A rather quaint term for prostitutes in medieval London was the ‘Winchester Geese‘. The reason being that the brothels that served Londoners on the south side of the Thames, in the district of Southwark, fell under the Bishop of Winchester. Far from being displeased by the presence of these licentious houses, the good bishop taxed them with gusto – as recorded in the court rolls.
You can still see remains of the 12th century Winchester Palace today in Southwark. The bishop took his title from the city of Winchester, which had been the capital of England during the Saxon and early medieval period. London, however, emerged as the top city and the bishop’s most impressive residence was what we see a sad remnant of today. Southwark cathedral, which was part of a large complex of religious buildings, is still there – though heavily restored. There is also the notorious Clink – the bishop’s prison, which continued to serve as a criminal lock up till the eighteenth century. Worth a visit!
But back to the ladies! They plied their trade and unfortunately, on occasion, contracted and spread venereal disease. Syphilis, in particular, was a killer in those days. In fact, a Saxon graveyard has just been unearthed in Ipswich, Suffolk and among three hundred skeletons, many been found bearing clear signs of the disease. Getting a dose of the clap was referred to as being ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ or getting ‘goose bumps’. The humour, no doubt, intended to detract from the sometimes dire consequences.
Medieval attitudes to prostitution seem to be mixed. Sex was clearly for procreation but these fallen ladies seem to have been viewed as a way of preventing good Christian men falling into even worse practices – like sodomy or masturbation (seen as mortal crimes by the church). From Saint Augustine onwards, there’s a tradition of fulminating tracts about the evils of sex in quite prurient detail. So, prostitution was a kind of safety valve for wicked desire and it had the added benefit of filling the bishop’s coffers.
When these geese died, they had the final indignity of being buried in unconsecrated ground. The Cross Bones graveyard in Southwark has been preserved by local residents and a little memorial set up to commemorate the Winchester Geese. Below are some medieval ladies of the night I encountered this year at medieval fairs in Obidos and Santa Maria da Feira in Portugal
In Anglo-Saxon England, people believed sudden sharp pains were caused by arrows from elves – or ‘elf-shot’. Have you ever thought about the phrase ‘shooting pain‘ or ‘stabbing pain’ and even the idea of a ‘stroke’. The arrows that elves used were often thought to be tipped with stone arrow heads. Why? Because Anglo-Saxons picked up neolithic arrow heads in the forest and not knowing what they were (as their arrowheads were made of metal), thought the stone ones must be from the elves.
The sort of diseases caused by elves were anything resulting in fever or madness – like malaria.
But elves were as nothing compared to evil spirits. They entered in to your body – and your head – and turned you mad. Even in the Roman Empire – people had their skulls bored in to with a surgical knife to release an evil spirit from a patient’s head. Some of these skulls have been found with perfectly round holes.
Epilepsy would have been diagnosed as possession – as would brain tumours. Incredibly, some people survived these brain operations with flint tools – and bizarrely, releasing pressure in the head – albeit for the wrong reasons – actually saved the patient.
Demons were another risk for the patient. They got in to your body by morphing into food or odours or smoke. Pungent smells were associated with the devil – a miasma that had emanated from hell. Plague was seen as infected air from bad objects that entered your body and corrupted it. Food rotted because the devil had touched it. Sniffing infected flesh was enough to give you plague.
This is why people sought good smells – herbs like rosemary – that would protect you. In plague conditions, people would walk round with a kind of cowl or helmet with a long bird beak that was packed with herbs. This strange bird suit was believed to stop you catching the plague and those wearing these costumes, often physicians, would go round perfuming houses affected by plague.
If perfume wasn’t felt to be strong enough – they would use vinegar and in extreme cases, they would even mix herbs with gunpowder and let off perfume bombs in people’s houses. Ironically, the bird suit did save the physicians but only because they weren’t bitten by the fleas that were really causing the plague. The smells had nothing to do with it.
Waking up in the Middle Ages and feeling off colour in the morning was often deemed to have been caused by sin. If you had a venereal disease then sin was clearly the case. But pimples, soreness and aches might also be attributed to sinfulness – you just had to figure out what sin you had committed and start repenting.
Repentance could involve fasting, which would actually weaken your body further. In the fourteenth century, those living in communities stricken with the Black Death took to flogging their own bodies. You told your flesh, by striking it, that your soul was in control of your body and therefore you were nearer to the angels than the animals.
In medieval times, nothing was known about germs and bacteria. When we infect somebody else, we know we still have the disease ourselves. But in the Middle Ages, they believed in ‘transference’. If I got better, it was because I’d passed or transferred the disease on to somebody else. In other words, there was a limited amount of disease around which never disappeared – I just had to get it to pass out of my body to somebody else.
That somebody else could be dead! So, if I had a cyst or sore – I might ask an executioner to cut down a recently hanged man and get his cold, dead hand stroked against my cyst or sore. The dead criminal would then take it with him to hell. But I might try it with the living – and the method could be quite bizarre.
If I had a wart, for example, I would rub a snail on my horrible growth and then leave the snail in a bag hung up somewhere for a stranger to pick up. When he picked it up – he would get the wart!
And I might try and transfer the strength of the healthy in to myself to cure my weakness. A Celtic story tells of a warrior injured by a spear so the treatment was to transfer strength from…a whole herd of cows!!! His followers therefore slaughtered the entire herd and mixed their meat, marrow and bone together to save this one life. A very expensive treatment by the way – rather like bathing in champagne. The warrior, by the way, had to lie in this mixture for three days!
So did any medieval treatment actually work? Apart from accidental discoveries – one of the most powerful positive aspects of medicine in this period was its powerful placebo effect. Medicine was primarily about faith over science. That obviously limits it hugely. But, human beings are odd creatures. The belief that one is being cured can be an effective treatment with certain conditions on its own.
I mentioned Steven Pinker‘s new book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature‘ on the history of violence and his view that contrary to what many believe, violence is actually on the decline – relatively speaking. To illustrate his point, he gives examples of random acts of brutality in the Middle Ages that appear to have been everyday occurrences. Some are truly awful while others almost make you laugh in disbelief.
What are we to make of this, re-quoted from historianBarbara Tuchman, describing a ‘sport’: “Players with hands behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws…” And that was nothing compared to the more bizarre spectacle of a pig being clubbed to death for popular amusement.
Then there is the angry medieval shopper that Pinker re-quotes from a book written by historian Barbara Hanawalt: “It happened at Ylvertoft on Saturday next before Martinmass in the fifth year of King Edward that a certain William of Wellington, parish chaplain of Ylvertoft, sent John, his clerk, to John Cobbler’s house to buy a candle for him for a penny. But John would not send it to him without the money wherefore William became enraged, and, knocking in the door upon him, he struck John in the front part of the head so that his brains flowed forth and he died forthwith.”
Historian Valentin Groebner has written an article called ‘Losing Face, Saving Face: Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town’. It deals with the prevalence of nasal mutilation in the Middle Ages as a punishment and as a way of exacting revenge on an enemy. So common was this activity that medical textbooks of the period even speculated whether a severed nose could grow back!! Cutting off your nose to spite your face referred to real attacks on noses. In case you think this practice has died out – I’m afraid to say the Taliban think it’s acceptable to do this to young girls in today’s Afghanistan.
Imagine you had no watch, no mobile phone….basically, no way of telling the time. Further imagine that you are in the middle of a field with your plough and oxen, working on the lord’s desmesne – then how do you know what time it is? Yep, you’re in the Middle Ages and who knows whether it is 2.30pm or 4.15pm. Who knows what day it is. And frankly, who even knows what year it is!
Such were the vagaries of timekeeping for a medieval serf – so how they did do it? Well, two things to bear in mind. Religion and the seasons. Peasants knew when it was a holy day because….that’s where we get “holiday” from….and you know always know when your holidays are. Then there were the seasons – a time to sow seeds and a time to harvest crops. A time when animals breed and a time to slaughter them and salt the meat for winter storage.
How does this all translate in to practical timekeeping. I’ve read some fun stuff online around this subject. I’m happy to be informed whether a lot of this is total garbage or true. This website claims peasants carved sundials in to the bottom of their clogs – which they took off and held up to the sun to tell the time. I have never heard of that before! This site says that the first mechanical clock was invented in the late 13th century – so within the Templar era. But peasants would have had no access to clocks in our era – not as if you could take one in to the fields.
So let’s look at how peasants told the time. Winter stretched from Michaelmas in late September to Christmastide. And you were out sowing at that time. November was known as the blood month because you slaughtered the animals to keep you in meat during the cold months ahead. Of course there were the 12 days of Christmas to cheer up the wintertime.
From the Epiphany to Easter Holy Week was the Spring when fields and gardens sprang back in to life and animals got down to some serious mating. Plough Monday was a strange ritual shortly after Epiphany where young lads dragged ploughs round the village asking for money. Candlemas in early February was when oats, barley and beans were sown.
Two weeks after Easter was Hocktide which stretched to Lammas in August. Hocktide was when the May Queen was crowned – undoubtedly a throwback to pre-Christian fertility rituals or worship of pagan goddesses that encouraged crops to grow. Midsummer was marked by the feast of St John the Baptist and on St John’s Eve in June, a wheel of fire might be rolled down the hill – another pagan hangover. Lammas to Michaelmas was harvest time.
Monks – and Templars – had a more precise form of timekeeping based around prayer. Lauds got you out of bed at the crack of dawn or before, Prime came in the early morn, Terce in mid-morning, Sext at midday, None in mid-afternoon, Vespers after dinner and Compline was just before bed, etc.
A new book – The Better Angels of our Nature – blows apart the idea that the twentieth century was the most violent on record. Yes, there were holocausts and global wars, but actually you were far less likely to die a violent death in the last hundred years than in centuries past. In the Middle Ages, during the Templar era, you were very likely to see criminals being hung, beheaded or mutilated in public. Disemboweling, being broken on the wheel and burned at the stake were all part of the judicial approach. When a court was held in the open air, it would be an opportunity to see the guilty suffering in some or other way. What Steven Pinker argues in this book is that casual violence was a commonplace.
Take for example the summary execution of Colonel Gaddafi in October this year. A lot of people were pretty horrified by the way in which he was dragged from a sewage pipe then beaten up and killed. In a medieval setting, he would have counted himself lucky to die that quickly and relatively painlessly. Indeed, rebels and political leaders who were defeated in battle might very well end up being dismembered and their limbs displayed in various parts of the kingdom. Going back to Gaddafi, he once hanged student rebels from lampposts and had traffic deliberately re-routed so that drivers would see the bodies dangling in public. This was back in the 1970s. But frankly, no different to the kind of public retribution meted out to rebels in the 1170s.
Pinker argues that the relative decline in violence is due to our society being more industrialised, urban, secular and cosmopolitan. And the rejection of violence even extends to corporal punishment against children. From an early age we are conditioned to be repelled by physical violence. This wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages where children were beaten routinely. At an early age, they had to assume adult responsibilities and therefore were subject to adult punishments. Through to the eighteenth century, individuals we would class as children were executed for petty crimes such as theft.
In his excellent new history of England – part one of which is called ‘Foundation’ – Peter Ackroyd has a chapter on crime and punishment in the Middle Ages. He gives a shocking example of a nun who lost her virginity to a young priest in the 1160s at a convent in Watton, Yorkshire. The nuns interrogated the pregnant sister and when they found out who the culprit was, he was captured and brought to the convent. He was then imprisoned in a cell and the nun he had impregnated was forced to castrate him with a knife. The other nuns then stuffed his genitals in to his mouth! As if that wasn’t traumatic enough for her, she was flogged and bound with chains in a cell. What happened to the baby after all this – goodness only knows.
Ackroyd also describes ‘ritualised fights’ in churchyards between aggrieved parties. I have read previously about these grudge matches which were a common feature of medieval village life. Sometimes the fights were fairly informal, the two parties just got down to beating each other up. But on other occasions, they involved a degree of planning and training for the big day and were to the death.
Ackroyd mentions a case that I’d read about before of a man called Thomas of Eldenfield who in 1221 was not hanged for theft – as was usual – but blinded and castrated instead. The detail that burnt this in to my memory was that his testicles were used as “little footballs” by the local kids. As Ackroyd points out, there was a definite and quite mindless culture of violence in England in the Middle Ages. One man simply walked in to a tavern, was disliked by the locals and killed on the spot. A judge arriving at the city of Lincoln in the year 1202 was confronted with 114 cases of murder and 49 cases of rape!
Torture to extract confessions was not used quite as often as is widely believed. Here is one website that lists some of the torture devices that were employed. Ordeal was an on the spot way of determining the guilt of a criminal. Ordeal by fire involved the accused fasting for three days. An iron bar was placed on the local church altar to be sanctified. At the beginning of mass, the iron bar was heated on a brazier and then at the end of mass, the accused was required to pick it up and walk with it. After an agreed number of paces, he or she could drop the bar and their severely burnt hand was then bound up. If after three days it had healed, then the accused was innocent. But if it was still badly blistered and burnt, then the accused would most likely be executed.
Ending a siege as quickly as possible was always a good idea with both those inside and outside the castle needing to maintain supplies and fend off disease. The weapons employed to wear down your enemy were as much psychological as physical. What you wanted to do to your enemy was to destroy their morale, their will to fight.
Lobbing the severed heads of captured soldiers over the castle wall – in either direction – was a favoured tactic. This might include the hapless messenger who might have his head send back with the enemy response written on a piece of parchment and nailed to his head. In 1344, the English were fighting to hold on to Gascony and one of their soldiers tried to break through the French lines with a request for more assistance. He was captured and the poor man was catapulted alive back in to the castle he had sneaked out of.
At the siege of Nicaea in the First Crusade, the heads of Saracens were impaled before the city walls by the crusaders and others catapulted over the battlements. It was quite common to execute prisoners in front of the enemy with a mass hanging calculated to dent morale. Louis VI castrated and disemboweled captives and floated them down the river on barges to be met by their former comrades in besieged Rouen.
One Byzantine emperor blinded a captured Bulgar army save for one in every ten men – who kept a single eye, to lead the others back. When this appalling spectacle returned to the Bulgar king, he apparently dropped dead on the spot (according to the Byzantine telling of it of course). A similar tactic was used by De Montfort in the crusade against the Albigensian heresy. He cut off the upper lips and noses of a captured garrison and blinded them – leaving some with an eye to lead them to the next castle as a warning of what happened if you resisted De Montfort.
If the enemy began to ram the walls, then they might be discouraged if captured prisoners were dangled – alive – in front of the attacking army. One medieval king attempted to protect his siege towers from attack by mangonels on the city walls by tying live prisoners to the front of the machines. We talk about ‘human shields’ now in warfare but in the Middle Ages, they were very, very literal. Apparently, this ruse did not work and the siege towers came under renewed attack. One account says that the youths tied to the siege towers died very slowly and “miserably, struck by the stones”.
Those throwing the stones at their captured comrades did so with tears in their eyes. They were horrified at having to attack these young soldiers being used as a human shield. “They crushed their chests, their stomachs and their heads and bone and mushy brain were mixed together”. One can imagine that the defenders might have even tried to hurry the deaths of their comrades by taking special aim at them.
A properly provisioned walled city or castle complex could hold out for up to a year. Day after day they could rain down rocks, boiling oil and arrows on the besiegers. With proper preparation and weapons to hand, it could be the army outside the walls who suffered disease and hunger first and not those holed up behind the battlements.
Life for the besieged might get uncomfortable but with a stiff upper lip (providing you still had one!), you could see off the enemy.
Here is a medieval battle re-enactment in the Czech Republic: