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.

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.