Friday 13 November 2020

'Gwen Hamilton’, a Medieval Woman Set in Time and Place (Research into Scotland 1380-1430)

     ‘Gwen Hamilton’, a Medieval Woman Set in Time and Place


Paper by Gwen Hamilton, for Ealdormere A&S 2018.

I have placed my persona, Gwen Hamilton, in Scotland in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, living mainly in Edinburgh.  My goal in the following research was to have as detailed a picture as possible of her circumstances:  her expectations, obligations, and assumptions given her class, gender, and nationality.   I also wanted a sense of her physical surroundings, her belongings, and her daily routine.  I was interested in political issues of the period mainly as they would be likely to affect her.

I see Gwen as being married to a wealthy burgess of Edinburgh, but of gentler birth than her husband, descended from a junior, somewhat impoverished branch of an important family of Anglo-Norman descent.  Renart Le Contrefait, a 14th century French parody, comments on burghers (burgesses in Scotland):  “They live very nobly, they wear a king’s clothes, have fine palfreys and horses.  When squires go to the east, the burghers remain in their beds; when the squires go get themselves massacred, the burghers go on swimming parties.” (Gies, Life…City, p. 34)

She was informed by her parents that she was born in the ninth year of the reign of King Robert II (1380).  She is currently living in the sixth year (1430) of the reign of King James, the grandson of King Robert. 

Much of what we know about medieval women of all classes is filtered through the voices of men, particularly aristocratic men and clerics, and their self interest and frequent misogyny.  In contrast to the general paucity in the middle ages of feminine voices, in the 14th and 15th centuries we have a number of women speaking for themselves: Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Christine de Pizan, and the women of the Paston letters and the Stonor letters. 

For attitudes, activities, and responsibilities, I have been particularly dependent upon two sources which are roughly contemporary, although neither is Scottish.  One is Le Ménagier de Paris (The Goodman of Paris, c.1393) and the other The Paston Letters (1430 to 1475).  Margaret Paston, married in 1440, probably in her mid to late teens, is an interesting comparison to the teenage wife of the Ménagier, whose marriage took place 50 years earlier.  Both ladies had considerable wealth and responsibility without moving in noble or court circles, although references to political personages and events suggest that they were aware of what was happening outside of their local area, in France (Ménagier) and England (Pastons).  Both sources speak of busy lives spent directing subordinates and taking responsibility for a large household, but there is also the expectation of enjoying comfort and leisure activities.  Certainly in both there is concern for appearances and upward mobility and in both, examples of affection and familiarity between spouses. 

Because the Ménagier is describing an ideal or model – what should be happening according to contemporary standards – there is sometimes a difference between that and the real lives of the Paston women.  An example of this is the contrast between the Ménagier’s description of his young wife’s expected behaviour, telling her beads and looking neither to the left nor the right at church, and certainly not using strong words such as “whore” for fear of showing knowledge of the word’s meaning, and young Margaret Paston’s description in a 1448 letter to her husband of the following scene:  “…And with the noise of this assault and affray my mother and I came out of the church from the sacring, and I bade Gloys (their chaplain, involved in the fight) go into my mother’s place again and so he did.  And then Wymondham called my mother and me strong whores, and said that the Pastons and all their kin were…(words lost)…[I] said he lied, knave and churl as he was.” 

In the instruction given by the Ménagier, the advice about religious devotion is first, followed by and combined with advice on dress and deportment.  He wishes her to pray upon first waking, whether with the light of day or earlier if woken by the bells for matins.  He suggests five rather lovely prayers in French, asking for safety and that she not fall into sin.  She is expected to rise in the morning and to dress respectably, making sure she is attired in appropriate clothing and that there is no sign of her shift peeking out, or the layers of her clothing untidily put together, or hair straying from her wimple.  When she goes to the church, preferably hearing mass daily, she is to be accompanied by respectable women and to keep her eyes and attention strictly upon her book and her prayers.  The English 14th Century How the Goode Wife Taught Hyr Doughter agrees: 

     When thou arte in the chyrch, my child,

     Loke that thou be bothe meke and myld,

     And bydde thy bedes aboven alle thinge,

     With sybbe ne fremde make no jangelynge. 


However, as one assumes with the repeated passing of sumptuary laws and the writing of books on good behaviour, presumably all this advice wouldn’t be repeated if consistently correct demeanour was a given, and Margaret Paston certainly doesn’t seem to expect criticism for rushing out of the church during service to interfere in a brawl.  Margaret does however make frequent mentions of prayers said for her husband’s health when he is ill, special promises made to saints, and much later in her life, when there is a family problem regarding a marriage, she devoutly, if reluctantly, accepts the church’s ruling, even though that ruling is against her family’s interests.  Whether or not their behaviour in church followed the accepted model, the faith of most medieval women was no doubt very real and very central to their lives. 


Besides suitable piety, the Ménagier and others giving advice to women all take as a law of God and nature that women must be strictly obedient to their husbands, treating them absolutely as their lords and giving way even when the men are being frivolous or foolish in their requests. Their husbands are to be to them as Christ to the church.  Medieval concepts of the humours included the idea that women were “cold and wet” in comparison to men, therefore, due to their coldness, unable to produce semen, “resulting in soft, weak bodies, and inferior intellects”.  (Gilchrist, pg. 33)


The story of patient Griselda agreeing placidly to her own humiliation and the apparent murder of her children turns up as an example in the Ménagier and also appears in the Décameron by Boccaccio, in Petrarch’s writing, and in The Canterbury Tales.  Lucretia committing suicide after being raped is another widely popular exemplar of appropriate womanly behaviour, rather oddly, given the church’s absolute prohibition of suicide.  It is something of a relief that the Ménagier follows Griselda’s tale with the comment, “I…have not set it here to apply to you nor because I would have such obedience from you…and I am not so foolish, or so overweening nor of such small sense that I know not well that it is not for me to assault or assay you thus, nor in like manner.”   He adds, “…by good obedience a wise woman gains her husband’s love and at the end hath what she would of him.”  Chaucer’s fictional Wife of Bath obviously is not intended as an example of good wifely behaviour – “Christ Jesus send us husbands meek and young and fresh in bed and grace to overbid them when we wed” - but it is hard to say how contemporaries viewed her and to what degree she is a caricature.  Chaucer assigns her the tale of the Loathly Lady, which does provide a story in which the lady is given “her will” and the hero wins what he wants by kindness and courtesy.


In the prologue to his book and in other references throughout, the Ménagier speaks in an affectionate and approving tone to his young wife.  Margaret Paston’s marriage to John Paston was certainly an arranged one, but a number of the surviving letters, although formally addressed to her “Right Worshipful Husband”, have very personal and affectionate touches, with her joking about her pregnancy, showing concern for his health, and asking him to wear a ring she had sent: “I pray you that you will wear the ring with the image of St. Margaret that I sent ye for a remembrance until you come home”.  His letters to her tend to be much more businesslike, although one of his last letters to her, written after she visited him in London, addresses her much more fondly:  “Mine own dear sovereign lady.”  It is notable that Margaret seems to feel comfortable making decisions in his absence and sending him lists of purchases she wishes, without any sense that she has to beg and plead for anything, even if he is definitely the head of the household.  In a letter of 1453, she seems to be supervising the construction of some additions to the house and although John had asked for some furniture to be set up in a particular chamber for him to use as an office and bedroom, she measured, decided there was not enough space in the room he wanted and switched it to another.  In another letter, she speaks of doing business for him, then requests, “I pray you will vouchsafe to buy for me such laces as I send you examples of in this letter and one piece of black lace.  As for the caps you sent me for the children, they are too little for them.  I pray you buy them finer caps and larger than those were.”


Two of the Paston letters, from Richard Calle to Margery Paston (Margaret’s elder daughter) after their runaway marriage, and from Margery Brews to John Paston III on Valentine’s Day prior to their marriage, are definitely love letters, some of the earliest that exist, and while there is attention to money and status, there is a real sense of the attachment of the couples.  Among the Stonor Letters and Papers as well, there are some which show real affection between spouses, such as Thomas Stonor’s letter to his wife in 1468:  “Mine own good Jane, as heartily as I can I recommend me to you…And good sweet leman, be ye very merry and of good comfort for to comfort me when I come.”


Margery Kempe (approximately 1373-1438), from the wealthy merchant class in England, in her dictated autobiography, comments on the pleasure she and her husband took in their sexual relations, “ful many delectabyl thowtys, fleschly lustys, and inordinate lovys to hys persone” – although she does regard this pleasure and her enthusiasm for fashionable clothes as sinful.  However, she seems to have had considerable freedom within the relationship to passionately seek her religious salvation by travelling to consult with various clerics and mystics, and later to go on pilgrimage and to negotiate a celibate union.  During a period early in their marriage when she was apparently mentally ill, her husband kept her at home and cared for her.  He seems to have been consistently kind to her and whether one sees her as an incipient saint or a religious hysteric, she certainly cannot have been an easy woman to live with. 


Christine de Pizan, a contemporary living in France, also seems to have had an extremely happy relationship with her husband, who was not only kind, but respected and valued her intellect and encouraged her in her studies and writing.  In writing advice to other women, she advises always loving one’s husband and showing it, although she acknowledges that this may not always be easy if he is “perverse in his morals, rude…ungracious to his wife, and is involved with another woman, or even several.”  The wife is obliged both by good judgment and prudence to ignore it all, responding with charm and gentleness, as “I am obliged to live and die with him, whatever he may be.” (Pizan, p. 99)


It seems that as is true for marriages in any age, the personalities and circumstances of the people involved make each union very individual.  For some people, marriage was fulfilling and brought comfort and happiness to both.  Some 14th and 15th century funerary monuments show the couple with clasped hands, possibly as a mark of the closeness of their bond.  (Gilchrist pg. 112)

Obviously in those cases where the husband was unkind or uncaring, the laws of both state and church provided him with full opportunity to make his wife’s life unhappy and to completely control her body, her property and her children.  Responsible parents in arranging a marriage would see to the guarantee of a dower to provide for her in widowhood, the law gave her a claim on her husband’s estate even when this hadn’t been arranged, and judging from Agnes and Margaret Paston, women exerted influence – and to a degree authority – over adult children.  Showing that not all medieval clerics were antagonistic to women and marriage, 13th century preacher, St. Bonaventure wrote, “In marriage… there is mutual love and therefore mutual zeal, and therefore singleness…For there is something miraculous in a man finding in one woman a pleasingness which he can never find in another.” (Gies, Women…Ages, p. 36)



Gwen’s language would be Scots, a language which arrived in Scotland with Anglo-Saxon speaking retainers of Anglo-Norman nobility who came to Scotland from England during the reign of the Canmore family in the 12th century and became the common speech of the lowlands.  She would be unlikely to know Gaelic.  She would quite possibly speak French, as her heritage was Anglo-Norman.  The ‘Auld Alliance’ provided contacts with the French, as for instance when in 1385, a French army was in Scotland for some time. The extant correspondence of Alice de Breyne (1380-1435), an English gentlewoman of the period, was all in French, although she would have spoken English as well.    The Stonor letters of the 14th century are in Latin and French, with English gradually replacing French through the 15th century.  Gwen might speak English, or at least understand it since the two languages had a common root and were essentially different dialects of the same language, although accent and cadence would be different.  Judging from examples of each, she should have been able to read English if she could read Scots.  Contemporary English would be Middle English, familiar to us from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. 


In 1406, King James I, then aged eleven, was captured by the English and not released for 17 long years, so the court and customs he knew best were English and he brought home an English Queen, Joan Beaufort, when he returned to Scotland.  While in captivity, he fell in love, possibly with Joan, and wrote a poem that became well-known, The Kingis Quair.  This poem is in Scots, Gwen’s everyday language and the native language of King James.  A few verses follow.


(Edited by Linne R. Mooney and Mary-Jo Arn. Originally Published in The Kingis Quair and Other Prison Poems, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005.)


Heigh in the hevynnis figure circulere                   High in heaven’s circular schema
The rody sterres twynklyng as the fyre,                The ruddy stars were twinkling as the fire
And, in Aquary, Citherea the clere                         And in Aquarius, Citherea the clear
Rynsid hir tressis like the goldin wyre                   Rinsed her tresses like the golden wire
That late tofore in fair and fresche atyre              That before in fair and fresh attire
Through Capricorn heved hir hornis bright,         Through Capricorn heaved her bright horns,
North northward approchit the mydnyght,          North, northward approached midnight.

Quhen, as I lay in bed allone waking,                    When as I lay in bed alone, waking,
New partit out of slepe a lyte tofore,                    Newly parted from sleep a little before
Fell me to mynd of many diverse thing,                I fell to thinking of many diverse things
Of this and that, can I noght say quharfore,         Of this and that, I cannot say wherefore,
Bot slepe for craft in erth myght I no more,         But by no craft on earth could I sleep more
For quhich as tho coude I no better wyle,            For which reason, as I could not think of better,
Bot toke a boke to rede apon a quhile,                 I took up a book to read awhile,

Of quhich the name is clepit properly                  Of which the name is properly 
Boece, eftir him that was the compiloure            Boethius, after him who was the author
Schewing the counsele of Philosophye,                Showing the counsel of Philosophy,
Compilit by that noble senatoure                          Written by that noble Senator
Of Rome, quhilom that was the warldis floure,   Of Rome, who once was the world’s flower,
And from estate by Fortunes quhile                      And from prosperity, by Fortune’s wheel,
Forjugit was to povert in exile,                               Was condemned to poverty in exile,

And thereto here this worthy lord and clerk,       And therefore this worthy lord and scholar,                        

His metir suete, full of moralitee,                           His metre sweet, full of morality,
His flourit pen so fair he set awerk,                        His fair and florid pen he set to work,
Discryving first of his prosperitee,                           Describing first his prosperity,
And out of that his infelicitee,                                  And out of that his infelicity,
And than how he, in his poetly report,                   And then how he, in his poetic report,
In philosophy can him to confort;                            In philosophy came to find comfort.


In Sacred and Banal: The Discovery of Everyday Medieval Material Culture (Shiels and Campbell 2011, published as part of A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland, 1000 to 1600), the authors discuss archeological findings throughout Scotland, specifically jewelry and other costume parts such as buckles, belt mounts, and lace chapes.  Their conclusions include:  “In general, the material tends to follow the major trends in European dress and consumption…(reference to various items).  It is important to note that these objects are diagnostic of particular forms of clothing and suggest that in many ways, the population was dressing in a fairly generic European style.  Overall the evidence suggests that particular trends and forms of dress arrived in Scotland at the same time as in the rest of Europe, and the material from sites such as Fortrose tallies well with that recovered from London and Amsterdam.”  This would suggest that the ladies of Edinburgh would wear clothing and jewelry generally similar to that of English or European contemporaries. 


Many annular brooches were found in Scotland, used to fasten garments at the neck.  These were connected in the popular mind with feminine modesty:  “My bride shall wear a brooch – a witness to her modesty. ” (Johannes de Hauville) 


Many brooches seem to have been gifts from a husband or intended husband and have inscriptions.  A 14th century gold brooch found near Falkirk, Scotland bears the messages OR ME NE VBLIE NI DEV (don’t forget me or God) and JE SVI : ICI EN LU DE AMI (I am here in place of a lover).  Although this example was in gold, similar versions in pewter and bronze have been found, suggesting that the fashion and the sentiments involved were not confined to the upper classes.  Fede rings (rings with clasped hands) were also fashionable, associated with piety and also often used as betrothal rings.  Most of these were in silver, but the quality and thickness of the silver varied.  Some examples were in bronze and stone molds have been found, suggesting an element of mass production.  Rings with incised crosses and with mountings for jewels were also found.  A wide selection of belt buckles and belt fittings and also a few, rare pilgrim badges have been among the Scottish findings. 


In this period, the skirts had become more voluminous and the headdresses elaborate and very large, perhaps to balance the silhouette of the body.  The houppelande was fashionable for both men and women, often with elaborate and oversized sleeves.  Women’s gowns evolved which took the shape of the houppelande, but with a lower neckline and narrower sleeves.  Belts were usually wide and worn high, coming immediately below the breasts, with no fastening or buckle apparent from a front view.  The frontispiece to Christine de Pizan’s Cent Ballades, c. 1402, shows a lady in a blue houppelande apparently playing with the long end of her red belt, which seems to be buckled at the back with the end hanging behind her.  The Magdalen Reading, by Rogier van der Weyden, before 1438, shows this more clearly.  Elaborate buckles, decorative mounts, and metal purse hangers increased in popularity from the late 13th century.  (Gilchrist, pg.74)

A picture by the Coetivy Master, Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius, (Paris, mid 15th century) shows a variety of feminine garb.  The figure of Philosophy, at the front of the row of women, wears a gown with a voluminous skirt, which is kilted, either to display the under dress or

to facilitate walking.  Her headdress is as high and elaborate as possible.  Her belt is, unusually, narrow.  She is followed by Grammar, wearing what Scott describes as a “low set and rather old-fashioned thick linen veil” (p.109).  Her gown and cloak are plain, without the belt, if any, showing. 

Rhetoric, holding a scroll, wears similar clothing, but in brighter colours, with a high, wide belt.  Her skirt is also kilted; most of the others allow their skirts to trail, Astronomy using her hand to control her skirt.  Logic, with the sieve, wears the fashionable “steeple” with a transparent veil, as does Astronomy.  Music wears a sideless surcote, worn as a symbol of status at this point in history, trimmed with ermine, and with an exotic turban for headdress.  The general silhouette of the gowns and houppelandes seems to be fairly consistent throughout Europe.  Scott describes the simple, heavy veils as “old-fashioned”, which is probably the case, but as Music is extravagantly and exotically garbed, could the plain, undecorated costumes of the more mundane Grammar and Rhetoric be, in contrast, what a practical woman might wear to attend to her household? Women of every class in the 14th and 15th centuries in northern Italy were described as wearing only a simple woolen tunic with sleeves over a long linen chemise while tending to their households and doing simple shopping. (Duby, pg. 195)  The picture opposite page15 shows similar dress, simple, unbelted, and practical.


There was a great variety of headdresses at this period, ranging from a fairly simple linen veil, to layered and frilled veils, and wimple and veil, to “horned” headdresses, nets and reticulated hair cases, transparent silk veils, turbans in rich material or fur, butterfly headdresses, truncated hennins and the “steeple” hennins.  Women of the middle class often wore hoods.  Flowers, jewels, and other decorations were added to headdresses at times and among the London findings are circlets of silk-covered wire, presumably to support semi-transparent veils, bits of which are still attached.  Hair ornaments are specifically mentioned in the sumptuary laws.  There is a 14th century reference to an Aberdeen townswoman dressing her hair with an Italian silk ribbon with picoted edging.  In a 15th century poem of William Dunbar’s, the widow of a rich Scottish burgess commented that her husband had dressed her in rich clothes and jewels which “hely raise my renovne amang the rude peple”.  Some wills of English women of the merchant class in this period list luxury items:  Agnes de Frauceys, 1349, a chandler’s widow, left a “robe of gold work” (presumably embroidered in gold thread) and Julianna Stokesby, 1384, a vintner’s widow, left a silk hood and a gown furred with gris (grey squirrel fur) (Medieval Clothing & Textiles l, pp142-148).  In 1453, Margaret Paston asked her husband to buy her a necklace, as she had had to borrow her cousin’s jewels to attend a local visit of the queen, “for I durst not for shame go with my beads.”

The fabrics involved would mostly be linen for undergarments, wool for outerwear, and silk for “best” garments.  Linen and wool both came in varying qualities.  Linen could be coarse canvas for work garments, finer linen for shirts, braes, and shifts, or sheer lawn or baptiste for veils.  Hemp was sometimes used for coarser fabric similar to linen.  The amount of time spent bleaching linen from its natural brown or grey to white would also add to the value of the cloth.  Advice on hygiene during the middle ages promoted the frequent changing of linen to maintain cleanliness. Since linen was readily washable, this would also have protected the more difficult to clean wool and silk garments.  Wool ranged from coarse weaves to scarlet, a fine, soft wool fabric.  There was also variety in weave.  Some combinations of textile material existed, such as linsey-woolsey and fustian.  Silk could be interwoven with gold or silver, and might be damask or brocade.  Silk fingerloop braids were part of the London findings from about this period, apparently used as lacing for garments and for purse strings.  Velvet was available, although expensive.  Garments, particularly cloaks and houppelandes, were sometimes lined with fur.   Collars and hems were sometimes trimmed with fur when the garment was not lined.  In some wills in England, from 1327 to 1487, a number of clothing items were bequeathed, with black, blue, and red being the most common colours and yellow the least common.  Both wool and silk took dye readily.  Dyes were all organic, primarily vegetable dyes, such as woad, madder, and lichen, although kermes, which was insect-based, was used by the very wealthy to produce a vivid crimson dye.  

Women’s hose went to just above the knee and were fastened at the knee with garters, often with the top part folded down over the garter.  Generally in this period the hose were cut from wool fabric on the bias and the seams stitched.  There are a few examples of fragments of knitted items in England from the 14th century, in an even “stocking stitch”, but they are believed to be a cap, part of a glove, and possibly part of a child’s sleeve or vest.  They are not fulled and do not appear to be part of stockings.

Men and women both carried purses at their belt and often a sheath knife or keys.  In the case of both women and clerics, knives were sometimes beneath the top garment and accessed by a slit in the seam or in the case of women, the knife was kept in the purse.    

Shoes were pointed, sometimes extremely, but were less likely to be extreme in women’s fashions.  Wooden pattens were worn over shoes in the muddy streets to protect the shoes.  Shoes embroidered with “birds, animals, flowers, and foliage” have been found as early as 12th century London and pattens were sometimes painted or decorated with stamped ornaments.  (Gilchrist, pg. 74)

Although staying clean was difficult, particularly for the less wealthy, there was concern for hygiene.  Combs, ear scoops, and tweezers are common findings.  Women plucked their eyebrows.  Decorated combs were often gifts.

Leisure Activities

The Ménagier suggests that his wife read religious books in French, saying that she is welcome to take any of his books, as she wishes.  This certainly implies that the young wife is able to read in the vernacular, and later, he expresses the wish that she should read his letters privately (as reading was generally out loud), but seems not to know whether she is able to write.  Margaret Paston is also considered to have probably been able to read, but not necessarily to write.  There are no extant letters which can be identified as being written by her in her own hand, and many of the writers of her letters can be identified as various Paston servants.  The two skills were not necessarily combined at this period.  It is also interesting that the Ménagier gives his wife carte blanche to handle his very valuable books.  Caxton was not printing books until the last part of the 15th century, so any books available at the time would be manuscript on parchment or vellum, making them very valuable indeed.  Binding was individually commissioned, with some bindings being more expensive – and of course more fashionable or impressive.  It is interesting that the custom of the time was for the owner to write in many of these valuable books, especially psalters and books of hours, putting in personal prayers and important dates in calendars, personalizing the book as part of their devotions.


Romances as well as works of devotion would have been available at this period, although also very expensive.  The Ménagier specifically quotes from Le Roman de la Rose.  The Scottish Fergus of Galloway, written by Guillaume Le Clerc (possibly William Malveisin), probably a comedic commentary on earlier Arthurian romances by Chretien de Troyes, was composed about 1200 in Old French.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Pearl are dated mid-14th century and Chaucer’s writings date to the latter part of the 14th century.  There are some references to books in the Paston letters, including one specific reference to a book owned by Anne Paston (Margaret’s younger daughter), The Siege of Thebes.  Some contemporary collections include The Deeds of Arthur, Tristan and Isolda, Aimeric de Narbonne, Perceval and Gawain, The Trojan War, Hector of Troy, In Praise of Women, Sir Orfeo, and The Deeds of Fulk Fitzwarin.  The Brus would have been appropriate to a Scottish collection.  There are a number of references to Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, including, of course, The Kingis Quair.  The Auchinleck manuscript, an anthology written in English in the 1330’s, includes 44 texts ranging from an account of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin to the romance of Floris and Blanchefleur, as well as a list of the Norman knights who fought at Hastings.


The Ménagier tells his wife that he is pleased with her tending roses and violets, making chapelets, and singing and dancing and that she should do so among their friends, that this is appropriate when she is young.  He feels that her attending dances and feasts of people of much higher rank is inappropriate, but is quite content for her to enjoy herself in their own group of friends and family.  Music was important to all classes.  Chaucer’s tales include characters who play the psaltery (metal-stringed harp plucked with a quill), the bagpipes, and the flute.  Illustrations in the Luttrell Psalter show bagpipes, nakers (metal drums), bells, and a portable organ.  In large churches and in monasteries, the Mass was sung, with three-part polyphony and motets being written by 1400.  Chaucer describes the real and very important Duchess of Lancaster as having been used to “dance so comely, carol and sing so sweetly…that never has Heaven seen so blissful a creature”.  He also describes his fictional and very bourgeois Wife of Bath declaring, “I could dance to a small harp and sing like any nightingale when I had downed a draught of mellow wine.”  Non-professional dancing tended to be carols, dancing in a ring, holding hands.


The Ménagier promises to talk about games and amusements in the third section of the book.  This section was sadly never written, possibly because of his death.  His intention was to “tell of amusing questions, which be…answered in strange fashion by the hazard of dice and by rooks and kings”, to teach her how to feed and fly a falcon, and to know certain riddles.  It is interesting that falconry is included, as I would have thought this to have been an activity of the upper nobility.  Given that the Ménagier is concerned not to be pushing into too high circles, however, falconry was presumably wider spread than I had realized among those who could afford it.  Indeed, a Lincolnshire merchant of 1383, William Harecourt, had in his list of household goods, two hawks and a “gentle” falcon. 


In his story of Lucretia, the Ménagier refers to women playing “bric”, “hot cockles”, “blind man’s buff”, and “pinch me”, others playing cards, singing songs, telling tales, and asking riddles.  In 1459, Margaret Paston wrote her husband to say that she had asked an important neighbour what Christmas activities the lady had permitted when her family was in mourning, since Margaret needed to know what was appropriate.   She replied that “there were none disguising nor harping nor luting nor no loud disports, but playing at the tables (similar to backgammon) and chess and cards, and such disports she gave her people leave to play.”  Chess, tables, dice, draughts (checkers), fox and geese, and merrils (nine men’s morris) were all common. 


A number of recreational activities were banned by various kings trying to ensure that their subjects applied themselves to archery, which was necessary for the country’s defense.  Golf (gouf or gowf in Scots) was well enough established and popular enough in 1457 to rate banning by James II of Scotland, although the timelines are uncertain on it and the earlier version of the game, colf, and a hundred years later protestant critics described golf as a sport unfitting for a woman.  Bowling, dice, and cards were banned for the working class on workdays in Paris of 1397.  Quoits, an early form of the game of horseshoes, was banned in England for a time.  Skating on bone skates was presumably done by both genders, given that St. Lidwina disabled herself by falling while skating c. 1395 and became the patron saint of skating as well as of certain types of disabilities. 


Scottish women of all classes did spinning and there are many findings of decorated lead whorls for spindles, the size depending on whether flax or wool was being spun and the desired fineness.  These were sometimes buried with women.  Of course, spinning and other handwork would have been simply work for many women, especially those spinning to earn necessary money, but for others there may well have been an element of recreation in it.  Needlework of various types has traditionally been a feminine activity and could be done in very social groups, while listening to someone reading aloud, perhaps to the romantic adventures of Sir Gawain. 



 C.L. Kingsford in “A London Merchant’s House and Its Owners” in Archaeologia provides a description for the house of Richard Willysdon, a wealthy merchant who built his home in 1384 in London (cited by Mortimer in The Time Traveler’s Guide).  It is a three-story, timber-framed structure, with the ground floor the tallest at twelve feet and each succeeding story progressively shorter and projecting further over the street.  At the front of the ground floor is a row of shops, which are rented to tradesmen.  In the centre of the building front is a gated entry arch leading into a courtyard with storage areas to the left. To the right a short stairway leads up to an impressive hall, which is forty feet long by twenty-four feet wide and more than thirty feet high.  It boasts painted wall hangings and the benches along the walls have colourful cushions.  The windows are glazed with thick, greenish glass which is opaque, but allows in light when the shutters are open – and keeps the cold out.  There is a central hearth with a fire.  At the far end is the merchant’s table, with the aumbry to one side displaying his pewter and silver.  To one side of the hall are doors leading to the buttery for ale and wine and the pantry for bread, spices, and linens.  Beyond the hall is the parlour or solar, where the family spends much of its time.  The main bedrooms are upstairs and the kitchen is downstairs, tucked behind the shops.  There is a garden out back. 


 James I is considered to have brought changes in architecture to Scotland, but presumably this would be mostly to major buildings.  The English burned Edinburgh – again – in 1544 and the few surviving buildings of the 15th century are mostly public buildings.  There is a unique survival from the late 15th century, No. 8 Advocate’s Close, built by a merchant burgess, Thomas Harvey.  It is “built of rubble with ashlar dressings.  It has vaulted chambers at ground level used as shops or stores.”  (Random rubble is a style of stone work using local stone of various shapes and sizes held together by mortar, with dressed stone corners and window borders.  This is attractive and safer from fire than wood, but not as strong as dressed stone and not suitable for very large buildings.) The principal floor, the first (above the ground floor) was entered from a timber forestair leading from the close.  There are two mullion and transom windows in the larger room.  The upper lights were probably fixed, glazed panes, with wooden shutters below.  Since it also has two fireplaces, this room may have been two rooms originally, which would “accord well with what we know to be the typical hall-and-chamber urban house across Britain at this date.” (Edwards, p.26-27)  There are richly decorated jambs on the fireplaces.  There were probably lofts over this room and thatch on the roof.   This is similar in general layout and use of space to Willysdon’s house. 

Housing for poorer classes was often mixed in with the houses of the wealthy, although some wealthy families chose to live outside the city.  The most popular roofing material in Scotland was thatch, using a variety of vegetable matter, including heather.  The more prestigious buildings would have timber shingles.  Stone may have been used for the foundations in some cases.   Glass was expensive and used only for windows in important rooms.  Horn was used for some windows at this period, with Barley Hall in Yorkshire having one of the very few surviving examples.     

In the home, there would be large, comfortable wooden bedsteads with feather beds for the important adults, probably with curtains for privacy and warmth, and narrow truckle beds and pallets for children and servants, which would typically be shared.  There would not be a great amount of furniture, but there would be trestle tables, possibly one or two chairs, benches, chests for storage, and candleholders.  There would be linen for the beds and for the tables, with a superior quality of linen for the head table.  Floors could be wooden or tiled and probably covered with rushes.  Rushes could be woven into loose mats and could include scented herbs such as lavender.  Inside walls would typically be plastered.  Colour would be provided by bright cushions, bench covers, and wall hangings which would also discourage drafts.

A marked increase in the consumption of material goods in private homes began in the 13th century.  For instance, imported pottery became accessible even for peasant families, although items made of glass were found only in wealthier homes.  (Gilchrist, pg. 112)

There are descriptions extant, especially from wills of the period, of household goods of well to do merchants.  The following list of household goods of William Harecourt of Lincolnshire in 1383 is an example:  8 drinking vessels bound with gilt-silver, 3 silver cups with lids, 6 silver plates, 2 beds, 4 more beds of worsted, 8 blankets and 6 quilts, 8 pairs of sheets, 10 more pairs of sheets, 4 pairs of worsted curtains and 2 half-tester beds, 3 brass pots, 8 more brass pots, 3 great brass pans, 5 small pans, 3 basins and 3 water jugs, 1 great basin, 30 pewter vessels, 4 pewter bottles, 6 quart pots, 2 gallon pots, 4 pint pots of pewter, 1 backplate for a fireplace, 4 andirons, 2 spits, an iron candlestick, 1 large and 5 small lead pans, 2 great wooden coffers, 5 small coffers, 3 tables and 3 pairs of trestles, 3 dossers (ornamental wall hangings), 6 bankers (embroidered covering for chairs or benches), 18 cushions, 3 feather beds, a screen, 2 hawks and a falcon.  

There was also a study of 550 English wills, about a third of them from merchants, from 1327 to 1487, that list and occasionally describe household textiles, such as tablecloths, napkins, towels, sheets, blankets, feather beds, coverlets, fabric wall hangings, and bolts of cloth.  A girl named Alice was bequeathed “toward her marriage”, a featherbed, a bolster, ten pairs of sheets, three down pillows, a red and green coverlet, two “carpet” cushions, and two flowered cushions.  The type of fabric is usually not mentioned, although sheets, pillow covers, tablecloths, and napkins were almost certainly made of linen and bed hangings and coverlets likely made of wool.  A few items were specified to be of “diapered fabric”, linen or occasionally cotton woven in a small repeating pattern of diamonds.  Colours are more often mentioned than fabric types, with red being the most popular for coverlets and curtains, although white, green, and blue ones are also listed.  Some are described as “poudred, peinted, and steined”, referring to textiles with images/designs on them, such as a bed “powdered with butterflies” in a 1381 will.  We do not know if these were painted or embroidered.  Another is a “white hanging bed, stained with branches, roses, and leaves, with all the apparel of stained cloths for the chamber”, and one cord-maker left a coverlet powdered with penny-sized dots and a dosser with a dragon on it. (Medieval Clothing & Textiles I, pp. 143-149) 

Christine de Pizan talks about the importance of linens to the housewife:  “After buying flax at the market at a good price, she will have it spun by poor women in the town. However, she must never exploit their labor by any sort of trick or stratagem, since exploitation is damnable and would only discredit her. The women will make linen, both coarse and fine, tablecloths as well as towels. Having smoothly-woven, fine linens is a well-earned, honest pleasure for any woman who is careful and provident. She can take great pleasure in white, sweet-smelling linens stored in her coffers. These may be used for any special guests her husband invites to stay with them at the house, for which she will be highly praised." (Pizan, p 188)

(Illustration of table and knives from Luttrell Psalter) Brears’ descriptions of kitchens in Cooking and Dining in Medieval England would suggest that the kitchen would, as in the Willysdon house, be somewhat separated from the main building because of fire hazards.  The floors were sometimes slightly sloped to ensure drainage.  There would be a fireplace, perhaps two, and possibly an oven.  There would likely be a small wooden table used only for preparing vegetables, which would be chopped with a pair of chopping knives.  Probably there would also be a large wooden ‘dressing board’ on which to prepare meat, using sharp knives and a meat axe.  There would be a lockable cupboard or aumbry to secure expensive items such as sugar and spices.  Baskets would be used to bring in and store fruit, vegetables, fuel, and kindling.  Graters, mortars, spits, sieves, pots for boiling things, salamanders and shovels to be heated and used to “broil” items such as melted cheese would be part of the kitchen equipment.

Lighting in the kitchen would be mostly natural light through unglazed windows or windows covered with oiled linen.  This is, of course, one reason for the main meal of the day being in the late morning, to utilize the best light of the day.  In the winter, when there is less light, artificial lighting was sometimes needed in addition to the firelight.  This could be with rushlights, although these burned rather briefly.  Wax candles would have been prohibitively expensive for most households (they were generally only used in religious services), and according to Brears provide insufficient light, although Chiquart recommends candles of suet or tallow for night work (Henisch, pg. 144).  Brears suggests cressets as a popular and practical solution, usually consisting of a stone column or slab with hollows approximately 3 by 4 inches cut into the flat stone and filled with oil or animal fat, with a wick added.  Iron fire baskets could also be used to burn pitched rope, wood, or coal.  Since all heating and lighting was essentially done with open flame, one needed to be very conscious of safety. 


Henisch (The Medieval Cook, pg. 9) describes the typical cook in period comedies.  He would be male, as kitchen staff in large homes all were, and cross.  “His kitchen is unbearably hot; fires burn, tempers flare.  An unsavoury rabble of assistants, jerked to and fro by bellowed commands, is perpetually engaged in ineffectual crisis control, as pots boil over, fat sizzles, roasts char.  Everyone is shiny with sweat, greasy with handling food, and grimy from grappling with smoke-blackened equipment.”  While fictional, it provides a useful vision of the kitchen as a centre of ongoing, rather frantic activity rather than the static and empty room we see in pictures of surviving medieval kitchens. 


As mentioned elsewhere, houses in Edinburgh in this period had space behind the house, the ‘backlands”, which would provide a location for an earth closet latrine and cesspit and probably a kitchen garden (Edwards, p.66).  Urban pleasure and/or herb gardens were common in England at this period, but with difficulty in water sources and the frequent disruptions from war, this cannot be taken for granted in an Edinburgh setting. Back from the house would be a midden for garbage such as discarded floor rushes, garden waste, kitchen debris, etc.  Layers of sand were sometimes added to lessen the smell.  Some houses had chickens or dovecotes as well.  Gongfermors could be hired in most European cities to empty the cesspits.  Some cities had regulations obliging them to work at night. 


Household Management

The Ménagier writes feelingly about the comforts that could be provided by a good wife to her husband.  He describes how the hard-working husband would return home, cold, tired, unfed, and shivering: “but naught harmeth him, because he is upheld by the hope that he hath of the care which his wife will take of him on his return and of the ease, the joys, and the pleasures which she will do or have done to him in her presence…to be unshod before a good fire, to have his feet washed and fresh shoes and hose, to be given good food and drink, to be well served and well looked after, well bedded in white sheets and nightcaps, well covered with good furs and assuaged with other joys and desports…whereof I am silent.  And the next day, fresh shirts and garments.” 


Margaret Paston also talks about wanting to take care of her absent husband, at a time when he was not well:  “I would you were at home…liefer than a new gown, though it were of scarlet; … for I hope ye should be kept as tenderly here as ye been at London.”


15th century preacher, Bernadine of Siena described a man without a good wife as “living like a beast.”  “When the woman sees what ought to be done, she stands in readiness…and tires herself as well in looking to the comfort of her husband.”  Bernadine describes the womanless man living in discomfort, in a dirty household with an unmade, lumpy bed with unwashed sheets, a filthy floor with “melons, bones, refuse, leaves of lettuce left there without being swept up”, moldy tablecloth, and all his goods rotten and wasted.  On the other hand, a wise and virtuous wife is “the most beautiful and useful thing in a house.” (Gies, Women in the Middle Ages, p. 34)


The Ménagier is obviously concerned throughout his book about the cleanliness and comfort of his home.  He instructs his bride that she should have the maids bustling about early every day, first sweeping the entrances and halls of the house to be ready for any visitors.  Then, under her instruction, they should dust and shake out the cushions and covers on the benches and all rooms be cleaned and tidied for the day.  She and her companion should personally care for her pet birds and little dogs.  The kitchen servants are to carefully clean all of the kitchen gear.  When in the country, she should summon the steward and check on the welfare of the larger animals through him and to speak of concerns such as rat-catching.  At times, she and the maids should take out the sheets, coverlets, dresses, and furs, to be checked for problems, and well aired and cared for.  Woolen items and furs, since they were not readily washable, needed to be brushed or shaken out frequently, although care should be taken with the brushing.  Grease spots could be a serious problem – a great incentive for good table manners, as grease stains had to be laboriously worked at with fullers’ earth and urine.  He does not mention making the beds, but this would need to be done and for the large bedsteads would take a long pole and time and effort to achieve.  He provides her with numerous suggestions for keeping the place as free as possible of insects, something he seems particularly concerned about.  She should have the steward check all the wine casks weekly and if any of the wines are not as they should be, apply various remedies.  She is to supervise her servants carefully, to see that they are well, if plainly, fed and allowed to eat their fill, but not to laze afterwards at the table, idly chatting.  Christine de Pizan also speaks of the importance of closely supervising the servants and overseeing the accounts frequently. 


 The mistress of the house is to plan appropriate meals for her household and to order the necessary foodstuffs.  The servants would probably have two meals a day, dinner and supper, with breakfast reserved for more privileged people.  This distinction is seen in Alice de Breyne’s food accounts: typically 3-8  people were fed at breakfast, about 20 at dinner.  The difference made by rank to the food provided is also demonstrated in the plans for three meals for those who attended the funeral of Thomas Stonor.    After the dirges, poor men received bread and cheese, while the priests and gentlemen had lamb, veal, roasted mutton, and chickens in a dish.  For breakfast, the “priests and other honest men” had calves’ heads and salt beef, but nothing was provided for the poor.  For dinner, the poor had “umbles to pottage”, salt beef, roasted veal in a dish, and roasted pork.  The gentry had pottage, “browes of capons or”, mutton, geese, and custard for the first course, pottage, jussell (grated bread and eggs in broth), capons, lamb, pig, veal, roast pigeons, pheasant, baked rabbit, venison, and jelly for the second course.  There were pewter vessels for the gentlemen and silver spoons and silver salt cellars for the most important. 


Christine de Pizan also instructs that the mistress of the house is responsible for appropriate charity.  Leftover food and clothing no longer in use are to be given to the poor, and good meat and wine from her own table sent to poor women in childbed and to invalids.  She is to give alms wisely, realizing this is the only treasure she can take from the world, but to be discreet in choosing the recipients of her generosity.  (Pizan, p. 188)


In an urban setting, bread could be readily purchased from bakers, but many recipes of the period are pastries which would require baking.  This could be done in earthenware under embers, but fairly large quantities would require an oven.  There would need to be secure storage for fuel, as this was frequently stolen.   ‘Great wood’, large logs cut to appropriate size, would be required for fires in the living area and for roasting and general cooking.  Ovens used ‘faggots’ or ‘bavins’, smaller branches or twigs bound together.  Charcoal, which was sold in skeps, was used in portable fire baskets to warm rooms or for light cooking.  ‘Chafers’ or chafing dishes, often ceramic, also used charcoal for light cooking or reheating.  There is documentation for use of sea coal and peat in some areas in the 15th century.  Fireplace hearths were generally flat, sometimes with a small curb to keep in embers and ashes.  Fireplaces and ovens would be of brick or stone.  Fires would be lit with flint and steel and tinder, often tow. 


Dishes and pots needed, of course, to be cleaned, so the necessities for that had to be provided.  Besides water, these could involve soapwort plants, braken roots, sand, and horsetail plants.  Worn out towels and tablecloths were used for this purpose, although on occasion cloth needed to be purchased.  In 1419, Alice de Breyne bought six yards of linen for washing windows and kitchen ware.  Linen for towels was sometimes woven as “huckaback”, for greater absorbency. 


Water for cooking and washing would presumably have to be brought from some distance, carried in containers, as the first piped water in Edinburgh, to a public cistern, would not be built until 1676.  In fact, because Edinburgh was not directly on a body of water, there were water shortages at times.  There was a ‘well tower’ for the castle at the foot of Castle Rock, but Edinburgh was set, although at a distance, among a number of shallow inland lochs, Burgh Loch to the south, Holyrood Loch to the east at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, and Duddingston Loch south of Arthur’s Seat, among them.  There were also springs at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.  The amount of water used by brewers and pollution caused by feeding stock and washing linen were other issues. Household laundry would often be done by hired washerwomen.  It could have been done in washtubs, with strong liquid soap and a washboard (literally a board, not the textured metal one which came later).  Given the water situation in Edinburgh and the fact that linen washing in the lochs was standard enough to be a problem, it was more likely done in the loch, away from the house, although it is possible that one could hire water carriers.  Linen was sometimes wrung out by being twisted around a pole.  The laundry was dried by being placed on bushes.  If sweet smelling bushes such as rosemary were available, this would lend a pleasant scent to the cloth. 


In spite of the difficulties posed to creating a hygienic home, other contemporary resources besides the Ménagier see it as a primary concern.  Platina, a mid-15th century Italian gourmet, describes the setting in which one should eat (quoted by Scully, p. 173):  “Napkins should be white and the tablecloths spotless, because, if they were otherwise, they would arouse squeamishness and take away the desire to eat.  Let a servant scrub the knives and sharpen their points so that the diners will not be delayed by dullness of iron.  The rest of the dishes should be scrubbed clean whether they are earthen or silver, for this meticulous care arouses even a sluggish appetite.”


Because mice and other vermin were a problem, it was important to have everything properly stored.   Mice will eat or damage not just food, but cloth with traces of food or the salty taste left by sweat.  At night, everything is to be locked up, the storeroom checked for evidence of theft, the hearth fires covered, the servants given their instructions for the morning, and the candles properly snuffed. 


Historian Robert Ekirk theorizes that given the long winter nights, up to 14 hours, the medieval sleep pattern fell into two parts with a period of wakefulness between rather than our standard eight hours sleep.  There are references in period documents to “first sleep” and “second sleep” and a suggestion that the waking time between was a good time for sexual intimacy and conversation between spouses.  (Worsley, ch. 13)


Responsibilities for Members of the Household/Family
“Family” in medieval terms often refers to a household, including members of the nuclear biological family, children being fostered or apprenticed, and servants.  Privacy was not typical, expected, nor generally sought.  Beds were commonly shared, partly because resources and space were limited, partly for warmth, and partly for company.  Even the master and mistress of the household, who would probably share the largest bed, likely with curtains for warmth and some privacy, frequently had children or servants sleeping in the same room. 


Medieval women underwent frequent pregnancies, although 14th century pastoral instructions suggest that coitus interruptus was known and sometimes used despite being forbidden  (Gilchrist, pg. 39) and recent research suggests some abortifacients were also known and used (Leyser).  Families who could afford it often sent the resulting children to wet nurses until the children were weaned, usually between 18 months and two years.  There were plenty of contemporary advocates, particularly religious ones, for nursing one’s own children, but wet nursing remained common among the well to do.  Maternal death, lack of milk in the mother, the wish for another pregnancy , and time-consuming responsibilities are all possible reasons for this.  Contemporary critics of wet nursing alleged it was done because of a desire to remain beautiful and sleep through the night.  Philippe d’Ariès, among some modern writers, has suggested that high infant and child mortality may have inclined parents to be unwilling to form a close bond with the infant, although there is certainly contemporary evidence of parental grief at the death of a child, such as the poem Pearl.  Whatever the truth – which can only be supposition at this point – wealthy medieval women did not necessarily have the care of infants as part of their household concerns. 


They did have the responsibility for the care and education of the children once they were weaned, as well as for any older children attached to the household as apprentices or sent by other families to learn manners and develop a network of useful contacts.  Christine de Pizan writes: “She will supervise the raising of her children and make sure they are neither coddled nor allowed to be too boisterous while they are young.  The children must be kept clean and mannerly.  Nor should their belongings nor the nurses’ belongings be strewn about the house.” (Pizan, p.187) Leyser refers to depictions of mothers playing hide-and-seek with their children in The Ancrene Riwle of the 13th century and quotes an example of conventional maternal concern shown in a play, when Sarah wants to keep Isaac indoors to keep him out of the wind. 


A contemporary poem by Jean Froissart of Hainaut lists 51 children’s games, including using materials such as mud, wood, and cloth to construct toy boats, mills, ovens, weapons, and hobbyhorses.  The toys most frequently depicted in pictures are spinning tops, hobbyhorses, and balls and items believed to be “buzz-bones” (bones with a cut hole to be threaded and whirred) have been excavated.  There is written documentation for dolls, but none have survived, so presumably they were created from perishable materials.  Miniatures made of pewter or lead/tin alloy have survived, including small knights and equestrian figures and little jugs and tablewear.  (Gilchrist, pp.149-151)


In a wealthy home, some of the physical care would be delegated to servants, but the mistress of the household would remain responsible for their discipline and seeing that they were fed and clothed appropriately. Some studies indicate that the children were fed a more plant-based diet than adults, with significantly less animal-based food (Gilchrist, p.52), which would suggest the necessity for planning a different menu for them.  The Stonor papers include some impressive invoices for fabric and shoemaking, much of it for young people in the Stonor household. If the household was large enough to include a chaplain, he would probably teach basic reading and religion, although the mother might do so and traditionally would teach them their first prayers.  Leyser argues that the increase in the 14th century of devotional pictures of St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read may indicate a rise in domestic literacy, particularly given the ruling during the clamp down on Lollardy in the 15th century which stated that women were only to teach other women and children.  The girls would also need to be taught skills such as spinning, needlework, and household management.   


The mistress of the household was also responsible for the servants.  The Ménagier tells his wife that to ensure the staff are properly inclined to fear and obey her, she will have control over hiring, firing, and discipline, although because she is young, she might want to ask his advice privately.  He suggests ways to hire the right servants and directs her to pay good servants well, because they are important to the comfort and happiness of the house:  “he that hath to do with good servants, he hath peace.”  She is to supervise young female servants closely, having them sleep near her, and correcting gossip, bad language, and gluttony, and “if she blushes and is shamefast when corrected, love her as your daughter.”  She is to forbid any quarreling among the servants and see that they are well fed and given proper times for work and rest, as well as warmth in bad weather.  This is obviously a very different relationship between mistress and servant than the modern employer-employee dynamic.  Essentially, she is acting in a parental role and the servants, although adults, are dependents.  


Servants’ wages sometimes included a yearly new garment and purchasing the cloth and having it made up would be part of the mistress’ responsibilities.  Clothing was sometimes handed down from master and mistress, presumably somewhat altered because of difference in rank.


When any members of the household were ill, whether husband, child, or servant, she was responsible for their care.  There are recipes extant for sickroom dishes, such as barley soup and sweet barley water, blankmanger (basically chicken, rice, almond milk, and sugar – all foods deemed to improve health), and Flemish Caudle (egg yolks beaten with white wine and drizzled into boiling water).  We also have some recipes for “cures” from the Leechbook, such as this one for a nosebleed:  “Anoint the nose with the juice of leeks within…also dandelion will stanch blood at the nose, if thou wilt break it and hold it to the nose that the savour may go into it.”  There was thought given to preventative medicine.  Elysabeth Stonor wrote her husband in 1476, “I send you a bladder with powder to drink when you go to bed, for it is wholesome for you.”


Although medieval medicine was based upon misconceptions about anatomy and the role of the “humours”, there was some useful advice.  The Health Rule of Salerno suggests “Use three doctors still, first Dr. Quiet, Next Dr. Merry-man, and Dr. Diet…” (Gies, Life…City, p. 118)



Dunbar’s poem, To the Merchants of Edinburgh, mentions some of the foods that would be for sale in Edinburgh’s market:  curds and milk, cockles and whelks, tripe, and haggis.  The basic town diet was grain-based, supplemented by seafood for the many fish days appointed by the church, berries and nuts from the local woodlands, and vegetables such as kale, turnips, and beans.  The local elite could add luxuries such as figs, grapes, and wine.  Wheat often had to be imported, so the poorer locals frequently ate bread made of oats, barley, or rye.  The wealthier townspeople could buy better bread from the many bakers. Oatcakes, bannocks, and porridge were simpler and cheaper to cook for the poor.  Barley was also consumed as ale, which was much safer to drink than water.  Meat was easier to obtain in the towns than in rural areas because animals were brought to the town for slaughter, but meat was mostly consumed by the well to do.  Meat was prohibited by the church on Fridays, Saturdays, and Wednesdays, as well as Lent and Advent. 


Pork was the most popular meat, partly because pigs were easy to raise and because pork kept well when salted.  In England, beef, veal, and lamb followed pork in order of popularity.  Medieval animals were all “free range” and were leaner than is typical for modern meat and tended to be slaughtered somewhat younger than they are at present.  Popular poultry included capons, hens, ducks, and geese.  Game animals and birds were mostly consumed by the nobility, who had the privilege of hunting.  Medieval cooks made use of virtually the entire animal including head, brain, lungs, kidneys, testicles, and offal.  Sausages were a popular way of using the less valued parts of the animal and were frequently eaten by the poor, although sausage did appear on upper class tables, sometimes with slices dyed different colours.  In England, sausage was most frequently boiled.  Roasts were definitely the prestige meat dish, however, cooked on a rotisserie, coated in fat to prevent it drying out.  (Klemettilä, pp. 63-76)


Because of the many fast days, enormous amounts of fish were eaten, both from the sea and from fresh water.  They were frequently salted, fermented, smoked, or dried to preserve them during transport.  Herring and cod were the most common fish products in Europe.  Specialties such as shark, sturgeon, salmon, and Lamprey eels were reserved for the tables of the wealthy.  Wealthy land owners often built fish ponds and dams to provide fish for their tables.  Since fish were seen as being cold and wet (as to their humours, that is), medical advice  suggested grilling or frying as the best preparation, served with a sauce rich in spices and herbs.  Oysters, mussels, crayfish, shrimp, and lobster were also served, baked or cooked in broth, sometimes with eggs, wine, almonds, and spices.  (Klemettilä, pp. 77-83)


Fruit and vegetables would have been available seasonally.  Modern excavations of cesspits indicate that in the middle ages fruit was eaten more frequently and in larger quantities than previously thought.  Dried fruit (imported and expensive) and root vegetables which lasted well if carefully stored would be the choices in winter.  A kitchen garden would be the likeliest source for fresh vegetables, especially cabbage, kale, onions, garlic, leeks, nettles, and various herbs, both for the pot and for medicinal purposes.  Kale would often grow through much of the winter in southern England, but I doubt that it would as far north as Edinburgh. 


Vegetables were generally eaten cooked, after being thoroughly rinsed and often parboiled.  They were frequently used in pottages.  As they were not regarded as particularly nutritious, meat or fish broth was added when available.  Cauliflowers, lettuce, and peas became known after being originally cultivated in southern Europe.  Root vegetables were sometimes pan fried or baked in hot ashes.  Broad beans, lentils, and peas – the “dry” vegetables – were widely consumed.  They were, of course, the main stay of the peasant diet, particularly with onions, leeks, or cabbage added, but the wealthy also enjoyed them, albeit with fancier additions.  One English recipe calls for beans to be boiled in almond milk, with wine, raisins, and honey added.  Turnips were common and popular.  Carrots, parsnips, beetroots, radishes, and horseradish were also known.  Spinach and asparagus were relative newcomers, more likely to be found in the kitchens of the wealthy.  Fennel leaves were used in salads and fennel seeds were used both as a seasoning and as a medicine.  (Klemettila, pp 51-59)


It would be necessary to purchase salt for flavouring and preserving.  The cheapest was sea salt, which often had extraneous content from being dried in mud flats.  It also had valuable trace elements such as iodine, but of course the medieval consumer was not aware of this and preferred salt from salt springs or salt mines as purer and better tasting.  This was much more expensive, however, and sea salt was the most commonly used.  Olive oil and almonds were also important purchases if money was available.  Almond milk substituted frequently for fresh milk, which was very difficult to keep.  Most milk would be processed into cheese or butter, with salt added to improve preservation. 


Alice de Breyne’s household accounts for 1412-13 show purchases of almonds, raisins, rice, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, mace, figs, currants, dates, sugar, pepper, mustard seed, soda-ash, and honey.  Beef and pork were served throughout the year on flesh days in her household.


Beer or ale was the most common drink, although wine, cider, mead, and perry were also beverages of the period.  Sweet red wine was the most favoured of the imported wines according to import duties and price controls. 


It is possible that chickens might be kept in the back garden for eggs and the occasional chicken dinner.  Chicken was considered particularly appropriate food for someone who was ill.


The Ménagier provides his wife with a number of menus, “divers dinners and suppers of great lords and others…whereupon you may choose, collect, and learn whatsoever dishes it may please you…when you have to give a dinner or supper.”  I infer that these suggestions are for company dinners, rather than standard fare.  One of the menus follows:


First course:              Beef and marrow pasties, hare in civey, great joints, a white coney brewet, capons and venison with sops, white porray, turnips, salt ducks, and chines.

Second course:            The best roast, a rosee of larks, a blankmanger, umbles, boar’s tail with hot sauce, fat capon pasties, fritters, and Norwegian pasties (made with cod’s liver)

Third course:               Frumenty, venison, various sorts of glazed meats, fat geese and capons, cream darioles (small pastries containing custard, possibly with dried fruit or almonds) and leches (slices) fried and sugared, bourreys of hot galantine, capon jelly, coneys, young chickens, rabbits, and piglings

Fourth course:             Hippocras (spiced and sweetened wine) and wafers for issue.”


Brears cites a middle-class menu from Furnivall’s Early English Meals and Manners – A Feast for a Franklin:

First course:                Brawne with mustard, bacon with peas, boiled beef or mutton, boiled chicken or capon, roast goose and roast suckling pig, baked custard of eggs and cream

Second course:            Mortrews and jussell (eggs and broth), roast veal, lamb, kid, cony, or pigeon, bakemeats and dowcets (small cream-filled pastry), fritters, a leach (pudding, sliced), spiced apples and pears, bread and cheese

Void:                            Spiced cakes and wafers, braggot (very strong ale with honey and spices added) and mead


Some medieval Scottish recipes:  (Macdonald, although the author does not cite sources for these recipes.  I thought them interesting enough to add, especially given the paucity of specifically Scottish information.)

Blood Pudding

1.       Put the blood in a bowl.  Stir well.

2.      Add salt, milk, chopped fat, chopped onions, oatmeal, herbs or spices.

3.      Pack into cleaned animal intestines.

4.      Put in boiling water and boil for half an hour.

5.        Store in a cool airy place, and boil again before eating. 


Cream Crowdie (eat with fresh raspberries if possible)

1.      Toast some oatmeal on an iron girdle (griddle) and let it cool.

2.      Whip some cream into a froth.

3.      Arrange thick layers of cream and thin layers of oatmeal alternately in a bowl.

4.        Drizzle heather honey on top.


Black Bun (traditionally eaten at Hogmanay)

1.       Put raisins, currants, candied orange peel, almonds, spices (cloves, ginger, cinnamon, pepper) and flour in a big bowl. 

2.      Add buttermilk or beaten eggs and stir.

3.      Line a baking tin with pastry.  Put the fruit mixture inside.

4.      Add a lid of pastry and seal the edges well.

5.        Bake in a gentle oven for four hours.


Sowans (good for invalids)

1.      Soak oat grain husks in water for three days or more until they smell sour.

2.      Squeeze the husks to press out a milky liquid, then throw them away.

3.      Stand the milky liquid in a jar in a warm place for 24 hours.  You should find a thick layer at the bottom and a thin liquid on top.

4.        Mix some of the thick layer with water, then boil it, stirring, for 10 minutes.  Serve with milk.


Roast Venison

1.      Take a haunch of red deer.

2.      Soak it for 6 hours in red wine mixed with vinegar.

3.      Fix it on a spit above a big, hot fire.

4.      Mix the wine and vinegar with melted butter, then pour over the haunch all the time while it turns.

5.        When the haunch is nearly cooked, coat with more butter, sprinkle with flour.  Cook for another 15 minutes.  This will give it a crispy coating. 


Oatcake/Havercake  (Brears)

1.      Melt a tablespoon of lard or dripping in 3 tablespoons of warm water. 

2.      Mix in 3 ounces of fine oatmeal and a pinch of salt to form a dough. 

3.      Knead and pat out on a thin layer of oatmeal to form a ten inch disc.

4.      Heat a girdle/bakestone until scattered flour slowly browns, but doesn’t smoulder. 

5.      Slide cake onto bakestone and bake until edges begin to curl up, about 4-5 minutes. 

6.      Turn over and bake on other side. 

7.      Prop up in front of fire to dry out and slightly toast. 



The picture above shows Edinburgh in the 17th century, about 200 years after the period under discussion, but still shows the town walls and gives something of a sense of the enclosed, small, medieval city, surrounded by open fields and hills.                      


Edinburgh is set on a glacial tail stretching east from the Castle Rock.  The earliest building still standing is the small chapel of St. Margaret at the summit of Castle Rock, erected in the 12th century.  The castle ramparts were repaired in 1335 and the castle enlarged and remodelled, with royal apartments built.  Hidden within the wall of the Half Moon Battery are the shattered remains of David's Tower. This massive rectangular keep, begun as a royal lodging by David II in 1368, dominated the Castle for nearly two centuries.


David I established about 10 Scottish burghs in the 12th century, some of which were new and some already existed but were raised to burghal status.  It is not known which is the case for Edinburgh.  Edinburgh’s plan conforms to the commonest type for medieval towns of this period throughout Europe:  it has a single main street, the High Street, which widens in the middle to accommodate markets and the parish church, St. Giles, with plots of uniform width (25 feet) and length (450 feet), called ‘tofts’, extending to back lanes or town defenses.  It is unusual in that there actually were two burghs: Edinburgh running part way down the ridge and the lower part of the ridge the burgh of Canongate, which Holyrood Abbey had been permitted to establish. 


After the founding of the burgh, the tofts were let to tenants who committed themselves to building a house near the front of the site within a year and eventually to pay rent (burghage tenure) to the king.  In the burgh of Canongate, this would have been paid to the Abbot.  Tenure could be inherited and later could be sold.  The ‘backlands’ behind the house could be used for kitchen gardens, but eventually, as other buildings were needed, these were built up and accessed by paths along the toft boundaries, creating the characteristic ‘closes’ of Edinburgh.  Documents from 1491 indicate that there were still gardens and yards at this point, as they are referred to in divisions of property in town.  For merchants and tradesmen, the important aspect of the property was the profitable frontage on the high street.  (Edwards)


A rough estimate of the population of the burgh done in 1929 based on an assessment of burgage plots behind the walls suggested a population of 2,000 in 1329.  Using the same baseline, the population had risen to 10,000 by 1560, suggesting rapid growth.   Froissart described Edinburgh as the “chief town” of Scotland, but government of this period was attached to the king, who moved about in his kingdom, and it would not have been the seat of government in the modern sense. 


The King’s Wall was begun in 1427, running parallel to an earlier wall.  The church of St. Mary’s in the Fields and the Dominican monastery of Blackfriars were both established in the 13th century.    St. Giles was, however, the parish church for the burgh, built in the traditional cruciform plan, although this was later blurred by the addition of multiple chapels. 


There are references to town walls and gates in them dating to 1180, although they seem to have been more intended to control access to the market and to collect taxes than to fend off invasions.  Edinburgh Castle, overlooking the town, is the actual defensive structure.  Holyrood Abbey is at the opposite end of the High Street from the castle, near the mount of Arthur’s Seat, in Canongate.  When resident in the area, the royal family often lived in the comfortable guest quarters of Holyrood Abbey rather than in their apartments at the castle. 


In 1329, King Robert gave Edinburgh a new charter to encourage it to rebuild after the devastation of the English occupation and the war with England.  Among other things, it made over to them a port at the mouth of the Water of Leith.  Edinburgh was liable for a flat fee of 52 merks a year, far less than the cities of Berwick and Aberdeen. 


During much of the 14th century there was considerable building in Edinburgh.  In the High Street, the church of St. Giles was rebuilt, particularly after the English sacked the town again in 1385.  Chapels and transepts were added and the choir was complete by 1419.  The spire was raised in height to be more impressive.  Although there was no seating for the congregation in early medieval churches, by this period there is documentation for some seating against the walls and sometimes pews, with records from some 15th century churches of pews being reserved for women or sold for the use of particular families (Gilchrist, p.175).  Worshippers knelt upon the stone floor, although the wealthy might bring a cushion to kneel on or women bunch their skirts to pad their knees a bit. During the pre-Reformation period, the church would have been decorated with coloured statues, with vivid wall paintings of the lives of the saints, elaborate stone tombs of local noble families, stained glass windows, and embroidered hangings.   Carvings in wood and stone abounded, sometimes just for beauty, sometimes humorous, and sometimes – as in depictions of the Last Judgement – terrifying.   Beeswax candles were used in ceremonies, their scent and flickering light adding drama to the scene.  The priests would have been in brightly coloured and elaborate vestments and the church filled with music and the aroma of incense.  The service and its surroundings would have been a feast for the senses.


The church was very central to the community, both religiously and socially, as all members of the community were a part of it.  For instance, at the celebration of Candlemas, 40 days after Christmas, each parishioner would bring a candle to be blessed by the priest, paying him a penny for this service.  The candles were consecrated at the high altar and perfumed with incense.  “They were then lit and carried … in procession around the church, evoking the symbolism of divine light and the renewal of life” (Gilchrist, p. 171)  Some candles would be given to the church afterwards, but others would be taken home to “be lit during thunderstorms or in times of sickness or put in the hands of the dying.” (Gilchrist, p. 171, quoting Eamon Duffy)  This was a rite performed by the community as a group rather than simply a performance by the clergy witnessed by the congregation and for many carried over into rituals in the home which comforted them when they were afraid. 


Next to St. Giles, in the middle of the long marketplace which had originally been laid out in the 1120’s, the Tolbooth, where taxes were paid and other government business dealt with, was built.  There had been a tolbooth or pretorium as early as 1368 and the one built after the English destruction of the city is first mentioned in 1403, when it was used by parliament.  In Aberdeen, each burgess had to contribute 4 d. or one day’s work to the building of their Tolbooth and presumably a similar arrangement would have happened in Edinburgh. The Tron, or official weight, and the Market Cross were nearby.  The Market Cross was the central place of trade and where announcements and public punishments took place.  Some times a reconciliation ritual was imposed, or the stocks, pillory, or an iron collar were used.  In an apparently unique Scottish practice, those convicted of speaking false words had to admonish their tongue publicly:  “false tongue, you lied!” (Cowan)  Friars might also preach from here.  Prices were set for staple goods such as bread and ale and hours were set for selling. 


The High Street would have had temporary booths and stalls set up on market days or for fairs, as well as chapmen carrying their wares on horses or on their backs.  In the booths and shops, there could also be candle sellers, basket makers, soap  (some fine, made from olive oil and even scented), brooms, combs, glassware, wooden hoops, rush matting, knives, and pater nosters, as well as all the foods.  In the typical medieval city, there would be brightly coloured signboards over the many taverns and tradesmen’s symbols over the shops, a bush for a vintner, three gilded pills for the apothecary, a unicorn for the goldsmith, and so on.  In the permanent shop stalls the front when opened would fold down to form a counter to display the wares and often an upper part would fold up to create a small canopy to protect them. 


Religious processions would take place.  Some towns had official, hired musicians.  We know from Dunbar that Edinburgh had official minstrels by the latter part of the 15th century, although he did not think highly of their skills.   Some towns had plays similar to the mystery or morality plays in England, although the evidence for this is very scattered, with no documentation prior to 1440, and I have found nothing specific to Edinburgh. 

The open area outside the city walls was used for archery practice, for sports, for grazing animals, for washing and bleaching linen, and also for festivities needing a larger space. 

Thanks to middens belonging to homes, to casual disposal of sewage and garbage, and the stench produced by animal dung, the remains of slaughtered animals, and industries such as dyeing and tanning, the city would have been strongly and unpleasantly scented, probably overwhelming pleasanter aromas from the cookhouses and bakeries.  Dunbar complained of the “reek of haddock”.  The most unpleasant industries such as tanning were usually confined to a specific area, so the degree of odour may have varied with wind direction.  There are detailed descriptions from 150 years later of disputes in urban England over privies and cesspits (Locating Privacy in Tudor London, L.C. Orlin).  The disagreements ranged over odour, overuse, trespass, and cost.  This is, of course, considerably later in time and in more crowded conditions, but one of the things stressed was the expense involved in having the privies emptied and the resulting tendency to use public or other nearby privies.  In Edinburgh, much closer to 1430, there are references to people fouling ditches, walls, and public benches and stools (Cowan, p.129).  Much less irksome and probably rarely noticed, in wet weather, there would have been the scent of wet wool from everyone’s clothing.

Feral cats and dogs wandered and so did pigs, which had owners, but had been turned loose to forage.  Officials made an effort to keep the market area as clean as possible and various laws were passed to improve hygiene.  More effort was made in times of plague – which was pretty much every decade or so from 1350 to the end of this period - as bad air or miasma was believed to carry illness.  Shop keepers might try to keep the area in front of their shop fairly clear, in order not to discourage trade, although offal from the butcher and poultry shops would be often just be dumped in the street.  In the most important streets and before the wealthier houses, servants would clear the area before the door. 

In the better homes, fragrant herbs were strewn with rushes on the floor and the rushes changed in order to improve the smells in the house.  Herbs were sometimes burned as well.  Experiences with camping would suggest to me that the smoke from the hearths and the scent of burning wood would have masked some of the odours. 

The noises of the city would have mostly been natural ones, from people talking or negotiating prices or arguing, from friars preaching, and street sellers crying their wares.  Scully cites street cries from Piers Plowman, 1377:  “Cooks and their kitchen-boys kept crying, ‘Hot pies, hot! Good pork and geese! Go dine, go!  Tavern-keepers told them the same, ‘White wine of Alsace and red wine of Gascony, Of the Rhine and LaRochelle, to wash down the roast!’  Other cries from Europe quoted by Scully include the following:  Mussels, lily-white mussels! I have ripe strawberries, ripe strawberries! Buy my dish of great smelts! Fine oranges, fine lemons!  Fresh eels!  Rabbits for sale!  Rats or mice to kill!  Old shoes, old shoes!”  Beggars would be importuning passersby, often quite noisily and aggressively.  Some of the sounds would be from animals, the clop of horse hoofs, the barking of dogs, the snorting of pigs rooting through garbage, and the squawking of the geese and other poultry awaiting purchase.  There would also have been the church bells, which marked the passing of the canonical hours, from matins to the curfew bell at night, as well as marking rites of passage such as burials.   In a period without easy means of telling time, the bells did more than call you to prayers and remind you of God’s watchful presence.  At night there would have been dark and quiet, fires banked, windows shuttered, respectable citizens all abed. 

William Dunbar’s famous poem, To the Merchants of Edinburgh, provides an interesting picture of Edinburgh in the throes of rapid growth and urban problems.  The poem is from the end of the 15th century, so many of the problems would have possibly been less onerous in 1430.  Given the Scottish tradition of flyting, basically contests of insults in poetry, the charges may also be exaggerated.

From William Dunbar’s poem:  To the Merchants of Edinburgh
 Quhy will ye, merchantis of renoun,                          Why will you, merchants of renown,
Lat Edinburgh, your nobill toun,                                Let Edinburgh, your noble town,
For laik of reformatioun                                              For lack of reformation,
The commone proffeitt tyine and fame?                    The common good injure and defame?
Think ye not schame                                                   Think you not shame
That onie uther regioun                                               That any other region
Sall with dishonour hurt your name?                          Shall with dishonour hurt your name?

May nane pas throw your principall gaittis                 None can pass your principal gates
For stink of haddockis and of scattis,                                    For stink of haddocks and of skates,
For cryis of carlingis and debaittis,                             For cries of old women and debates,
For feusum flyttinis of defame.                                  And foul hurlings of insults.
Think ye not schame,                                                  Think you not shame,
Befoir strangeris of all estaittis                                   Before strangers of all estates
That sic dishonour hurt your name?                            That such dishonour hurts your name?

Your Stinkand Stull that standis dirk                         Your stinking alleys standing dark
Haldis the lycht fra your parroche kirk.                      Block the light from your parish kirk
Your foirstairis makis your housis mirk                      Your gables and galleys make houses dark
Lyk na cuntray bot heir at hame.                                Like in no country other than ours.
Think ye not schame,                                                  Think you not shame,
Sa litill polesie to work,                                              So little policy put to work
In hurt and sklander of your name?                            Against hurt and slander of your name?

At your Hie Croce quhar gold and silk                       At your High Cross, where gold and silk
Sould be, thair is bot crudis and milk,                        Should be, there is only curds and milk,
And at your Trone bot cokill and wilk,                      And at the Scale only cockles and whelks,
Pansches, pudingis of Jok and Jame.                          Tripe and haggis fit for rustics.
Think ye not schame,                                                  Think you not shame,
Sen as the world sayis that ilk,                                   That all the world says the same,
In hurt and sclander of your name?                            In hurt and slander of your name?

Your commone menstrallis hes no tone                      Your common minstrels know no tunes
Bot "Now the day dawis" and "Into Joun."               Except “Now the day dawns” & “Into June”,
Cunningar men man serve Sanct Cloun                      More cunning men must serve St. Clown
And nevir to uther craftis clame.                                And never to other crafts lay claim.
Think ye not schame,                                                  Think you not shame,
To hald sic mowaris on the moyne,                            To keep such mockers at the moon,
In hurt and sclander of your name?                            In hurt and slander of your name?

Tailyouris, soutteris, and craftis vyll                           Tailors, cobblers, and crafts vile
The fairest of your streitis dois fyll,                            The fairest of your streets defile
And merchantis at the Stinkand Styll                         And merchants at the stinking alleyway
Ar hamperit in ane honycame.                                    Are crammed into a honeycomb.
Think ye not schame                                                   Think you not shame,
That ye have nether witt nor wyll                               That you have neither wit nor will
To win yourselff ane bettir name?                              To win yourselves a better name?

Your burgh of beggeris is ane nest,                            Your burgh of beggars is one nest
To schout thai swentyouris will not rest.                    In which scoundrels will not rest
All honest folk they do molest,                                  All honest folk they do molest,
Sa piteuslie thai cry and rame.                                    So piteously they cry and clamour.
Think ye not schame,                                                  Think you not shame
That for the poore hes nothing drest,                          That for the poor is nothing provided
In hurt and sclander of your name?                            In hurt and slander of your name?

Your proffeit daylie dois incres,                                 Your profit daily does increase
Your godlie workis, les and les.                                  But your godly works are less and less
Through streittis nane may mak progress                    None may progress through the streets
For cry of cruikit, blind, and lame.                             For cries of crippled, blind, and lame.
Think ye not schame,                                                  Think you not shame,
That ye sic substance dois posses,                              Since such substance you possess,
And will not win ane bettir name?                             And will not win a better name?

Sen for the Court and the Sessioun,                           Since to the Court and the Session
The great repair of this regioun                                   The great attendance of this region
Is in your burgh, thairfoir be boun                              Is in your burgh, then be ready
To mend all faultis that ar to blame,                           To mend all your faults
And eschew schame.                                                  And eschew shame.
Gif thai pas to aneuther toun,                                     If they pass on to another town,
Ye will decay and your great name.                           You and your great name will decay.

Thairfoir strangeris and leigis treit,                             Therefore strangers and welcome subjects
Tak not ouer mekill for thair meit,                              Shouldn’t be overcharged for their meat
And gar your merchandis be discreit.                         And merchants’ prices should be discreet.
That na extortiounes be, proclame                              To prevent extortion, denounce
All fraud and schame.                                                 All fraud and shame.
Keip ordour and poore nighbouris beit,                      Keep order and poor neighbours help
That ye may gett ane bettir name.                               That you may get a better name.

Singular proffeit so dois yow blind,                           Your own profits do you blind
The common proffeit gois behind.                              And the general welfare goes behind.
I pray that Lord remeid to fynd                                 I pray that Lord remedy to find,
That deit into Jerusalem,                                             That died in Jerusalem,
And gar yow schame,                                                 And give you a sense of shame
That sumtyme ressoun may yow bind,                       That sometime reason may you bind
For to restor to yow guid name
                                  For to restore your good name.

Holyrood Abbey (description and picture from internet)

The ruined Augustinian abbey that is sited in the grounds was founded in 1128 at the order of King David I of Scotland. The name derives either from a legendary vision of the cross witnessed by David I, or from a relic of the True Cross known as the Holy Rood or Black Rood, and which had belonged to Queen Margaret, David's mother. As a royal foundation, and sited close to Edinburgh Castle, it became an important administrative centre. In 1370, David II became the first of several Kings of Scots to be buried at Holyrood. Not only was James II born at Holyrood in 1430, it was at Holyrood that he was crowned, married and laid to rest. The early royal residence was in the abbey guesthouse, which most likely stood on the site of the present north range of the palace, west of the abbey cloister, and by the later 15th century already had dedicated royal apartments. 9


According to Gemmill and Mayhew in Changing Values in Medieval Scotland, in the 13th and early 14th centuries, English coin was the dominant coinage in Scotland.  In 1367, however,  Scotland ‘clearly moved away from sterling’, although it took until the end of the century to eclipse the predominance of English currency.  English coins were still in use to some extent in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The basic unit was the penny.  In accounts, shillings and pounds were used, as well as the mark (merk in Scotland), which was two thirds of a pound.  Comparison is complicated, but Private Life in the Fifteenth Century gives some interesting figures on English incomes and prices:

The wealthiest lords,  such as the Duke of York, had annual incomes between £4,000 and £6,000.  Alice de Breyne’s annual income was £400.  John Paston’s 1451 tax assessment was £66 per annum from land, while wages for an agricultural labourer were about 4d. a day, 5-6 d. a day for a building worker, and 6 d. a day for an archer.

wheat – 5s. 8d. a quarter

salt – 5 d. a bushel

eggs – 5 d. a hundred

pepper – 2 s. a pound

sugar – 1 s. 6 d. a pound,

raisins – 3 d. a pound

candles – 1 d. a pound

milk – 1 d. a gallon

beer – 1 d. a gallon

red wine – 10 d. a gallon

cattle – 9-11 s. each

sheep – 1-2 s. each

pigs – 2-3s. each


CALENDAR – dates would be usually written with reference to year of reign and religious festivals:

Annunciation of the Virgin – 25 March

Ash Wednesday, followed by 40 days of Lent

Palm Sunday

Maundy Thursday

Good Friday

Easter Day

Rogation Sunday – 5th Sunday after Easter

Ascension Day – Thursday following Rogation Sunday

Pentecost, Whitsunday – 7th Sunday after Easter

Trinity Sunday – 8th Sunday after Easter

Corpus Christi – Thursday after Trinity Sunday

Midsummer/Birth of John the Baptist – 24 June

Lammas/St. Peter’s Day - 1 August

Michaelmas – 29 September

Hallowmas – 1 November

Martinmas – 11 November

Christmas – 25 December

Epiphany – 6 January

Hilary – 13 January

Candlemas/Purification of the Virgin – 2 February

Timeline (Edinburgh, Scotland, England, France)

The climate worsened in the 14th century in Scotland, with floods, animal diseases, and poor harvests.  In 1344, John of Fordun writes, “There was so great a pestilence among the fowls that men utterly shrank from eating, or even looking upon, a cock or a hen, as though unclean and smitten with leprosy; and thus, as well as from the aforesaid cause, nearly the whole of that species was destroyed…”


1350:  The Black Death (source is John of Fordun):  “There was in the kingdom of Scotland so great a pestilence and plague among men (which also prevailed for a great many years before and after in divers parts of the world – nay, all over the whole earth) as…had never been heard of by man nor is found in books…For to such a pitch did that plague wreak its cruel spite that nearly a third of mankind were thereby made to pay the debt of nature.  Moreover, by God’s will, this evil led to a strange and unwonted kind of death, insomuch that the flesh of the sick was somehow puffed out and swollen and they dragged out their earthly life for barely two days.  Now this everywhere attacked especially the meaner sort and common people, seldom the magnates.  Men shrank from it so much that, through fear of contagion, sons, fleeing as from the face of leprosy or from an adder, durst not go and see their parents in the throes of death.”  This recurred, though less violently, every decade or so for many years. 

23 February 1371: David II dies at Edinburgh Castle. He is succeeded by his nephew, Robert Stewart who becomes King Robert II, and the founder of the Stewart dynasty that is to rule Scotland for most of the next three hundred years. Robert II is the grandson of Robert the Bruce by his daughter Marjory. The usual hostilities with England are more or less ongoing. 

1377: Death of Edward III of England and the accession of his grandson, Richard II, as a minor, with John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, his uncle, as chief man in the realm.

1380:  Charles V of France dies and is succeeded by his son, Charles VI.

1381:  Peasants’ Rising in England.

November 1384: An ailing Robert II is sidelined in favour of his own eldest son and heir, John, Earl of Carrick, who becomes Guardian of the Kingdom.

1384: Duke of Lancaster extorts ransom from burgesses following end of truce

1385: Archibald Douglas, 3rd Earl of Douglas captures Lochmaben Castle from the English, held by them since 1333.

June 1385: The Scots under the Earl of Carrick, supported by a French army, invade northern England but are pushed back as far as Edinburgh, which is destroyed in retaliation by the English.  Jean Froissart complains of the treatment of the French army by the Scots, who in turn have many complaints about the French.  Froissart comments upon the poverty of the country and lack of availability of many items and the “savage” manners of the Scots.

1385:  English burn Edinburgh

1386: Robert II grants ground for building of the Tolbooth

1387: Donald of Islay becomes the 2nd Lord of the Isles following the death of John of Islay.

1387: Five new chapels are added to the Church of St Giles following English damage in 1385

August 1388: The Earl of Carrick leads the Scots into Cumberland and Northumberland. This culminates with the Battle of Otterburn, a victory for the Scots but with the loss of their battlefield commander James, Earl of Douglas, the Earl of Carrick's most powerful ally in southern Scotland.

December 1388: John, Earl of Carrick, who has been injured while riding, is replaced as Guardian of the Kingdom by his younger brother Robert, Earl of Fife.

1394:  Death of Queen Anne, wife of Richard II of England

April 1390: Robert II dies, and is succeeded by his eldest son John, Earl of Carrick. He becomes, confusingly, King Robert III because the Scots feel John is an unlucky name for a King and because for him to become John II would acknowledge John Balliol as John I, and so revive a claim to the throne that had been sold to Edward III of England in 1356.

17 June 1390: Alexander Stewart, youngest son of Robert II and younger brother Robert III, and Robert, Earl of Fife, destroy Elgin Cathedral.

1393:  Le Ménagier writes his book around this time.

24 July 1394:  Alexander Stewart, 1st Earl of Buchan, the Wolf of Badenoch, dies, according to legend after playing chess with the devil at Ruthven Castle.

September 1396: In an effort to halt one of the many clan feuds dividing the Highlands, Robert III arranged a fight to the death between 30 warriors from each of the Clans Kay and Chattan on the edge of Perth in front of spectators. 11 Clan Chattan emerge alive and one man of Clan Kay escapes by swimming the River Tay. This is later called the Battle of the Inch.

1396:  Richard II of England marries Isabella of France and begins a 28 year truce with France.

1398: Robert III's eldest son, David, is created 1st Duke of Rothesay and Robert III's younger brother, Robert, Earl of Fife, is created Duke of Albany.

1398: Henry Sinclair, 1st Earl of Orkney, is believed to have made his voyage of discovery to North America.

In those days there was no law in Scotland, but the strong oppressed the weak, and the whole kingdom was one den of thieves. Homicides, robberies, fire-raisings, and other misdeeds remained unpunished, and justice seemed banished beyond the kingdom's bounds. 

The Chartularium Episcopatus Moraviensis written at Elgin Cathedral for the year 1398


1399: The General Council takes power from Robert III, now in poor health, and gives it instead to David Stewart, 1st Duke of Rothesay, whom they make the King's Lieutenant.


1399:  Richard II of England is forced to abdicate.  Henry IV ascends to the throne.

1400:  Death of Geoffrey Chaucer

1400: The Duke of Rothesay bigamously marries Mary Douglas. The father of his spurned first wife gains support from Henry IV of England and an English army easily takes Edinburgh, except for the castle, before withdrawing.

1400: Henry IV attempts to storm castle

1401: David Stewart, 1st Duke of Rothesay is captured by his uncle Robert, Duke of Albany and imprisoned in St Andrews Castle. He is subsequently moved to the Duke of Albany's home at Falkland Palace in Fife.

March 1402: David Stewart, 1st Duke of Rothesay, dies at Falkland Palace as a result, the General Council decides, of "Divine Providence". Others say the cause is starvation. This leaves David's 7 year-old brother James as heir to the throne still held by Robert III. There are fears that James in turn will not be safe from the ambitions of his uncle Robert.

1403:  English warring with Welsh.

1403:  The earliest burgh record mentions the "Pretorio burgi" - the Old Tolbooth

February 1406: An army of James' supporters is defeated by the Duke of Albany at Edinburgh. James is taken for safety to Bass Rock, off North Berwick.

22 March 1406: James is captured by pirates off Flamborough Head in Yorkshire while en route to sanctuary in France. They then hand him over to Henry IV of England.

4 April 1406: King Robert III dies in Rothesay Castle after hearing the news of James' capture. James therefore succeeds to the throne as James I at the age of 11 and as a prisoner of the English. He is first lodged in the Tower, moved to Nottingham Castle in 1407 and Evesham in 1409, then sent back to the Tower by Henry V, but afterwards joined the court at Windsor. 

1406: Robert, Duke of Albany becomes Governor of Scotland in his nephew's absence and moves his base to Doune Castle.

1407: The Duke of Albany negotiates a renewal of the long standing treaty of mutual support against England with France.

24 July 1411: At the Battle of Harlaw, 20 miles north of Aberdeen, the highland army of Donald of Islay, Lord of the Isles meets the lowland army of Alexander, Earl of Mar, son of the Wolf of Badenoch. At stake is the Earldom of Ross and control of northern Scotland. After an inconclusive day of heavy fighting and heavy casualties, Donald retires to Inverness and Alexander to Aberdeen.

1413: The University of St Andrews is founded as a center for learning and the arts.

1413:  Henry IV dies, Henry V becomes King of England.

1415:  English invasion of France, Battle of Agincourt.

1418:  In France, which has already had serious losses to the English, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, captures Paris.  The Dauphin flees.

1419:  John the Fearless is assassinated by friends of the Dauphin.  He is succeeded by his son, Philip the Good, who allies himself with the English.

1420:  Robert, Duke of Albany dies and is succeeded as Governor of Scotland by his son, Murdoch.

1420:  Charles VI signs the Treaty of Troyes, under which the French throne will pass on his death to Henry V of England, who has married the French princess, Katherine.

August 1422:  Death of Henry V of England, succeeded by his very young son, Henry VI. 

October 1422:  Charles VI of France dies, succeeded by his son, Charles VII.  From the English point of view, by the Treaty of Troyes, he should have been succeeded by Henry VI of England.  The Hundred Years War continues.

1422:  Margaret Mauteby, later Paston, is born in England around this time.

1423 : Alexander of Islay becomes the 3rd Lord of the Isles following the death of Donald of Islay.

December 1423: The Treaty of London provides for the release of King James I by Henry VI of England in return for a King's ransom of £40,000, plus £4,000 for the expenses incurred during James' 18 years of captivity.

February 1424:  James I marries Lady Joan Beaufort, a relative of Henry VI, in London.  (Joan is the daughter of John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, who is the legitimated eldest son of John of Gaunt and his third wife, Katherine Swynford – Henry VI is the great-grandson of John of Gaunt through his first marriage.)

21 May 1424:  James I is crowned at Scone.

1424:  After Linlithgow, which is 15 miles from Edinburgh, burns in 1424, James starts rebuilding Linlithgow Palace as a splendid – and expensive - residence for the kings of Scotland.

April 1425:  James I arrests many members of the Albany family, descendents of his uncle, Robert.  James Albany evades capture long enough to attack Dumbarton and destroy the castle, so justifying a charge of treason against the family.

May 1425: The Scottish Parliament meets in Stirling to try the Albany family for treason. Murdoch and three others are executed and the family is virtually extinguished.

1427:  Act of Parliament sets a bounty on wolf whelps and orders all men to assist their barons in hunting wolves when asked, upon pain of fine. 

1427:  Act of Parliament forbids lepers to enter any burgh other than on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from ten in the morning to two in the afternoon or to beg in kirks or kirkyards.

1428: James I summons Alexander, Lord of the Isles and other highland clan chiefs to a meeting in Inverness, and has them arrested. Three are executed as an example, but others including Alexander are later released.

1429:  Jeanne d’Arc leads French army to the relief of Orleans, turning the tide of the war in France. 

1429: Alexander, Lord of the Isles, attacks and destroys Inverness. James I retaliates and captures Alexander, releasing him again two years later.

16 October 1430: Twin sons, James and Alexander, are born to James I and Joan. Alexander dies as a baby, but James survives



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