Medieval History in Books

Well, so much for my resolution to be super-productive in the midst of a move.

I’ve come to the realization that if you work all weekend, you have to have some down time to chill, play games, watch TV, and generally goof off (some of us need more recharge time than others). Since I spend my weekends packing and moving stuff, this downtime has to come during the week. So most nights, after work, I go to my apartment and crash. I don’t write, I don’t proof, and I don’t blog (but I am up to level 117 on Candy Crush, which may or may not be saying something).

I’m also working a full 8 hour day. There’s no feast or famine where I might have stretches of time when I have little, if any, work to do. No, around here, every day is a feast day. I have enough special projects lined up to keep me busy every day for the next two to three years. It feels good to be indispensable (especially after being laid off twice), but all that work has definitely curtailed my blogging activities.

I would like to aim for one post a week, just to keep connected with everyone, but that’s still tentative at this point.

Speaking of blogging, I ran across an interesting article on the “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” blog entitled Top Medieval History Facts You Won’t See in Romance. Of course that article piqued my interest, so I decided to compare their list to what happens in my upcoming romance, The Flames of Prague.

The Whole ‘Washing’ Issue, or; The Heroine Smells Like Lavender / Orange Blossom / You Pick The Scent

In the middle ages, they did not wash as much as we do.  It’s a lot of work to haul water and, in the winter, heat it up.  So the hero might have a hard time detecting the heroine’s pretty floral ‘perfume’ amid the general body aromas of the time.  A faint, lingering scene of lavender might not measure up to hard-working B.O. 

Then again, there were no processed foods, no pesticides/herbicides/antibiotics/etc being ingested by plant or beast, so I suspect the odors were much less . . . well, odoriferous.  And those hard-working field hands were not eating much meat which would also make them stink less. 

And the medieval person did wash, more than we might assume.  You can find pictures in illustrated manuscripts of people bathing, even with little canopies over them.  A man and a woman might bathe together, each in his/her own tub, toasting their good fortune in having servants to carry the heated water up the stairs.  There were also public baths, a left-over custom from the days when those communal-bathing Romans played with their weapons in the cold, dark north.

medieval-bath-1My hero, Jakub, takes two baths during the story (that the reader knows about; it’s implied he has decent hygiene). One bath is mostly off-screen, but the second one is shown from the beginning. We see multiple people lugging buckets of water up the stairs until they’re exhausted. Jakub gets a bath, then Alzbeta (the heroine) takes her bath in the same water. Yeah, when hot water is a precious commodity, you share it.

While it’s not shown in the book, Jakub mentions going to a feast which was served in bathtubs. He also recalls going to one of Prague’s “fabled bathhouses.”

Bath 1But no, my heroine is never mentioned as sweet-smelling, except immediately after she eats, when Jakub can smell spices on her breath (more on spiced food later).

It’s interesting that SB Sarah, author of the article, mentions that people might not have had the same body odor as we have, due to eating less meat and having all-organic food. Someone I knew who does 18th century reenacting told me that she had read an article by a scientist who said that the bacteria on our skin (specifically that in the arm pits)—which is what gives us that B.O. funk—has evolved over time, and it’s possible that people’s body odor smelled quite different in the past—and may have even been non-existent.

People’s noses become accustomed to common smells. (Anyone who has had a horse can tell you that they became largely immune to the smell of horse manure.) Only unusual or very strong odors will get someone’s attention. So medieval people—if they had body odor—likely didn’t notice it. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t smell at all. We know from accounts that they complained about the smell from tanneries and butcher shops; those businesses were usually relegated to the furthest corner of town, or outside the walls altogether.

Dig Your Privacy?

Too bad.  In a romance, the hero and heroine usually get a lot of alone time.  Their bedchamber is a place of privacy.  But that was not always the case.  Early on, privacy was considered rude, and even without the social strictures, these were usually cramped quarters, even in castles.  Rooms were small—easier to heat—and people got together for almost everything.  Often, even nobles had big old beds so that hero, heroine, their children could sleep together

Yes, very early in the middle ages, everyone from the king to the kitchen pages slept together in the main hall. (The king and queen typically had curtains around their bed to allow for some privacy, but everyone else had to get it on with no more than a blanket hiding them from everyone else.)


The spacious royal apartment in the Tower of London (you are seeing approximately 1/2 of the total room).

But by the 12th century, we start to see the development of the concept of privacy, with the lord and lady getting a room of their own. Eventually there were additional rooms for guests and a solar—the medieval living room reserved for the family (and, if it was a small household, for their staff).

The Flames of Prague is set in the late 14th century. Jakub has his own bedroom, complete with a small table (which he rarely uses; he prefers to dine with the rest of his household). There is also a small solar used by not only him, but by his steward, chatelaine, and his two squires.

I disagree that rooms were small. That was true early, but not by the high middle ages. The king’s bedroom in the Tower of London—which was used as far back as the 13th century, if memory serves, was very large. The later the middle ages, the larger private bedrooms/apartments became. By the Tudor period, the king and queen had so much room, they could dine with a small retinue or receive visitors in the living area of their apartments.


Many people lying together in the same bed in a hospital (no, that didn’t spread communicable diseases or anything).

But it is true that many people would have shared a bed. In the late 14th century, the Goodman of Paris tells his wife that she should keep her young maidservants in the bed with her. The Goodman traveled a lot, so it’s probable that the maidservants slept with the mistress while he was gone, but went to separate quarters when he was home. This was a way to ensure the virtue of all the women involved, which is why Queen Elizabeth was said to have shared her bed with some of her ladies.

In some households, the servants slept on the floor of the master’s bedroom; in other households, they might have had their own space. In Jakub’s household, his cook and her daughter share a small bedroom off the kitchen, while his squires sleep together on a mattress in the great hall (this despite the fact that he has a vacant guest room). When Alzbeta stays the night, and the guest room is unavailable, Jakub bunks with his squires and gives Alzbeta his bed.

Dig meat?

Unless you were rich, too bad.  Not much of that.  The good news is, that’s a good beginning to a heart-healthy diet, all those grains and vegetables.  But not raw.  Raw vegetables were thought to be bad for the digestive system. 

Correct on all fronts. Fish was the poor person’s meat, and it was usually saved for holidays (although, admittedly, there were a lot of those). Eggs would have been a common source of protein in the spring and summer, and, to a lesser degree, milk, butter, and cheese. Only animals too old to work would have been killed and eaten by the commoners. Male animals frequently ended up the table, too, (since you don’t need as many male animals as females) but they were more likely to have been sold to more well-to-do people than kept for the peasant’s table; it was old, gristled animals for their meals.

Dig your dog? 

Let him sleep with you?  Feed him off the table?  Sure, why not?  Well, then why make him go outside to relieve himself?

They didn’t back then.  Thus, those rushes on the floor (and in winter, straw), scattered through with herbs and flowers to alleviate the stench. 

And while we’re at it, bring in the horses, and your prized hawk too.  Because the lord of the castle was a bird-loving man.  (Stop.)  I mean a hawk-loving man. And he had a relationship with his hawk.  (Stop that.)  It was very common to have Hawk with him all the time.  On a perch behind his seat (or on his shoulder) at meals. In the bedroom. Wherever. And birds definitely do not get potty-trained.

I have to disagree with this in part. I don’t think people routinely let their dogs shit on the floor. I think that would be stinky even to a medieval person, and it’s certainly messy when you step in it—especially when you consider they all had leather-soled shoes.


This personal chapel was attached to the king’s bedroom in the Tower of London. I seem to recall that the tile floor was a later addition–14th or 15th century.

Yes, sometimes floors were covered with rushes or straw, but we see that more in the early part of the middle ages because most floors were dirt; the rushes/straw kept it from turning to mud as people tracked in water, the roof leaked, stuff was spilled, etc. It also serves as insulation in the winter (just as walking on carpet is preferable to walking on a cold tile floor), and it made clean-up easier. For instance, Jakub has his servants put down straw before holding a banquet for his tenants. Food and drink that are spilled are largely caught by the straw. It’s then swept out when everyone is gone and there is limited need to get down on one’s hands and knees and scrub up dried food or try to get ale stains out of the wood floor. During normal times, however, there is no straw on Jakub’s floors.

Straw under a leather-soled shoe is slick as snot. (Go ahead: ask me how I know.) And by the 15th century, illuminated manuscripts are showing us decorative tile floors in wealthier homes. Why would they have used expensive painted tile, only to cover it up with straw?

Incidentally, Jakub has hunting dogs, but they stay in the barn. Just as today, some people then were dog people and some were not. Jakub’s dogs are not kept as pets, hence why he doesn’t have them in the house. (He does, however, adopt a kitten, which he keeps as a pet inside the house.) A man who had a favorite hunting dog or two might have kept them in the house (the Goodman of Paris mentions such a situation), but the entire pack wasn’t likely let inside unless it was a very large castle. Later in the middle ages, though, we see women keeping lap dogs strictly as pets.


13th century manuscript showing what appears to be a parrot in a cage.

Some people might have kept their hunting birds indoors (and during the taming period, that’s a requirement), but I think that would have been the exception, not the rule. Lords and ladies who had hunting birds had special buildings where they were kept and attended by a trained handler at all times.

(Jakub is not rich enough/ of enough status to have a hunting bird; ownership of birds of prey was highly regulated throughout the middle ages.)

The Goodman of Paris instructs his wife that if she ends up keeping small birds as pets, she should make sure that the servants clean their cage daily—giving us evidence that medieval people, like modern people, most commonly kept their birds in cages.

To Be Continued…

In the meantime, check out this awesome, awesome site: They have videos of people demonstrating medieval crafts and basic modes of living. This is a great resource for medieval writers, as well as re-enactors. They’ve added a number of videos since I first found them last week, so even if you don’t see a tutorial for something you want to learn, check back often.

7 comments on “Medieval History in Books

  1. chbrown21 says:

    Loved this blog and goes to reaffirm why I have absolutely no romantic notions re living in another time period. Not to mention women being nothing more than a piece of property!

    • Keri Peardon says:

      Actually, women had more rights in the middle ages than one would think. As Jakub is planning out his and Alzbeta’s future, he figures that she will outlive him. He sets his will up so that she gets everything (he has no other male relatives anyways), figuring that she can use his small landholding, small “retirement” fund, and her good looks to get another husband–maybe even a wealthier one. Or, if she chose to remain a widow, she could use the money to hire someone–like his younger squire, who will be a landless knight–to take her place when the king demands a knight from that landholding. Widows of the largest, most influential properties weren’t allowed to remain widows, but someone like Alzbeta, who held a very small piece of land, would have almost certainly been allowed to keep it, provided she could pay the taxes and raise the troops the king required. It was even more common to see widows owning their own businesses and I have seen illustrations of female blacksmiths, shoemakers, etc. At the lowest levels of society, women might not ever marry (Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, England never did, although she was a wealthy peasant and owned a decent amount of farmland).

      And although Alzbeta is a Jew and rather at the mercy of Jakub, he allows her to keep her dowry, which was the rule in most places and times in the middle ages. She ends up investing it in property in Prague, then she uses the rent money to buy sheep and cattle. She actually becomes rather wealthy–about as wealthy as Jakub. It’s her money to do with what she wants, so, in addition to helping out their eldest son who goes to court in the second book, she also plans to give dowries to her daughters and buy her younger sons a trade. It was common, especially in England, for a woman to be able to use her dowry in such a way (she could will it to whomever she wanted). Even when a woman brought land into the marriage, it was her land. And while husband’s usually had the legal right to manage the land, they were also answerable to their wives for its management. There is at least one case that I know about in which an English woman sued her husband for mismanaging her dowry lands. And I seem to recall that she won.

      In reality, women were treated worse in the Regency and Victorian periods than in the middle ages. (But we get a lot of our information on the middle ages from the Victorians, unfortunately.) Women in those periods, in England, could not own any property or a business. When you married a man, everything you owned became his–down to your clothes, your mother’s wedding ring… everything. That’s why a husband could gamble away your fortune, then disappear, leaving you destitute. And there was nothing you could do about it. Also, a man’s right to his children trumped yours, so if he wanted to put you out of the house, he could, and he could keep the kids and never allow you to see them again. Also, a man had a right to beat his wife with a stick no larger than the thickness of his thumb.

      While domestic violence happened in the middle ages, as it does now, I am unaware of a man’s right to beat his wife being enshrined in law at any time in the middle ages. In fact, a woman could appeal to the church or her lord for help if she was being beaten. While the Church tried everything within its power to reconcile man and wife, they did allow women to leave their abusive husbands (you couldn’t ever divorce, but you were allowed to live separately). When Margery Kempe decided to become more religious and take lay orders (just shy of full religious order), the Church granted her permission to take the orders, which included a vow of chastity (her husband was more or less on board with it too, though). She lived with her husband off and on for many years (off and on because she was often on pilgrimage) without having sexual relations with him.

      You don’t see that sort of thing happening in the 1800’s. Of course, it was a different time from a religious perspective, but the role of the husband became even more authoritarian and the role of women weaker. And when they looked back at a time of lords and ladies, they assumed people of the middle ages behaved the same. They glossed over tales of women defending castles, owning their own profitable business, and leaving their husbands behind while they went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

      • chbrown21 says:

        Your blogs are ever fascinating! I still think the average woman had a tough time as not every one could be a lady with a lord. Waiting for time travel so I can check things out for myself 🙂

      • Keri Peardon says:

        Oh, yeah, women definitely had a rougher time then than now. Dying in childbirth and outliving many of your children aside, women got stuck in bad relationships due to not being able to divorce. And both men and women were subject to their parents and/or king when it came to marriage (the higher up in social status you go, the more true that is). Men and women were expected to marry first, then grow to love one another… or at least reasonably tolerate each other. Kind of like co-workers: you don’t get to pick who you work with most of the time, but you still have to get work done as a team.

        I’m planning a future book where my heroine is an English widow living along the Scottish border. About the time she falls in love with a landless knight, her manor is raided and she and said knight have to fight their way out. They flee in the freezing cold to raise the “hue and cry” at the next lord’s estate. Eventually troops are mustered (her knight going with them) and they go off to fight the Scots. In the meantime, however, evil villain at court decides he likes her and he wants to marry her. He petitions the king, who agrees that a woman alone cannot help keep the border defended, and he agrees to allow them to marry. Except the widow wants no part of him. She appeals to the king to give her a reprieve to find a husband more suitable to her, and he agrees to give her 30 days. She writes a letter to her knight, who is still off fighting, offering a marriage contract with him to have control of her lands, etc., but he must get there before the king’s deadline. Meanwhile, the villain tries to force himself on her, because if he can tarnish her reputation–and especially if he can get her pregnant–then she will have no choice but marry him (because no other man would have her).

        So, that will be a book that deals a bit more with how women had to live during that time.

        I also want to do one based on a true story from the 15th century. A lady was raped by the squire of a powerful man–a squire and nobleman with whom her husband had a long-standing grudge and who had fought him in court for some years (hence why his lady was the victim of the attack). He publicly condemned the squire of the act, which led to a protracted court battle. In the end, the king of France told them they could duel to settle it.

        It was the last judicial duel in France, invoking the old idea that God would come down on the side of the innocent and punish the victim. Since the loser was automatically labeled by God as the criminal, if the loser even survived the duel, then he would be hanged immediately afterwards. Also on the line was the rape victim, since she also accused the squire. If her husband lost, he would die either in the arena or immediately afterwards, and she would be burned at the stake (for bearing false witness and adultery–the squire said he had consensual sex with her).

        It really sets the stage for a dramatic ending because everything rests on the outcome of the duel–the lives of the two innocent people and justice itself.

  2. Love these posts! It’s always fun to get a reality check on my view of history 🙂 Although I can’t stop cringing at the idea of everyone sleeping together in the main hall … I love my privacy too much, I think. Then again, if I’d grown up back then, I’m sure it would have felt totally normal!

    • Keri Peardon says:

      I don’t think it’s weird when, in my book’s case, it’s Jakub’s two squires–who are brothers–sharing a bed. It’s not even terribly weird to have Jakub share a bed with them when necessary. (You have to imagine he and his man-at-arms and/or squires have bunked together on more than on occasion when they were on campaign and it was bitterly cold.) But when you think about married (or not) people having to sleep in the same hall together, with no privacy, then that’s pretty icky.

      Also, people shared beds in inns. You didn’t rent a room; you rented a space in a bed. Only the wealthy could afford to rent an actual room. (If you read one of my “apocryphal” stories from the “Acceptance” series, you’ll see that Anselm and Micah have to share a bed with a stranger in a medieval hostel: Even more icky was the fact that everyone slept naked (night clothes having not yet been invented and no one seemingly interested in wearing their underwear to bed).

      • Naked makes it so much worse! And yeah, married couples in their marital bed surrounded by people … how does that even work? I guess kids learn sex ed at a pretty young age, considering what they must hear/see as they grow up … 😀

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