The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages by Sherrilyn Kenyon

The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages: The British Isles From 500-1500The 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.



The Alpine Path by L.M. Montgomery

The Alpine Path: The Story of My CareerThe Alpine Path: The Story of My Career by L.M. Montgomery

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As one of millions of readers in the world who have loved Canada’s most famous red-haired Anne of Green Gables in books, films, and animation, I have always admired Anne’s creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s choice of words and illustrative descriptions of characters, things, and situations that make the story at once vivaciously realistic and fantastically romantic. Naturally, when I came across this book, I knew I had to read it with a heart to find out more about her life written by herself.

The Alpine Path is her autobiography, originally published as a series of essays in the Toronto magazine Everywoman’s World in 1917 at the request of its editor to write about her writing career. Montgomery found it odd because she did not think it as a “career” but something of a niche where she would always find comfort, happiness, and life itself abounded with the memories of beautiful Prince Edward Island whose chaste and restive loveliness was unsurpassed. Added to her natural affinity for words was her incessant diligence in practicing writing on a daily basis. Her topics of writing ranged from scribbling her thoughts and feelings to biographic accounts of her cats and critical book reviews.

Of all her fortes that enabled her to arrive as a writer, it was her indefatigable will combined with commendable perseverance and brilliant imaginativeness, all grouping around her indomitable aspiration to become a writer, as discerned in her narrative. Montgomery believed in herself and struggled in secrecy and silence by making writing activities strictly private because deep down, under all rejections, discouragement, and rebuff, she knew she would arrive as a writer someday.

What makes Montgomery’s books entertaining and approachable to readers of all ages are her ideas of a good story that consists of the following components: (1) absence of a moral undertone in a story lest it should be a didactic textbook or a fable devoid of literary merits and entertaining quality because literature should be “art for art’s sake and fun for fun’s sake”; and (2) use of imagination, which is a powerful tool to create a world of make-believe, based upon studying people and observing scenery in life to render realistic feelings to the imaginary world of fiction. To Montgomery, making use of the real to perfect the ideal is what gives to art its true meaning.

To illustrate, the famous liniment cake episode that happened when Anne made the selfsame cake by accident for the parson and his wife was based upon her own experience as a school teacher in Bideford boarding at the Methodist parsonage there; the parson’s wife mistakenly put liniment in a cake, but only the parson himself did not recognize it. Also, while working as a reporter for The Daily Echo in Halifax, she was often asked to write up a society letter when it was not sent by the requested lady of high society. Montgomery used her wide scope of imagination by writing such a letter as if she were the lady of high society, which gained popularity from readers.

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” Montgomery’s unyielding will and diligent practice of writing every day were the sine qua non of her meet reward as a successful writer. This charming autobiography is a must-read for not only fans of her books but also those who love writing and cherish in secret the thought of becoming writers. Furthermore, those who are struggling to rise above the planes of biological, psychological, or sociological inhibition through what means they deem inspirational and meaningful to achieve will find a kindred spirit in this book. Montgomery encourages her readers to climb up the alpine path so steep, so hard that it will eventually lead to the height sublime as she once did.

Albert Speer: Hitler’s Architect

Spandau: The Secret DiariesSpandau: The Secret Diaries by Albert Speer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Albert Speer was a very clever man; he managed to survive a death sentence at the Nuremberg trials and lived to tell his story of the Third Reich, Hitler, and himself as Minister of Armaments and War Production during WWII. Furthermore, Speer made a brilliant career of writing memoirs with many a television interview following his release from West Berlin’s Spandau prison in 1966 after having completed his 20-year sentence. This book, written between 1946 and 1966 in Spandau, is a collection of his diaries and letters to his family secretly kept against the prison regulations.

The reason that Speer had written his diaries was to keep his mind disciplined and alert by using his mental faculties while serving his time at Spandau. He was afraid of undergoing mental and physical atrophy because the prison life to him was nothing but a repeated series of monotonous routines that would lead to mental stagnation and physical lethargy. Whether Speer had written diaries and other correspondence to his family with the thought of publishing them in mind is hardly probable because it was for the sake of his own ego arrested by a lack of social refinements and intellectual engagements during his confinements as well expressed in the diaries.

There are many interesting anecdotes about his fellow prisoners who formed their own social cliques even inside the prison: Albert Speer and Rudolph Hess did not socialize with the other prisoners but spent most of their time alone. In fact, Speer was disliked by the other prisoners for his admission of guilt and repudiation of Hitler at the Nuremberg trials. So was Rudolf Hess for his reputed antisocial personality and conspicuous mental instability. The two former Grand Admirals, Erich Raeder and Karl Dönitz stayed together. Baldur von Schirach, the German Nazi Party’s national youth leader and head of the Hitler Youth, and Walther Funk, Reich Minister for Economic Affairs, were described as “inseparable”. It was Konstantin von Neurath whom Speer seemed to have a good opinion on for his amiability and amenability to all until his release in 1954.

The book is not a history book or a testament to Speer’s apologetic gesture of doing public penance for his involvement in the Nazi regime. As Freud once said, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar,” this memoir is a memoir, Speer’s personal journal, encompassing his intellectual capacities to observe and analyze what he saw and read in addition to his desire of being with his family, especially the sons who seemed to feel uncomfortable with their father when visiting him in prison. Upon reading this heavy volume of memoir, I am convinced that it was his sagacity and intelligence that saved him from death and that enabled him to launch a successful writing career afterwards.