Brewing Ale and Making Wine

Ale was made with grain, mainly barley. The barley was “malted”, that is, left to germinate or start growing in water. The grain was then roasted slowly to stop the seed from growing further. This malt was crushed and boiled in water. After the liquid had cooled, yeast was added. As the yeast reacted with the sugars in the malt, it changed them into alcohol. The ale was stored in wooden barrels. As ale went sour quickly, it had to be made regularly. In the later Middle Ages, a type of herb called hops was added, which helped preserve the ale for a longer time. Ale with hops is called beer.

Wine was used as a substitute for water and in cooking meals for feasts. Wine that had become sour was used as vinegar. Wine was made by first crushing the grapes, which required lots of people to tread on them with their feet in large stone or wooden tubs to press the juice out. The skins from the crushed grapes then floated to the top. Usually, if white wine was to be made, the skins were removed from the liquid. If red wine was being made, the skins were left to give the wine a dark red color. The skins of the grapes had yeast on them, and so the liquid started fermenting. The wine was stored in large wooden barrels usually made from oak.

Medieval Cooking

Open fires provided the means to cook food as well as a source of heat for most people. Peasants and less wealthy people cooked on the fire in the centre of their houses. There was little ventilation and there were no chimneys, so it could get very smoky inside. Food was also cooked outside, as it was safer. A fire inside the house could easily spread and burn the house down. In large households there would be an open fire in a large kitchen built of stone. The cooks would have had many pots, pans, spoons, and knives to cook with and a large wooden table on which to prepare foods.

Anthing that required boiling was made in large pots and cauldrons made of iron or brass. The pots were hung over an open ifre or placed on top of a metal trivet that sat on the fire. The fire was fueled by wood or charcoal. Meat could be roasted on a spit over the fire, but this was expensive, as it used up a lot of wood. Meat and fish could also be grilled on a grid of metal bars called a grid-iron. For those without bread ovens in their homes, villages and towns had communal ovens where bread could be bked for a fee. In towns and cities people could pay a baker to bake their bread for them. There were also shops that would roast meat for people.

Eggs, beans, meat, and fish were fried on top of the fire in pans. In southern Europe, olive oil was used for frying. In other parts of Europe animal fat was used if it was available and affordable.

Medieval Betrothal

Most wealthy men married when they were over 30. A son came into his inheritance on marriage, so parents often delayed the ceremony as long as possible. Women married earlier, usually when they were about 20, but were sometimes betrothed (promised in marriage) as young as seven.

For the rich, marriage was the alliance of two families. It usually started with a business meeting to discuss the dowry (in medieval times this was a payment made by the groom to the bride’s father). Representatives of the two families agreed on the terms of the contract with a handshake.

Only then did the couple meet.

There was then a meeting to read the contract, followed by the “ring day” (marriage ceremony) in the church porch. It was like a modern wedding service, except that the bride always promised to “obey”, and also to be “bonere and buxom” (pleasant and easy-going). Finally, the wife rode to her husband’s house on a white horse.

Poor people usually married at the church gate, althogh a promise – or even a rush ring tied around the girl’s finger – was sufficient. Witnesses threw grain and sawdust over the couple to wish them a prosperous marriage and then they celebrated with feasting and a riotous charivari (dance).

General Conditions and Sanitation

One of the major reasons for the spread of plague in fourteenth century Europe was the generally wretched and squalid conditions in which most of the people lived. The vast majority of people were serfs or poor peasants. They lived in small villages of windowless thatched wooden huts.

People knew little of sanitation. They dumped their wastes into rivers from which they also drank, or into nearby fields. Humans and livestock slept under the same roof.

People rarely washed either themselves or their clothes. Fleas, lice, and other vermin were just part of life’s afflictions to be endured with all the others. Rats were so common that they went almost unnoticed except when there was a population explosion among them and the vast numbers of rats threatened to eat up the food supply.

The nobles lived in grander houses or in walled castles, but their sanitary conditions were not much better, and may even have been worse. The problem of waste disposal, for example, was more difficult within the walls of a castle than in a village.

Disease and early death were expected. Most children died before reaching the age of six. Their mothers often died in childbirth. The average age of death among those who survived the perils of childhood was about thirty five. Anyone who managed to reach the age of fifty was considered a marvel of longevity.

    17th and 18th Centuries

    Housing conditions in London during the 17th and 18th Century were incredibly bad, though improved by Medieval standards. A huge “floating population” was largely housed as weekly tenants in furnished rooms.

    Those who could not find lodging slept in ale-houses, garrets, in night cellars (latrines with cesspits), in doorways and in streets. Many simply slept in rented chairs in pubs, where they were permanent guests. Coffee houses and pubs were desirable addresses for those establishing themselves in London.

    Methane (swamp) gas generated by cesspits caught fire, exploded and brought instant death to those trapped in sealed homes. Hydrogen sulfide gases overwhelmed victims as they slept, their lungs paralyzed by the gas.

    It is estimated that several hundred thousand Londoners perished from typhoid, cholera, plague and pestilence before it was understood that the City was dying from its own filth.

    Finally, it was up to the Sewer Commissioners to find a way to rid the city of centuries of human waste stored within its walls.

    Servants, such as cooks and maids, slept in the kitchens or pantries. There were 6,000 hog pens and countless slaughterhouses in the housing areas. Bathing and fresh air were feared. Most people had only one set of clothes. How often these were washed or cleaned is not known.

    The crowded conditions in London were due, in part, to social tradition, but were mostly dictated by the need to be near a place of work. The small stalls of “Costermongers” lined the streets vending every manner of goods from buttons and brick to breads and sausage from cattle slaughtered on the spot.



    When we think of chivalry, the most likely image to spring to mind is one of the perfect gentleman – an impeccably mannered individual who displays gentle and courteous behaviour, especially towards women.

    The word ‘chivalry’ has its earliest roots in the French word for horse, cheval, and a knight in that same languare is called a chevalier, the ambassador of la chevalerie (chivalry). The chevalier was a horseman equipped with lance and sword for battle. As time progressed, the knight’s image grew in sophistication, and by the end of the eleventh century knighthood had come to denote a person of noble birth, often possessing property, whose responsibility it was to uphold certain religious, moral and social systems.

    No one can put a precise date to the birth of chivalry, but it is generally agreed that it was at its height between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, falling into decadence and decline during the fourteenth, ultimately to disappear in the fifteenth century.

      The Crusades

      The first Crusade was proclaimed in 1095 by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in France. “A people without God,” he exlaimed, “the son of the Egyptian slave, occupies by force the cradle of our salvation – the country of our Lord.” Every person of nable birth, it was urged, should take a solemn oath before a bishop that he would “defend to the uttermost the oppressed, the widow and the orphan”.

      Although it remained a sin to kill Christians, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land involving the slaughter of the “Saracen infidels” who attacked Christ’s sacred tomb would be quite acceptable in the sight of God. As a reward for this great work, knights would receive plenary indulgence upon their return to Europe.

        The People’s Crusade

        The First Crusade, which became known as the People’s Crusade, was not quite what the Pope had foreseen, however. The call to arms was taken up by a far greater portion of the peasantry than the Church would have liked. Full of savage passion and ignorant faith, the undisciplined rabble marched eastwards, massacring Jews in the Rhineland, attacking and pillaging Hungary and Bularia until, finally, they were ambushed and slaughtered themselves by the Turks in Asia Minor.

        crossChristian chivalry was yet in its infacy, but slowly, through the Church’s refusal to abandon its crusading ideal, it began to assume a more definite aspect, and by the time the official army of the First Crusade travelled to Constantinople the following year, the nobility rather than the persantry dominated the ranks. For now, as the century drew to a close, it was the custom for every noble father to educate his son in the orders of knighthood. The Crusades continued and the great Crusading Orders were established. By the early twelfth century, the Church had begun to take control of the ceremony of knightly investiture. Religion had succeeded in consecrating knighthood to that most lordly vocation every young man of gentle birth longed to follow.

          The Knight’s Education

          At the age of seven, a boy with ambitions to be a knight usually had to begin their training. The boy was taken from his home and placed in the service of a neighbouring lord (who was a fully-fledged knight). Here, the boy took up his office as page. He was taught implicit obedience to the wishes of his lord and lady. He served them at table, he learned to ride, and he accompanied his lord on various excursions. It was left to the lady of the manor to develop the gentler aspects of the boy’s character. She schooled him in the basic rules of chivalry, discussed love and religion with him and supervised his musical training.

          At the age of fourteen, the page was usually promoted to the higher grade of squire. During a religious ceremony, he exchanged his dagger for a manly sword and received moral instruction on its correct usage. His duties now were far more varied and challenging. He became proficient in the use of sword, lance and battle-axe. He took care of his lord’s armour, followed him to war, supplied him with fresh arms, dragged his body from the battlefield if he fell, and buried him if he were killed.

          At the age of twenty-one, if he had served his lord well, the squire was judged eligible to receive the honour of knighthood. Many squires, however, remained devoted to their lords an entire lifetime.

            Ceremony of Knighthood

            That a knight’s sword should uphold the dignity of the Church as central to the notion of Christian chivalry and it was considered only proper that the ceremony which elevated him from the position of squire should be rich in religious symbolism.

            The young man was expected to fast the day before his initiation and to spend the night in prayer. On the following morning, he was stripped of his clothing and taken to bathe for purification. He was then dressed in a red robe (symbolising the blood to be shed in the course of duty), and over this robe was placed a black doublet (symbolising the mortality of mankind).

            After the high mass had been chanted the young man approached the alter and handed his sword to the bishop or priest. It was laid upon the alter and blessed.

            The religious part of the ceremony completed, the candidate was led before the lord who intended to knight him. Once he had given a satisfactory response to the questions which challenged his motives in demanding the honour of chivalry, he was granted his knighthood.

              The Code of Ethics

              • Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and shalt obey all her commandments.
              • Thou shalt defend the Church.
              • Thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
              • Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
              • Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
              • Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
              • Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
              • Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to they pledged word. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
              • Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and Good against Injustice and Evil.

              Lords & Ladies

              knightThe Knight

              Knights – After the lord on the social ladder came the knight. The path to knighthood began at the age of seven, when a vassal sent his son to the lord’s house to become a page. For seven years a page was cared for by the women of the house, who instructed him in comportment, courtesy, cleanliness, and religion. At 14, the page became a squire, a personal attendant to a knight. From the knight he learned riding and all the skills of war, as well as hunting, hawking, and other sports.

              The Knightly Code – At age twenty the squire was knighted in a religious ceremony after spending the night guarding his armour before a church altar. He had to swear to the knightly code which asked him to “protect the weak, defenceless, and helpless, and fight for the general welfare of all.” This code was rarely lived up to, but it remained the standard for chivalry and proper behaviour amongst the nobility for centuries. In theory the squire could be knighted on the battlefield for exceptional valour, but this event was much rarer than Hollywood would have us believe.

              Fighting – Battles were usually small affairs, fought between the knights of individual lords. The object in a fight wasn’t necessarily to kill an opponent, but to capture and ransom him. Your foe was worth more to you alive than dead.

              The Tournament – The object of the tourney was simply to unhorse your opponent, though often the fighting was so fierce that men were killed. Challengers erected tents at one end of the ground and hung a shield outside. A knight accepting the challenge rode up and touched his lance to the shield. The winner of the jousts was awarded a prize by the Queen of Beauty, elected for the occasion from amongst the women present.

              By the 14th century tournaments became rousing fairs complete with singing, dancing, and feasting which might last for several days.

              The Maiden

              medievalladyMost noble girls were also carefully trained. They were usually taught at home by their mothers, often with the help of tutors or governesses. Some girls went to convents for their education and later became nuns, while others went to court of another noble. She was trained in good manners, hospitality, and household management. These skills were learned by observing the lady of the castle and following her example.

              It was also common for the daughters of lords to learn to read and write. Some mastered other languages while most were expected to be able to do arithmetic and be familiar with land laws. They were taught to ride, to train and hunt with falcons, and to play chess. The ideal lady also knew how to embroider and weave, sing and dance, play a musical instrument, and tell stories. Having some medical knowledge was also thought to be useful for the future wife of a knight.

              Castle under siege!

              There were many ways of attacking a medieval castle, and almost as many means of countering such attacks.

              Ways to Attack

              catapultThe first step was to batter the walls with a variety of “engines”, the most common being the catapult or mangonel. Its throwing beam would haul a massive stone, a pot of flaming “Greek fire”, a dead horse (which might infect the garrison) or sometimes… a captured messenger (to show that all hope of relief was in vain).

              Another popular method used, was undermining. Beginning some distance away, miners burrowed beneath the defences, supporting their tunnel with wooden props. They then filled the mine with combustible materials – such as, the fat of half a dozen pigs – and fired them, burning away the supports, collapsing the tunnel and, with luck, demolishing the wall above it.

              If the castle was founded on solid rock or was surronded by a moat, undermining was a useless method and in these cases it was often necessary to storm the walls instead by using ladders or a “belfry”. A belfry was a wheeled tower with the uppermost platform being the same height as the top of the castle walls. Another method would have been to assault the wooden gate of the castle with an iron-headed battering ram, swung on a sturdy frame.

              A traitor within the walls of the castle was the second most effective weapon, whereas, the most effective was cutting off the supplies to the castle. All castles had a well, but if this dried up or was poisoned, the defenders ultimately had to surrender.

              Countering the Attack

              If the garrison suspected that the castle was being undermined, they could sometimes locate the underground workings by standing jugs filled with water in different parts of the fortress and observing them when they vibrated. They could then sink a counter-mine from inside the castle, and either slaughter the opposing diggers with hand-to-hand fighting, or fill their tunnel with water.

              belfyThe people defending the castle (this was usually any able person, not just the garrison) knew that eventually the walls of the castle would be attacked. In defence they would use anything that came to hand to stop the attackers breaching the walls. “Firepots” were dropped from above onto the people scaling the ladders or using the battering ram, along with javelins, stones, boiling oil and a scalding oatmeal mush which stuck to besiegers’ skins.

              If the attackers managed to get within the outer gate, they probably found themselves trapped in a passage between two portcullises, here they would be showered with missiles from “murder holes’ in its roof.

              The Medieval Horse

              The horse was an essential part of the knight’s equipment. Although the knight sometimes fought on foot, he was mostly considered a horse-soldier or cavalryman. He took the greatest pride in the breeding, training and skill of his war horses or destrier.

              horse1His horse was the knight’s pride and joy. It was carefully chosen for its strength, stamina and courage. The horse had to be able to charge into yelling, screaming crowds and had to be carefully schooled. In battle, the knight required his hands for holding his sword and shield, so the horse had to be guided by the rider’s knees.

              It was not uncommon for the horse to be shod with sharpened shoes so that when their riders reined them in, they rose up on their haunches and beat about them with their deadly forefeet.

              There were other kinds of medieval horses. Coursers or running horses were used for war or tournaments; palfreys for travelling or hunting, and hacks for everyday riding. Ladies rode small, spirited horses called jennets.

              During the Middle Ages, the bridle consisted of a leather headstall, bit and reins. The headstall was made up of a series of straps fastened around the horse’s head to keep the bit in place. The most popular bit in medieval times was the snaffle. This was a simple jointed metal bar with cheekbars at each end containing rings on to which the cheekbands and the reins were fixed. In the early Middle Ages, the knights used single reins, but during the 13th century double reins became popular. These were often decorated with embroidery.

              The saddle consisted of a strong wooden framework which was glued and riveted together, covered with sheepskin, leather or velvet. The covering not only made riding more comfortable but also prevented the horse’s sweat from seeping through into the wooden framework and causing it to rot.

              The saddle was kept in place by a series of leather straps. The breast strap was a broad band which passed from the saddle, across the chest and prevented the saddle from slipping back. The girth strap passed from the saddle under the horse’s chest, holding the saddle secure. The crupper stretched from the saddle, along the back and looped under the horse’s tail, to stop the saddle slipping forward.

              Horses were sometimes decked out in flowing robes called “caparisons” or “bards”. These were made of cloth, leather and sometimes even mail, although the latter must have been very heavy and uncomfortable. Later, around the 15th century, rich knights protected their war horses with leather or metal armour: a “chamfron” defended the horse’s face; a “crinet” guarded its neck; “flanchards” protected its flanks; and a crupper prevented injury to its back.