Category Archive 'Middle Ages'
15 Dec 2021

Christmas at the Court of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066)

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Edward the Confessor depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry.

Historical novelist Paula Lofting describes Christmas time in England just before the Norman Conquest.

Winter began in November, according to Anglo-Saxon tradition. The 7th of November to be exact, and from the 15th of November, 40 days before the Christmas season began, it was a time of fasting and alms giving, which was the origin for gift-giving at Christmas. ‘Christmas’, comes from the Anglo-Saxon, Cristesmæsse, a word first recorded in 1038. It replaced the old pagan ‘yule-tide’, known back then as Geola and still referred to when talking about yule logs etc. As we know, the early Christian church instructed their emissaries to allow the Christianisation of some pagan traditions, a clever strategy on their part, to encourage people to give up their pagan ways by allowing them to retain some of the features and customs of the old religion. During this time of fasting and strict observance, it was not just the clergy who were expected to fast, attend prayers and vigils, and give alms to the more unfortunates of their world, but the secular communities also. It was a sign of your wealth and status if you could afford to give alms, something that many people were eager to do, for the Anglo-Saxons were as keen as any for their soul to get a free pass to the afterlife.

So, that was a lot of days of hardship for less than half the days in return of feasting! Anyway, that aside, only those who were employed to do necessary tasks, were excused from taking 12 days off work. Quite honestly, I could not imagine anyone complaining about that unless they were one of those who were engaged in those aforesaid important occupations.

Oh, there’s one other little thing I have forgotten, there were no carnal relations allowed during this fasting period, after all, with all the vigils and extra prayers and psalm singing, how was one going to fit in having sex as well? But, should one fail in this expectation, and need absolution to restore their spiritual equilibrium with God, there was always confession and more fasting as penance.

During King Edward’s time, the Christmas period was usually spent at Gloucester. Edward was a keen sporting huntsman, something the church frowned on but were able to forgive because he was pious in other aspects of his life. Since the Forest of Dean was his favourite hunting ground, it seemed natural that after a good Autumn’s hunting, that he would spend Christmas at King’s Holme in Gloucester. He did, however, spend his last Christmas on this earth in the newly built palace of Westminster, whilst the new church of St Peter was consecrated that year, in time for the celebrations and his funeral. …

It couldn’t have been much fun that year of 1065, when he succumbed at last to the illness that seemed to have been brought on by the exile of his favourite courtier, Earl Tostig. The stress of losing Tostig and having to give in to the recalcitrant northerners a few months earlier, obviously affected him badly, because hitherto, he had been quite robust and sprightly for an old man of sixty; a great age in those times. So, Christmas of 1065 would have been quite a miserable one that year, so perhaps we should hearken back to happier times, and the Christmas of ’64, when having had a good hunting session during the month of October and some of November, Edward was ready to put on his virtuous head, start the fasting and alms giving and settle down to pottage for supper each night until the 25th December when the holiday would begin.

Kings Holme (now known as Kingsholm) was the site of an old Roman fortress, significant in size to have made the Roman city an important strategic place. We know that there was definitely a palace located there in 1051, and possibly, it may have dated back much further. At least by 1064, the palace was a well-used one, having been one of three important palaces in Edward’s England, besides Westminster, in London, and Winchester. A hoard of early 11thc coins was found at the site and said to be a large collection from probably a wide area, indicating that this was not and just any old burh. To add to the evidence of its possible magnificence, excavations at the site have uncovered indications of large timber buildings dating to around this time.

We cannot say what King Edward’s palace consisted of for sure, but there must have been quite a few domestic and guest quarters amongst the buildings found. At Christmas time, the whole of Edward’s court would have been present in Gloucester, and among them, his secular officials as well as many foremost ecclesiasticals, bishops and abbots and possibly some Abbesses, some of whom were very powerful indeed. Many of the king’s thegns would have been there, and possibly they brought their wives with them, perhaps some brought their sons also, and maybe their daughters, to be presented at court. If those who owed service to the king couldn’t make it for whatever reason, then they would no doubt have to send a representative. The most important of the king’s guests, would have been the archbishops, Ealdred of York and Stigand of Canterbury, and leading earl of the realm, Harold Godwinson. Aside from them, the other lords of the earldoms: Tostig of Northumbria, Morcar of Mercia, Oswulf of Bamburgh, Leofwin and Gyrth Godwinson, earls of the South Eastern Counties and East Anglia respectively, and Waltheof, son of the great Siward, Tostig’s predecessor. No doubt they would also have brought their wives and perhaps their families too, not to mention their retinues, servants, and household guards. No wonder there were several large buildings found on the complex, they would have needed them to house everyone.

Its most likely that Edward’s great feasting hall was a timber construction, as no evidence for stone foundations have been found during the excavation. Edward had been building his wonderful complex at Westminster in stone, but that was a special undertaking that had been under construction for years. The king’s feasting-hall was basically a large-scale version of the smaller halls that one might find on manorial estates. It was rectangular, with doors in the longest sides, front and back, and possibly with ante chambers at both ends, perhaps one of those rooms could have been where the king and queen slept. The space inside would have been large enough to contain a good few hundred people and was the heart of the community during the Christmas period. During the last few days of fasting before the feast of Christ, the final touches to the décor would have been carried out. Around the walls, were murals decorating the lime washed walls and possibly hung with fine embroidered hangings depicting biblical scenes. Holly and Ivy would have decked the hall, a throw-back to earlier times. Things might have changed somewhat from the early days of the mead-halls as described by Steven Pollington in his book The Mead-Hall, where a lot of the symbel (the feasting) had its rituals rooted in Pagan beliefs and old Teutonic ideals based on the ways of warriors. However, the principle that the hall was the place where the joys of life could be found, drink, merriment, and good times, remained even in the 11thc. The feasting-hall, or the mead-hall, was where it all happened, much like how some of us nowadays see pubs, clubs, restaurants, and bars.


07 Oct 2021

Rewriting the Middle Ages

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(as usual, just click on image for larger version.)

My wife Karen posted this on Facebook today:

History — enjoy it while it’s still “true”.

Here’s a call to rewrite history by Wikipedia (who I would have thought already had plenty of that without encouraging yet more fantasy). D’ya suppose the value of the 1911 Encyclopedia will continue to rise?


They are organized and they are intensely active.

27 Apr 2020

A Knight

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Ornamental Plaque of a Knight, ca. 1300, possibly British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My guess would be German, because of the antler crests.

25 Aug 2019

Now, That’s the Life!

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(click on image for larger version)

The Minnesinger Jakob von Warte, 1274-1331 (Codex Manesse, fol. 46v) is depicted grey-haired and balding, bathing in water filled with flowers, attended by a maidservant who is keeping his bathwater warm and by three virgins, one of whom is massaging his arm, while another is fetching him a goblet of wine, and a third is crowning him with roses.

Richard Moritz Meyer, in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, tells us that the image can be accorded “documentary weight,” but dismisses the poet as a “dilletante,” who “liked to use the most common forms.”

23 May 2019

Medieval Walking


This chap claims that people walked differently before 1500.

14 Dec 2018

Reconstructing the Recipe for the Soul Cake

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Atlas Obscura:

Last month, a challenge from Durham University spurred bakers to whip up a soul cake, a bygone bun once integral to a medieval tradition of feeding the poor and honoring the dead. But, in the spirit of competitive baking reality shows, there was a catch: Nobody really knows how, traditionally, it was supposed to be baked.

We know generally what soul cakes looked like, and what was inside of them. We know that bakers crafted them into small, round, square, or oval buns—garnishing the top with currants in the shape of a cross. And we know its purpose: Giving a soul cake to someone in poverty allegedly freed a departed soul from Purgatory. But we’re still in the dark about its intended taste and texture, and exactly how to go about concocting a soul cake in true medieval fashion.

“We have a recipe from a household book from 1604 compiled by a certain Lady Elinor Fettiplace that includes a recipe for a soul cake,” says Dr. Barbara Ravelhofer, a professor of English literature at Durham University and facilitator of the soul cake challenge. “However, it doesn’t give us the quantities—nor does it tell us how long to bake it. So you have to work out for yourself what to do with the ingredients.” Spearheaded by Dr. Ravelhofer and the Records of Early English Drama North East team, the Great Northern Soul Cake Bake doubles as a competition and crowdsourcing project. By challenging the public to decode the bare-bones recipe, the research team hopes to understand and resurrect the original soul cake—as well as the tradition that surrounds it.

Soul cakes are connected to Britain’s early Christian celebrations known as All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, Halloween-like festivities commemorating the recently departed. On November 2nd, beggars would weave their way through the chilly darkness, rapping on wealthy homeowners’ doors in exchange for a soul cake. But obtaining it was no cake walk. To successfully soul, one had to sing for sweets.

Whether it be musical or theatrical, souling required performance in exchange for a cake—a tradition that looks a lot like modern-day trick-or-treating. And, though it’s impossible to definitively claim souling as the progenitor of tricking and treating, Dr. Ravelhofer says they’re certainly connected. However, she points out, there are key differences. “A soul-caker was somebody who did something to obtain something,” she says. “Whereas trick-or-treating strikes me as, ‘Give me something or else I’ll do something.’”

Demanding candy door-to-door, she posits, is a “slightly degenerated, commercialized form” of the All Souls’ Day transactions of medieval Europe. Souling, Dr. Ravelhofer adds, also had a strong connection to charity and memoriam. The act of doling out freshly baked goods, while thinking of a “poor, departed soul,” filled two needs with one deed, giving to the hungry and freeing a soul in question from Purgatory in one fell swoop.

While vestigial remnants of this practice can still be found in some parts of England, the tradition of souling, and the cakes that came with it, have since disappeared—until now.

To more fully understand the history and tradition of All Souls Day, Dr. Ravelhofer and her team devised the bake off. The technical challenge (the first of a series of three) called for readers to recreate a successful iteration of the festive bun using only Elinor Fettiplace’s 17th-century recipe, which reads:

    “Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barm, beat your spice & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together & make it in little cakes & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them or fruit.”

Folks from across the globe responded, submitting recipes, photographs, and anecdotes via email, Facebook, and Twitter, with results ranging from wild successes to valiant flops.
“We had proper food archaeologists who really got into the spirit of things, and then we had candidates who tried to microwave it,” says Dr. Ravelhofer.

David Petts, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Durham University, posted about his soul cakes on his personal blog, likening them to “slightly dense hot-cross buns.” Another participant found that using a ruby or dark ale gave the cakes a soft, chewy texture. Yet another made a successful stoneground cake by adding rye, theorizing that medieval bakers may have used additional grains.

But cataloguing the failed cakes, Dr. Ravelhofer says, has been just as informative as admiring the more edible ones.

Understanding what doesn’t work, and why, allows historians to do detective work when it comes to understanding what the recipe may or may not have looked like.


29 Jul 2018

Medieval Man vs. Millennial Man


24 May 2018

Evidence of Planet Nine Sewn into Medieval Tapestries

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Principia Scientific International:

The far reaches of the outer solar system may be home to an icy giant — a hypothetical planet scientists have dubbed “Planet Nine.”

Meanwhile, archives back on Earth are home to dozens of medieval records documenting the passage of comets through the heavens. Now, two researchers from Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland are hoping to use these old scrolls and tapestries to solve the modern astronomical mystery of Planet Nine.

“We have a wealth of historical records of comets in Old English, Old Irish, Latin and Russian which have been overlooked for a long time,” said university medievalist Marilina Cesario, one of the leaders of the project. “Early medieval people were fascinated by the heavens, as much as we are today.”

The records include dates and times, Cesario said, which makes them useful to modern-day astronomers.

Planet Nine, if it exists, would have about 10 times the mass of Earth and orbit 20 times farther from the sun than Neptune does. (Planet Nine is not Pluto, which was once considered the ninth planet but was demoted to mere “dwarf planet” in 2006. Nor is it Nibiru, the completely fictional “rogue planet” that conspiracy theorists sometimes claim is about to destroy the Earth.)
Scientists suspect the existence of Planet Nine because it would explain some of the gravitational forces at play in the Kuiper Belt, a stretch of icy bodies beyond Neptune. But no one has been able to detect the planet yet, though astronomers are scanning the skies for it with tools such as the Subaru Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano.

Medieval records could provide another tool, said Pedro Lacerda, a Queen’s University astronomer and the other leader of the project.

“We can take the orbits of comets currently known and use a computer to calculate the times when those comets would be visible in the skies during the Middle Ages,” Lacerda told Live Science. “The precise times depend on whether our computer simulations include Planet Nine. So, in simple terms, we can use the medieval comet sightings to check which computer simulations work best: the ones that include Planet Nine or the ones that do not.”


HT: Vanderleun.

30 Nov 2017

“Most Beautiful Woman of the Middle Ages”

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Uta von Ballenstedt (c. 1000 — 23 October before 1046), a member of the House of Ascania, was Margravine of Meissen from 1038 until 1046, the wife of Margrave Eckard II. She is also called Uta of Naumburg.

When Umberto Eco was asked with which women from European art he would most like to spend the evening, he replied: “In first place, ahead of all others, with Uta von Naumburg.”

21 Dec 2015

Medieval Poleaxe with Chemical Weapon

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From Fiore Furlano de’i Liberi’s (c. 1340s-1420s) The Flower of Battle, Axe in Armor, 16:

MS Ludwig XV 13 (Getty)

Questa mia azza era piena de polvere e si è la ditta azza busada intorno intorno et è questa polvere sì forte corrosiva che subito come ella tocha l’ochio, l’omo per nissun modo nol pò avrire e fuorse may non vederà più.

E azza son ponderosa crudele e mortale, mazori colpi fazo che altra arma manuale. E se io falisco lo primo colpo che vegno a fare la azza m’è di danno e niente più non vale. E se io fiero lo primo colpo ch’io fazzo tutte le altre arme manuale io cavo d’impazo. E se son cum bone arme ben acompagnada per mia deffesa piglio le guardie pulsative de spada. Signore nobilissimo Signor mio Marchese assay chose sono in questo libro che voy tale malicie non le fareste. Ma per più savere, piazavi di vederle.

This poleaxe of mine is full of powder and the said poleaxe has holes around. And this powder is so strong and corrosive that immediately as it touches the eye, the man cannot open it in any way, and maybe will not be able to see anymore.

And it is a heavy, cruel and mortal poleaxe, better blows it makes than other manual weapons. And if it fails the first strike that it comes to do, the poleaxe will still do damage and the opponent will be no more of any use. And if you fiercely make the first blow, you will avoid trouble from all the other manual weapons. And if accompanied with good armor for defense it will stand up to the hammer blows of swords. Very noble Lord, my Lord Marchese, there are many things in this book, featuring such malicious things as you would not do yourself. But to understand them better, please read of them.

MS Ludwig XV 13 (Getty)

Questa è la polvere che va in l’azza penta qui sopra. Piglia lo latte delo titimallo, e seccalo al sole overo in forno caldo e fane polvere, e piglia di questa polvere uno V e una onza de polvere d’fior d’preda, e mescola insembre, e questa polvere si de’ metter in la azza qui de sopra, ben che se pò far cum ogni rutorio che sia fino, che ben ne troverà di fini in questo libro.

This is the powder that goes into the poleaxe drawn above. Take the milk of the titimallo [some member of the spurge family of plants (genus Euphorbia)], and dry it over a warm oven and make it powdery, and take two ounces of this powder and one ounce of powder of the fior di preda, and mix them together. And put this powder in the axe which is above, as you can do it well with any ?rutorio? that is sharp, because you can find sharp things well in this book.

06 Oct 2015

Scientists Identified Skeletons of English Archers on Henry VIII’s Mary Rose

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I missed the article at the time, but back in 2012, the Telegraph was reporting that forensic breakthroughs had even succeeded in identifying which of the skeletons of men drowned on Henry VIII’s sunken flagship were elite English archers.

Researchers have identified the elite archers who died alongside sailors on Henry VIII’s flagship, due to evidence of repetitive strain in their shoulders and spines.

The ship sank off Spithead in The Solent in 1545, while leading an attack on a French invasion fleet. It stayed on the seabed until it was raised in 1982 and put on public display.

Over the past two years, scientists from the University of Swansea have been working to identify almost 100 skeletons kept at the Mary Rose Museum, in Portsmouth. …

[N]ew DNA extraction technology has been developed to identify a skeleton’s origin and other personal features such as eye and hair colour.

Scientists have also tested how the bows were used by archers at that time, by using real-life archers.

They have uncovered evidence of repetitive stress injuries among the bowmen, the elite soldiers of their day, which they believe came from hours of longbow practice.

Nick Owen, a sport and exercise biochemist who is leading the work, said yesterday that the developments would help uncover more about the individuals who died with their ship.

The DNA breakthrough had enabled his team to embark on more detailed profiling.

“We know plenty about the Mary Rose but much less about the people on board,” said Mr Owen, from the university’s college of engineering.

“The archers were the elite but the longbows they used took a toll of their bodies and you can see signs of repetitive stress in the shoulders and lower spine.”

A Swedish expert is also working on facial reconstructions for the new Mary Rose Trust museum, which is due to open next year.

At the time, many archers were thought to have travelled from Wales and other areas in the south west of England and were considered the elite warriors of their day.

Previous studies have shown that they lived off a diet of salt beef and biscuits. Their diet also included flour, oatmeal, suet, cheese, dried pork, beer and salted cod.

“They were 6ft 2in or 6ft 3in, and strapping individuals,” Mr Owen said.

“A longbow was 6ft 6in and made from a particular part of a yew tree to generate incredibly efficient ‘spring’.

“It was mega hi-tech, and it gave England and Wales military superiority. These archers were the elite athletes of their day.”

He added to the BBC: “It took years for these Archers to train to get to a level where they could use these very heavy bows.”

Alexzandra Hildred, the curator of ordnance at the Mary Rose Trust, has said the injuries could be the result of “shooting heavy longbows regularly”.

“Many of the skeletons recovered show evidence of repetitive stress injuries of the shoulder and lower spine,” she said.

“Being able to quantify the stresses and their effect on the skeleton may enable us at last to isolate an elite group of professional archers from the ship.”

17 Dec 2014

Medieval Scribal Marginalia

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Hat tip to Ratak Monodosico.

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