The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages: The British Isles From 500-1500 by Sherrilyn Kenyon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Although the Middle Ages (roughly from the 5th to 15th century) is often dubbed as “The Dark Ages,” the epitaph coined by the thinkers of the Renaissance, this was the period when many important social institutions, such as universities, hospitals, marriage as a sacrament, and use of surnames, which have become norms of our society, were established. In this book, the author Sherrilyn Kenyon succeeds in closing the great divide of time and space between modern readers and the folks living in the medieval time by presenting general aspects of life in the medieval England ranging from food to medicine and so forth which are not so much outlandishly different from what we are familiar with in one way or another. This review of mine intends to provide the facts on the two of the necessities of the human life, which are food and clothing, plus medicine to share the fun of knowing them and of learning about the misty but not too distant past on an evolutionary clock.
The folks in the Middles Ages were not usually voracious eaters; breakfast consisted of a loaf of bread and some wine for the nobility or ale for the peasantry, partaken of after a daily morning mass. Then between 10:00 AM and Noon, a dinner was served, and supper at the time of sunset was prepared. In the castle of a lord, during a supper time, a traveling minstrel (a wandering singer-songwriter) entertained the host of the castle and received food or coins in return. The most perplexing fact about the medieval table etiquette involves attitudes toward the dogs: food scraps were forbidden to be given out to the dog while the diners were at the table. It further prohibited tossing a morsel of food to the dogs even after the meal.
With respect to the kinds of food mostly available to the folks living in the middle ages, the following were some of the common staples of the nobility and the peasantry:
- Sugar was a very valuable spice and expensive to import. It was during the 12th century sugar became a common ingredient in England, where sugar imported from Alexandria was regarded prime quality because it was flavored with roses and violets. In fact, England in the Middle Ages seemed to be quite actively engaged in commercial activities in comparison to Spain, France, and Italy as follows:
- England’s exports: Fish, Cheese, and Ale. Its imports: Raisins, figs, dates, olive oil, wine, almonds, and rice.
Spain’s exports: Sugar, preserved fruits, and syrups
France’s exports: Wine
Italy’ exports: Pies
- The most common vegetables were onions, peas, beans, and cabbages. However, cucumbers and leeks were considered unhealthy. As for the kinds of fruit, most consumed were apples, plums, pears, peaches, and nuts. Citrus ones, such as oranges and lemons were not seen in England until the Crusades.
- Speaking of the Crusade, it was said that the French crusaders’ garlic breath disgusted the people of Constantinople for the reason that garlic was used as a main spice to conceal the taste of spoiling meat. There are two other ways to preserve meat: (1) Dry salting by burying meat in salt; and (2) Brune curing by soaking it in a salt solution. However, in many times, the meat, which was a main staple of the noble and the wealthy, became perished, causing a variety of skin irritations, scurvy, tooth decay, and different types of infection.
Despite the class differences, there was a little difference between the styles of clothing and the types of fabric worn by the nobility and the peasantry at least during the early middle ages due mostly to limited trade caused by poor travel conditions. Merchants and peddlers could not travel far with their carts and wagons as a result of such poor road conditions and a peril of highwaymen. So Nobles made their fashion statements with jewels as accessories for their garments. When the power of kings and nobles grew stronger, they also controlled the roads, decreasing the risk of robbery and violence. Consequently, this new social mobility led to an increase in trade, bringing a greater variety of fabrics and colors. Moreover, the term “Fashion Police” was originated from this period when this deputy of the nobility literally patrolled the streets and checked all to make sure they were wearing clothes appropriate to their social class.
I was especially interested in this subject due to my recent urgent medical treatments. What was it like being a patient of painful ailment? Contrary to my previous beliefs of barbarian methods of curing the sick without anesthesia and other superstitious ways of treating common diseases, the medieval doctors were actually quite competent to heal the wounded with surprisingly inventive surgical tools and remedies that can be adopted to tend to the modern day patients. Also, Jewish doctors armed with the knowledge of Arabic and Greek were most highly esteemed and exclusively employed by kings, nobles, or wealthy merchants in their castles or manors. Also, many women were licensed to practice medicine equipped with knowledge of various remedies passed from their elders. Some of these women specialized in eye diseases.
The common types of ailments in the middles ages are as follows:
- The most common diseases in the middles ages were dysentery, epilepsy, influenza, diphtheria, scurvy, typhoid, St. Vitus’ Dance, St. Anthony’s fire, stroke, heart disease, and leprosy. On the contrary, tuberculosis, cancer, alcoholism, and venereal diseases were rarely recorded despite the author’s thoroughly extensive research.
- Also, doctors believed in the importance of preventive medicine, advising people to refrain from taking a nap because they followed the Greek belief that the body was made up of four humors that were sanguine, choler, phlegm, and melancholia and three spirits.
- Interestingly, women gave birth in a sitting stance to allow gravity to streamline the delivery process. Moreover, anesthesia was used in surgeries in the form of a sponge soaked in the juice of opium, ivy, or lettuce and then dried in the sun. It’s re-soaked in water and held to the patient’s nose and mouth whenever it was needed.
Further to the notable medieval medical achievements as listed above, here are some interesting information on how the folks at the time tried to cure their physical weaknesses which I think might benefit us:
- Acorn: A woman carrying it will have the eternal youth
Amethyst: the possession of it will prevent you from falling into drunkenness
Blackberry: If you eat it, it will relieve you of diarrhea
Camphor: It wards off infections
Cold: Drinking a warm cup of barley tea will cure you of cold,
Coughs: A pint of vinegar with a quarter ounce of finely grounded licorice will stop you from coughing.
Dandelion: A cup of dandelion tea acts as a laxative
Peppermint: Its tea will relieve you of bloatedness and relieve you of gas.
Rosemary: If you wash your hair in water full of rosemary, it will make your hair grow.
Rosewater: Apply it to your inflamed eye for treatment.
To encapsulate, this easy-to-read book is a great guide to the ordinary customs of the middle ages that are compiled by the author’s diligently thorough research on the social/cultural aspects of the medieval England. In fact, as the title of this book presents, it will be also an excellent reference book for writers interested in creating stories set in this time period. Besides, the book shows readers that however arcane or backward the way of life in the medieval time may look to be in our modern standard, the medieval folks lived in what they imagined as “modern” time compared to the ancient Greek and Roman times. Therefore, we should cast away our fallacy of the human ego that makes us look back at the past and think we are better than they were. After all, the medieval was not altogether a grim and gloom dystopia ruled by religious didacticism and scientific ignorance.