Life in the 12th Century

An Introduction

The 12th Century, in what is now the United Kingdom, was beginning to change. There were new people that arrived in the land in 1066 and they were taking over. The Anglo-Saxons had to bow to these new people, not by choice, but by force. Clothing changed and medicine as well. The Normans had to adapt too, they were in a new world with people who didn’t speak their language. Homes started to change and castles were popping up. In this century some would win and other would begin to lose, not only their property, but their lives as well.

The Norman Way of Life Moves In

New masters were in the lands and they were strangers to the Anglo-Saxons. We could compare them to when the English came to America and were in the Native American’s lands. They didn’t speak the language of the people already there, they brought new things with them, and forced their way in. These people were the Normans. They had different manners than the Anglo-Saxons and though few in number they were harsh and cruel rulers. They would punish anyone who dared to disobey them severely. The Anglo-Saxons hated these new-comers, and would make the Normans feel unsafe and like they could be attacked at any time. The Normans would be compelled to build large thick stone-walled castles for defense, and lived in them with their families and their vassals. The Anglo-Saxons had something that was like a castle, but in fact was not. Their homes were built into a hillside at times with a strong wooden fence around it, which was also known as a palisade. Around the fence was a ditch. After the conquest strong castles would start to pop up all over the country. These were first built of wood as well but would later be built of stone. The first of these stone castles was the Tower of London. William the Conqueror ordered it to be built along the river Tyne, which we now know as the River Thames. What we know as London today, then would be called Newcastle. Many others would also be built by William.

At first most of the castles had belonged to the king, but later the great castles would belong to the Norman barons and arose all over England. Old timber houses, of the Anglo-Saxons were torn down and villagers were forced to build the strong castles that new lords and their fighting men would live in. Norman castles were often built on a hill or on a large rock. This was done so that it could not be attacked very easily. There was a rule that a square stone tower with very thick stone walls, wide enough for archers to walk along be built. The outer wall was strengthened with towers that were built on each corner. Outside of the wall was a deep ditch, or moat, that would be filled with water. The only way across these ditches was by a drawbridge. At night and during enemy attacks the drawbridge was pulled up by chains. The chief tower, where a baron and his family had lived, was called the keep. This was the strongest building in the castle, between the keep and outer massive wall there was also a court. This was where the stables for horses and houses for servants would be. Later a keep in the Norman castles was surrounded by two or even three stone walls. The castles would dominate over a country round.

Anglo-Saxon neighbors had seen themselves being constantly controlled by


The White Tower~ photo by Christina Siceloff


their foreign oppressors. Some of the massive strong towers that were built by Normans can still be seen today, such as the White Tower at the Tower of London, or the keep of the castle at Colchester, England. Colchester was the largest Norman castle in all of England. Some others, such as Windsor Castle are still used as residences today. However, most Norman castles are now ruins, that also can still be seen throughout England.

Norman Knights

Another problem for the Anglo-Saxons was that the Norman nobles had considered war as their chief occupation. Each noble was a knight, a fully armed, mounted warrior. Their armor consisted of mail, which was close fitting to their body. The head would be covered with a helmet and each man would have a shield. His horse too was protected by armor. Each nobleman was trained in warfare from the time that they were young boys, and brought up to think that to be a knight was honorable. They wouldn’t be taught how to read and write, 12th-century-knight-armorand as they grew they would spend their time in wars and feasting with guests in the halls of their castles. Noblemen could fight in their heavy armor, and were able to fight skillfully while remaining on horseback, but they were both coarse and ignorant people. They would not only participate in war but also were fond of the tournament, a military competition between knights, and participated in hunting as well. William the Conqueror was one of these noblemen that were fond of hunting.

He would choose a place near Salisbury and gave orders to his knights to make it an enormous hunting-ground. When they set out they destroyed sixty villages, all of the barns, houses, and churches were burnt to the ground. Hundreds of the poor Anglo-Saxon peasants were driven out of their own lands. The wide space would be called the New Forest, today much of it is covered with trees and is still known as the New Forest. There were many other forests that were set aside for royal hunting, and the king and his noblemen would turn whatever part of the country that they found suitable enough into a hunting-ground. All of the lands that were made for hunting would be uncultivated, and not much concern was even shown for any fields that had been sown either. Often times, while hunting the lords would ride across the peasant fields and destroy all of their crops. This,


The New Forest in Hampshire, England today.


they felt was their right since they saw the land as theirs as well as the peasants. It should be noted too that the forests were not as we think a forest to be. The word “forest” comes from the Latin word “fores” which means “out-of-doors”, and it was not a woods, though some parts of it were covered with trees.

A Combining of Languages

The Normans that had come to England made up a new aristocracy and the Anglo-Saxon people under this aristocracy would become servants. The Normans had spoke a Norman dialect of French, a tongue of Latin origin, while the Anglo-Saxons spoke English, a tongue of Germanic origin. Therefore, there were two different languages being spoken in the country at the same time. The Norman-French language would become the official language of the state and was the language of the ruling class, and was spoken at court. The language spoken by lawyers and any official documents were written in French or in Latin. It was also the language learned by the clergy, who the Normans had brought over as well. Anglo-Saxons that were richer had found it convenient to learn to speak the language of their new rulers. As for the peasants and townspeople, they continued to speak English. The Normans had looked at the English language as a kind of peasant dialect and continued to speak their own language. They also despised anyone who could not speak their language. No matter how hard the Normans had tried they could not subdue the popular tongue which was spoken by the majority of the population.

The conquerors who settled down on English estates had to be able to communicate with the natives of the country and would gradually learn their language as well. Many of the Normans had married Anglo-Saxon wives and their children and grandchildren would grow up to speak English. Within a few generations there were people of Norman descent who had learned to speak the mother tongue of the common people of England. In time, the English language became the language of the educated classes and the official language of the state. There was a time when the two languages were spoken side by side, the Anglo-Saxons would learn many French words and expressions which had gradually came into the English language and borrowed many French words, the equivalents of which had not existed in their own language. An example of this would be the wife of an English earl is called a countess, a French word, and since there was no English word that meant the wife of an earl they would take it into their language. Many synonyms appeared in the English language as well, this was due to there quite often being both a French and an English word for the same thing being used side by side.

Words of the Germanic origin would make up the basic vocabulary of modern day English. The Anglo-Saxons had spoken a simple countryman’s language and in Modern English everyday words are mostly Anglo-Saxon, such as eat, land and house. As there were no English words to describe more complicated feudal relations many words were adopted from the French language, this lead the vocabulary of the English language to be enlarged due to Norman-French words being brought in. Such words as manor, noble, baron, serve, command, and obey, or words relating to administration of law, like charter, council, accuse, court, and crime, or military terms like arms, troops, guard, navy, battle, victory, and other words characterizing the way of life and customs of the Norman aristocracy were some of the words brought into English from the Norman language.

As a result of the conquest, the English language had changed greatly under the influence of the French language. The two languages were gradually combined to form one rich English language. By the 14th century it was being used both in speech and in writing. The Normans too would gradually mix with the Anglo-Saxons and Danes and from this mixture the English nation would finally emerge.

Peasants and Their Lives Under the Normans

After the Norman Conquest, England had a population of around 1,500,000 people. More than 9/10ths of this population lived in villages and were engaged in agriculture. Churches were the center of a Anglo-Saxon village. The church was made of stone and had very thick walls and a tower. Churches were of great importance to the Anglo-Saxons. The church bell would tell men when to start work and when to come home from the fields. Villagers would spend any of their spare time in church and religious services were not only held on Sundays but also on all feast days, or holy days. People didn’t work on these days, and these days would come to be known as a “holy day” and later “holiday”. The church was used not only for worship of God but also as a store-house, and at times it was also used as a prison. Since it was the strongest building in a village, the church would be used as a fortress at some times.

Houses would be clustered about around the church. Fifty houses were considered to have been a very large village. The largest dwelling in a village had belonged to the lord of the manor and was known as the manor-house.


12th Century Manor House


The lord’s court was held once a fortnight in the hall of the manor-house, and all villagers were obliged to


Manor House Interior


attend. If anyone had any disputes or quarrels they would be settled here. Since a rich Norman lord had not just one house, but many, as well as estates in different parts of the country he would spend time traveling from one area to another. His manager, also known as a steward, would look after his estate while he was away and acted as a judge in the lord’s absence. The steward would live in the manor-house when his lord was away.

The most important of Norman nobles lived in castles, from which they would rule the village and a manor-court would be held there. A castle would also be used as a prison, and dominated over small miserable dwellings of peasants.


Dover Castle which was built in the 12th Century


Peasants lived in little huts with thatched roofs. They were dark, cold and uncomfortable homes, with the only light coming in from the door when it stood open and from very small windows that had no glass in them. They also were very smokey cause they didn’t have chimneys. The smoke from the fire could only get out through the doors and windows, or sometimes a hole in the thatched roof.

The peasants would also have their livestock in their homes. Sometimes a whole family would live and sleep in one room with their hens, pigs, dogs, and anything else. Inside the houses there was very little furniture. They would have a wooden table, one or two stools, a few earthen pots, and on the floor there was some straw or dead leaves that would be used for a bed.

Very few changes came to villagers after the Norman Conquest. One field would still fallow every year, and each field was divided into strips. The village was still, as much as it could be, self-sufficient. Peasants would till the land and keep sheep and oxen the same way that their ancestors had done before them. However, most of them were no longer free men.

By the time of the Conquest, the village had become a part of the feudal manor. A villages lands and the villagers themselves would belong to the lord of the manor. The peasants would become serfs and were forced to work for the lords. The Domesday Book gives us an exact account of England during this time. Along with other valuable information it gives us the number of peasant families of each manor. It also gives different categories that the peasantry was divided into and the amount of land that they held. The lord of the manor kept for himself many of the strips of land in the open fields. The other strips were held by the serfs and in return for their land-holdings the serfs were forced to perform other various duties. The most numerous category of the English peasants were called villeins.

Villeins were part of the manor and had to right to leave it. If the manor had been given away or sold to another lord these people had to remain on it. They also could not be sold away from the manor either. They were kept in villeinage, as it was called, and were required to remain in the village and work for any of the lords that took it over. If a villein had ran away and was caught he would be brought back in chains and punished severely for trying to escape. American’s does this sound familiar? The average holding of a villein was thirty acres. They would work on the lord’s domain three or even more days a week all year around, plowing and sowing it, reaping the harvest and carrying it to the lord’s barns, this was known as week-work or corvee-work. They also had to use their own carts and plows, drawn by their own oxen.

The work in the fields was not their only week-work. They could also be ordered to do any kind of other works, such as repairing the manor-house, building barns, gathering fruit and so on. At harvest time they had to do extra work. This was called boon-work. It was done so that the lord’s harvest was gathered in good weather. They had no rights to harvest their own fields until the lord’s was gathered, this would make it so that their foods would spoil and not the lord’s. They would work hard all the year around since they not only grew their own food, but also made nearly everything that they had worn or used. They made spoons, shirts, shoes, and stools to wagons and harnesses for their oxen. Not everything that the villeins produced on their holdings had belonged to them. A part of the produce of their farms was paid as quit-rent to the lord of the manor, another part was paid as the tithe, or tenth, to the church. That was 1/10th of their harvest, as well as their wool, their cattle, and other products such as butter, meat, leather, etc. A quit-rent and tithe were not the only payments they would have to make. They had no right to sell their ox or horse without first asking the lord’s permission. They could not marry or let their sons or daughters marry without the lord’s permission and they had to make a special payment to get such permission. When a villein would die, his son or brother who succeeded to his strips would have to give the lord an ox or a cow.

The lord had the privilege to own a mill and an oven in the village. If the lord found that one of the villagers had millstones of his own, he had the right to break it apart. In a way, the villein was compelled to bring his grain to the lord’s mill to ground it up and would have to leave a part of his flour to pay for the grinding. He also had to take his bread to be baked in the lord’s oven, and would leave a loaf as a payment for using the oven. The lord and his steward would make sure every single villein had paid for the use of his property. Moreover, the lord could also tax his villeins at will.

A part of the peasantry had remained free after the Conquest. Free peasants had lived mainly in the counties of the old Danelaw and some in other counties. They brought corn to the lord’s mill in order to ground it. The lord had power over the freeholders as he did the villeins. Freeholders were subject to trial by the lord’s court and they had to perform a number of duties and make payments to a lord as well. Their duties, however, were much lighter than those of the villeins. They were not bound to the land that they lived on, and they were considered to be personally free.

There were also cottars. A cottar had possessed a very small hut called a cottage. They’d have only about three or four acres of land and kept poultry, cattle and sheep. Like other villagers they used common pastures, forests, rivers, and lakes. Some cottars were also villeins and had to work for the landowner in return for their small land-holdings. Some cottars were also freeholders. Since their plots of arrable land were too small to live on, both free cottars and serf cottars had to do various types of jobs on the manor to make ends meet. They would either work in the lord’s fields or as herdsmen, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, etc. Although the establishment of feudalism had already begun in England during the Anglo-Saxon period, it was completed by the beginning of the 13th century.

Peasant Struggles Against the Lords

Life under the harsh and cruel Norman kings and barons was always full of dangers for the peasantry. The Normans had treated England as they had treated any country they conquered. Hundreds of the peasants farms were ruined, most of the homeless were miserable people and died of starvation. In the Domesday Book beside descriptions of Yorkshire villages, time and time again, the words “It is waste” are written. Deserted villages and untilled fields could be seen there up to a hundred years later. Hundreds of the peasant huts were pulled down to make hunting-grounds for the king and his barons, and the peasants had nowhere to go and no land to till. The Conqueror and his barons could have cared less for the sufferings of the poor when their own pleasure was their main concern. For ruined peasant families, hunting was often the only way to keep themselves alive. Cruel Forest Laws forbid hunting in the forests, and punishments for breaking the law was terrible. A man who killed a deer in the forest would have his hand cut off, or he could be blinded or even put to death. A man who only drew a bow in the forest, would have had his fingers cut off, usually the thumbs or forefinger, so that he could never draw a bow again. Under William the Conqueror’s son, William II, who was also a hard and cruel ruler, the Forest Laws were made even more strict and punishments for breaking them became even more severe.

The Norman lords of the manors would remain a foreigner to Anglo-Saxon peasants long after the Conquest. He could try any peasant and could order his servants to flog him, to put him in chains or imprison them. An iron collar was often put around his neck and he was fined heavily. The peasantry would look with hate at the high towers of the castles, where scenes of cruelty and tyranny of the Norman lords had played out. The lord of the manor and his mounted warriors were always ready to ride out from the gates and destroy anyone who disobeyed them. Castles had constantly reminded the peasants of the lord’s power and made them feel that the struggles against their oppressors was hopeless.

Over time the position of the peasantry would become even worse. The king, his officials, and the lay feudal lords and clerical lords had lived off of the fruits of the peasant’s hard labor. They’d make the work for the peasantry even harder. Feudal landlords would often increase the quit-rent and corvee. Norman priests who the peasants could not understand due to the language gap, made them pay even more to the Church, and royal taxes went up as well. The peasants, as a rule, had to perform their duties which were fixed by custom and powerful lords managed to keep them in obedience, 1/3rd of the lords were clergymen and they could rely on religious peasants to obey them. When the feudal lords had broken old customs and increased their duties the peasantry would stubbornly resist. They would refuse to carry out the extra corvee-work, to do boon-work or to make new payments and quite often a whole village would refuse to pay unbearably heavy dues or work for greedy estate-owners. Feudal courts would punish disobedient peasants severely and forced them to perform their duties, the bravest of peasants would run away from their manor-lords. They would go off and live in the forests or mountainous regions, fearlessly hunted game in the royal forests, and very often a tyrant steward would be found murdered in the forests. William the Conqueror issued a law of which said that when a Norman had been found dead in any district, the people of that district were fined heavily. Neither the king’s severe laws or cruel feudal courts could stop the struggle of peasants against their exploiters.


Peasant Homes


What had defined your status in medieval England had been whether you were free or unfree as well as how much land you had. About 15% of the people were free, 40% were villeins and had substantial land, which meant that they had about thirty acres, but owed service to a lord. About 35% were cottars or bordars and were unfree and had less land, another 10% were slaves or as close as they could get to being one. Each village was composed of a number of tofts, also known as crofts, and were areas of 1/4-1 Acre, and rented from the lord. Each croft held a medieval house, which was typically 24 by 12 feet, had two rooms and five or more people there and not very much else. Times were hard for the Anglo-Saxons and they would only get worse in the 13th century.

Food of the 12th Century

You may be like me, I only took two cooking classes in my whole life and so I’ve only heard of the theory of humors briefly in one of them. Some of you may be chefs and already know of the theory of humors, and some of you may have never heard this term before in your life. However, they were a big thing back in the 12th century.

The theory of humors can be traced back to Greek philosophies. They argued that all of the world was made up of four basic elements, fire, air, water, and earth. Each of these elements were characterized by two of the four basic humors. These would be listed as moist, dry, cold, and warm. These were also present in foodstuffs and communicated themselves to the consumer, promoting behavior characteristics to dominate the humor. On a very basic level, it was a case of becoming what you ate. The ideal humor for a human was determined to be slightly moist and slightly warm. According to medical texts of the time, this had to be carefully maintained for a person to have an appropriate diet. A cook was advised to know the humors of each type of food and carefully calculate what was put before his master for an optimal balance. Ingredients were to be chopped and blended as finely as they could be so as to allow the humors to be mixed sufficiently. The method of preparation had to be chosen according to metaphysical properties of an ingredient. No cook had wished to inadvertently compromised his lord’s health.

As misguided as it may seem to modern thinking, the theory of humors can explain several features distinctive to medieval cooking. The rationale of mincing and pureeing has already been mentioned, but Terence Scully, author of “The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages”, attributes several other features. The frequent combination of vinegar and honey is one thing added to his philosophy. In part because even vinegary wine was too expensive to be wasted. As it was by nature cold and extremely dry, it had to be tempered with honey, which was considered to have been warm and moist in almost the exact same degree. Game meat was considered to have been slightly dry and therefore often prepared with lard, which is predictably considered to have been moist. Fish and waterfowl were frequently cooked in wine so that their cold and moist tendencies might be rendered more palatable by the warm and dry properties of wine. Scully says that the reasoning permeates medieval gastronomy to the degree that even religious fasting can be seen as an attempt to avoid humors unsuited to the pious.

This system seems so smooth and comprehensive that the question is risen whether it originally came about as a guide for a particular style of cooking, or merely a rationalization of it. Whatever be the case, if this system is accepted as a general governing principle, it would seem that the head of the medieval kitchen was as much an alchemist as a cook. It certainly implies an entirely new degree of deliberation and professionalism in style of cookery that—in reference to frequent use of puree—has often been written off as “so much mush”.

Over time, theories on the amount of spices used during this time have arose. The earliest and sometimes still repeated theory says that spicing was an attempt to cover up the taste of tainted meat. Indeed, in a time before refrigerators, keeping food fresh was a matter neither trivial or simple. Today this theory is ruled incomplete at the least. Though fresh meat may have been a luxury to the poor, those who could afford spices to cover up the taste of food gone bad, would certainly have been had the means of avoiding the entire problem by simply purchasing fresher meat. Stephen Mennell, in his book “All Manner of Food”, notes that spicing habits had began to shift towards the more moderate renaissance tastes long before there was a marked improvement in methods of preservation. More probable theories have latched on to the tendency of ostentation in medieval feast foods. As spices were imported and therefore expensive, it has been suggested that their generous use had served as a status symbol, an implication of how wealthy the host was. This theory can also be tackled on the grounds much the same as the previous.

If the purpose of a meal was to impress, why would one want to spice it to the point that it would be inedible. Scully points out that most recipes had lacked exact quantities for spices and therefore no grounds are there to assume that spices were used in particularly liberal quantities. Actually, some recipes that do have measurements count out a precise number of peppers to be used as well—a rather heavy argument against the idea that spices were used arbitrarily. Maggie Black in her book “A Taste of History: 10,000 Years of Food in Britain”, notes that the importation of spices was a time-consuming process, and so a certain degree of staleness in the merchandise is almost unavoidable. Finally, part of the solution might also lie in the medieval approach to spices, and food in general. Spices were frequently considered to have been pseudo-medicinal, especially when it was used in wines. On the other hand, the theory of humors had greatly emphasized the importance of balancing elements in any given dish. It’s not inconceivable that spices were considered to have been part of this balancing act.

A variety of raw ingredients were also available to a medieval cook and was pretty similar to the selection we are presented with today. With the exception of items that were later brought over to the Americas, like maize, chocolate, and turkey, and some that were known but considered to have been poisonous or merely suspicious, like potatoes, tomatoes, and bananas, and a few that had only reached Europe in later ages, like tea, coffee, vanilla, and broccoli, most of the selection that was available to a medieval cook was as it is today. The most important limitation on variety was imposed by what could be produced locally. Throughout the medieval and renaissance periods, importing was costly and a time-consuming business, and often prices were out of reach for common people.

Bread was a part of everyone’s diet. Grain that it was made from had varied locally and according to wealth. The finest of bread was made from wheat flour and sifted two or three times. It would be found mainly at the tables of the aristocracy. A common person’s bread was made with whatever grain was locally available. It could have been a combination of wheat and rye flours and would produce a popular bread called maslin. A combination of barley and oats was also used and made in the colder and wetter north. Weed seeds were also frequently found in flour. In the years when harvests were poor, peas, beans, or acorns may have been added to the cheapest types of bread, so as to conserve precious flour. Large households baked their own breads. In villages, the baking of bread was usually done in a communal oven or left to a professional baker.

Another dietary cornerstone was formed by pottages. The typical pottage had consisted of a broth or stock to which vegetables (most commonly cabbage, leeks, onions, and garlic), and cereals or meat may be added. Eggs might also go into the pot in order to make a thicker brew and richer base. Almost every household had a kitchen garden. In this garden they would produce not only herbs for spicing, but also peas, beans, leeks, onions, and various roots such as carrots and turnips. However, in spite of readily available fresh fruit and vegetables, with the exception of grapes, cherries, wild berries, garden products were rarely eaten uncooked. If they were not cooked they were believed to have been unhealthy. On the rare occasion, salad was made, flowers like lilacs and primroses had often been added.

Livestock was also kept by anyone who could afford to keep them. They were not only used for meat, but also milk, eggs, and wool. Sheep were the most common of English livestock, this was due to their versatility and low demands regarding grazing. Cattle had held the advantage of producing both meat and milk in quantities larger than a sheep or a goat. Due to problems of supplying sufficient winter feed, most livestock was slaughtered at intervals over the winter, except for those that could be bred. Pigs were less fussy eaters and so they were able to forage for food in the winter months. Pork was the main meat of choice for the poor. Commoners would enjoy bacon and salted joints, the Norman lords had favored mutton and beef for their roasts. Game animals had provided most prized meat, however, this was reserved almost exclusively for lords and the king. Hares and rabbits would not become lawful prey for the commoner until early on in the 13th century. Fish too was necessary in the medieval diet. This was because of the church pretty much banning the eating of meat on fasting days. The same ban would forbid animal milk and products from being made as well. To avoid the churches rules, medieval cooks came up with alternatives. One alternative was a pea-paste and almond milk, which appear to have been so commonly used, that hardly any known recipe collection relates how they were made.

While cooks had relied on the local produce for the bulk of their meals, they were in no way above using imported luxuries. Almonds were the most common import and were used in large amounts to make up for prohibition on milk on fasting days. It could also have been made into butter. This was much easier to preserve than ordinary cow’s milk.

Sugar was almost as popular as almonds. Sugarcane was first encountered by the Crusaders in the East and then imported in as a loaf. In the kitchen, a loaf would be broken up as it was needed and then ground into grains or even powder. It was usually combined with almonds, and usually was a popular ingredient to be used for deserts. Cooks had no scruples about using and overusing sugar. To the contrary, medical thinking of the time actually considered it to have been healthy. In England, honey had remained a sweetener of choice well into the renaissance period. Salt was produced natively in the mines or from evaporated sea water. In addition to home-grown herbs, parsley, sage, bay, sorrel, basil, cress, dill, mint, and hyssop, to name just a few, were also often used, and were also in high demand to be used for preservation. Tastes of this time period did, however, demand much more variety than these.

There was also an overwhelming presence of non-native spices in recipes. Cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cardamoms, cloves, grains of paradise and saffron were all quite often featured in a vast majority of dishes. In addition to spices and almonds, some other luxury imports were citrus fruits, mainly oranges and lemons, both in the fresh form and pickled form. Currants, figs, raisins, dates, and prunes were also imported, but due to shipping costs these were priced out of reach for everyone but the rich. In some privileged circles however, dried fruits were in great demand and indeed a typical food.

Anyone at this time rarely drank water, even if it was an offered choice. It was predictably cold and moist in terms of the humors, but it was considered detrimental to a humor balanced diet. Also, while the connection between water spoilage and using streams for waste disposal was not yet understood, the problem itself was. Whether to avoid bad humors or a tainted drink, water was largely scorned, even for cooking it was recommended that the water be drawn from a spring.

Milk was also thought of as a drink most suitable for children, sick people, and the elderly. Wine was the drink of choice for anyone who could afford it. The knowledgeable had praised its warm and dry qualities and recommended it over beer or ale. It was found at English tables and was imported from France, in initially the Rhone area. As tensions had grown during the onset of the Hundred Years War, trade had shifted to favor the Bordeaux area. At the table, wine was frequently served watered, mulled, or spiced. In comparison to modern counterparts, medieval wines would fare badly. The quality was far inferior, largely due to the poor preservation methods of the time. The alcohol content of wine was only 5%, which is approximately on par with what today’s beer contains. The common man may occasionally been able to afford a touch of wine, but their usual drink was beer or ale.

The distinction between the two was marked by the inclusion or exclusion of hops in the brew. The English had originally preferred hops-free ale, but continental influences had steadily increased the consumption of beer, much to the dismay of certain contemporaries who would say that beer was “a drink suitable for Dutchmen”. Mead was favored in Scandinavian and German societies, and was known but not popular in England. Cider and perry were also made from apples and pears respectively. Mennel states that this industry probably consumed much crop, the resulting product was consumed both fermented and unfermented. Once bottling came about in the late 15th century, sugar was sometimes added before sealing the bottle to make the drink frothy. Distillation as a process was understood in antiquity, but it didn’t really come into active use in drink-making until the 14th century. Legend has it that cognac was invented as an attempt to cut down on the shipping costs for wine by removing some of the water from it. Whether this is true or not, the new product quickly found its way to the market unadulterated. Even better fared experiments that produced more or less pure alcohol. Aqua vitae and aqua ardens, alcohol that is distilled one time or repeatedly, quickly became popular as a drink as well. It also was used on a medicinal basis and as a means of producing singularly flamboyant center pieces. Records indicate that cotton soaked in aqua ardens would be used on several occasions to produce a fire breathing roast coming from any thing from a boar to a swan.

While the components of medieval cooking were largely the same as what is available today, there are significant differences that had existed in facilities and equipment that was available for processing it. The most marked difference perhaps is the great amount of attention that was and had to be paid to cooking preservation processes. Where today’s cooks can rely on thermostat controlled ovens and freezers to maintain desired temperatures or prevent spoilage, medieval cooks were restricted to less finely regulated facilities. They would cook over an open fire and treat foods with aggressive and invariably taste-altering preservation.

The heart of the medieval kitchen was the hearth. In peasant homes, the hearth could be as simple as a cooking pit ringed with stones. Small birds and such may be wrapped in wet clay and buried in the hottest ashes to cook. A mortar, earthenware cooking pots, a dish or two for setting cheese and butter, and a few ladles and skillets usually constituted the whole of a peasant’s kitchenware.

The manor and castle kitchens were more complicated. Due to smoke that was unavoidably produced by open fires and the hubbub arising from the effort to produce multiple dished on time for feasts, kitchens were usually situated away from the living quarters. Kitchen furnishings would generally included hearths with overhanging chimneys, a feature that was designed to improve ventilation and keep fires temperatures steady, rather than for the comfort of the kitchen staff. A good hearth also had firedogs for spit-roasting, as well as adjustable hooks which would allow cauldrons and pots to be hung at desired levels above the fire, or would swing aside from its’ direct heat. These options could be vital to ensuring proper cooking temperatures for a given dish.


A manor house kitchen


Some other features of the functional kitchen were large tables which provided space for all necessary for the cutting and mixing of ingredients. Stone sinks that drained into the common cesspool had provided facilities for washing ingredients and utensils. Mortars were also crucial for crushing spices and blending ingredients. An assortment of ladles, skillets, knives, spoons, and basting-brushes were within close reach so to treat foods in various stages of preparation. Water may have been piped in or carried by hand. Fuel was an all-import to maintain the steady fire, and where special stability of temperature was required, colas could be substituted for wood.

Rather than attending to everything personally, a cook’s job was to supervise and direct the work of an assortment of scullion, apprentices, and hired help. In addition to the kitchen, a household of any size had several other food processing centers. They at least had a pantry for storage. A bakery was also very important for more than just the making of bread. Every nobleman that was worth his salt had employed a pastry chef. These chefs were responsible for pies, pasties, tarts, and other dough-based delicacies. They would take the fillings for treats that were produced in the kitchen under the cook’s close eye, then sent it to the bakery to be encased in the pastry and then baked. The end result was then returned to the cook for necessary finishing touches and then rushed off to the waiting guests. Butcheries, wine cellars, and dairies may have also been a feature among a larger household’s gastronomically oriented areas. Ultimately, all authority in the cookery matters had belonged to the cook.

In the days before refrigerators, preserving of food was a problem. There was a supply of particular foods that were frequently dictated by the seasons. Earthen cellars and pantries were often insufficient to cope. Kitchen gardens helped to avoid part of the problem, as did bringing meat to market “on the hoof”. However, meat particularly was subject to decay once it was slaughtered, therefore assorted methods of preservation came into play.

The main modes of food preservation was smoking, salting, and pickling. Smoking was, as it is today, done for meat and fish. Salting was used for both meat and fish as well as dairy products. Pickling was for vegetable based preserves. Each of the methods has strongly affected the flavor of the food, and hence steps had to be taken later to restore it’s palatability. Cooking manuscripts had often included instructions on how to remove preservative salt from meat or from butter. Scholars also often suggested that perceived excess of spicing in medieval cooking derives from an effort to vary a diet based on uniformly salty or vinegary preserves. Mennel points out a flaw in yet another variation of taste-making theory, he says simply that there is no evidence that spicing habits had varied according to the freshness of ingredients.

In addition to solid foods, beverages were subject to going spoiled as well. Milk wasn’t to be trusted unless it had come more or less directly from a cow. Water was equally dubious, unless it was taken from a fast-flowing spring. Alcohol was relatively safe in bacteriological terms and it’s taste invariably suffered over extended periods of storage. Fine vintage wines were an oxymoron until bottling had come about in the late 15th century. Wine was also rarely kept long enough to age. Various methods for treating “sick wine” testify to the difficulty of maintaining quality of unbottled wine.

Christian influence permeated a vast majority of daily life in medieval Europe, and the English kitchens were no exceptions to the rule. A powerful example of this is supplied by the regular rhythm of fish days and flesh days. There were days when red meat was allowed and other days when it was to be avoided. In the minds of the church elders, dietary practice was designed to enhance faith and religious piety. While Mennell attributes this concept more to sociological theories of abstinence and civilization of appetite, Skully thinks that they are equally tied up in philosophy of humors. As flesh and animal produce in general were perceived to be warm, they had served to promote a choleric temperament, ideal for fostering excess and lechery. Lean days, Scully would argue, served to curb this tendency by favoring more temperate humors present in fish and garden products. By most ardent strictures, lean day prohibitions ruled out not only red meats and poultry, but also dairy products, eggs and lard. How strictly the rules were adhered to may have varied from house to house. On more liberal estates constraints might have been relaxed enough to overlook a little cream or to explain waterfowl into a type of fish.

Ideally, Lenten fare was designed to promote moderation and was characterized by the use of fish, cereals, and vegetables rather than the roasts, pastries, and rich cream, which was normally favored by the Norman lords. It was here that medieval cooks could truly show his ingenuity. Complete lean menus preserved in contemporary manuscripts prove religious demands were no match for the truly devoted gastronome.

Competent cooks would easily produce a pea paste to replace butter and almond milk would substitute animal milks. They would also use nut or olive oils in the replacement of lard in frying and baking, and kosher fish may have been divided into several sections and then each prepared in a different way and sauced appropriately. The fish would then be recombined into its’ original whole before serving. Roast game could be set aside for something as exotic as porpoise. Cooks that were particularly clever concocted fish tarts, which by some alchemy had mimicked the taste of cheese.

Of all the medieval cuisine, the feast was the highest form. These feasts were evaluated as much by the number of mouths that were fed and dishes served as by the quality of the guests and were huge undertakings for the kitchen staff. At a feast it was not enough to just simply feed guests, but also to dazzle them. Courses were designed for variety with intervals filled with entertainment. They were also a good time to beg the host for favors. The event had been designed to display not only wealth, but also the generosity of its patron.

Planning of a feast was no trivial affair. Any moderately sized household consisted of several social groups. Each social group would mean different considerations to be taken into account when planning the menu. In addition to the menus planned for various secular groups, an entirely separate menu was required for members of the clergy. Once the menu was completed, they were divided into courses, generally consisting of several poultry, meat or fish dishes and a few sweet ones. The number of courses, says Black, was usually two or three. Each would be followed by subtlety, a special dish that was presented to the high table. In these special dishes that medieval cooking finds its most artful, imaginative, and on occasion bizarre expression. A pastry or carved sugar sculpture reflecting a theme relevant to occasion were among the simplest variety of subtleties. Another favorite was a swan or a peacock, which would be stuffed, cooked, and then decorated with its original feathers, a golden crown or comb and a garland or gold chain.

Even more outlandish dishes would include Cocatrice. This was the front half of a piglet and then the back half of a chicken disguised as a single fantastic beast. It could have also been a Helmeted Cock, consisting of a chicken mounted on a pig, both would be roasted whole. Like many similar dishes, they were designed to amuse as well as impress. Less fantastical but no less impressive roasts might be gilded with gold leaves or brought to the table breathing fire by the means of a little spirit-soaked cotton. Not all dishes were designed to be edible, the main purpose was to provide a spectacle.

Seating at a feast was usually arranged in twos. Each participant shared a plate and possibly also a cup with their neighbor. A coarse brown bread, known as trencher was used to line plates, these were either made of silver, tin, or earthenware, it may even replace a plate altogether. Following the meal trenchers were customarily given to the poor, or thrown to the hounds which had frequently lounged about a feasting hall. Eating was accomplished with knives, spoons and fingers, forks were latecomers to European tables and regarded with suspicion until the end of the medieval era.

However, for all their festiveness, feasts were not entirely relaxed affairs. In a society where power was gained through succession, poisoning offered any variety of opportunities for advancement. Such practices were ever a point of concern at feasts, in light of this, tasters were employed to sample each dish before it was offered to the lord or any of his esteemed guests.

Clothing of the 12th Century

This century brought changes in civil attire for the inhabitants of the British Isles. The tunic was now close fitting with a long skirt. There was, as C. Cunnington describes, a “slit up in front to the thigh level”. The sleeves were also close fitting, and “bell-shamens-clothingped at the wrist or, the “lower portion [hung] to form a pendulous cuff which might be rolled up for action”. Peasants had worn tunics that were shorter and sleeves were “tubular…[and] rolled back”. The tunic could be worn with our without a girdle, which now carried the sword. Neck lines were either diagonal, from the neck moving across the chest, or horizontal, from neck to the shoulder. A super tunic was worn with a girdle and on occasion was worn alone but was never paired with the aforementioned tunics. Sleeves of the super tunic, as C. Cunnington states, “pendulous cuffs,” which were uncommon or were “loose and often elbow-length only”. On occasion the super tunic was lined with fur. A cloak and mantle may also be worn. A cloak would resemble a loose cape and would be fastened either with a brooch or clasp. As C. Cunnington describes, “the corner of the neck edge on one side was pulled through a ring sewn to the opposite corner, and then knotted to keep in position”. mens-clothing-2For the rich a cloak was usually lined with fur. For any class less fortunate than the rich would wear a cloak with a hood and the cloak was made of animal hide, with the hair facing outwards.

Clothing was quite uniform across all of Europe. A man’s and a woman’s clothing was relatively similar and changed very slowly, it at all. Most of the clothing, especially outside of the wealthier classes would remained mostly unchanged from what it was three or four centuries earlier. The 12th century would see a great progress in dyeing and working of wool, which was by far the most important material for outerwear. For the rich, color was very important. Blue was introduced and became quite fashionable. This dye color was adopted by the Kings of France as their heraldic color.


Tunics with hanging sleeves


Men had worn tunics, with a surcoat over a linen shirt. One of these surcoats was the cyclas. They began as a rectangular piece of cloth with a hole in it for the man’s head. Over time sides were sewn together to make a long, sleeveless tunic. When sleeves and sometimes a hood were added, the cyclas became a ganache. A ganache was a cap-sleeved surcoat that was usually shown with a hood of matching color. Men would also wear gardcorps, which were long, generous-sleeved traveling robes, they somewhat resembled a modern academic robe. A mantle would also be worn as a formal wrap. Men also had worn hose, shoes and headdresses. Clothing of the royalty was set apart by its rich fabrics and luxurious furs. Their hair was generally worn in a “pageboy” style, curling under at neck length. Both hair and beards were worn at a moderate length. Men’s shoes were slightly pointed and for the royalty and higher clergy would have been embroidered as well.

The working man wore a short coat, or tunic with a belt. It would be slit up the center of the front so that they could tuck the corners into their belt to create a more free movement. They wore long braies, or leggings, with legs of varying length, often visible as they worked with their cotte tucked into their belt. Hose could be worn over this, attached


Men’s working clothes


to a drawstring or belt at the waist. Hats had included a round cap with a slight brim. Different kinds of hats consisted of the beret, which was just like the modern French ones, complete with a little tab at the top. Another hat was the coif, a little tight, white hood, with strings that tied under the chin. Then there was the straw hat, which had widespread use among farm workers, and then there was the chaperon, it was then still a hood that came around the neck and over the shoulders. Apart from aprons for trades, such as smithing, and crude clothes tied around the neck to hold seeds for sowing, special clothes were not worn for working.

For women, their dress was both modest and restrained. A floor-length, loosely fitted gown, with long, tight sleeves and a narrow belt was uniform. Over it was worn the cyclas or sleeveless surcoat that was also worn by men. The more wealthy women had worn more embroidery and a mantle that was held in place by a cord across the chest, and may have woman-in-a-veil-and-wimplebeen lined with fur. Women, like men, would wear hose and leather shoes. Individually in women’s costume was expressed through their hair and headdress. One distinctive feature of a woman’s headwear was the barbette, which was a chin band to which a hat or various other women-clothingheaddress may be attached. The hat might be a “woman’s coif”, which nearly resembled a pillbox hat, severely plain or fluted. Women’s hair was often confined by a net called a crespine or crespinette, only visibly at the back. Later in the century the barbette and coif were reduced to narrow strips of cloth and the entire headdress might be covered with the crespine, the hair was fashionably bulky over the ears. The coif and barbettes were white, while the crespine may be colored or gold. A wimple and a veil of the 12th century can still be seen on nuns today, and at the time was mainly worn by older women and widows.


The Fourth Council of the Lateran of 1215 ruled that Jews and Muslims must be distinguishable by what they wore. This was the beginning of a process that transformed the conical or pointed Jewish hat from something worn as a voluntary mark of different to an enforced one. Previously, it was worn but had been regarded by European Jews as “an element of traditional garb, rather than an imposed discrimination”. A law in Breslau in 1267 said that since Jews had stopped wearing pointed hats that they used to wear, this would be made compulsory. The Yellow Badge also dates from this century, although the hat seems to have been much more widely worn. Sumptuary laws also covered prostitutes and were introduced in the 13th century. In Marseilles a striped cloak would have to be worn and in England a striped hood would be required. Over time these tended to be reduced to distinctive bands of fabric attached to the arm or shoulder, or tassels on the arm. These had probably reflected both a growing concern for control over the increasing urban populations, and the increasing effectiveness of the Church’s control over social issues across the continent.

Shoes had began to develop a pointed toe at this time. However, they were much more restrained than they were in the 14th century. Usual shoes for men were opened at the front, from the instep to the toe, commoners also had worn stockings with leather sown to the sole and wooden clogs. Woolen garters were also worn by commoners.

Illness in the 12th Century

In the 12th Century illnesses were thought to have been punishments from God for sins that were committed by the person who was ill or maybe by a parent or even a grandparent. If a child was born with a disability it was also thought to have been a punishment from God for some sin that was committed in the past. People also believed that illnesses could be caused by witchcraft. Bad wishes of an enemy could be put into the form of a spell designed to cause harm. Sometimes illnesses were also though to be caused by other forms of deliberate harm. An example of this would be when the plague had swept through Europe killing millions a few centuries later, some people though that the water in their wells had been poisoned by outsiders. These people may have been hanged for “causing” the plague.

Each village would have had a “wise woman” who had delivered babies and knew some cures. Some “wise women” could also charm a toothache away, or set broken bones. Blood stoppers were people with special powers to stop bleeding. Church-run abbeys had often had an “Infirmary” to care for the sick. The word “Hospital” was used like the modern word “hostel”, meaning a place where travelers were given hospitality. It was not used to mean a place to care for the sick until later.

Monastic Infirmaries may have a monk who had specialized in herbal medicine, or an infirmarer, who would care for the sick. More rare was a medicus, also known as a doctor. Since so little was understood of illnesses, some attempt to cure diseases probably did more harm than good.

Bloodletting was a popular way of treating illness. It was hoped that this would let the illness out, of course, we now know that this would only weaken a person who was already ill. In Scotland, a hospital was established in Soutra in the middle of the 12th century by the Augustinians. This was only one of three hospitals in all of Scotland at that time. It had provided shelter for the poor, gave hospitality to travelers and treated the sick, including the insane and people with leprosy. When archaeologists did their research at the Soutra hospital, large amounts of blood was found in the soil, indicating that bloodletting was probably practiced. Pollen and cloves was also found. Cloves were very expensive in the 12th century, being that they were imported from Africa. Wine spiced with cloves was a special treatment for someone who had been bled to restore their health. There were also traces of other exotic plants were also found on the site, including that of ginger, nutmeg, and opium poppies.


If you read the post of life in the 11th century, and now read through this, you can see how life had changed in some ways since the previous century I enjoy writing these blogs, and tend to write more on this kind of subject, as I find it interesting to see how lives change century to century. I too get to learn a lot about how people lived, and how my own ancestors had also lived.


Works Cited

Black, Maggie. A taste of history: 10,000 years of food in Britain. London, English Heritage, 1994.

England History

History of England

Janet McNaughton

Menell, Stephen. All Manner of Food. Oxford, Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1985.

Scully, Terence. The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1995.



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