Life in the 14th Century: Part 3

14th Century Housing

Much like the previous centuries, most homes were cold, damp and dark, at times it was warmer and lighter outside the home than it was in the walls of the house. For security, windows, when they were present were very small openings, with wood shutters. These windows allowed for people to see out, but would keep outsiders from looking in. Many peasant families would eat, sleep, and spend their time together in very small quarters. Their houses were rarely more than one or two rooms. Peasant homes would have the thatched roofs and they had previously and were easy to destroy.

Recreation of a Peasant House in the 14th Century in Wales

In the peasant homes, or simpler homes, there were no chimneys and the kitchen would only consist of a stone hearth within the center of the room. However, this hearth was not just a place to cook, it also provided a source for central heating. In the peasant family, the wife did the cooking and the baking. Their diet would consist of breads, vegetables from their own gardens, dairy products from their own sheep, goats, and cows, and pork from their own livestock. They often enjoyed the true taste of their meat, but salt was used throughout the year, which would also be masked with the addition of herbs, leftover breads and vegetables. Some of the vegetables that they enjoyed were cabbages, leeks, and onions, which would become known as “pot-herbs”. This pottage was a staple of the peasant diet.

Homes of the wealthy were more elaborate. Their floors were paved, as opposed to being strewn about with rushes and herbs. Sometimes they would decorate them with tiles also. Tapestries would be hung from the walls and provided not only decoration but also an extra layer of warmth. They had fenestral windows, with lattice frames that were covered in fabric that was soaked in resin and tallow. These windows allowed light inside, but kept out drafts. These fabrics could be removed in times when the weather was good. Only the wealthy could afford to have panes of glass in their windows, and sometimes only churches and royal residences had glass windows. Kitchens of the manor houses and castles would have big fireplaces. Meat, even large oxen could be roasted on spits within the fireplace.


English Manor House of the 14th Century


The kitchens of the wealthy were usually in separate buildings so to minimize the threat of fire. Pantries would have birds and beasts hanging from within them, including swans, blackbirds, ducks, pigeons, rabbits, mutton, venison, and wild board that would have been caught on hunts. Current archaeological studies of sewage and rubbish pits help contribute to our understanding of what medieval people ate. One of the most informative of these pits was found in Southampton, England. It had belonged to a prominent merchant and contained remains of berries, fruits and nuts, as well as pottery, glass, and fabrics, including silk from Europe and the Near East. It had also contained the remains of a Barbary ape. Documents that were found at the site describe the family’s consumption of meat and their use of pewter utensils and love of music. Evidence that butchery had taken place during this time was also found in the documents.


The Catholic Church was the only church at this time in Europe. It had its own laws and large coffers. Church leaders, such as the bishops and archbishops would sit on the king’s council and played leading roles in the government. The bishops were often wealthy too and came from noble families. They ruled over groups of parishes that were known as diocese. The parish priests, on the other hand, had come from humbler backgrounds and had often had little education. A village priest would tend to the sick and indigent, and if they were able, would teach Latin and the Bible to the youth of the village. As the population of Europe grew in the 12th century, the churches that had been built in the old Roman style, with round-arched roofs, had become too small. Some of the grand cathedrals were strained to their structural limits by their creators’ drive to build higher and larger, would start to collapse within a century or less of their construction.

14th Century Clothing

This century had finally brought fashion to towns, after for so many years people had been wearing the same types of clothing. By the end of the 14th century there would be a wide variety of styles that people could have chosen from. However, at the same time, King Edward would try and keep everyone in their traditional roles through laws, known as the Sumptuary Law of 1363.

At the start of the 13th century people were wearing long gowns that hung from the shoulders, by the mid 14th, people were wearing clothes like the Cotehardie, which was more figure hugging with sleeves that began to widen. Hoods and liripipes were also “in”. By the end of the century chroniclers were apoplectic. Doublets, padded Cotehardies were at times terribly short, colored hoes showed outlines of the male buttocks and shoes could be pointy to a very daft degree.

Most people in the 14th century wore woolen clothing, with their undergarments being made of linen. Brighter colors, better materials, and longer jacket lengths were usually signs of having greater wealth. Clothing among the aristocracy and the wealthy merchants was more elaborate and changed according to dictates of fashion. Towards the end of the


Peasant Man’s Clothing


century, men of wealth would sport hoes and jackets, often with pleating or skirting, or a tunic with a surcoat. Women would wear flowing gowns and elaborate headwear, ranging from headdresses that were shaped like hearts or butterflies to tall steeple caps and Italian turbans.

Most holy orders had worn long woolen habits in emulation of Roman clothing. One could tell what order they belonged to based on the habit color. Benedictines would wear black, cistercians undyed wool or white. St. Benedict had stated that monks’ clothing should be plain but comfortable and they were allowed to wear linen coifs if they wanted to keep their head warm. The Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns, had to petition the Pope so that they could be permitted to wear woolen socks.

Peasant men would wear stockings or tunics, the women long gowns with sleeveless tunics and wimples to cover their hair. Sheepskin cloaks and woolen hats and mittens were also worn during winter to protect from the cold and rain. Leather boots were covered with wooden patens to keep one’s feet dry. The outer clothes were almost never laundered, linen underwear was washed on a regular basis though. The smell of wood smoke that permeated clothing would seem to act as their deodorant. Peasant women would spin wool into threads that were then woven into cloth for these garments.


Peasant Woman’s Clothing


Fur would often be used to line garments of the wealthy, obviously being warmer to wear in the winter months. Jewelry was lavish, much of it being imported, and was often used as security against loans. Gem cutting was not invented until the 15th century, so most stones were not very lustrous. From the 12th century on, ring brooches were the most popular item. During the 14th century diamonds had become popular in Europe. By the middle of the century there were laws that would control who could wear what kind of jewelry. One of these laws was that knights could not wear rings and only the wealthy could wear clothing that was garnished with silver.

By King Edward’s Sumptuary Law certain classes, title holders, and land owners were permitted to wear certain kinds of clothing, they also had to meet other qualifications as well. A King, who was considered to have been anointed by God, was allowed to wear anything, they were allowed to push boundaries, wearing clothing that was as wild and magnificent as one can imagine. Magnates, who had to own lands worth 1000 pounds a year were also allowed to wear whatever they wanted.


Noble Woman’s Dress


The knights that had owned land worth at least 400 marks a year were also pretty much allowed to wear what they wanted, but they weren’t allowed to wear weasel fur, ermine or clothing with precious stones that were sewn into them. Other knights, with lands worth at least 200 marks a year were allowed to wear clothing worth no more than six marks (four pounds) for a whole cloth. No clothes worn by these knights could be made of gold, miniver or ermine, or contain jewels sewn within. An esquire, with land worth at least two hundred pounds a year was only allowed to wear clothes that were worth no more than five marks or three and one-third pounds. They were not allowed to wear clothes of gold, but they could wear cloth, silk or silver and Miniver or Weasel. Their cloth was not allowed to wear ermine or clothes with jewels sewn into it. Other esquires and gentlemen, with land worth at least one hundred pounds a year were only allowed to wear clothes worth no more than four and a half marks or three pounds. They, however, were not allowed to wear clothes of gold, silk, or silver or precious fur and enamel works.

Merchants with goods that valued one thousand pounds, according to this law, were only allowed cloth worth no more than five marks or three and one-third pounds for the whole cloth. They were not allowed to wear gold, but could wear cloth of silk or silver and miniver or weasel, but were not allowed ermine or clothes with jewels sewn into them. Other merchants that had goods that were valued at five hundred pounds were only allowed to wear cloth worth no more than four and a half marks or three pounds. None of their cloth could be made with gold, silk, silver or precious fur or enamel works. Yeomen and their families were allowed cloth no more than two pounds, it could not have jewels, gold, silver, embroidery, enamelware, poor silk, no fur except for lamb, rabbit, cat or fox. Women were also not allowed to wear a silk veil. Servants were not allowed to wear any cloth more worth more than two marks. It could not have any jewels, gold, silver, embroidery, enamelware, or poor silk. It could also not be made of fur except for lamb, rabbit, cat or

Everyone else that had worked the land, and had goods that were worth less than forty shillings (two pounds), were not allowed any clothes except a blanket and russet at 12d ell, and belts of rope or linen.

The Arts and Entertainment of the 14th Century

Both art and music were critical parts of the medieval religious life. Towards the end of the Middle Ages it would have also been important to secular life as well. Singing without instrumental accompaniment was an essential part of church services. Both monks and priests would chant at divine offices and mass daily. Some of the churches did have instruments, such as the organ and bells. The symphony, later known as hurdy gurdy, was also found in churches. Two people would be required to play this stringed instrument, one would turn the crank and the other would play the keys.

Medieval drama grew out of liturgy and had began in about the eleventh century. Some drama topics were performed with costumes and musical instruments, and at first took place directly outside of the church. Later dramas were staged in marketplaces where they were also produced by the local guilds.

A man by the name of Geoffrey Chaucer would write and compile a group of tales into a book at this time as well. This book was known as the Canterbury Tales. It was made of a


Geoffrey Chaucer


group of stories told by pilgrims on their journey from Southwark to Canterbury, England to visit Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine at the cathedral there. The themes of these tales would vary. Topics included courtly love, treachery and avarice. Genres also vary and include romance, Breton lai, sermons, fabliau. Characters would be introduced within the prologue of the book. Some of the tales are more serious and others are more humorous, however, all of them are very precise in describing the traits and faults of human nature. Religious malpractice is a major theme of the book. Another important element is the focus on the division of the three estates.

chaucer1The Tales are incomplete, this being because it was originally intended that each character would tell four tales. Two would have been on their way to Canterbury and two on their return journey. Possibly the greatest contribution that this book has made upon English literature is in its use of vulgar English, instead of using French or Latin, which had been the languages usually used for literary works at this time.

Today in Canterbury there is a tourist attraction specifically dedicated to the Canterbury Tales and can still be viewed. Thomas Becket’s shrine was also destroyed many years later by Henry VIII.

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