Monday, December 31, 2012

Today's research snippet: Messengers and a tryptych

I'm going to work up a full blog post on medieval messengers when I get a moment, but here are one or two details about them.

Messengers and other servants of the royal household received gifts from time to time, either traditional to their position or because of particular personal service. It was customary for the king and the heads of the lesser royal households to provide New Year presents for all their servants. These gifts usually took the form of clothing, but could include other items. The Black Prince gave one of his messengers some ribbon and an enamelled silver gilt box. Another time messenger John Dagonet was given a grey sumpter horse along with his New year clothing.
Eleanor of Provence had a messenger called Robert Long who was given 'one good robe' for bringing the good news to Henry III that his daughter Katherine had recovered from an illness in 1256.
During Henry III's minority when my Marshal men were still abounding, the court messengers have left their names in the record. Brice Bongarsun (Goodman) for example, Patrick Pluckhenn, Adam son of Pluckhenn, William Nusquam, William Cherl, William le Vilein. Names such as Ramage (Wild) and Carbonel (Firebrand), make one hope they weren't employed on diplomatic missions!

Today's research photo. 
Gorgeous enamelled tryptych 1350-1370 telling the story of Christ's life and featuring saints to whom the owner was attached, especially Saint Edmund. Can be seen in the V&A Museum.
click to enlarge

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Today's Research snippet. Eleanor of Aquitaine and the chalice

Today's research snippet. On medieval wheeler dealering and diplomacy.
The monks of Bury St. Edmunds offered King Richard I, 500 marks in 1190 for the manor of Mildenhall. (he was off on crusade and needed the cash). But Richard was told by his advisors that the manor's annual income was worth more than that and he demanded 1,000 marks. The monks braced themselves and coughed up even the the price was double. Part of the rule of property transactions was that the Queen was entitled to 100 marks on every transaction of 1,000. The monks, offered her instead a gold chalice that had been donated to them by her late husband Henry II. She accepted it, but then immediately gave it back for Henry's soul.
A few years later, strapped for cash when having to raise their part of the contribution to King Richard's ransom, the monks gave the chalice as part of the payment. Eleanor redeemed it with a payment of her own of 100 marks and returned it to the abbey on the proviso that they made a charter to always keep it there. (Having to keep redeeming it back to them meant she was already 200 marks out of pocket, never mind the spiritual implications!).

Taken from Jocelin of Brakelond's Chronicle of the Abbely of Bury St. Edmunds

Today's random research photo:
The tomb effigy face of Richard the Lionheart taken from the Cast Court effigies at the V&A Museum.

click to enlarge 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Today's Research snippet: The Exchequer and a money box

Today's research snippet. This comes from The Course of the Exchequer, a work written in the 2nd half of the 12th century to explain England's financial set up. It takes the form of a dialogue between a master and his student.  I'll be posting other excerpts from this on occasion.

"Scholar: What is the Exchequer?
Master: The exchequer (chess board) is an oblong board measuring about 10 feet by five feet, used as a table by those who sit at it, and with a rim around it about 4 fingerbreadths in height, to prevent anything set on it from falling off. Over the Exchequer is spread a cloth bought at Easter term, of a special pattern, black, ruled with lines a foot, or a full span, apart. In the spaces between them are placed the counters, in their ranks, as will be explained in another place. But though such a board is called 'exchequer' the name is transferred to the court in session at it; so that if a litigant wins his case, or a decision on any point is taken by common consent, it is said to have happened 'at the exchequer' of such a year. But where we now say 'at the exchequer', they used to say 'at the tallies.'
Scholar why is the court so-called?
Master. I can think, for the moment of no better reason than that it resembles a chessboard.
Scholar. Was its shaped the only reason why our wise forefathers gave it that name? For they might equally well have called it a draught board.
Master. I was justified in calling you precise. There is another less obvious reason. For as on the chessboard the men are arranged in ranks, and move or stand by definite rules and restrictions, some pieces in the foremost rank and others in the foremost position; here, too, the barons preside, others assist ex-office; and nobody is free to overstep the appointed laws, as will appear later. Again, just as on a chessboard, battle is joined between the Kings; here too the struggle takes place, and battle is joined, mainly between two persons, to wit, the treasurer and the Sheriff who sits at his account, while the rest sit by as judges to see and decide."

Today's research picture.  A Medieval money box circa 1300 - Museum of London.  You'd have to break the box to get the money out!
click to enlarge

Friday, December 28, 2012

Today's research snippet

On this day in 1204, King John set out from Marlborough Castle to his Palace at Clarendon near Salisbury, a distance of just over 30 miles.  Here are a few details about Marlborough and Clarendon in the reign of King John.

 Taken from Clarendon Palace by T.B. James and A.M. Robinson.
John's reign was characterised not so much by major alterations or modernisation as by maintenance, when required, and minor additions to existing buildings. In 1205 - 6 Clarendon had a new shingle roof for the kitchen. At Marlborough Castle at the same period he had the kitchen fireplace enlarged to such proportions that two oxen could be roasted together. 
During John's reign commodities from Norway found their way to Clarendon including timber and falcons. The timber, probably of coniferous varieties was used in quantity in building works at Woodstock, Marlborough and Ludgershall as well as at Clarendon. Tn were gyrfalcons, which were originally used to hunt herons, but in time were put more general use in the hunt. John had a favourite gyrfalcon called Gibbun.
In 1207 John received part of the English regalia which had been pledged before 1200 to raise money for the ransom of Richard I.
Iin 1210 King John dispensed 15 shillings to 2 huntsmen who had killed a wolf in Clarendon Forest and to others in the forest of Gillingham in Dorset.

Today's research photo.  Gilded silver chalice dating somewhere between 1200 and 1300.  Used in the mass to contain the wine that became the blood of Christ, these vessels were made of the most precious materials.
click to enlarge

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Every day on my Facebook page I post a research snippet.  These are eclectic and wide-ranging, and my Facebook readers find them fun and informative.  So I thought that being as my blog posts tend to be at least a month apart, I might as well use the space in between to post my daily research snippets here too, because I know not everyone uses Facebook. The other thing I do at Facebook is post a daily research photo from my archives, so I’ll add one to the blog too.
I might as well use some of the earlier research photos to make a start, and then move on from there.

So: Today's research snippet from Facebook was this, taken from the book Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval Europe by Compton Reeves published in the UK by Sutton.

"Dancing at the amateur level was ordinarily round dancing or processional, and was of ancient lineage. Carols (corae in Latin) were the principal form of secular music in medieval England, and they are the musical core of the entertaining chain or carol-dance. The carol dance was usually performed by a circle of dancers, with hands clasped or arms linked, who would take a few steps to the left as their leader, normally standing in the middle of the circle, sang a stanza of a song. The dancers then marked time with treading steps as all sang the chorus (or burden). This basic dance could be varied in many ways, from dancing in line to mining the story of the carol, and the carols might be stories about heroism, romance, or religion. For the most part, carols seem to have been joyful. Carolling could be done outdoors, and the churchyard was a favourite venue, or in doors in a lordly Hall. Churchmen repeatedly repudiated carols and lascivious songs that were being enjoyed in churchyards when minds and hearts ought to have been inclined more spiritual matters. Carols prompted confessors to impose penances the sins of voice, sins of movement, and sins of touching."

And for today's photo, let's have one of a rather gorgeous decorated medieval shoe that can be seen in the Museum of London.  There's no strict dateline for this one, but presumed late 1300's. After all, you'd need your dancing shoes!                             

click to enlarge

Sunday, December 16, 2012


One of my own Christmas decoration arrangements.
In the UK during the month of December, dawn arrives at around 8 AM, and the sun sets just before 4 PM, giving us around 8 hours of daylight out of 24.  If the weather is murky, those 8 hours can easily become swallowed in twilit gloom. Sitting in my study, drinking my mid morning coffee with the electric light still on, I wondered about the kind of lighting mediaeval people had at their disposal.  800 years ago, how would I have coped?
Since all cooking and heating relied on fires, ambient firelight would have provided a certain amount of light, but with very dim parameters and not always useful. One of the reasons that meals were eaten early in the day in the middle ages was that trying to perform tasks in a kitchen without clear light was a hazard. Certainly in a castle kitchen there might be fires for heating water and cooking food, but the fire was at ground level and any preparation would have to be done on tables which would be cast into shadow, so in itself firelight, while providing warmth and cheer was only of background usefulness.  Actually for kitchen work in dark circumstances, the most often used lighting appears to have been something called a cresset. This was a series of hollows in a stone block.
cresset lamp

The hollows would be filled with oil or fat and a wick floated in them. The lamps would be placed on a flat surfaces or in a niche.  There are frequent references to cresset lamps as items of kitchen equipment. Candles and candlesticks seem not to have been as popular in a kitchen environment but to have been used elsewhere.
Bartholomew the Englishman was of the opinion that there should be plenty of light from candles, prickets and torches when people were eating "for it is a schame to soupe in derknes and perilous also for flies and other filth."  I am reminded of my father in law on active service in North Africa in 1942. He said he always waited until after dark to eat his rations because then he wouldn't see the weevils!
For the peasant household and the less well off, lighting was provided by tallow candles and by rush lights. These were frequently home made in the summer months by carefully peeling the long, cylindrical pith of the juncus rush, and dragging it through molten animal fat. These however, burned down quickly and could not be used for any length of time. They were better than nothing, but not ideal. People made use of local resources, and some communities living near the sea would make lamps out of a fish called a thornback. The fish were stuffed full of linen waste, and pressed until the wick was saturated, and then actually burnt as a candle. Two or three tied together in an iron holder made a torch!  The phosphorescent light cast by rotting fist was sometimes used to light the way up the garden path.

Thornback fish lamp

                The aristocracy and the church opted for candles made from beeswax. These gave a clear burning light and a pleasant smell, and were long-lasting. Although beeswax was locally available, there was never enough to satisfy demand in the big cities, and supplies were augmented from the forested less sparsely populated areas of Europe such as Russia, Hungary and Bohemia. People in Royal service were entitled to candles (or remnants of them) as one of the perks of their job. So if John Marshal, my hero of A Place Beyond Courage was eating outside of the court he was entitled to a daily provision of one small wax candle and 24 candle ends. (Royalty only burned fresh candles, and whatever stubs remained at the end of each day were cleared away and finished off in the departments of the household officials).  If John was working in-house on a particular day he was entitled to an ample supply of candles all the time. John's ushers were entitled to 8 candle ends a day for their own use. Candles could be placed in candlesticks, wall mounted holders,  ceiling suspended holders, or arranged on large multi-holder candle stands – whatever suited the purpose.
Candle holder that could be used either free standing
or on a wall bracket.  Museum of London

Candle stick fit for a queen - 12th century.  V&A

Ceramic lamps were another form of lighting. These look a bit like ice cream cones and are ubiquitous in mediaeval illustrations. There are frequently found in museum exhibits.  Basically they worked on the same principle as the cresset lamp and were often suspended by chains from the ceiling.  There are references in the Pipe rolls to the use of oil in lamps.  Queen Alienor ad 30 shillings and 5pence worth of oil bought on the Surrey account for use in her lamps in 1176/1177   ‘Et pro oleo ad lampadem regine .xxxs. et v.d.’   In 1159 that sum was greater but only by 2 pence.    The second sum appears time and again throughout the reigns of Richard and of John while she was still living.  Were they for religious or personal use?  The Pipe rolls don’t say.
Hanging lamp from the Maciejowski Bible mid 13thc

Norman ceramic oil lamp: Museum of London

When one needed to carry a light about, lanterns proved useful and there are many surviving examples in the archaeological and illustrative record. 
Ceramic Lantern from the Poitou region
Lantern held aloft: Maciejowski Bible mid 13thC

Torches were also used but we don’t know a great deal about them as they have not survived well in the archaeological record and it’s an area that still requires more study.  There’s an interesting article on lighting here, which talks a little bit about torches and has more information about lighting in general.
During the broad spread of the Middle Ages and in various circumstances, there were rules about lighting,  George Duke of Clarence's household ordinances for December 1468 give the detail that wood and candles should only be issued between 1st November and Good Friday, at the rate of two shides (unit of measure of which I don't know the equivalence) and three white tallow lights to be shared between every 2 gentlemen of the household.  At the monastery of Barnwell, the monks were forbidden to sit by a lamp in the dormitory to read, or to take candles to bed in order to do the same.  We might think it was because of the fire hazard, but no, it was because reading in bed was discourages as at that time, reading aloud was the norm and would have kept everyone else awake, not to mention the light!

So basically it wasn’t a world without light, but it was certainly one more deeply shadowed, more golden, more smokily scented (among other smells!) than ours. It couldn’t be had for the flick of a switch, but provision of light had to be thought about and toiled over.  What you never have, you never miss, but a thousand years ago, the return of daylight as the Northern hemisphere turned towards Spring, must have come as a truly keen pleasure of life.

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by  Peter Brears Prospect Books 2008 - chapter on kitchen lighting

Food in England by Dorothy Hartley published by LittleBrown  (for the fish light examples!)

The senses in Late Medieval England by C. M. Woolgar - Yale University Press

The Museum of London website