Posts Tagged ‘medieval mysteries’

What People Did in Medieval England

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

In recent months, I have been using the chapter titles of an excellent book on English medieval life to discuss various aspects of how people of the time lived.  The eleventh and last chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: “What to Do”.  One might describe it in contemporary language as what people did for entertainment in their leisure time.  To my surprise, much of what they did in their spare time was similar to, and often laid the groundwork for, activities I remember as a child and young person before the advent of television, computers, the internet, and iPhones.

Barbara Tuchman, in her book A Distant Mirror has compared the 14th century with the 20th, and the similarities are striking.  Wars and disease took a heavy toll in both centuries, yet despite these calamities, or maybe because of them, people were often exuberant about life.  For example, music and dancing were important in both centuries.  There was less ambient noise in the 14th century, well before the industrial revolution, and people listened carefully and loved music when they had the opportunity to hear it.

Early versions of many modern musical instruments existed in the 14th century.  I have written in previous postings about the wonderful Minstrels Gallery in Exeter Cathedral where medieval angels, carved in stone, are playing instruments of the 14th century.  One can easily recognize a violin before it developed into the instrument we know today.  There is a portative pipe organ which an angel holds in her arms.  There are early woodwind instruments such as the double-reed shawm and medieval string instruments such as the gittern and citole as well as a harp.  Two trumpets represent the brass family of instruments, but only the mouthpiece has survived for one of them.  The picture above shows an angel playing a harp, and two others playing trumpets, the left one being the broken one.

People of the 14th century also liked to dance whenever they had the opportunity.  Something called carolling was popular, but I don’t mean the singing of Christmas carols.  In the middle ages, the caroller would stand inside a ring of dancers and sing the verse of a song which often was secular.  Then, the dancers would join in singing the chorus before the caroller moved on to the next verse.

Plays were another popular form of entertainment.  Miracle or mystery plays were performed regularly in cities, including Exeter and Worcester where my second and sixth books are set.  These plays were usually based on biblical stories or on the lives of the saints.  They were often performed on wagons that could be moved about the city centre.  Morality plays were just beginning at the end of the 14th century but became very popular in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Such plays were a kind of drama with personified abstract qualities, such as Pride or Covetousness as the main characters and presenting a lesson about good conduct and character.

Jousting was a tilting activity performed by two knights and enjoyed by many people who watched the match.  It was a refinement of mass charges by many knights in earlier centuries.  That approach to warfare had become impractical in the 14th century with the English use of the longbow, so a jousting contest became an entertainment that many could enjoy.

Hunting was an important activity for the nobility but wasn’t part of the entertainment of the rest of society.  It was very expensive as well as being exclusive.  Hawking, on the other hand was popular with many people, including the nobility.  It, too, could be quite expensive, but the more exotic birds were reserved for royalty and noblemen.

Many children’s games were similar to contemporary ones that I played in my younger days.  Various kinds of brutal contests between men and animals were popular.  For example, bear-baiting in which a bear would be tormented or worried by other animals such as dogs was regarded as entertainment.  Such abuse of animals for show was also applied to other animals such as bulls or cocks.

There were early forms of some games that we know today such as soccer football, bowling, field hockey, and tennis.  Archery was perhaps the foremost sport because Englishmen were required by law to develop skills with the longbow.  I mention this in my recent book, Usurper’s Curse, when the teenager, Waldef, takes up archery.  Indoor games included the use of dice, coins, and board games such as checkers and chess.  Playing cards, however, though becoming popular in France did not arrive in England until the 15th century.

Pilgrimage during the middle ages was in an activity category by itself.  Many people went on pilgrimages to religious sites, in England, throughout Europe, and to Jerusalem, for a variety of personal reasons.  Such people play a role in some of my stories.  Phyllis of Bath in Plague of a Green Man has been on several major pilgrimages just like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath on whom she is based.  Similarly, Robert Kenwood who appears in both King Richard’s Sword and in Usurper’s Curse was returning from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela at the beginning of the former story.  My character of Robert Kenwood was inspired by the 20th century find in Worcester Cathedral of a medieval body, known as the Worcester Pilgrim.

Books and storytelling were important to 14th century Englishmen, but the books available to them before the printing press were manuscripts which were rare and valuable.  When they were accessible, they were often read aloud to groups of people.  A popular fictional work in the 14th was called a romance.  Poetry was also widely popular.  Well known poets of the period were John Gower, William Langland, and the Gawain Poet whose name we don’t know.  The 14th century was the century when English as a language began to be used in literature.  The most famous poet was Geoffrey Chaucer, some of whose characters have greatly influenced my stories.  Another important writer of the time was Mother Julian of Norwich, the first woman to write in English.  Julian’s writing influenced my heroine, the Lady Apollonia, in my first book, Effigy of the Cloven Hoof.

What people did in their spare time in the 14th century may not have been identical with the activities of people of the 20th century, but one can see that many interests of the period shared some similarities, and frequently laid the groundwork for modern leisure pursuits.

The Law in Medieval England

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

The tenth chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: The Law.  Mortimer describes the development of the law in medieval England, a process in which the law was quite different from law in the 21st century though some of its problems are still with us today.  The effects of fourteenth century law were displayed for everyone in public gallows from which multiple human bodies were hanging.  Also, severed heads were often displayed above city gates while small towns and boroughs had stocks in which minor criminals could be displayed.  The picture to the left displays an English friend of mine in the stocks.  Alwan, Lady Apollonia’s forester in my stories, was saved by my heroine from abuse while confined to the stocks and taken under Apollonia’s wing in Effigy of the Cloven Hoof.  He became part of her affinity as her forester in that story and re-appears elsewhere in the series including my forthcoming novel, Usurper’s Curse.  The things described above were merely some of the outward signs of the law in medieval times.

The police are the most prominent presentation of the law in our society, but they are an invention of the 18th century.  In earlier centuries, there were officials at various levels of society with responsibilities for enforcing the law and carrying out justice.  This blog post will deal with royal justice and with the law at various levels: the county, the sub-county or hundred, the manor or borough, and the tithing or local neighbourhood.

If we start at the top, the law of the land in England goes back to the laws of the Saxons.  These laws were revised over the centuries by royal judges and eventually by the Parliament, which was becoming a significant legislature by the 14th century.  Important revisions of parliamentary rule in that century are still on the books including the innovation of 1362 that cases could be argued in English.

There were three royal courts in medieval England: the Court of the Exchequer, which heard cases that involved financial arrangements with the crown; the Court of the King’s Bench which heard criminal cases as well as appeals from lower courts; and the Court of Common Pleas which also heard appeals, but its main assignment was to hear personal cases such as lawsuits over debt, theft, fraud, unlawful distrains, and similar offenses.  Distrain was a seizure of property to obtain rent or other money owed.  The Courts of the King’s Bench and of Common Pleas traveled to each county twice a year.  A third of those who were tried in these courts were found guilty and usually executed while the other two-thirds were found innocent and set free.

The sheriff carried out the king’s writs and orders at the county level.  He was also responsible for gathering troops to fight for the king as well as feeding those troops.  The county gaol was his responsibility.  The county gaol of Gloucestershire, housed in Gloucester Castle, plays a role in my third novel, Memento Mori.  In each county, there was a court which the sheriff was expected to convene every four weeks.  Sheriffs play a role in several of my books.  In Memento Mori, set in 1392, it is the daughter of the Sheriff of Gloucestershire who is one of the villains and who receives protection from her father.  Usurper’s Curse, my forthcoming book, set in 1406-1407, has Lady Apollonia’s brother, Ferdinand, the Earl of Marshfield as the Sheriff of Gloucestershire, and he plays a major role in that story.  Apollonia’s son Hugh is the Sheriff of Worcestershire in King Richard’s Sword, set in 1399-1400.

Counties were subdivided into units called hundreds.  Large counties had many hundreds, such as Devon with 35 of them.  Small counties had much fewer, such as Huntingdonshire with only four.  Each hundred had a bailiff who answered to the sheriff of his county.  The hundred court met every three weeks and considered cases of minor infractions that could not be heard by lower courts because these cases crossed lower land boundaries or because they involved freemen who were not subject to the frankpledge of the tithings described below.  The hundred court considered cases of minor infractions that were punishable only by fines.  There was a special hundred’s court called the sheriff’s tourn.  It visited each hundred twice a year, usually around Easter and Michaelmas in the spring and autumn.  The purpose of the tourn was to take into custody those who had received indictments involving felonies and cases that needed to be referred to the royal courts.  Such people were taken to the county gaol and sometimes had to wait long periods for their cases to be resolved, even in cases where the final verdict was innocent.

A surprisingly large number of indicted men choose to accuse others of crimes in a process called “approving”.  Although this did not lead to leniency for the indicted person, it did allow that person to get even with others whether the accusations of others were justified or not.  Approving could be one of several kinds of miscarriages of justice that were common in medieval England.  Also, corruption and bribery of sheriffs were far too common.  Torture was illegal but still used, women prisoners were often abused, and the whole system was biased against strangers.  Medieval residents of town and villages often used the word “foreigner” to describe any stranger.  Finally, indicted persons could request resolving their cases by combat in which they or their representatives fought opponents or their representatives.  In the worst case, an indicted man who was actually guilty of murder might have won the combat by killing an opponent and thus won his innocence by committing two murders.

Towns or boroughs and cities often were allowed to make ordinances.  For example, Worcester had an ordinance that required every citizen to keep a weapon and to support the bailiffs in keeping the King’s peace.  Courts were run at this level of government by mayors or bailiffs.  Walter Payston, a friend of Lady Apollonia’s third husband, Robert Windemere, is a bailiff of Gloucester who plays a role in the story in Memento Mori.

Courts were also administered by lords of manors.  These lords could include clergy such as abbots who often served as lords of manors.  Manorial courts were usually held outdoors, when weather permitted, to consider matters of interest within the bounds of the manor such as issues of land boundaries or responsibilities for maintaining paths, lands, and hedges.  In the extreme case of catching a thief red-handed, these courts had the right to hang the accused.  A steward was employed to serve the lord in management of his estates and the running of manorial court.

The most local level of justice was at the level of a tithing, made up of as few as ten neighbors.  Every male villein or feudal tenant between the ages of ten and 60 swore allegiance, by a frankpledge, to his tithing that he would uphold the law.  The law was administered by a chief tithing-man, also called a capital pledge.

There were keepers of the peace who were empowered to arrest people at the beginning of the 14th century.  In 1316 in Kent, this was extended to the authority to judge cases to help reduce the backlog of cases in gaol awaiting trial.  This was the beginning of appointing justices of the peace.

Organized crime thrived in medieval England.  Gangs were often family affairs, and noble families were not exempt.  A gang led by a noble Devon family plays a significant role in Plague of a Green Man, my second novel.  In Memento Mori, it is the daughter of the Sheriff of Gloucestershire who leads an important gang in that story.

Ecclesiastical courts tried matters of moral behavior and were the law courts for clergymen.  Being “a member of the clergy” was a phrase so general that anyone who could recite scripture passages qualified as a clergyman, eligible to be tried by canon law.  Benefit of clergy was highly desirable, especially in capital cases because there was no death penalty in the church courts.  I have used this in my forthcoming novel, Usurper’s Curse, when a murderer recites scripture, in order to claim benefit of clergy.

Sanctuary was a last resort for medieval criminals facing punishment.  Such persons could claim sanctuary if they were able to get to a church before being arrested.  Once at the altar of the church, the sanctuary they claimed could last up to 40 days.  It was confirmed by the criminal confessing his guilt to a witness in the church.  The church was required to feed the criminal who could go outside solely for relieving himself of body wastes.  By the end of the 40 days, the criminal would be escorted to a ship for deportation.  I used this legal possibility in Plague of a Green Man when two criminals claimed sanctuary in Exeter Cathedral.

The law in medieval England was quite different than it is today, but some of its problems still plague us such as long waits for trial and the wealthy frequently being able to do better by the law than the poor.

Health and Hygiene in Medieval England

Tuesday, August 14th, 2018

The ninth chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: Health and Hygiene.  It describes the developments of these topics in 14th century England.  As an author, I love writings stories set in medieval England, but my sons tell me that I really wouldn’t have wanted to live in that era because of the awful smells.  They are probably right because there certainly were bad odours, and many of these were caused by conditions which affected the health and hygiene of the time.

I moved to Exeter, Devon, with my husband, Lou, in 1988.  We moved into a terraced or row house on a hill by the River Exe.  There was a medieval stream which ran behind those terraced houses with the name, Shitbrook.  That stream did not get its name by accident, so I referred to its unpleasant odour in my second Lady Apollonia Mystery, Plague of a Green Man, which was set in Exeter in 1380.

There is also a street in Exeter called Stepcote Hill, which retains its medieval character.  It is narrow and steep in its descent to the river.  A trough runs down the middle so that, in medieval times, people could throw their garbage and waste into the trough where the next rain would wash it down towards the river.  A photograph of that hill is shown on the left.  One can only imagine the stench from each of these two examples in medieval Exeter, and such conditions were duplicated throughout communities in England.

Sickness was a big problem that was not well understood in the medieval period.  Medicine was a bizarre mixture of arcane ritual, cult religion, domestic invention, and a freakshow.  Doctors often consulted numerology for guidance or looked to astrology for signs of the zodiac.  The latter happened when a doctor of physic was employed by my heroine, Lady Apollonia, when her beloved husband, Edward Aust, returned very ill from London to Exeter in Plague of a Green Man.  Medical practice at that time was still very dependent on Galen and Hippocrates who had lived more than one and a half millennia earlier, at which time the humours of choler (yellow bile), phlegm, melancholy (black bile), and blood were considered essential in determining a person’s physical and mental state.  Doctors of the period often recommended bleeding the patient to return balance to the body, often to the patient’s detriment.

It is not an exaggeration to say that getting medical help in medieval times may have been more damaging than getting no help at all.  In such circumstances, people looked to the church, both to explain sickness as well as to petition for personal help.  Many would have agreed with the friends of Job that his misfortunes must have been the result of God’s displeasure for something Job had done.

We are concerned with germs when we think of cleanliness, but germ theory was unknown in medieval times.  People were more dependent on how things smelled when judging whether they were clean.  They were very concerned with whether they were perceived by their neighbours as being clean.  Cleanliness, identity, pride, and respectability were all tied together.  Hence, medieval people did try regularly to wash their faces, teeth, hands, feet, body, fingernails, beard, and hair, even if full body bathing was a luxury that many could not do regularly because of expense or because of the availability of clean water.

Diseases, particularly leprosy, tuberculosis, and the plague, were major afflictions in 14th century England.  This is not due to differences between medieval and modern hygiene.  Rather, the big factors were an inadequate diet for many people, generally poor sanitation, the prevalence of parasites, and the way that living spaces were shared.  The latter factor is related to the fact that many major diseases could easily be passed from one human to another living in close proximity, such as in monastic houses or when strangers shared a bed at an inn.  Medieval people had no understanding of this aspect of the transmission of disease.

The Great Plague first arrived in England in August 1348, with return visits in 1368-69, 1375, and 1390-91.  By 1400, half of those born after 1330 were killed by this disease although no more than third of the population was killed in the initial 1348-49 attack.  Lady Apollonia’s son Chad died of the plague in my third novel, Memento Mori, in 1392 while on the continent fighting with the Teutonic Knights.

Leprosy or Hansen’s Disease as we know it in modern times was a major fear for all medieval people, yet leprosy may have been misdiagnoses of what we now call eczema, psoriasis, and lupus.  Medieval leprosy in England was in decline by the 14th century, but lepers were shunned as outcasts from their community through a special mass for the living dead.  I write of such a situation in Plague of a Green Man.

Tuberculosis was on the rise and, because it could be transmitted by air, tended to be more of a problem in urban areas.  Typhoid fever was also a chronic sickness, especially for armies of men massed together in huge numbers.  Beyond these diseases, there may have been others in the 14th century which are unknown to us today.  Finally, I should mention that natural childbirth was often fatal for the baby and for the mother.  All in all, the health and hygiene of the 14th century would have been very difficult for people of the time, and their life expectancies were much shorter than ours.

What to Eat and Drink in Medieval England

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

The eighth chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: What to Eat and Drink.  It describes how various people ate and drank in 14th century England.  This posting will deal with the rhythms of medieval eating and drinking as well as the contrasts between how the peasants ate and drank compared with the merchants living in the towns and cities, with the nobles, and with monastic residents.  The English class system meant that peasant fare was usually quite modest compared to what many merchants ate.  Also, monks ate well as did the nobility, especially, the royalty.  In general, most food and drink was obtained locally which meant that there were good years and bad years.  In 1390-91, for example, bad weather caused many people in England to starve.  Finally, there was less variety of food available in 14th century England because foods from the New World such as potatoes, tomatoes, and turkeys were unknown in England.

The main meal was usually in mid-day, followed by a lighter meal in the late afternoon.  There was often no breakfast, but people expecting to travel would break their fast before starting their journeys.  My novels often mentioned that people broke their fast before setting out on a journey.  Seasons were important for medieval people because the methods of preserving food were more limited than today.  Vegetables were most abundant during the autumn harvest season, and fish were most available in the summer when weather conditions were best for fishermen.  There was more daylight in summer, both for catching fish and for transporting the catch to people living near the sea or along the rivers.  Those who could afford meat found that lamb, pork, beef, and birds were most available in late autumn. More slaughtering of livestock took place then due to the high cost of feeding animals through the winter season.  The medieval church declared that meat must be avoided on many days throughout the year, including every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as well as throughout Advent and Lent.  Fish was the substitute if available and affordable.

Bread provided the key item in the peasant diet and was usually baked locally.  Until the middle of the century, bread was often dark rye but could also be made from oats, bran or other cereals.  Then, the better-off peasants, such as yeomen, might be able to grow some wheat and thus produce white bread.  Bread as it aged and dried out, might be used as a trencher, substituting for a wooden plate on which other food could be placed.  After that, older bread might be used as animal feed.  Next in importance for the peasants was pottage, a term for stew or soup which could be stretched when food was not in abundance.  Any vegetables in the peasant diet were grown by the family, so they were very seasonal.  Meat for the poor was scarce and what little was available had to be obtained by poaching which was a serious crime for peasants.  Fish was often too expensive for peasants to substitute on meatless days.  Bread was their staple and the preferred peasant beverage was ale.

Merchants who emerged in the 14th century were usually wealthier than peasants, sometimes competing in wealth with nobility.  They often lived in the towns and cities where markets and fairs made more things available for people to buy.  They tended to eat much better than the peasants as they could afford to buy such meat as lamb or beef as well as red wine to go with it.  The markets offered many varieties of bread including white bread by the time of my stories.  Fruits were brought into markets for those who could afford them.  Edward Aust, Lady Apollonia’s second husband, is treated with pomegranate fruit in Plague of a Green Man.  These were available in the markets of Exeter in 1380 and came from North Africa.

Taverns and ale houses were places within towns and cities where people with means could drink.  The taverns accommodated travelers, usually sold wine and were more upmarket than ale houses but the taverns did vary in quality.  Patrons could be of a rougher sort and the wine of poorer quality in some taverns.  Other taverns catered to professional people and the gentry and these cared about their reputations, so they served good wine in a clean and wholesome atmosphere.  Alehouses only served ale, cider or mead and often provided entertainment.  The clientele was often lower on the social scale than at most of the taverns.  Both taverns and alehouses were places that characters in my stories sometimes visited in the evenings.

The nobility ate very well, often enjoying many-course dinners which extended long after grooms and valets had consumed their own rations and left the hall to their superiors.  The nobleman’s hall offered a spectrum of food quality and quantity.  At the lower end of the hall, there were small servings of basic pottage in contrast to lavish servings of the finest foods for the lord at the top table.  The lord’s table could feature a course of as many as five meat dishes such as brawn or meat from a pig’s or calf’s head that is cooked and pressed in a pot with jelly, pottage containing beef or mutton, pottage containing chicken or pork, stewed pheasant or swan, and a meat fritter made with the entrails of animals.  Other courses would each have several dishes including more meat dishes, so that important guests were advised to be careful not to eat too much along the way as the lavish meal continued.  On the non-meat days, the lavish eating continued.  Each course offered several varieties of sea food in lieu of meat, with the most favored varieties such as sturgeon held back until the third course.

Fruits and vegetables were often incorporated in the sauces in which meat and fish were prepared.  Bread at a nobleman’s table was the best available, as was his selection of wines which was usually much greater than that available in a tavern.  Both wine and ale had to be available in the home of a nobleman because most of the staff only drank ale in contrast to the wine which the nobility drank.  Royalty were at the top of the nobility, and most of them ate very well.  The picture below shows a king eating at a royal feast.

The food in monasteries might be compared with that in the home of a nobleman, but there were some interesting differences.  The abbot often had separate lodgings where he entertained important guests who ate like lords with him.  Yet, the abbot was frequently selected from among the monks, so his relationship with the monks was often quite different than that of a lord to his servants.

Another difference was based on a rule of Saint Benedict which prohibited members of the order from eating four-legged animals.  This rule greatly reduced the options for meat on those days of the year when it allowed meat for most other Christians, but monasteries invented some ingenious ways to get around this limitation.  The precise wording of the rule was a prohibition of eating meat in the “refectory” or dining room of the monastery.  Many institutions developed a second dining room which was not called a refectory but a misericord or place of mercy.  Half the monks could eat any given meal in the misericord and thus satisfy the cravings which the monks had for meat.  A given meal had multiple meat courses just as in noble houses, so that over a year’s time, a monk might average at least one meat dish per day.

Those at the bottom of the class ladder ate modestly and often struggled in hard times.  Those at the top did much better.  Even the monastic restrictions on eating meat did not prevent clever monks from finding ways to get around the rules and eat plenty of meat.

Where to Stay in Medieval England

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

The seventh chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: Where to Stay.  It deals with places where people could stay when travelling in 14th century England.  In my May posting, I was describing medieval travel.  Now, I want to discuss various residential options a traveler might have on journeys that were longer than day trips.  There were many possibilities, and this was fortunate because medieval travelers often had to contend with unforeseen bad weather, and that meant making do with whatever was near at hand.

Residential options included inns, town houses, monasteries and hospitals, castles and fortified manors, and even peasant houses.  Hospitality was understood by medieval people as an act of Christian charity, so while many of these options were available, social rank and class made a great difference in how the traveler was received.

In our modern times, there is a great variety in the quality of hotels, motels, and bread and breakfast accommodations, but the inns of the 14th century were usually very modest.  They were often unsanitary and generally unsavoury, and if you arrived on foot, the innkeeper might refuse you accommodation.  Arriving by horseback, especially if preceded by a servant, would greatly enhance your chance of being admitted.  Innkeepers were always concerned with whether travelers could pay for their accommodation.  Many tended to be very demanding about this issue.

Assuming one’s admission to an inn, the bedchamber to which one would be assigned might have a dozen or more beds, each accommodating two or three persons.  Even a modern youth hostel offers more privacy.  The beds themselves had wooden frames strung with ropes to support a straw mattress, often of poor quality.  In the better inns, there might be two mattresses on a bed and only two or three beds in a chamber.  The cost of one night for one person could be as low as a half penny, but if one traveled with servants and horses who needed feeding and stables, the cost could rise appreciably.

The merchant class was coming into its own in the 14th century, and these merchants lived in town houses of great variety.  My heroine, Lady Apollonia, lived in various houses in my stories, starting with her favorite home in the village of Aust in Gloucestershire.  With her second husband, Edward Aust, she lived in Exeter House, their home in Plague of a Green Man.  She lived in Windemere House in Gloucester in Memento Mori and in another house of the same name in Cirencester in Templar’s Prophecy.  These houses were named after her third husband, Merchant Richard Windemere.  On many occasions in my stories, Lady Apollonia was hostess to friends and travelers in her various homes, all of which would have been on the high end of the spectrum of merchant town houses.

Monasteries and hospitals were important places for the medieval traveler to reside.  Monastic houses obviously saw it as a Christian duty to offer accommodation.  Indeed, the very name, hospital, is based on its medieval function of hospitality.  The modern meaning of the word involves medical and surgical treatment coupled with nursing care, but the historical meaning was that of a hospice providing a place for travelers to stay.

Because monastic institutions, abbeys and priories, were usually located where fresh water was available, they handled sanitary matters much better than many other places where travelers might stay.  In monastic houses, water for washing and for carrying away human wastes was always available.  In Effigy of the Cloven Hoof, the Lady Apollonia stays at a nunnery in Dunster, Somerset, going to and coming back from her visit to the fictitious village of Cliffbarton.  A modern picture of that nunnery is on the right in the picture shown below.

Monasteries welcomed many travelers, especially pilgrims, but parts of these monastic institutions were off limits to lay visitors.  Also, the treatment of medieval travelers was affected by their social status.  In my stories, the Lady Apollonia, as a noblewoman, was well treated when she sought accommodation in monastic institutions.  On the other hand, her son Alban’s squire, Laston Baker, had a very uneven experience in Memento Mori as he traveled across southern England from Kent to Gloucester in the rags of a beggar trying to return the deceased Alban’s heart to Alban’s mother.  Laston found that some institutions sought to take advantage of him for their profit while others welcomed him.

Many castles and fortified manor houses were improved in the 14th century beyond their mission for defense to also entertain upper class visitors and impress them.  Only select visitors were welcomed, yet they would usually have found their visits to be very comfortable if the lord was in residence.  If not, these homes operated with minimal staff, servants and furnishings to host visitors.  Nobles and especially royalty traveled in large courts when they were away from their castles and manors.

Sometimes, unexpected weather or other circumstances forced travelers to find immediate shelter.  If none of the options discussed above were available, what else could one find?  The obvious answer was a peasant home, but there was great variation in these accommodations as well.  A small percentage of these houses involved moderately prosperous peasants such as a reeve who managed a manor and oversaw other peasants.  Their houses had limitations but would have been very welcome in a pinch.  Most peasant houses would have been very modest by comparison, yet even these would have been better than sleeping rough as fugitives were often forced to do.

Medieval English Travel

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

The sixth chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: Travelling.  It deals with how people traveled in 14th century England, and how much travel they did.  In my February posting on the medieval English character, I talked about knowledge being conveyed by pilgrims and others.  Although these pilgrims sometimes went to faraway places like Jerusalem, Rome, or Santiago de Compostelo, there was considerable travel by pilgrims within England itself.  Their most famous local destination was Canterbury after the martyrdom of Saint Thomas a Becket, but major churches throughout the kingdom had their local saints and reliquaries which drew pilgrims.

The 14th century was obviously a time before modern GPS technology but it was also before the widespread use of maps.  This was because maps were few, and those which existed were not very portable.  For example, there has been a mappa mundi or map of the world at Hereford Cathedral since the beginning of the 14th century.  It is the largest known medieval map in England, and it displays the whole world.  England appears on the map, but it is very small and distorted.  It would not have been of much use to a traveler even if the map had been portable.  Similarly, the use of a compass had not yet been adopted in England or northern Europe in the 14th century, although it was known in the Mediterranean countries.

So, how would you travel about England, say from Aust to Canterbury on pilgrimage?  There were two obvious choices.  You could go by ship from Aust down the Severn Estuary, through the Bristol Channel, around Cornwall to the English Channel, proceed eastward, then around Kent to a port not too far from Canterbury.

The other choice was overland.  As a modern person, you would be able to get on the motorway system at Aust and then use motorways all the way beyond modern London and then by A-roads to Canterbury, but such a route was not available in the 14th century.  You would have needed to head eastward, hopefully on horseback, but without a compass and map.  You would have had to ask directions to the next town eastward, piecemeal, town by town until you reached Canterbury.

Of the two travel choices, I would like to discuss the overland option first.  Depending on the exact route you followed on your journey from Aust to Canterbury, some of your route might have used remnants of the Roman Road which extended from Londinium (or London) to Calleva Atrebatum (or Silchester in Hampshire) and on westward to Aust, then by ferry to Wales, and on to Caerleon.  If you followed such a route, it may not have been well maintained, and away from that ancient route, you would likely have been directed along lesser roads, lanes, paths, or even across the countryside itself.

Journeys throughout the kingdom would have been similar experiences.  There were about 3 thousand miles of main roads in the 14th century, about 40% of them based on Roman roads.  Most of these would have been maintained well enough for the king to travel.  The entourage of Edward I was said to average 19 miles per day.  A youthful Edward III, riding alone, averaged 55 miles per day on a trip to York.  However, other roads, lanes and paths might have been in poor shape by comparison.  Travel off the main roads could be very slow.

Major stone bridges were scarce at the beginning of the 14th century, but the medieval city of Exeter had one at the time of my book, Plague of a Green Man, and it plays a role at the end of that story.  Throughout the century, the number of stone bridges grew, yet most bridges in England were wooden, and these were in various states of repair.  Other options for crossing rivers and streams were provided by ferries and shallow places that were fordable.  It is hard for us today to imagine the problems which military leaders must have faced in manoeuvring large forces around the countryside without maps and compasses.  They often had to find places where rivers could be forded.

The traveler by land faced tolls on many bridges, as well as for ferries, access to some roads, and passage through city gates.  These tolls were often only one or two pence, but they could add up for a merchant traveling from town to town to participate in a market or fair.  Citizens of towns with charters were exempt from some tolls, especially where royal charters were issued.

There was a significant risk that road travelers could be robbed by highwaymen.  Some protection would be achieved by traveling in groups, such as the pilgrimage to Canterbury portrayed by Geoffrey Chaucer. Also, the Statute of Winchester that I mentioned in my last blog posting in connection with men being armed also provided that the right of way for major roads should be cleared of bordering trees, making it harder for highwaymen to surprise travelers.

Frequently, road travelers who did not walk rode on horseback.  Horses ranged widely in price from the largest warhorse worth up to 80 pounds sterling to a packhorse worth as little as five shillings.  To be ridden, a horse had to be supplemented with other items such as a saddle and spurs for the rider, not to mention a Saint Christopher medal for good luck.

Carts were used to haul things, whereas coaches for people were relatively rare, owned only by royalty or people of high noble rank.  I did use one such coach in Memento Mori; it was owned by the Sheriff of Gloucestershire and of the type shown in the picture below.

The other option for English travel was going by water.  Nowhere in England is more than 75 miles from the sea, and most of the population lived much closer than that.  By the 14th century, sailors were beginning to venture beyond the sight of land, but most water transport was along the coasts.  In Plague of a Green Man, I speak of stone being transported by water from the quarries along the English Channel to the River Exe estuary up to Exeter for the cathedral construction.

Water transport had its problems just like the overland option.  Instead of highwaymen, there were pirates and smugglers.  Life aboard ships could be very difficult.  Weather was often uncertain, but people and goods often used ships in preference to the hazards of overland routes.

What to Wear in Medieval England

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

The fifth chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: What to Wear.  It deals with what people wore in 14th century England.  To my surprise, that century brought more change in clothing for men than any other century, before or since, and more for women than any earlier century.  Two important factors occurred about a third of the way through the century.  One was the way that a sleeve was cut, allowing clothes to be tailored to the shape of the human body.  The other was the use of the button to fasten garments.

At the beginning of the 14th century, there was little difference in how men and women dressed.  Clothes hung in a shapeless manner.  Tailoring began to give shape to what one wore which meant that differences naturally arose in how the sexes dressed, and this change affected men’s clothes even more than women’s, because women were more restricted in how much of their skin could be displayed.  Essentially, women could do what they liked from the neck upwards whereas men were free to display ankles and legs.  Thus, masculine hems in the 14th century went up and down much like women’s fashions in the 20th century.

People in the affinity or household of a noble person often wore the livery of that household which included the heraldry of the lord or lady on their clothing.  Heraldry provided the wearer with some degree of protection by the lord or lady to whom he or she declared loyalty.  The heraldry worn by the members of Lady Apollonia’s affinity showed a red heart entwined by English ivy.

There were restrictions on what people could wear.  Sumptuary laws of the 14th century limited what people could eat and wear depending on their class or occupation.  Class was important in the sumptuary laws, determining limits on the kinds of fabric and furs which various classes of people could wear.  No restrictions were put on royalty.  In fact, the pressure on them was to dress elegantly to show off their royalty when in public.  They, therefore, became the trend-setters for other aristocracy.  Lords with lands worth 1000 pounds sterling annually also had no restrictions on what they could wear.  Lesser nobility had various restrictions depending on the worth of their lands.  The type of fur that could be worn was specified by the sumptuary laws.  For lords who were worth no more than 200 marks annually and all people not noble, limits were also put on the type of cloth that could be worn.

The wealth of merchants was growing in the 14th century and plays a major role in my stories.  The sumptuary laws reflected this growing importance.  Merchants whose goods were worth 1000 pounds sterling were put in the same category as esquires with land worth 200 pounds per year.  The limits for this category allowed wearing of silk with silver accessories, for example.  It allowed white fur (miniver) for lining or trimming clothes, but one could not wear ermine or weasel fur.  Lesser gentlemen and merchants were prohibited cloth of gold, silk, or silver and no embroidery, precious stones, or fur.  A maximum price was set on the whole cloth they could use in their clothing.  The first sumptuary laws were added to the books in 1337 but were widely flouted.  This led to greater restrictions in 1363 which were applicable throughout the period of my novels.

At the beginning of the century, the garments were primarily robes.  Tunics were put on over the head and reached almost to the ankles.  They fitted loosely because this was before the tailoring and buttons which changed everything after the 1330’s.  The front and back, each with two half-sleeves, were cut separately and sewn together.  A supertunic which was shorter than the tunic and in a contrasting color could be worn over it.  This could be supplemented with a hood and a mantle.  Undergarments, for people who could afford it, were made of linen.

As the century progressed, sleeves could be cut separately from the rest of a garment.  This allowed the body pieces to be cut to fit humans.  It also allowed sleeves to fit tightly around the arms when practicality was desired or to fit very loosely when that was fashionable.

The use of buttons meant that garments could be open in the front or elsewhere and closed easily using buttons and buttonholes to fasten fabrics, thus making it easier to put on or take off clothing without always slipping it over one’s head.  This led to much innovation among men who could afford it and who were not too fat or prudish to relish the figure-hugging elegance possible in the new styles.  Such 14th century innovations did not extend to the clergy or the poor.  By the end of the century, there were many styles of dress, long and short, with knights preferring corsets and garter belts to suits of armor.  Men also began to wear hose as the hemlines of their tunics rose.

Men’s shoe styles displayed significant change in the 14th century.  There was little differentiation between shoes for the left and right feet in 1300, but as the century progressed, shoemakers began to cut the leather differently for the two shoes in a pair.  Also, shoes were affected by the desire of men to keep up with new styles.  Shoes became more decorated and grew in length, the extreme being 20-inch Crackows imported from Bohemia.  Men had trouble walking in shoes with such lengthy toes and often had to tie up the toe to keep from stumbling over it.  An example of a surviving long-toed medieval shoe is shown in the picture below.

Women usually had long hair, and the Ramshorn style was popular in 1300.  Other ways of dealing with long hair became popular through the century, often stimulated by how various queens wore their hair.  Headwear came in different styles, but hoods were the most popular.  Men’s hair styles did not change very much.

Below the neck, the styles of women’s clothes did not change the way men’s fashions did.  There were some new fabrics from the continent, but women were not allowed to shorten their hems in the way men were.  Hence, unmarried women focused on dressing their hair in elegant style while married women often wore a wimple much like nuns who considered themselves married to Jesus.  Also, women’s shoe styles were little changed because of their long gowns.

People living in the towns and countryside of medieval England were limited in their dress not only by the sumptuary laws but by their wealth.  Yet, they were affected by the fashions of the aristocracy.  Buttons were not limited to the rich and noble.  Clothing became more colourful and more closely fitted for many as the century progressed.

Clothing was supplemented with accessories such as perfume and jewelry for those who could afford such things.  Men as well as women might have a precious stone displayed in a ring.  Another accessory for men was a sword.  The Statute of Winchester in 1285 required every man between 15 and 60 to have arms of some sort, and that often was a sword.  There were no special nightclothes in the 14th century.  Men often slept in the nude, even when sharing a bed at a hospital or inn, but the more modest chose to wear a nightcap or braies (britches) in such circumstances.

I hope that this posting on 14th century English clothing will give my readers a better mental picture of what various characters might be wearing in my stories.  For example, my heroine always wore a wimple from the time she first married at age thirteen.  The drawing on the right by my daughter-in-law, Michele Bishop Foster, shows Apollonia wearing a wimple as a mature woman.

Basic Essentials of Medieval England

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

The fourth chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: Basic Essentials.  It deals with various aspects of everyday life, especially things which did not operate in 14th century England as they do today.  These include the languages spoken and how people expressed dates and measured time.  It also included topics such as units of measurement, how people were identified, the manners and politeness etiquette of the time, how people greeted others, what was used for money, what shopping was like, what were the prices of things, and what work and wages were like.

The 14th century was a time of great change in language in England.  At its beginning, French was the language used by all nobility and royalty.  It was the language of the royal court and of the legal system and of literature.  The peasants spoke early forms of English, but those from far apart Northumberland and Devon could hardly understand each other.  In Celtic Cornwall, Cornish was preferred.

However, King Edward III, who reigned for half a century from 1327 to 1377, spoke English and influenced its use in new situations by mid-century both for making pleas in the law courts and in his speeches opening parliament.  He popularized spoken English among the nobility, and it was being used for literature by the time of my novels at the end of the century.  This was the period of Geoffrey Chaucer as well as Julian of Norwich, perhaps the first female author in the English language.

The other thing I would like to say about language in England is that how people speak is greatly influenced by their class.  Someone like Margaret Thatcher took speech lessons so that she would sound more like the queen than the grocer’s daughter which she was.  This difference in speech was very important to her in the 20th century.  It has been so for a long time.  Prior to the 14th century, the nobility and the peasants spoke entirely different languages, as mentioned above.  I chose to use a mild dialect to distinguish the common folk in Lady Apollonia’s time with the proper English used by the Lady and many in her affinity.

Another basic essential in life is the calendar or how we date things.  It was complicated in the 14th century.  First, the English often used a regnal calendar which dated events from the beginning of each monarch’s reign.  I have occasionally used this device in my writing.  Even for those who used Anno Domini, there was no agreement on when the year started.  This was a problem throughout Europe, so that travellers could actually go back a year if they happened to visit a town which had not yet started its new year.  January 1, March 25 (Lady Day), and September 29 (Michaelmas) were used as the start of the year in various parts of England.

Measuring time was quite different in the 14th century.  We use clocks, watches, and other time devices which divide the day into 24 hours of equal length, but clocks were new and rare in Lady Apollonia’s time.  The medieval clock in Wells Cathedral in England’s West Country dates to as early as 1386, while the astronomical clock at Exeter Cathedral did not appear until a century after Apollonia’s time.  Without a way to divide each day into 24 equal hours, how did people keep time?  The answer is that they used sun-dials to divide the daylight into 12 equal parts.  The twelve parts of summer daylight were very long compared to a dozen divisions of the short summer nights.  The reverse was true in the winter.  Since England is further north than the continental United States, these differences were more pronounced there than they would be in America.

Before the United Kingdom became metric, most Americans viewed the system of English units as being irregular, but even English units such as the pound were not standard throughout medieval England.  In Devon, the pound was 18 ounces rather than the 16 ounces in much of medieval England and modern America.  The Devon bushel was ten gallons, not the eight used in the rest of the country.  A Yorkshire mile was 2428 yards compared with the 1760 yards standardized since 1593 c.e.

Another area of change in 14th century was how people were assigned names.  One name was sufficient in 1300 for most peasants.  They only needed to be identified by the locals.  English people began to move around more by mid-century due to changes in economic conditions and the great plague.  Hence, identification required more than a simple name.  It had to include where you came from, what you did as a worker, or some indication of your status.  Note that Lady Apollonia of Aust gives her identity as a noble woman and someone identified with a specific place, Aust.  In her case, the heraldry of a red heart encircled by a vine of English ivy was also part of her identity.

We may think of medieval society as dirty, violent, and uncouth, but there were situations in which manners and politeness were important.  The nobility, including royalty, expected others to behave in an appropriate, respectful manner.  A person did not enter the home or private space of an equal or superior without permission.  Weapons were checked with a gatekeeper or handed to one’s host.  English dramas that involve royalty often show how one acts in the presence of a monarch.  Kneeling is expected at appropriate times.  One does not speak unless spoken to by the monarch, nor does one turn his back to the monarch when leaving.  Even sitting is not permitted until given permission.

Manners and politeness are intertwined.  We might be surprised that politeness was expected even at the table when eating.  Hand washing before eating was expected as was cutting bread, rather than just tearing off a piece as is often depicted in dramas set in the period.  Some things depended on gender.  Women were not expected to swear or get drunk when away from home.  Men did not kiss each other except as a sign of peace, as an acknowledgement of fealty or service, or as a ceremonial act.  When greeting people, especially for the first time, you were expected not to be overfriendly or too cold.

Towns and cities had markets which operated at least weekly and fairs that came annually.  The latter often were scheduled in a three-day period centered on some saint’s feast day.  Both retail and wholesale shopping could occur.  Markets and fairs were augmented by specialist shops.  A shopper would go to a shoemaker to buy a pair of shoes, but the shoemaker might have purchased the leather for the shoes wholesale in some market.

The markets in smaller towns could not regularly carry many specialized items daily.  To rectify this problem, itinerant merchants such as furriers would travel to various nearby towns on their market days to offer specialized items such as the furs of a particular animal.  Most major towns and cities had a guild merchant, a trade organization controlling who could and who could not trade at markets.  Buyers who were cheated by a merchant could sometimes receive justice by complaining immediately to these trade organization.

Guilds for various trades were often powerful and wealthy organizations.  The picture at the top of this posting shows the Bell-Founder’s window in York Minister dating from the early 14th century.  Guilds often sponsored stained glass windows in medieval churches both in England and on the continent.

Money was usually exchanged in small coins.  Pennies were most common, but there also were half-pennies and farthings which were worth a quarter penny.  There were some larger coins, such as a groat (worth four old pence) and a noble (worth 80 old pence), but none of these was worth as much as a pound Sterling.  Inflation in 14th century England was almost non-existent, so prices at the end of the century were much the same as at the beginning.  There were temporary fluctuations however in times of crises such as the Great Plague or in years when there was a crop failure.  The plague, for example caused a temporary deflation because there was a surplus of food due to all the human deaths.

Obtaining a good job often required some money to get started.  It cost something to become an apprentice in a craft.  To join a guild, one had to be a freeman, that is not a slave or serf, and then pay a fee to the guild.  Wages of a few pence per day varied by craft and season of the year and did tend to improve during the century.  A master mason or master carpenter earned much more, equivalent to an educated professional person such as a lawyer or physician.  At the other end of the income scale were household staff who did not earn much, even in royal households.

Early in this blog posting, I mentioned Mother Julian of Norwich.  I am appending a recent article I wrote about her as a postscript which you may find interesting:

Mother Julian of Norwich

In writing fictional medieval mysteries, I use a number of real people of the fourteenth century in my books, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, Kings Richard II and Henry IV.  One of those real people who play a role in my stories was an anchoress in Norwich, the county town of Norfolk.  Very little is known about her life, but she was thought to have been born about 1342 and is thought to have lived into her seventies (c. 1429) as she was the beneficiary of several wills, the latest of these is dated 1416.

Although a very religious person, it cannot be said that she was a nun or solitary in 1373, because during her near-death illness, her mother and other companions were with her and the parish priest who administered the last rites to her was accompanied by a child.  She makes a modest disclaimer of her literary ability by calling herself “unlettered”, but that may have simply meant to say that she was unskilled in church Latin.  We know from her writings that she is a well-educated person who quotes from the Bible.

The book for which she is known as the first female writer in the English language, Revelations of Divine Love, is her very personal description of a vision she experienced after her near-death illness.  Her writing style is spontaneous and vivid with an eye for detail, and she is precise, whether dealing with instruction or spirituality.  Her English is a blend of East Anglian and Northern dialects.

In the 21st century U. S. A., we have little awareness of the religious solitary life in which one withdraws from the world to give oneself to a life of prayer, but in the middle ages, the solitary life was respected and encouraged for men and for women.  Hermits were male solitaries with considerable freedom of movement doing good works.  A recluse was a man or woman shut away from social living but remaining within the community.  A male anchorite or female anchoress were those who were enclosed in their anchor hold or residence, frequently attached to a church building.  Every medieval town in England had some of these solitary peoples who were authorized by the church.

The mass or religious service of an anchoress’s enclosure was grim as we look at it today.  It was essentially the Mass of the dead at the end of which a procession was made from the church to the hermit’s cell.  Once entered, however, the person was literally thought to be in his or her tomb, dead to the world and only alive to God.  The anchoress that I refer to in my stories was called Julian of Norwich, but that was probably not her real name.  She took her name from the Church of Saint Julian to which her anchor hold was attached.

In addition to her book, we know something of Julian from one of her visitors, another somewhat bizarre fourteenth century female who had her personal story of pilgrim’s travels written down for her, Margery Kempe, who describes her visit:  “Much was the holy dalliance that the anchoress and this creature(Margery) had by communing in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ the many days that they were together.”

For me, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe seem to overcome the limited potential available to medieval women.  Each of them came to make extraordinary choices in their personal lives which expressed their purpose in life.  It was not only that their writings were in Chaucer’s English, in the case of my heroine, the Lady Apollonia of Aust, they were models for a medieval female character who achieved individuality in a world where women were mere servants of men.

The Medieval English Character

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

The third chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: The Medieval Character.  This subject is of particular interest to me in my writing because I hope to develop characters of that period who then revealed their story to me.  Of course, I want all my characters to be consistent with the time and settings of my novels.

Mortimer begins by describing a detachment of young soldiers who abused the nuns in a convent where they had sought lodging while waiting a favourable wind to sail to Brittany.  They eventually kidnaped the nuns but threw them overboard in a storm during the crossing.  Thomas Walsingham, who reported the story in the 14th century, obviously believed it was true as medieval society was more violent and fearful than English society today.  My heroine, Lady Apollonia of Aust, shown above, was married to a violent husband in her first marriage when she was just thirteen-year-old.  Early in her life she began to learn to cope with violence.

Because society was often violent, it was important to know who one’s friends were and whom one could trust.  People in the affinity or household of Lady Apollonia believed that they could trust each other.  Those in towns and villages often turned to each other for support because people from other places, even though they were Englishmen, were considered foreigners.  One frequent source of violence in some medieval communities was organised crime.  Gangs were often led and protected by members of the nobility.  I have used this idea in both my second novel, Plague of a Green Man, set in Devon, and my third novel, Memento Mori, set in Gloucester.

Some other topics mentioned by Mortimer in his third chapter concerning the medieval character include: a sense of humour, the warrior’s love of flowers, education, knowledge of the wider world, and discerning minds.

Taste in humour was different in medieval times.  Sarcasm and practical jokes were favoured.  Trickery and even some forms of violence were often considered funny.  Yet, there was a gentle side to many warriors who are said to have had a great love of flowers.  This softer side may have extended to a love for poetry and music.  Also, most people in that violent era were seriously religious.  Daily religious practice was an important part of people’s lives and thus has an important role to play in my novels.

My heroine, the Lady Apollonia, was typical of many of her contemporaries in being a faithful follower of the church.  Her household or affinity included a chaplain as well as an almoner.  She maintained a family chapel in her residence in Aust and in my second novel, Plague of a Green Man, she builds a new chapel in her Devon residence, Exeter House.

Lady Apollonia was married and widowed three times.  As a widow, she was entitled to become a vowess, meaning that she participated in a ceremony performed before witnesses during mass.  As she knelt before the Bishop of Worcester, he asked if she desired to be a spouse of Christ.  The vow she took was a declaration of perpetual chastity, but it did not require her to go into a monastery.  It did not curtail her many activities.  She was able, as a spouse of Christ, to remain in the world.

Her status in the church as a vowess protected her for the rest of her life against forcibly being married for her money and property.  This enabled her to remain at the head of her household with status and authority to solve the mysteries which came her way.

The medieval church had problems which are reflected in some of Chaucer’s characters in his Canterbury Tales: the pardoner, the prioress, the monk, among others.  I have based my pardoner, Brandon Landow, on Chaucer’s character and have used him in all seven of my novels.  He seems to be a favourite of my readers.  A prioress like the one in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales appears in Plague of a Green Man as does a monk who will appear in my next novel, Usurper’s Curse.

Formal education in medieval England was only for a small minority of the population.  Lady Apollonia was fortunate to be literate, as explained in Effigy of the Cloven Hoof.  She saw to it that her sons were also part of that literate minority as were many in her affinity.  Two of her sons even had some higher education which, in those days, consisted of the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Astronomy, Geometry).  For most people, education was more practical and directed towards their vocations.

Knowledge of the wider world often was conveyed by people who had travelled as pilgrims, crusaders, or fugitives.  Phyllis of Bath, based on Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, appears in Plague of a Green Man after she had been on several major pilgrimages.  A pilgrim from Cirencester appears in the prologue of Templar’s Prophecy seeking healing at a Christian church in Nubia in Africa.  His grandson from Nubia becomes an important character in that novel and certainly brought experience of the wider world to Cirencester.  Robert Kenwood in King Richard’s Sword is based on a real-life pilgrim whose remains were found under Worcester Cathedral.  The real Worcester Pilgrim apparently made the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela.  This well-travelled character, Robert Kenwood, will reappear in the forthcoming Usurper’s Curse.

I have not made as much use of crusaders, but they do appear in two of my novels.  Laston Baker, as squire to Apollonia’s son, Sir Alban, went on crusade with him as part of the Teutonic Knights.  The pilgrim mentioned above in Templar’s Prophecy meets an old templar who had been enslaved as a crusader at the Battle of Acre.  The grandson of that old templar also appears as an important character in my novel.

Usurper’s Curse is the title of my forthcoming novel.  Its prologue begins with a fugitive from London appearing in Aust.  Another well-travelled outsider, a druid from northwest Ireland, appears in Joseph of Arimathea’s Treasure and will appear again in Usurper’s Curse.

Thus, pilgrims, crusaders, fugitives, and even druids in my novels brought information about the wider world of Apollonia’s West Country and to her.  This is typical of how many people in medieval England learned about life beyond their local home.

Ian Mortimer feels that many medieval persons took pride in the quantity of their knowledge rather than in its correctness.  In his section on discerning minds, he points out that we moderns might be disturbed if three different churches claimed to have the head of John the Baptist, but a person of that time would dismiss any personal doubts by thinking that if God wished John to have three heads, so be it.  My main character, Lady Apollonia, is something of an exception to this.  She likes to get to the bottom of things which is important to her in solving mysteries.

Medieval English People

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

The second chapter of Ian Mortimer’s book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, is entitled: The Medieval People.  It is natural to wonder how similar and how different were medieval people from modern ones.  Evolution dictates that some characteristics change slowly while technological progress may be rapid.

The average height of 14th century English males was 5’ 7”, for females, 5’ 2”, not much below modern standards.  Yet, there are some striking contrasts.  Medieval English people would seem very young to us.  Almost forty percent were under the age of fifteen.  Less than five percent of 14th century English people were at least 65.  The median age then was 21.  Now it is 38.

This meant that young men often had responsibilities which would be unthinkable today.  In some towns, boys as young as 12 served on juries.  King Edward III declared war on the Scots and led his outnumbered army against them at age 20.  Today he would be too young to be a Member of Parliament.  Prince Edward at Crecy led the foremost battalion of the army when just 16 years of age.  In general, men were considered in their prime in their twenties, mature in their thirties, and old in their forties.  A woman was considered in her prime by age 17, mature by 25, and old by 35.

Another aspect of the English population is that it shrunk from 5 million in 1300 to about half that number during the period of my novels (1380-1406).  England did not regain 5 million until the 1630’s.  The Great Plague in 1348-1349 accounted for much of that drop but not all.  There was a drop of around 10 percent between 1315 and 1325.  Another quarter of the population was lost in the second half of the 14th century.  Think how much wisdom and expertise were not available by the combination of the younger age distribution and the population reduction.

Medieval people were part of a class system which traditionally had three estates.  This divided people into those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked, in other words: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasants.  Of these, most literacy was found in the nobility and the clergy, with most peasants being illiterate.  The latter was by far the largest group.  The picture at the top is a display in the Corinium Museum in Cirencester which shows various classes of medieval people.  The top row shows a king, nobility, and clergy while the bottom row shows a knight, a burgess, and a peasant.

In the 14th century, this pattern of classes was still important, but changes were underway.  The nobles who did the fighting were joined by the English longbowmen who came out of the class that worked.  These longbowmen allowed greatly outnumbered English armies to triumph in such battles as Crecy and Agincourt.  Another change in the 14th century was the rising importance of the merchants.  These were not nobles or clergymen, but they often were literate and came into wealth that matched or exceeded that of noblemen.

Noblemen were very few, starting with the king.  Below the monarch were less than a hundred dukes, earls, and barons.  Next came over a thousand knights.  Some 10,000 esquires and gentlemen had lands which earned income.  The number of nobles and their families made up just a fraction of one percent of the population.  Lady Apollonia was the daughter of an Earl of Marshfield and the sister of the next Earl.

The clergy were more numerous, perhaps about 30,000.  Archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, canons, and archdeacons had a hierarchy like the nobles.  Below these were rectors, vicars, chaplains, friars, minor clergy, and hermits.  Much of the clergy were monastic.  They had to be at least 18 years old and comprised over two percent of the adult population.

In the social hierarchy, mayors of cities and incorporated towns were on a level with knights.  Merchants were becoming important in the 14th century.  Lady Apollonia’s second husband, Edward of Aust, was a franklin.  He owned property in Aust and elsewhere, including Exeter House in my second novel, Plague of a Green Man, and he was also a successful merchant.  He was below the nobility.  Hence, Apollonia married below her class when she was wed to Edward.  Still, he was her most beloved husband.

It is easy to classify those who worked in medieval England as just peasants, but it wasn’t that simple.  I have already suggested that merchants and franklins enjoyed a social status just below the nobility or the landed gentry as the lower nobility came to be known.  Working people were not known at the time as peasants.  There was concern with differences among working people.  Were they born to servitude?  Were they subject to a lord?  Were they free men?  What skills did they have?  Working people who had responsibilities such as a reeve or a constable were often resented by other workers.

Even servants could enjoy a good quality of life.  Consider Lady Apollonia’s affinity.  Her maid, Nan, came to Apollonia’s attention when Nan was a little girl.  She learned to speak properly and assumed considerable responsibility in the Lady’s household throughout her adult years.  Many servants did not fit our stereotype of the medieval peasant.

In this age of concern about lack of equal pay for equal work and growing awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, I want to address the place of women in medieval England.  Men were described by what they did, but women by their marital status: maiden, married, nun, or widow.  A woman was dependent on the person who supported her, her father or husband, for example.  Married women had few legal rights and were much dominated by their husbands who often were forced upon them.  This was true irrespective of class.

My heroine, Lady Apollonia, was unusual in being able to attain her sovereignty after surviving three husbands who left her with considerable assets.  She was ripe for some man to claim her and assume control of those assets.  She avoided this by becoming a vowess in a ceremony performed before witnesses during mass where she, as a widow, was asked by the Bishop of Worcester if she desired to be the spouse of Christ.  By taking this vow, she assumed an obligation of perpetual chastity but was able to remain in the world and not be confined to monastic life.  The church protected her in this way from any more marriages.