Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Medieval Winter Melange

It's a month since I've blogged.  There have been various reasons including a family bereavement, business visits to London and just keeping up with the writing.  However, before it got any later, I thought I'd better drop in and wish all my readers Seasons greetings.  I thought I'd post a compilation of winter images and writings.
Snowball fight circa 1400
Snowball fight excerpt from Shadows and Strongholds.

Fingers red with cold, Brunin moulded the snow in his hands into a compact ball and hurled it.  Hugh ducked, but the edge of his cloak caught a starburst of white crystals. 
 ‘You’ve got the aim and eyesight of a girl!’ Hugh jeered. His words were cut off in a splutter as a large snowball smacked him in the mouth.
‘No he hasn’t!’ Hawise cried with glee and sent a second snowball whirling after the first.  One of her father’s dogs leaped up and intercepted the missile in its jaws, then capered around the ward, shaking its head and sneezing. 
Hugh snatched up a fistful of snow and ran towards Hawise, furrowing through the ermine-whiteness like a plough. Shrieking with laughter, she fled.  Marion clung to Brunin, hiding behind him, hampering his aim.  ‘Don’t let him get me!’ she squealed.  She floundered, lost her footing and fell, dragging Brunin down on her top of her.
‘Ouch!’ she cried.  She wasn’t really hurt but she knew that big eyes and a quivering lip were sure ways of getting attention. If it was masculine attention and stolen from Hawise, so much the better. The dog flurried around them, barking and wagging furiously.      
‘Are you all right?’ Brunin rolled over, and thrusting the dog aside with his forearm, scrambled to his feet. Glancing across at Hawise and Hugh, he grinned as the latter caught his prey and started stuffing snow inside her hood. Marion flashed him an upward glance, saw that his attention had wandered, and gave a gasp.  ‘I don’t know.’ She screwed up her face. 
Turning back to her, Brunin grasped her hand and helped her to her feet. Marion looked down at their linked fingers and imagined her own adorned with a betrothal ring.  She would be Lady FitzWarin and have a castle of her own and a dozen different gowns to wear like the ladies in the troubadours’ stories.
‘Can we go within and get warm?’ she asked  plaintively, leaning  against him and fluttering her lashes.  ‘I am so cold.’
Brunin didn’t want to go in.  His hands were numb and tingling, but he was exhilarated and raring for more sport.  Lady Sybilla had sent them out because she said she didn’t want them under her feet, and Lord Joscelin had given him and Hugh leave from their duties to hold a snow-fight.  Indoor tasks could be left until darkness fell and with the snow this thick, it wouldn’t harm the horses to spend the day in their stalls. 
Hugh helped Hawise to her feet.  Removing her hood, she set about tipping the mountain of snow from inside it.  Her braids had come loose, her hair streamed down her back in a curtain of garnet twists and she was red-lipped and laughing.

Icy fun in Medieval London 12th Century.  

In winter on almost every feast day before dinner either foaming boars and hogs, armed with tusks lightning swift, themselves soon-to-be bacon, fight for their lives, or fat bulls with butting horns, or huge bears, do combat the death against hounds let loose upon them.
When the great marsh that washes the northern walls of the city is frozen, dense throngs of youths go forth to disport themselves upon the ice. Some gathering speed by a run, slide long, with feet set well apart, over a vast space of ice. Others make themselves seats of ice like millstones and are dragged along by a number who run before them holding hands. Sometimes they slip owing to the greatness of their speed and fall, every one of them, upon their faces. Others there are, more skilled to sport upon the ice, who fit to their feet the shin bones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles, and with Iron shod poles in their hands they strike ever and anon against the ice and are born along as swift as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a mangonel. But sometimes  by agreement they run one against the other from a great distance and raising their poles strike one another. One or both fall, not without bodily hurt, since in falling they are borne a long way in opposite directions by the force of their own motion; and whereever the ice touches the head, it scrapes the skins  entirely. Often he that falls breaks his shin or arm. But youth is an age greedy of renown, yearning for victory, and exercises itself in mimic battles that it may bear itself more boldly in true combats.
Norman London by William FitzStephen - before 1183
shine bone ice skates: Museum of London

Empress Matilda escapes from Oxford Castle - excerpt from Lady of the English
As the dim winter afternoon darkened into dusk, everyone sat down to make a feast of the last of the stockfish, onions and barley, augmented with plenty of pepper from the spice cupboard to add increased heat. Matilda was not hungry, but forced down her portion, knowing this was her last meal before she went out into the biting cold.  She tried not to think about what was to come, but her mind was locked onto a treadmill and she kept returning to the same place time and again. There was a postern door she could go out of, but it attracted too much scrutiny from Stephen’s guards. The more dangerous way physically, but which held much less chance of being seen, involved climbing down from the window of the domestic chambers by rope.
Her women dressed her in men’s woollen hose and three layers of gowns. One of the garrison donated his spare gambeson to her because of its stuffed, quilted warmth. Her ankle boots were lined with unwashed sheepskins, and the outers were slathered in rancid goose grease to try and waterproof them.  Once clad in their white sheets and blankets the travellers resembled shapeless, living mounds of snow. One of the knights carried a stout rope, another a lantern, although it would be kept unlit so close to Oxford.  Besides, there would be cold blue snowlight by which to navigate.   
            ‘It is snowing again,’ said Ralph le Robeur, as he and Hugh Plucknet secured a stout rope around the central spar of the window arch. 
Matilda peered out at the white flakes dancing in the dark blue. ‘The better to hide us,’ she said, but inside she was quaking with terror. ‘I am going to die,’ kept running through her head. ‘In God’s name, let us be about our business,’ she said harshly.
            Ralph dropped the rope out of the window and slithered after it like an eel over a weir. He made it look so easy.  Hand over hand down the knots. Fluid filled her mouth.  Alexander de Bohun followed, more bulky and less agile than the messenger.  His sword chap scraped on the sill with a loud rasp and she could hear him panting with effort. She began to shake her head. To say no, she could not do this thing, but still her feet carried her forwards and Hugh lifted her up. ‘Hold tightly,’ he said. ‘Let yourself down slowly and they will catch you. Have courage.’ She felt the gritty stone beneath her feet and the fierce grip of the rope under her hands.  The bite of the wind. The frozen air burning in her nostrils.  The soft white touch of snow on her face like the wing feathers of a plucked angel.  Inside she was screaming in terror, but her jaws were locked and the sound stayed in her chest and throat as a solid ball of pain.  She closed her eyes, committed her soul to God and started down the wall, hand over hand, legs sliding down the rope. Dear Christ, Dear Holy Virgin, Her arms burned with the effort of holding on and bearing her weight as she swung in the blackness.
 Suddenly hands gripped her thighs and steadied her, and for a brief moment she was clasped breast to breast with Alexander de Bohun as he set her on her feet in the crunchy, powdery snow.
‘Domina, you have given me a memory to keep me warm throughout this journey,’ he said with a forced smile as she staggered and clung to him. 
Matilda managed to laugh as she straightened up, but the sound seemed to come from far away and someone else because she was still locked into her terror and it was as if a part of her was still hanging against that outer wall in dark mid air.   Hugh and the other knight shinned down the rope in turn, Hugh giving it a tug as he landed.  The watchers at the top untied it and cast it down and the escapees knotted themselves together, so that should one fall through the ice, the others could pull him out. It also meant they would not lose each other if the weather worsened.  Matilda strove to secure the rope around her waist but her hands were shaking so badly that de Bohun had to do it for her.
They set out with Matilda in the middle, protected from the elements by the men.  The moat was the first obstacle and although they all knew it was frozen, still their steps were tentative. There was the fear of slipping and instinctively crying out, thus alerting the enemy.  The worry too that they might be seen anyway by Stephen’s guards. 
Matilda crunched ankle deep in the snow until her boot soles rested on ice. She took a tentative step and then another, her eyes wide with fear and the effort to see in this monochrome world that was absorbing her, her ears straining for a raised alarm.  But there was nothing but snow whirling in the wind and darkness. They navigated the moat, shuffled their way off the ice and began trudging towards the greater stretch of the frozen Thames that lay between themselves and Abingdon.  The drifts were knee deep and without a path to follow, they had to make one of their own.  The knights took turns forging a way for the others to follow, lunging like horses on the rope.  It was tiring, difficult work, but at least it kept their muscles warm and each step took them further from Oxford and closer to sanctuary. Matilda felt her scarf grow warm and wet from her exhaled breath as they snaked a route between Stephen’s picket posts. Her stomach clenched as they passed between two shelters but there was no sign of any guards.  A fox crossed their path, stream-lined and swift despite the deep snow, and was gone. ‘Further north it would be wolves,’ Ralph said cheerfully.  
            After what seemed like hours of trudging, they arrived at the riverbank.  Bits of tree branch were frozen in the water like skeletal hands adorned with icicles.  The snow was silvery in places and opaque white in others. Birds had scribbled tracks amid the stiff sedges.  Matilda stared out across the white swathe of the river, her breath clouding the air with pale vapour.  
‘Well,’ said Ralph, pointing to the row of paw prints leading into the night. ‘If the fox came this way, then he must be our portent.’  He forayed  gingerly onto the ice with de Bohun following, and as the rope paid out and Matilda felt the tug, she had no option but to follow them, terrified that she was going to hear the creak of strained ice, feel it shatter, and fall through a jagged crack into black, icy water, and drown as her brother had done when the White Ship went to her doom.  Snow continued to twirl down as they stepped like clumsy dancers across the frozen water. Step after step sinking through the powdery surface until the snow compacted underfoot with a soft crumping sound, and each time that happened, she felt another surge of fear.
  Then, suddenly they were once more amongst frozen sedges and willows and clambering through the tangle onto the opposite bank.  Panting, Matilda turned to look over her shoulder.  Their churned tracks were obvious, stretching away to the opposite side, but the way the snow was falling, all signs would be covered by dawn. 
‘Drink,’ said de Bohun, offering her a flask.  The wine had been hot when they set out and a residue of warmth remained, enhanced by added pepper and spices. Matilda felt it burn down her gullet. De Bohun produced bread and dripping from a cloth in his satchel. The bread was so hard he had to smash it into pieces with his sword hilt. Matilda pouched a morsel in her cheek and sucked on it until it softened. They still had seven miles to walk to reach Abingdon, and another fifteen to Wallingford. Climbing down from a castle window and crossing the frozen moat and river was only the start of their journey. As they set out once more, forcing a path through the snow, Matilda knew she would never again use the phrase ‘When hell freezes over,’ without remembering this night.

And what the Gesta Stephani said about the incident:  an excerpt.
For when food and every means of sustaining life were almost exhausted in the castle and the king was toiling with spirit to reduce it by force and siege engines, were very hard-pressed as she was and altogether hopeless that help would come, she left the castle by night, with three knights of ripe judgement to accompany her, and went about 6 miles on foot, by very great exertions on the part of herself and her companions through the snow and ice - for all the ground was white with an extremely heavy fall of snow and there was a very thick crust of ice on the water.'

Geoffrey le Bel, Count of Anjou and a Christmas message:
Geoffrey le Bel, (father of Henry II) with a great train of attendants and guests was keeping Christmas at Le Mans.  Leaving his private chapel where he had been attending the nocturnal services of the vigil he set out at the head of a procession to celebrate Christmas in the cathedral church.  Near the door he met a poorly dressed young clerk whom he flippantly saluted with ‘Any news sir clerkling?’
‘Aye my Lord. The best of good news!’
‘What?’ cried  Geoffrey all of his curiosity aroused. ‘Tell me quick!’
‘Unto us a child is born unto us a Son is given!’
Abashed Geoffrey asked the clerk his name and bade him join the other clergy and the choir and as soon as matters were over went straight to the Bishop and said ‘For the love of Him who was born this day, give me a prebend in your church.’  It was no sooner granted and taking his new acquaintance by the hand he begged leave to make him his substitute and added the further gift of a stall in his own chapel as a token of gratitude to the poor clerk, whose answer to Geoffrey’s thoughtless question had brought home to him the true meaning of Christmas morning.

At the court of Henry II, the Christmas festivities involved some interesting entertainments.  Roland the Farter held his land in Norfolk for the service every Christmas of performing a 'leap, a whistle and a fart' in front of the King...
What Eleanor of Aquitaine thought of this form of entertainment hasn't been recorded!

Meanwhile - no winter underwear for these peasants warming their necessaries!  An illustration in the calender for February in the Tres Riche Heures of Jean Duc de Berry.    

Here's a medieval carol Adam Lay-y-Bounden.  Given a medieval/modern treatment by the Medieval Baebes 

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