I think whether we know it or not, we all harbor myths about the Middle Ages, that time period usually considered between 500 and 1500 AD. And since I write medieval mysteries and spend a lot of time researching the era, I thought we might spend some time going over those tired myths that crop up from time to time; those hackneyed fallacies that travel the net and maybe even into the conversation around your dinner table. Let’s take them in no particular order:
1. People didn’t bathe—in fact, bath houses were open to all. The whole city of Bath in England started out life in Celtic times, pre-Roman, and were valued as a holy place. After all, it's cold in Britain and here is hot water coming right out of the ground! Halleujah! The baths themselves were in continuous use right through to the Georgian period. Public baths and saunas were social in nature while at the same time giving you a chance to clean up a bit. In London they were also part of brothels (depicted in the picture) so you get clean clean while you were getting dirty. Heh. Washing hands before meals was always the custom, and though full immersion in a tub of heated bath water was strictly for the rich, the common folk took spit baths often, a little like camping. Good odors are associated with holiness and bad with sin. So one did what one could to keep relatively clean. And don't forget, there are folks in living memory of the Saturday night bath, that once a week affair where the family shared the bath water one after the other.
2. Meat was covered in sauces because it was rotten. Lack of refrigeration made storing food a problem, true, but it was not insurmountable. Meat was salted, dried, pickled, and smoked. Vegetables and fruits were preserved. There certainly was an abundance of dried foods, beans, barley, oats to be used on demand. But there was also fresh fish and shellfish to be had, rabbits kept, doves, chickens, geese, ducks, wild fowl, wild boar, venison. The common man who kept a few pigs would wait to slaughter the family pig in the winter when all the other preserved meats were consumed, which would in turn supply a great deal of preserved meat to last throughout the winter: hams, sausages, hocks, etc. Meat, when butchered, was hung and aged without refrigeration. If you lived in a market town or in London, for instance, you shopped daily where fresh, aged meat was available at market. But sauces were employed simply to make things taste better, different,--just like today. Bam! They’re just kicking it up a notch. Spices were expensive and had to come from the mysterious east from Arab traders. You wouldn't use $50 worth of spices to cover $5 worth of rotten meat. The spices that were used in certain dishes are a bit different than what we’d expect today for European cookery. Many spices that we would only employ in desserts—Cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, nutmeg—would be used with meats, along with dried fruits like apricots, figs, raisins. Many of the recipes in fact remind me of Moroccan cooking. It's what was available at certain times of the year, how much of a certain ingredient was stored and used.
3. Flat Earth. – Even the simplest peasant could use the proof of his eyes. Just why did a ship sink below the horizon? Why did it come back? You can tell by the shadows that the moon is an orb. Orbs, you say? You mean those things Jesus was depicted holding in paintings to show his Christian dominion over the world, a global world?
One of the best known work of medieval thought, Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica from the mid 1200s, just throws off a comment like everyone knows this already: “For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.”
Similarly, scholar Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century tells us, the "curvature of the earth explains why we see further at higher elevations."
Columbus did not sail the ocean blue in the year of 1492 to discover a new world or to prove the earth was round. He was looking for a new route to the orient to get around all those Arab traders so that Europeans could get spices cheaper on their own...and also to find gold. When he refused to believe he was somewhere new, he named the inhabitants “Indians” because he tried to convince himself he was in India. He in fact failed in his mission and did not completely appreciate what he ran into.
4. Lawlessness—pitch-forked and torch waving peasants in uprisings; unbridled thievery on the streets; highwaymen stalking the woods. Though there was a fair share of the latter, the courts were busy and efficient. And the lawsuits! The most detailed documents from the period include the law courts and lawsuits by ordinary citizens against the other, women suing men and men suing women. A truly equal opportunity system. And speaking of women, women had many opportunities to better themselves, though it usually involved marrying well. A servant could certainly gain in rank if she married her master (and likewise male servants who married their mistresses—that is, their bosses). Women could be brewsters (brewers of beer) and run alehouses, though mostly if they were widows to men who were in these professions.
Most of our judicial system stemmed from this period. Henry II in the twelfth century gave us trial by jury, though the jury was made up of people that you knew rather than an anonymous group as we have today. Also in the twelfth century, there were noted two kinds of murder: Murdrum,the slaying done in secret and simplex homicidrum, killing that wasn't planned, something in self-defence or accidental. Later Manslaughter was added, the killing in hot blood in a duel or if one caught one's wife in adultery.
In Newgate prison between the years 1281-1290 there were 200 cases of homicide and only 21% of those were found guilty, so there was as sense of justice prevailing in the Middle Ages.
5. Chastity Belts—the idea that a knight would encase his wife in a contraption to ensure fidelity as he went off to the Crusades might be a cultural curiosity, but it was never fact. What woman would put up with that? I mean really. As soon as her knightly husband trotted over the horizon she would get awfully friendly with the local tinker and all the kids would end up looking like him!
No, it is a Victorian myth to perpetuate the romantic (romantic?) notions of an age of Chivalry. Remember, this was the age of the pre-Raphaelites, whose depiction of noble, dutch-boy coifed Crusaders would meet their lady loves in sunlit groves, a veritable Rivendell of velvet gowns and pointy sleeves. Those last vestiges of chicanery were removed from the British Museum, many of which have been on display since 1846—which was probably when they were made! A spokesman of the museum explained: “It is probable that the majority of existing examples were made in the 19th century as curiosities for the prurient or jokes for the tasteless.”
6. Off with his head—Not so much. Only the French Revolution saw so much beheading. Beheading wasn’t a neat way to go nor was it saved for the general population. You had to have been a very naughty boy or girl to get this treatment, and the headsmen were so unskilled at this that there were often many chops to get it right. (Remember Nearly Headless Nick from Harry Potter?) No wonder Ann Boleyn requested a French swordsman to do the deed for her.
7. Witch Burning—Not so much there either. The occasional true heretic was burned at the stake—people like Joan of Arc. But Miss of Arc was a special case and it was more a case of English versus French rather than person versus Church. Witches—when witches there were—were generally hanged.
8. “Dark”—as in “Dark Ages” as in unenlightened and just hanging around waiting for the Renaissance to happen. It must have been such a nuisance living in the “middle” ages, in between important stuff. Really? The proper term is “Early Middle Ages”, a period from 500 to 800 A.D. Contemporary scholars of any repute don’t refer to these periods as “dark” and the myth of the Renaissance as the collective sigh of relief that the dark period was finally over is again, one of those Victorian conceits.
9. Ate off pewter plates and threw bones on the floor—Okay, pewter was something still relegated to the wealthy and not in wide use until about the 15th century. Wooden plates were more often used in common households. In very wealthy homes, silver plates. Plates made of precious metals were in fact used as currency. You’d keep your plate under lock and key. If you ever had to make a hasty departure, grabbing your plates was a convenient way to carry your wealth away with you.
Another myth was that medieval people were more violent because of lead poisoning from all this pewter that they didn’t use. It takes a lot to leach lead from pewter. Very high levels (meaning you’d have to be eating the stuff in large quantities) may cause vomiting, staggering gait, muscle weakness, seizures, or coma. And relatively speaking, the Middle Ages was not more violent than our current era, just different violence and toleration. In many ways, it could be argued that we are more violent but that's a longer discussion than we have room for.
You might have heard that some believe the term Upper Crust came from the wealthy desiring to eat only the upper crusts of the bread, and thus the term was born. Uh uh. Trencher loaves were cooked specifically for their use as plates for food. After it soaked up the juices you could eat it, but more often than not, your servants ate it or it was donated to almshouses to pass out to the poor. Why would you want to eat just the crust? If you were rich, in fact, you prided yourself on being able to afford well-milled wheat for light, fluffy loaves of bread—the Wonder Bread of the Middle Ages. The poorer folk actually ate healthier bread, made with husks and oats and other dark products (that we pay more for today in the supermarket. Ain’t that a kick in the head?). This upper crust notion comes from 1460, “Kutt e vpper crust [of the loaf] for youre souerayne”—in other words, serve him first.
And you certainly never threw your trash on the floor whether rich or poor. You lived there for God sake. Would you do it now? Dogs might have been wandering about and you might have fed them scraps as you might do now, but tossing scraps over your shoulder? Let’s be reasonable.That I'm fairly certain that notion comes from the 1933 movie The Private Life of Henry VIII with Charles Laughton as Henry. There's a scene with a feast where he takes a bite of a mutton joint or some such and then tosses the bone over his shoulder. Wasn't done.
10. Armor was too heavy.
A knight in full harness--that is, with mail, plate, helm, and sword--weighed anywhere from 60 to 120 lbs. He could move in it. He could do cartwheels, jump on and off his horse, fight with it. He'd have to. The only thing not recommended to do in it was to swim! I think we have this vision of Henry VIII being hoisted onto the saddle. It wasn't because his armor was too heavy, it was because he was too fat!
Why do such a myths and all the others like it persist even to this day? I think because it seems medieval to us, what we have perceived the Middle Ages to be as depicted in popular films and bad history in school (as bad as the persistent myth of the noble Pilgrims coming to these shores to escape religious persecution... But that’s a whole other story.) And it was so long ago. Well beyond living memory. Five hundred years ago at the end of the period. In England in the 1500s, they were now speaking an English we could easily recognize. But before that, in the heyday of the Middle Ages, they were speaking Chauceran English, or Middle English. A difficult tongue for us to recognize. This puts it quite distant indeed when we can’t even understand (our own) language.
Were they that different from us? In many ways, yes. There was an understanding of one’s place, a code of ethics we might bristle at in the U.S. Family ties were much more important than they are today. There was—for the most part--a common belief system. But there were also many similarities. Love, betrayal, friendships, deaths, disease, ambitions, desires—the array of the human condition.
How would you survive if placed in the Middle Ages? Maybe not too well. We would have a hard time understanding the customs and mores of the time. We live in such wasteful times. They did not. We live in a time where we care for people of all kinds, all races, all faiths, people we will never meet. They lived in a time where the “other” was a danger to them. Though in many instances, those “others” helped bring about new ideas.
What do we know and how do we know it? Well, we don’t get our history from novels, or films, or –God help us—the History Channel. What we do is read primary sources—the actual documents, archaeological discoveries, or we move on to secondary and tertiary sources like text books by the latest scholars in the field who draw their conclusions from primary sources, new archaological finds, and from the exchange of ideas with other scholars.
Then, what I get to do, is take that information, recreate that world and time, and play with my repertoire of characters to bring you interesting dramas.