in their dioceses. From that point it got out of hand.

An indulgence could reduce or cancel entirely the sinner’s penance. It did not forgive the sin or release the sinner from his guilt, although many people believed that it did. The finer points of theology might have been discussed in the great church councils attended by cardinals and bishops, but few parish priests understood them. Their parishioners had even less chance of knowing what the real purpose of an indulgence was.

Let us return to our seller of indulgences. The things that pardoners generally did were prohibited. They were not supposed to sell indulgences, preach in churches or forgive sins and they weren’t supposed to collect money for displaying relics. Officially all they could do was deliver the paperwork of an indulgence from the pope or a bishop to a repentant sinner.

As early as 1215, at the fourth Lateran Council, it was agreed that questors should be licensed. A licence could come from the pope or a bishop. In theory that meant that pardoners would be limited in where they could go and that they would have to show their licence as they travelled. In practice few people could read and most people wouldn’t have known to ask to see the licence anyway.

That obviously didn’t work and the behaviour of pardoners got worse. An edict was sent out in 1267 to say that pardoners couldn’t demand accommodation with clergy in the towns and villages they passed through, nor could they force a local priest to gather the parishioners to hear them preach, which was obviously what had been happening.

Even that wasn’t enough, though. By 1312 pardoners had to show their credentials to bishops in order to enter their dioceses. The Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the century and things were clearly no better. To men like Chaucer, pardoners were clearly disreputable.

The other pilgrim whose job was a mystery to me is the pardoner’s friend the summoner. He was an official of the ecclesiastical courts and it was his responsibility to bring people to who were believed to have broken canon law to the archdeacon’s court. Lay people were summoned to the ecclesiastical courts for not paying their tithes or death duties, or after being accused of a sexual offence, or if they were involved in a marital dispute or were accused of perjury. By the end of the fourteenth century summoners were considered to be little more than spies and blackmailers.

They were introduced in England in the thirteenth century. It was widely believed that they threated people with non-existent crimes in order to extort money. They could also be bribed by those who were guilty to let them go. In this they were no different from many in the secular courts, although I think they were probably meant to be different.

Sources:
Who Murdered Chaucer? – Terry Jones
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases – Christopher Corèdon and Ann Williams
Pilgrimage – Jonathan Sumption

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Boccaccio and Chaucer

Decameron

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’m fascinated by the Black Death. I want to know what people thought about it, how they coped while it was at its height and what life was like after it. One day, when I’m a much better writer than I am now, I hope to write a novel about it.

Last year, partly in the hope of getting a bit more insight into how people coped during the Black Death, I read Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It’s a collection of 100 stories told by ten refugees from the plague in Florence to while away the time until they can return to the city. It’s a fantasy, of course. They retreat to a lovely, secluded villa, where there are beatific grounds in which they wander until the evening, when they gather together to tell their tales, none of which has anything to do with the Black Death.

The main reason why I read The Decameron was because it’s one of the major literary works of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio had probably been collecting the stories for years and the conceit of ten young people entertaining one another gave him a structure for putting them together. Every evening (except Sundays and the day on which they move to another, even nicer villa) each of the ten has to tell one story. Apart from the first, each evening has a theme for the stories. There are stories about fidelity and infidelity. There are stories against the church and stories against ‘clever’ men. There are stories about revenge and about wives who know more than their husbands. Some of the stories are amusing and some of them are very dark indeed.

Some of the tales found their way into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer visited Italy at least twice and he probably read some of Boccaccio’s works, as well as those of Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend, while he was there. His Troilus and Criseyde is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. The structure itself of The Canterbury Tales might be borrowed from The Decameron.

The stories weren’t, for the most part, created by Boccaccio. Some of them aren’t even Italian in origin. His genius lay, as did Chaucer’s, in the way he told them and in the way he put them together.

Although Boccaccio lived through the Black Death, it’s unlikely he was in Florence all the time. Apparently, he hated the city of his birth and preferred Naples, where he spent his early adulthood. He was born in 1313 and, while he was in Naples, he was apprenticed to a banker. Banking was very advanced in Italy and the rest of Europe borrowed from Italian bankers. Boccaccio wanted to write, though, and went back to Florence in 1341. The Black Death arrived in Italy in 1347 and had receded by 1349. Boccaccio probably started work on The Decameron around then. In later life, he travelled on behalf of the Florentine state, visiting Avignon, where the papal court was based, and Rome. He died in 1375.

As it turned out, reading The Decameron did give me some insight into life during the Black Death. In his introduction to the stories, Boccaccio describes what Florence was like in 1348. He describes the symptoms of the plague and what happened when people grew ill and died. It’s the horrors of this nightmare world that his storytellers want to escape and they do so by telling stories of life before the plague arrived.

In case you’re wondering, I enjoyed reading The Decameron. Some of the stories are very dark, but most of them are entertaining.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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