Medieval History in Books, Part II

This is a continuation from a previous post….

If You Were Cold… 

Too bad.  If you were in Northern Europe/England, we’re talking like, really cold.  There was a what’s known as the Little Ice Age smack in the middle of the Middle Ages, but even without that, castle and village life was pretty cold.

Of course, they had really warm blankets. Furs.  And rooms were small, to conserve heat.  Rugs or tapestries covered the walls and helped a little.  And, of course, there would be a lot of people there with you to help spread the heat.  But still, it’d be cold.  Really cold.  Yet we rarely see the heroine performing her morning toiletry by plunging her hands through the layer of ice that’s formed in the water bucket overnight.


This weeper on Thomas and Catherine Beauchamp’s tomb in Warwick, England is wearing a bulky (probably fur-lined) sleeveless coat.

Yep, it was cold. At one point, Jakub rides to Prague during the winter and there is a long list of clothes that he’s wearing: a linen undershirt and braies, two pairs of woolen hosen, leather boots up to the knees, a woolen doublet lined in linen, a woolen cotehardie lined in linen, a woolen coif lined in linen, a wool hood lined in linen, a woolen cloak with hood lined in fur, fur split-fingered mittens, and a fur cover thrown over the saddle to help keep his rear-end warm.

But I don’t think a lady of any means would have willingly put her hands into ice water. Common women might have had to suffer that (although, if they’re going to have a fire to cook breakfast on, they’re going to have heat to warm up water, too), but a lady would have been woken by her maidservant in the morning with a pitcher and/or bowl of warm water for washing up.

If You Were Sick…

Bring on the leeches. 

I have never, ever seen a hero in a romance get ‘hung with leeches.’ (That’s what what they called it.  Is that not bad enough?)  I’ve never seen a romance heroine hung with leeches.  It’s probably not going to happen much, at least not on-screen.

I have to admit, while Jakub is injured and Alzbeta has to take care of him, leeches are not applied. (Although her father, a doctor, does explain to her that when there is a bruise full of blood under the skin, it needs to be lanced or, preferably, drawn out using leeches.)

Interestingly, leeches are now being used in modern medicine. They have anti-inflammatory and numbing properties in their saliva, which can actually be used to ease joint pain. They also encourage circulation and have been used to save the feet and legs of diabetics, which notoriously suffer from poor circulation. And, most commonly, they are being used on digits that have been reattached. Their saliva also contains a blood thinner (which is why they work well on hematomas) and, as I mentioned, they help increase circulation as they suck blood. The number one cause of failure in digit reattachment is poor circulation (it’s impossible to reattach every tiny blood vessel; a doctor can only hope to attach enough that the digit will survive long enough to heal the ones he can’t reattach).  Personally, if I ever have to have a digit or limb reattached (God forbid), I won’t rest until they give me leeches. They have a great rate of success. I’ll suffer some leeches if it means keeping my fingers or hand.

Medieval amputees.

Medieval amputees.

Body Parts Strewn

Seriously.  People would have a lot of missing body parts.  Teeth, arms, ears.  Malnutrition, battle, tournaments (especially the early ones) and a multitude of bad accidents with various implements of destruction/farming/milling, populated the medieval town or castle with a motley-looking crew.  Still, we rarely see our heroes missing arms or eyes.  Unless they’re a pirate, of course, with the patch and all.

Jakub has led a fairly charmed life. While he has bad knees and some scars—including one running through his right eyebrow and just missing the outside corner of his eye—he is otherwise whole and healthy. As he spends some time thinking about proposing marriage, he goes through his list of good qualities, which include having good teeth, no bad breath, no pockmarks or warts or other disfigurements, and only the minor facial scar.

He is forty years old, though, which is pretty unusual for a romantic hero (but not terribly unusual for a first-time bridegroom in the middle ages).

I will note, however, although Jakub is more-or-less unmaimed, there is a good deal of maiming and general slaughter that happens during the course of the book. Jakub is witness to the attack on the Jews of Prague, and there are people burned alive, and hacked into pieces, and a few hundred lie dead of suicide. Even Jakub is not above hacking a few people up (all for a good cause, of course).

The moral of the story is: the middle ages could be quite violent, depending on where you lived and who you were.


A 16th century prosthesis–one of several still in existence.

But I have to admit I am now intrigued by the idea of a maimed hero. My husband and I were recently discussing prosthetic hands in the middle ages; I think I might need a future hero who is missing a hand.


The Frequent and Varied Uses of Urine

Urine was a very useful agent in the middle ages.  It was used for everything from working wool to building plaster.  They used it as a cleaning agent and to diagnose illnesses.  And it keeps the hands nice and soft!  Mmmm. 

Yep. Muslim doctors were the first to discover a link between sweet-tasting urine and health problems. While they didn’t understand diabetes, they did understand that it could be bettered through diet.

I can’t confirm that people used urine on the hands, but I do know that stale urine turns into ammonia, which was indeed used to clean and process wool, to bleach fabric, to whiten leather, and, if memory serves, it was an ingredient in whitewash (but don’t worry–the cob-walled houses were made with a mixture of mud, clay, and cow manure; what’s a little urine going to hurt?)

The ‘Facilities’

Not a pretty thing.  When privy chambers were inside a castle, there was simply a chute that ran to the outside, and straight down the wall.  Some of the refuse might make it into the moat or other defensive ditch surrounding the castle.  Some would stick along the way.  Even today, centuries later, many castle walls are still stained.

And then there’s the accoutrements.  We have toilet paper.  They had . . . straw.  Or moss.  Or soft leaves.  Sometimes in richer homes, there’s been a linen cloth.  Or . . . your hand.

In my antiquated collection of printed photographs, I actually have a picture of a privy in Chepstow Castle (Wales). You can see through the toilet hole down to the moat about thirty feet below. (It was a pretty blustery March day then; I can’t imagine trying to sit on that drafty hole and doing my business–much less in the dead of winter.)

The Museum of London digs found a lot of fabric scraps in the medieval latrines in London. It seems that the leftover scraps of fabric that were too small to use for clothes were turned into toilet paper and sanitary napkins.

I don’t discuss toilet paper in my book, but Jakub does use a chamberpot in one scene. (Yes, he is wealthy enough to have both a pot to piss in and a window to throw it out of.)

Food was highly colorful and wildly spiced…

Often to disguise the fact that the meat was rancid. Fortunately, if you were a peasant, you wouldn’t be getting much meat.

I disagree with this—although it’s often repeated.

The first thing it assumes is that medieval people were somehow immune to food poisoning. While people’s immune systems and digestive tracts can adjust to quite a bit (for example, native people in India do not usually suffer from horrible diarrhea when they drink their water, whereas Westerners are doomed if they just brush their teeth with it), I don’t think medieval people were able to eat rotting meat with impunity. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out a cause and effect relationship between eating something stinky, getting an upset stomach, and grabbing the chamberpot.

Medieval food was spiced, but I think that’s because they liked it. I have eaten many medieval dishes and have never been put off by the spice level (not even some garlic spread which was so strong, it burned—but then, I like garlic). In fact, I won’t even eat a modern beef roast; they’re far too bland. Actually, most meat these days is far too bland. Once you go medieval and start using things like cardamom and star anise and coriander, you’ll never want to go back to just salt and pepper.

Medieval recipes almost never have any sort of measurements. We know what spices they used, but rarely do we know how heavily they spiced things. Of course, a lot of that depended on the cook; was she a heavy hand or not? Did the master like things strong or mild? Was the dish being cooked for a sick person (mild) or for a regular meal (stronger)? How expensive was the spice?

Jakub and Alzbeta get a spice box at one point in the book and it’s mentioned that the saffron and cinnamon in the box are worth nearly their weight in gold. One does not heap spices like that onto food willy-nilly.

So it’s impossible to say they put a lot of spice on food to cover up the bad taste, because we don’t know how much they actually used. A little bit of several spices is still relatively mild.

butcherAnd medieval people understood meat preservation. Large animals—i.e. those which will generate leftovers—were slaughtered in the winter. Once they were processed, the meat could be hung up in a cellar or outbuilding, where the cold temps (remember those?) would keep the meat frozen all winter. So, it was no different than us keeping meat in a deep freezer, only there was probably less chance of freezerburn.

Secondly, medieval people smoked meat, which also preserves it. Fireplaces in a lord’s kitchen were typically large—large enough for at least a good-sized child to get inside. Hooks would be set inside the chimney and, using a ladder or pole with a hook, meat would be suspended from the chimney hooks. Then the smoke from the cook fire would smoke the meat. (How’s that for multi-tasking?) Even in peasant houses (and earlier in the middle ages, before the invention of chimneys), meat could be suspended from rafters around the smoke hole to take advantage of the hearth fire..


You can easily hang meat up to smoke inside this type of chimney.

Finally, modern scientists are starting to understand something that our ancient ancestors probably figured out long ago: some spices help reduce spoilage. Two spices that help preserve meat are cloves (commonly used in Europe during the middle ages) and hot peppers/chiles (commonly used in India and South America). Was medieval food spiced not because it was spoiled, but to keep it from spoiling?

We can’t say for certain, but I recently cleaned out some Indian leftovers which had been in my fridge for at least three weeks (okay… maybe a month). But, despite the fact that it wasn’t hotly spiced, it was still almost good—there was only a tiny bit of mold on it in one spot and it didn’t stink at all. If I noticed that my chili-spiced lasted a lot longer than usual, don’t you think that medieval people would have noticed that too?

I will add this caveat: have you ever opened a package of sandwich meat or a container of leftovers and sniffed it and hesitated? There comes a point when something smells stronger than normal, but doesn’t actually smell “bad.” Modern people tend to play it safe and toss it, but medieval people would probably have eaten it; it was too expensive to waste.

Medieval Cookbooks and Free Recipes: Gode Cookery

The Good News:

Drinking ale was good for you.

The medieval person didn’t get a lot of vitamins, particularly A, C, and D, and in general, especially amid the lower classes, they didn’t get a whole lot of calories either.  No, this isn’t the good news.  The good news is that, as a result, drinking ale fortified you, especially with calories. 

Yep (although the body makes Vitamin D naturally when it’s exposed to sunlight; medieval people would have gotten plenty of that). Ale was the everyday drink of choice. Jakub serves it to his common folk when he hosts them for dinner, and Alzbeta’s father gives him some when he is visiting. Wine was the preferred drink of the nobility, although it was usually reserved for mealtimes (ale was still used to quench thirst). Jakub and Alzbeta’s parents both serve wine with meals.

Medieval wine and ale/beer was not as alcoholic as modern varieties. Whereas modern beers are allowed to ferment for a few weeks, then bottled and allowed to “rest” for at least another week or two, medieval ales were considered ready for drinking after a few days. (The longer the yeast sits, the more alcohol it produces.) Even wines were only left in barrels for a few weeks instead of the months to years that modern wines sit.

This is the reason why people could drink upwards of a gallon of ale a day without falling down drunk; it was just alcoholic enough to kill any bacteria living in the water, but no stronger.

But that’s not to say that every ale and wine was weak; they were certainly capable of making stouter stouts. And people were certainly capable of drinking enough to get drunk, if they wanted to. But the average daily consumption of wine/ale probably produced no more buzz in a medieval person that our coffee/cola habits do today.