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Notes on Real Life for the Upper Classes in the Middle Ages

copyright 1996 by Lady Melisande of Hali

 

In our egalitarian democratic society, it is sometimes difficult to realize, let alone remember, how much time and effort used to be spent creating and maintaining class distinctions. Clothing, behavior, even language, were rigged so that the lower classes could not masquerade as their betters.

Dragging Gowns

Female medieval dress was especially geared so that a woman who was not used to the behavior of the clothing would either injure herself, or behave in a manner not considered ladylike. You can look at it in Darwinian terms: the noblewomen were making certain that their breeding group kept the best nurture for their offspring, by making commoners unacceptable public mates for noblemen.

We think of clothes often in terms of comfort, practicality, and only lastly looks. For a medieval noblewoman, the more impractical the garment, the better. A lower class woman who was used to moving briskly with free limbs simply did not know how to handle ground-sweeping sleeves (1100s & 1400s), two-foot wide headdresses (1400s), or skirts a foot longer than she was (1200s & 1300s).

No problem, you're thinking about the last: you just grab up a couple of handfuls until it clears your ankles.

Ladies did not ever touch their skirts, or so certain experts claimed. They not only crossed halls, they carried objects in both hands and walked up and down stairs without ever lifting their trailing skirts in the least. That's what the miniatures show, too. That's how you spotted a peasant in clothes too good for her: she either handled her skirts, or she tripped.

Lady Kathea von der Eiche and I were fascinated by this dictum, so about the fall of 1977 we made some overlong skirts, and tried to see if it were possibly true. It can be done, but at all times you must "behave like a lady": no rushing, no running, no striding. You move in a placid glide, absolutely erect and not watching your feet, no more than you normally do to check the footing. Standing straight is necessary, especially in a dress which hangs from the shoulders rather than a skirt which hangs from a waistband. If you stoop, the front of your dress drags even more, and you cannot move the skirt in the proper manner with your hips and legs.

Moving slowly keeps you from over-running the front hem. You wear the soft-soled lady's shoes of the period, through which you can feel much of your footing, so you know when your hem is under your foot before your weight is committed to it. We wore ballet slippers or Scottish dancing shoes, but a ladies' dress flat, while hard, is thin enough when you know what you're doing.

At each step, you sweep your foot in a small arc along the floor, in towards your ankle, then outward and forward. This brushes your hem out of your way. Your thigh and hip follow, further pushing the skirts forward so that the hem doesn't drag back towards you. You then have clear ground on which to take your not-overlong step; you pull your toes back from their farthest extent when you do go to put your foot down. The first few steps are the hardest; once the rhythm takes over, the sway of the heavy skirt back and forth works with you, or you work with it.

When walking up or down stairs, you use the moving knee to flick the skirt up, and put your foot down quickly so as to beat the fabric to the tread. Yet the pace is still slow, because you must wait each time for the skirts to settle.

Moving the hips in the wake of the foot gives this locomotion a gentle sway, very attractive in the soft, heavy gowns, in an age when the hips, rather than the bust or legs, were the primary focus of sexual attractiveness in women.

This mode of movement is confirmed by dance practices. The pavanne can be danced with bald, straight-forward steps, as is common in many dance classes. This well suits Renaissance gowns with their farthingales. However, the Medieval pavanne was danced with two levels of undulation: one horizontal, one vertical. The first undulation is an exaggeration of this sweeping step, footed by the man as well as the lady. It was, in fact, our clue to surviving the skirts.

Note that Lady Kathea and I had the advantage of dance training, historical information, and lots of determined practice. It still remained a matter for concentration, like doing a tricky dance with one part of your mind while conversing with another part. A noblegirl would have started having her hands slapped for handling her skirts at a tender age, and by her teens would have moved this way without thinking. It took quite an emergency for her to pick up her skirts and hustle.

So any peasant who was going to pass as a noblewoman would not only have to take a couple of years indoors to lose her ugly tan and restore her skin's smoothness and translucent pallor, she would have to have someone teach her how to walk in this very artificial way. Also, a noblewoman putting on a coarse gown is not going to look like a peasant as she strolls down the road, swaying slowly with her toes low to the ground. Well-born fugitives had a very difficult time of it, unless they simply avoided inhabited places. As a result, in this period people really didn't try to pass as other than they were: a nobleman incognito travelled as a nobleman on hard times, not as a commoner.

In artwork, you may notice how the hems of gowns sit on the floor: they do not turn under, but bend to the outside so that you can look inside the rolls of fullness. This is how they naturally lie when either they have trailed you, or been kicked outward by your toes.

Note that this did not continue forever. In the next fashion, a lady always had one hand tied up holding a bunch of overskirt high on the abdomen, showing off the underskirt and giving the full-bellied, "Pregnant Virgin" look. An Italian breviary of 1380 (Boucher, pg. 204) perfectly shows the start of the transition. Most of the ladies stand in the puddles of their skirts. One alone has drawn up her pink overgown with her wrist (note that her hand is not clenched on the cloth) only to show off the azure undergown, NOT to clear her feet, which are still enshrouded in dragging blue hem. Yet in "Hunting with falcons at the court of Philip the Good" (Boucher, pg 211; this Duke of Burgundy reigned 1419-1467), the lady with the red gloves, directly below the musicians on the left, is strolling blithely towards us with idle hands, a foot of hem on the sward, while the next lady to the right has a handful of hem -- but no show of toes! There must have been a long period, a generation or two, when everyone went through the usual fidgets about whether to be elegant and dignified (old-fashioned) or to be dashingly modern and fashion-forward (handle their skirts).

Go to graphics page to see these two items.

Other Dress Traps

In general, people stood the way they did in artwork -- elbows in and hands out, or hands clasped with elbows out, or sway-backed, or erect -- because it makes the clothes of that period handle better, as well as displaying fashion features. There is more function that fashion in these postures than you would realize if you hadn't worn the clothes. If fifty stone carvings and painted miniatures show male and female nobles of the 1200s hanging onto the cords of their mantles with one hand, you will likely find that it is a useful: in this case, because drawing forward on the cord counterbalanced the weight of ten square yards of thick wool lined with heavy samite.

Sleeves which trailed on the floor had to be watched, so that you did not accidentally step or sit on them. Even those only trailing to the knee can wind up under your rump, leading to the ungraceful jerk of pulling up short, then rolling to the other side to free it.

Any long veil has to be considered in your seating: if below the hips, it must be flicked to one side with a slow dip of the head. Women with loose knee-length hair flick their tresses aside the same thoughtless way. If you were to scoop the veil, or hair, out of the way on your wrist, it might be considered a sign that you were unused to it, unless it were done very gracefully, and under conditions that warranted extra care, like a high breeze or a bower in the garden where a flicked veil might snag on a bush. Modern girls scoop their knee-length hair on their wrist when sitting down in waiting rooms, so it doesn't swat the person in the next chair, but medieval nobles sit with far more space between them.

As for the eye-threatening steeple headdress or double-horned headress, you simply have to keep aware of your artificially increased space, the way you do (or ought to do!) when you are wearing a loaded backpack on the bus or through someplace crowded. Also, people around you are used to looking out for headdresses in motion.

Remember that these people did not cram themselves into tiny peasant huts or even carriages. The nobility who wore such things had plenty of space and did not press closely on each other. Gentlemen and ladies allowed a lot of personal space to each other. Hugging and hanging on each other was simply not done in public, especially not by ladies in a broad-spreading double-horned headdress, except with great care. Getting close enough for a kiss required a lady's co-operation, unless the man were willing to settle for a lipful of jewelry or fabric. Hands were more usually kissed for the practical reason that they could be extended out of the danger zone.

Very long cuffs that extend closely over the lower hand might seem to be an insupportable problem at the dinner table, but again the trick is to behave in an aristocratic manner. You eat slowly, taking small mouthfuls on the fingertips, rather than shovelling handfuls in a hurry. Don't think of their eating as stuffing burgers or pizza before they cool; Medieval food was never very hot at best, and they were used to eating it near room temperature. Rather, picture the way ladies handle little sandwiches and coin-sized cookies at a formal tea.

This would be the same dainty manner used by some of history's great warriors, when they were in company.

Dinnertime

First off, it's not the time you think. People got up, maybe had a cup of something and a handful of bread, and that was breakfast. Up at the castle, they frequently went to morning mass, which meant they got up, got dressed, and went to church. They could not eat until after that. In the late afternoon, they would dine, have dinner, which was the big meal of the day. After an evening about the hall, they would sup, that is, have supper.

Forks were so exotic as to not be worth mentioning. To include them in your story you will have to do some almighty digging to see where they sometimes popped up, and then find an excuse for the prissy things. Basically, people ate with their hands. You know, like you do at lunch most of the time. Americans of the twenty-first century have much less trouble with this than those raised pre-1960, or Europeans, which is why you see some older authors always having their heroines introducing forks. Foods had to travel a long way from the kitchens and were never too hot. Since the cooks had never been trained to cook for fork-eaters and were hand-eaters themselves, they did not serve things too soft or messy or tiny to be managed by a couple of fingers and a thumb. Soups were eaten with spoons, but nothing on a trencher was.

The original trencher was a squarish flat loaf of coarse brown flour, baked with a sealant of egg white. These were used as we do plates. After dinner, the trenchers were fed to the dogs (always dogs to feed) or to the beggars at the gates. As the Middle Ages waned, these gave way to wooden trenchers for the lower classes, and metal plates for the upper classes -- a much less sanitary arrangement.

I will bet that, like most people I see having burgers, dogs, or pizza, your sanitary habits for eating are much worse than those of the people we are discussing. I could not possibly count the number of people I see walk in, order food, receive it, and begin handling it. At no time since God knows when have they washed their hands, while handling money, counter edges, doorknobs, and I hate to think what before they walked in the restaurant. No wonder "stomach flu" and "intestinal flu" are so common!

The better class of medieval folk would find this disgusting. When they sat down at table, a servant came by with a towel, a ewer of water, and a basin. They washed their hands in a stream of poured water and dried them before eating. In many castles, the water came from a nearby faucet in a side chamber, which tapped water from cisterns higher up in the building: they had at least cold running water. They washed again at the end of the meal.

Only a boor would do anything as peasant-crude as wipe his hands on a dog or the tablecloths. People had napkins and knew what they were for. There are several surviving manuals on how to conduct oneself at table, and no more than our polite society did they include belching, spitting, or other nasty things claimed by some writers.

Rushes on the Floor

One reads that "rushes were strewn upon the floor." I beg leave to doubt that armfuls of loose green stems were cast down ankle-deep, like straw in a stable. This image is supportable only by those who want to make their ancestors seem more brutish so as to elevate themselves. People who walk in stables either are wearing ground-clearing garments, or lift their hems to clear. As an earlier section established, ladies in their homes did no such thing. Not only did women wear trailing gowns, but men wore long robes. Even before hems were exaggerated, the gowns were floor-length and often trained, as were robes and mantles.

Picture what happens if loose rushes were indeed used. The servants bring in loads of green rushes in the spring, and spread them out on the castle floor. Milady arrives, approves the work, then crosses the chamber to go downstairs. A clear swath is cleaned behind her, and the rushes pile up in a roll under her back hem. When she reaches the stairs, or rather when her train does, that bundle is dropped on the top steps and partly dragged down them. The top treads would be buried in rushes in one passage.

Obviously this cannot be the proper interpretation of how rushes were used on the floors of castles.

Herbs, we know, were strewn in handfuls over the rushes, and expected to stay underfoot to scent the air when trod upon. Also, the rushes stayed in the chambers and halls (but not on the stairs) until they were dry and perhaps musty, so that it was very refreshing to change the winter rushes for fresh ones in the spring.

The chief problem is actually that Medieval people had no sense of sociological change. They picture Alexander the Great and the Twelve Apostles in Medieval dress without a qualm, though it is a 1300-year anachronism. They assume their readers know what they are talking about in everyday matters, because of course you live in the same world as they.

I would like to suggest that an important step was left out of their remarks about gathering fresh rushes for floor-covering. When original sources wrote that the rushes should be changed every season, certainly once a year in the spring after planting, they were not recording their behaviors for a foreign (in time) culture: they were advising their peers on good household management as opposed to slovenliness.

The step omitted is that the rushes, once gathered, were made into mats. Then the rush mats, still called rushes, were put on the floor, and herbs sprinkled over them.

River rushes are always specified; mere grass will not do. This is because the rushes are thick, long, and strong: short, fragile grass cannot be made into mats. The rushes were probably coiled by the handful and stitched with the longer rushes, like modern raffia or straw mats, or woven with string, or plaited.

Obviously, rushes were day-to-day decor, not company best. All paintings of interiors on company occasions show cleared floors (no interior ever shows loose rushes). This is difficult to manage if you have to rake up and haul out bushels of vegetation and put it back the morning after, but not so onerous if all you have to do is stack the mats up in a side room. This is like us using protective slipcovers on the velvet or brocade front room furniture, which are removed when company is expected. Using rush mats extends the life of the flooring, cushions the surface underfoot, and cuts drafts.

This view was recently semi-confirmed by an old Grolier's social studies text that showed a traditional Dutch kitchen interior, with rush mats over the stone or brick flooring. In one place at least, the habit survived into the twentieth century.

Drafty Castles

Much of the writing about drafty castles with hard floors comes from the modern period, when the inhabitants kept cleared floors with occasional carpets. The same applies to cold bare walls, which in the Middle Ages would have been solidly hung with heavy cloths. When they were built, castles were arranged so as to be as comfortable as possible, a comfort lost when people living in them adopted decor meant for newer buildings. Also, many doors had goodly gaps at the bottom because they were cut to swing open over rush matting.

Besides, after several hundred years, any building is likely to get so worn around the edges from daily use, and sufficiently out of kilter from ground settling, not to mention artillery assaults, that one should not be surprised that the window frames no longer quite match the stonework. There's a certain draftiness to accumulated age and disrepair.

It's interesting to note that most live-in castles were built during the Little Climatic Optimum, 800-1300, when the average temperatures were a few degrees higher than they are now. (Yes, global warming may yet make it as warm as it was in the age of castles.) Cold was less of an issue perhaps than keeping cool in summer. The following Little Ice Age, 1300-1800, from which we are only now emerging, does not accidentally coincide with the building of manor houses that could more easily be heated.

In the earliest castles, the windows were just that: wind holes. However, in any weather, drapes could be drawn across them. In bad weather, they would be filled with wooden shutters. By day, oiled parchment on wooden frames allowed a yellowish light while blocking the wind. How else do you keep the snow from drifting up around the throne?

By the 1300's, the best sort of people had glass windows (have any of you a tighter date than this?). Kings and great lords, migrating from one of their castles to another, would take along their window glass, set in wooden frames like the oiled parchment. Treated with the same care as other precious frangibles like glass goblets and enamel-set books, they were wrapped in cloth and packed in straw on their own special cart in the baggage train. Differences between castles were handled by reshaping stone windows to suit the frames of the glass, or filling the gaps at the top or sides with wooden masks or caulking.

As glass became less rare, the castle windows were permanently glazed, starting in the public apartments and going through the best rooms. From the mid-1400's, glass might be taxed, so the peasantry continued with shutters and greased leather, in many a place through the 1800s, or even the 1900's.

Do remember, though, the lower quality of Medieval glass. The panes were comparatively small, relatively thick, greenish, with many ripples and bubbles. If you are sitting in the solar and see a lordly procession riding up the road, you really must open the window to see details clearly enough to identify heraldic banners, let alone people.

Personal Care

When clear, smooth, colourless glass was technically impossible, looking glasses did not exist. Mirrors were made of highly polished white steel. The Lady of Shalotte's mirror would have been a polished shield blank, aimed out an open window, so that she could watch the world without showing her face at the window and looking nosy, or risking sunburn.

"Sunburn" was the term used up through the 1920's for what we now call a tan. It was not considered healthy, as our doctors would now agree. The result of a life outdoors, it was only endurable in a man, and even then if he could keep it to a minimum, he was considered the more beautiful. For women, it was a disfigurement, the mark of being a field hand. Even peasant women with any amour propre arranged their coarse veils to shade their faces when possible, though their hands could not be protected from brutal work-aging.

There's a Georgian-Victorian dictum that might have originated in this period: "Wash your hands often, your feet seldom, your head never." Washing of hands was done several times a day, and was part of the ceremony of dinner.

Baths, on the other hand, were taken only several times a year by the better classes. The lower the class, the less often. A peasant might never have any water touch his body after his christening, so as usual the upper classes have the time and desire to be more fastidious. Extending to this the oft-observed greater daintiness of women, and the ladies of the Middle Ages probably bathed once or even twice a month. Isabella of Castile was considered to be making a sacrifice when she swore not to indulge in baths until the castle she defended was relieved. Those described in etiquette manuals (how to arrange one for your lord) sound like sponge baths to us.

Baths, you must realise, had a bad moral reputation: pagans took them daily. Actually, even before Christianity emerged, there were pagan cults built around smelly anchorites, so this seems to have been part of a building reaction to old traditions of the ancient world. But the Church firmly tied baths to pagan licentiousness, to excess indulgence of the hateful flesh, and the likelihood that clean people were more often occasions of lust. One could go unwashed and claim virtue, but on the whole in the upper echelons this was not carried to extremes.


Remember to look out for these sort of traps and tricks when doing your research, and push on to the third tier where the good stuff is -- and where you may have to abandon ideas acquired earlier in your reading. A great deal of the commonest information out there is non-factual assumptions based on undigested research. Sometimes one feels that the authors are part of a conspiracy to make the Middle Ages look as uncomfortable and stupid as possible. Many things are very different than in our times, but often not in the ways these people would lead you to think.


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