The Ultimate Book of Mysteries: The Voynich Manuscript

This posting marks the 4th Anniversary of my blog, which I started on the 29th of October, 2009.

This is a blog about my biggest passion – History. And in this posting, I’ll be writing about one of history’s greatest, most amazing and most puzzling, and still-unsolved mysteries: The Voynich Manuscript.

What could be written and said about the Voynich Manuscript is extensive, despite the fact that nobody has read it in 600 years. This posting won’t cover the manuscript in exhaustive detail, but will cover all the main facts, deductions and inferences made about it and its contents. If you want to know more, read the links and videos at the end of this posting. Maybe one day, someone will figure out how to read this amazing book. But until then, we can only guess as to its true contents…

The Mysterious Manuscript

Imagine if you will, that one day you found a book.

It’s an old book. Very old. Centuries old. It’s filled with colour illustrations, and strange, nonsensical text, written in a language, and using an alphabet known to no culture or nation on earth. It’s enormous, it’s mysterious, it’s methodically and carefully written and illustrated.

But it’s impossible to read.

It’s impossible to read because it’s not written in any known recorded language in the history of mankind which had a written system. It’s not German, Italian, Chinese, Latin, French, Old English, Russian or Greek.

The text may possibly be encoded, but all attempts to break the code have been in vain. It’s impossible to find out who wrote the book, and for what purpose. What would you do with such a book?

Such is the puzzle that surrounded American antiques and rare books dealer Wilfred Michael Voynich, when he stumbled across a mysterious volume in an Italian villa in 1912, during an antiquing trip to Europe.

This is the story and mystery of one of the most famous and mysterious historical artefacts ever found: The Voynich Manuscript.

The Discovery of the Manuscript

So, what is the Voynich Manuscript?

The year is 1912. American-Polish antiques dealer and book-collector Wilfred Michael Voynich (1865-1930) is in Italy, seeking out rare books and manuscripts to add to his collection, or to flip on the American antiques market back home. He visits the Villa Mondragone, where local monks in financial difficulties agree to sell off some of the villa’s priceless antique volumes to the American book-dealer.

The Villa Mondragone, Italy

They allow him to inspect the contents of an ancient trunk. It’s loaded with books taken from the library of the late Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a famous German scholar and scientist.

Voynich eventually purchases thirty books from the Villa’s monks. One of them is an approximately 240-page codex, handwritten in an unknown language or code, and filled with dozens of colour illustrations. Voynich soon realises that this document is not written in ANY known language, and neither does it fit any known code, broken or unbroken, then in existence. Voynich struggles to solve the mystery of his amazing discovery, but he dies in 1930 having almost no clue about what it is that he has found. Today, this mysterious tome is given a title that bears the name of the man who saved it for the world: The Voynich Manuscript. 

The Voynich Manuscript is about 240 pages of parchment, bound together in a codex. It’s not a ‘book’ as such, it’s a manuscript, something that is entirely handwritten, using iron-gall ink and a quill pen. Using the manuscript’s illustrations as a guide, experts believe that it contains chapters or sections related to botany, medicine and astrology, as well as a number of pages on recipes related to plants and flowers, and how to prepare them for medicinal use.

Investigating the Manuscript

Nearly a century later, and the top scientific and historic minds of the 21st century are not much closer.

Through inscriptions in the book, and carbon-dating, it’s clear that the book has had at least four previous owners:

Anathasius Kircher (1602-1680)

Who was given the book by…

Johannes Marcus Marci (1595-1667)

Who said, in a letter dated 1666, found in the manuscript, that it was written by…

Roger Bacon (1214-1294)  Struck off, for reasons explained below.

Before this, the book was owned by…

Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor (1552-1612)

After the emperor dies, one of his creditors is given the book as payment of his debts. It now passed into the hands of Jacobus of Tepenec (1575-1622).

Some believe (although this is contested) that the book was also once owned by famous English astrologer, John Dee, royal adviser to Queen Elizabeth I of England. And that it was Dee who sold the book to Emperor Rudolf, who was a patron of arts and sciences. Dee lived from 1527-ca.1608, so he certainly lived at the same time as Rudolf. But whether or not Rudolf received the book from Dee is not known.

Therefore, as far as its ownership can be determined, the Manuscript can only be dated back reliably to the late 16th century, between about 1590-1610.

However, carbon dating shows that the book is almost 200 years older, going back to about 1405-1440. Who owned the book in that gap of almost two centuries? Where did it go, what became of it, what was it used for, and how did it end up in the hands of its first confirmed owner?

No-one knows.

Right off the bat, one owner is automatically removed from the list. Roger Bacon lived and died a full century before the book was thought to have been made. And none of its confirmed owners could possibly be the author. What clues do we know about it?

Manuscript Facts

We do know, thanks to carbon-dating carried out in 2009, that the manuscript dates from the first half of the 15th century, somewhere in the fifty-year window between 1400-1450.

We know that the book’s pages are made of parchment. But parchment, especially of the quality used to make the manuscript, is expensive 

Judging by the illustrations and pictures found within its pages, many have surmised that the Voynich Manuscript, rightly or wrongly, is a book about botany, medicine, herb and plant-use, astronomy and/or astrology, and possibly, natural history. But not being able to decipher the curly, unreadable script which makes up the entirety of the book’s text means that these suppositions are mere conjecture.

Although not a ‘fact’ as such, some have theorised that the manuscript was written in Italy. Not just because it was found there, but because of one of the book’s illustrations. On one page of the Manuscript, there is a clear drawing of a castle, or walled city. The castle walls are topped with what are called “Swallow-tail” battlements, or to use the correct term: crenelations.

The castle illustration in the Manuscript.
Note the split crenelations on the walls

Actual ‘swallow-tail’ crenelations

Swallow-tail crenelations were found in various places in Europe, but in the early 15th century when the Manuscript was produced, they’re only found in one country: Italy. The author’s knowledge of this style of crenelations points strongly to the manuscript, or at least its author, coming from Italy.

The Voynich Hoax?

Unsurprisingly, some people have suggested that the Voynich Manuscript is a hoax. Whether or not this is true is impossible to determine, but it is an idea entertained by some, nonetheless.

A Modern Hoax

Some have suggested that the Manuscript is a modern hoax, concocted in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Possibly even by Voynich himself, as a way to make some quick and dirty money. Create a phony document, and then claim it’s a centuries-old mystery-book that nobody can read! Ooooh…

Unfortunately, this falls down flat. The problem is that the parchment of which the book is composed does not support this claim. The parchment is from the 15th century. To get that amount of parchment together, and for no better reason than a hoax-document, would’ve been prohibitively expensive. And to create something so long ago that would be able to stand up to carbon-dating, decades before it was invented in the late 1940s, must show incredible foresight…

Yeah it doesn’t work out.

A Medieval Hoax

People have been faking things for years. Decades. Centuries. Like how there were only 10 Commandments…

Could the Voynich Manuscript be a really, really, really old hoax?

Now let’s consider a few things here…

The Manuscript is entirely handwritten. Entirely hand-drawn and painted. This would take months, possibly even years to complete. Whoever wrote it obviously had a lot of time on his hands, and a lot of education, or creativity. Who had the time and money to waste on something like this?

The Manuscript is made of parchment. Admittedly, rather large sheets of parchment, in some cases. The expense of the parchment and ink, to say nothing of expense of time, must’ve been considerable.

To what purpose was the Manuscript written, if it was so incredibly expensive and laborious to produce? Who would buy an obvious fake? Or who would fund the production of a fake?

The book was written during the time of the Italian Renaissance, a period from the late 1300s until the 17th century. The Renaissance literally means the Rebirth. The rebirth of culture, science, art and learning, after the apocalyptic disaster of the Black Death of the 1340s.

The Renaissance was all about new ideas, and old ideas. Studies of ancient texts and languages, alongside amazing new inventions, like the Gutenberg Press. New texts and books were being eagerly snapped up by the aristocracy, the literate trading and merchant classes, by kings, queens and emperors.

Anyone who could produce a book written in one of these “ancient languages”, and which seemed to contain important information about botany, medicine and nature, could possibly make himself a fortune!

Is this what happened?

It is a possibility. An extremely expensive and risky possibility, but a possibility nontheless. It may be what happened, it may not be. And we may never know.

The Contents of the Manuscript

Assuming that the Voynich Manuscript is not a hoax, then what on earth is contained within this amazing document? Unable to decipher the text, our biggest clues to the book’s contents are the dozens of colour illustrations found throughout its pages. So, what’s inside the Voynich Manuscript?

Using the illustrations as a guide, the book is thought to be divided into…

Botanicals. Concerning plants and flowers, their properties and uses, although even here, there are illustrations of flowers and plants which researchers are not convinced, are found in nature.

Astronomy and Astrology. Concerning the stars. We see stars, maps of the Heavens and so-forth, in intricate sketches and diagrams. We see drawings of the sun, the moon, and various Zodiac starsigns.

Biology. Mostly showing the female form. There’s numerous drawings of pregnant women in the Manuscript.

Pharmacy. There’s plenty of drawings of herbs, flowers and plants.

Recipes. There is a section in the Manuscript which many believe to be a series of recipes, relating to the flowers and plants mentioned in earlier sections, and how to prepare and use these for medical purposes.

Deciphering the Manuscript

The greatest puzzle of the Voynich Manuscript is not who wrote it, or who owned it, or when, where or how it was written, what it was made of or what the paints in the pictures are made of.

It’s what it says.

The Manuscript is written in a language, or code, or cipher, using an alphabet which nobody can read. Everyone from WWII, enigma-cracking cryptographers to the brightest codebreaking minds of the past fifty years have seen the manuscript, and nobody can figure out what it means!

The script of the Voynich Manuscript is so unique, it’s even got its own name: Voynichese 

The script of the Manuscript does not conform to any known patterns of language, or to any known patterns of any writing-system known to man, either existing or extinct. So what is it?

There are three different theories…

1. The manuscript is just jibberish made up by someone 600 years ago, which may support the ‘ancient hoax’ theory.

2. The manuscript is code. Although if it is a code, it does not conform to any known method of encoding, or decoding known to mankind. In 600 years, it has never been broken.

3. The manuscript is written in a dead language, with the writing-system of that language, which has been lost to history.

Given the implausibility of theory #2, theories #1 and #3 are most probable. But if the Manuscript is a legitimate document, and not a hoax, then the answer is most likely #3: That it’s written in a dead language which nobody has read, written or spoken in nearly 1,000 years.

Recent research in the 21st century has suggested that theory #3, that the entire document is written in a dead or unknown language, may be the most likely one. Scientists and scholars who published their findings and theories as recently as June, 2013, believe that the script in the Manuscript follow specific patterns. Although these patterns do not seem to conform to any known language, it would suggest that the script is in fact a language, and not just plain jibberish!

Where is the Manuscript?

The Manuscript is held at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, in Connecticut, U.S.A.

Interested in trying to solve the mystery of the manuscript yourself?

There’s a freely accessible scanned copy of the manuscript available at the library’s website. Here’s the link.

There, you can examine every single page of the Manuscript in enormous, high-definition scans.

More Information?

If you want more information…not that there is much…you can look here…

The Voynich Manuscript

This is the most exhaustive website I could find on the Manuscript.

“The Book That Can’t Be Read” (History Channel documentary).

“Key Words and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript”

BBC News Article on the Voynich Manuscript


Tales of Robin Hood – The History Around an Outlaw

Whether or not Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw of English folklore ever really ever existed…is entirely up in the air. At best, Robin Hood can be said to be an amalgamation of a variety of actual outlaws from the period, at worse, he would be seen as the romanticised figure of the age. But while Robin Hood may not have been a real person, his world and everything about it, still fascinates us to this day. Just a few years back, we watched Russell Crowe in “Robin Hood”, in 2010. So, centuries after the time he lived, we remain enthralled with this fantastical figure who may never even have lived.

Robin Hood was an outlaw, who lived in Sherwood Forest in the English midlands county of Nottinghamshire. So famous is his legend that the flag of Nottinghamshire even has a picture of Hood on there! Hood was known as an archer, a swordsman, and as a crusader of sorts, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Here, we’ll look at the various parts of his legend and just how romantic and brave they really were.

Robin Hood: Outlaw at Large

Before Robin Hood was anything else, an archer, rider, horseman and all-round good-guy, he is most famously known as being an outlaw, living in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. Gee, it must be nice, living in the midst of nature with your band of merry men and the Maid Marion, holding up stagecoaches, and giving money and food to the needy.

…Not really.

In Medieval times, being an outlaw was a real problem. To become an outlaw, you had to have committed a crime, of course. And if the prosecuting party (the king, the local sheriff or landlord) did not want you executed, he could simply declare you to be an outlaw. Or, in the Latin legalese: Caput Lupinum.

To be an outlaw meant that the law no-longer applied to you. You were literally ‘outside’ the law. You had no obligation to follow it. However, this also meant that the law had no obligation, thereafter, to protect you! Enter ‘Caput Lupinum‘.

It literally means ‘Head of the Wolf‘, or ‘Wolf’s Head’. To be branded a wolf’s head outlaw meant that, not only were you outside the law, and its protection, it also meant that you would forever be hunted…like a wolf. And, like a wolf, anyone who killed you, no matter how it was done, no matter where it was done, automatically received the king’s royal pardon. There was no price or penalty to be paid by anyone for the death of a wolf. Or an outlaw. They were considered scum, and anyone who successfully killed an outlaw was seen as doing the king (and his subjects) a favour.

Robin Hood: The Archer

In the days of Robin Hood, the main long-range weapon was the bow and arrow. Known since antiquity, bows and arrows were simple, but lethal weapons, able to bring death to its target from several yards away. Robin Hood was supposed to be an excellent archer, able to hit targets from impossible distances with remarkable accuracy.

But what was the reality of medieval archery?

To be an archer took great skill. Skill and experience gained over years of practice. It took skill to aim and shoot reliably. But it also took great strength. No weakling would be able to simply pick up a bow, load an arrow and fire it. Considerable arm-strength was required to force the bowstring back to produce the energy required to fire an arrow over dozens of yards, and hit with enough force to kill or at least injure your enemy, or quarry.

Before the age of firearms, archers were essential in any army. Able to stand well back from the field of battle and rain down volley after volley of lethal fire from above, from the relative safety of a hilltop, or behind a castle wall. Since archers were so important, in England, the practice of archery was made a law. Anyone desirous of becoming an archer had to train from the age of seven (co-incidentally, the same age that a boy training to be a knight, also had to start from!), to build up the speed, strength and accuracy required to reliably fire a bow and arrow. In villages and towns, archery-practice was mandatory; at least two hours a day, at least once a week. Usually, this was two hours on Sundays, since that was the one time that people in the community gathered together, for church. After religious services, the men would go out for target-practice every week.

Although bows came in several shapes and sizes, for a full-grown male, the weapon of choice was usually the military longbow. Made from the wood of the yew tree, the longbow was not named-so for nothing. Up to five or six feet high, a longbow was generally designed to fire an arrowshaft up to nearly three feet long!

The first book written in English, on the subject of the longbow, and on archery in general, was produced in the mid-1540s, by Roger Ascham (1515-1568). An educated man of letters, Ascham was a private tutor, and a university lecturer. He also happened to be Princess Elizabeth’s Latin tutor; so when he wrote his book, (titled “Toxophilus“), he dedicated it to King Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father.

The Sheriff of Nottingham

We don’t generally associate sheriffs with England, do we? They’re something you find in the United States, along with their cohorts, the sheriff’s deputy. But the sheriff actually originates in England.

Originally, areas of land in England were governed by Ealdormen. Literally ‘Elder Man’ or ‘Older man’, meaning a man of age, and therefore, experience. These men were royal officials and were in charge of keeping law and order within their allotments of land. The position survives today in the word ‘alderman’.

Eventually, the alderman died out in that capacity, and his duties were taken over by another man: The Sheriff.

The original title was “Shire Reeve”. A shire is a stretch of land, synonymous with the word ‘County’. A shire reeve was the administrative official responsible for the preservation of law and order within that shire. Eventually, the two words were melted into the one word: “Sheriff”.

Much like a modern sheriff, the sheriff of Robin Hood’s day was responsible for the upholding of the law, such as the capture of outlaws like Robin Hood.


Daily Life in Medieval Europe

The Medieval Era of history is generally defined as being from 1066 to the early 1500s, from the Norman Conquest of England to the end of the Wars of the Roses in the 1480s. They’re also known as the “Middle Ages”. Middle of what? Between the Dark Ages and the Modern Era, of course! When people think of the Medieval era, they think of the Black Death, tunics, the church, knights in shining armour, good kings, good queens, evil kings and evil queens. Good-looking princes and glamorous princesses. We imagine quaint villages with thatched rooves and farms and fields and exciting village life.

But what was life like in the Middle Ages? It was certainly nowhere near as glamorous as many people might think from reading comic-books, watching movies or Monty Python. For many people, life was a daily struggle just to survive. Days were long, nights were cold, food was hard to come by and pleasures were few and far between.

Hatches, Matches and Despatches

Hatches…matches and despatches…births, marriages and deaths. The three basic stages of human life.

In the Middle Ages, the infant mortality rate was naturally high. The far-from-clean homes of the peasantry, the lack of modern medical care for the wealthy who could afford any kind of medical care, and a general lack of food meant that many children were lucky to survive their first few years on earth.

In an age before there were very many doctors around, births were usually aided with the help of this essential of Medieval society: The Midwife, whose job it was to help birth babies and bring them into the world. Of course, this wasn’t always easy. Any manner of complications could cause death: From deformities and birth-defects, later infections or the mother dying from postnatal complications.

Once born, however, a child was brought into the world as best as they could be. The children of wealthy families could expect to be raised by servants or a wet-nurse, to be pampered and babied to the point of spoilage. Children from poorer families had to rely on their parents or grandparents (if they were lucky enough to have any) to raise them. In a day and age where commoners worked from day to day to survive, children were seen, probably, as less of a joy, but more of a way to make more money. The moment they could, children were set to work in the fields or elsewhere, to earn money and food for the family. Children of all ages, from kids who had just learned how to walk, to teenagers, were expected to pull their weight and split firewood, plough fields, sow crops, harvest crops, store the grain, store firewood and help around the house. With so much work to do, you can imagine childhood obesity wasn’t a problem back then! One important aspect of birth in the Middle Ages was getting the child christened at the local church. Christening usually took place within a week of the child’s birth, where its name and date of birth might be recorded.

Once a child reached his or her teenage years, then the next stage of life came along: Marriage.

In the Medieval era, it could be fair to say that the main purpose of marriage was to advance one’s social-status, for advancing one’s social status was the only way to stave off the looming threat of death from starvation. Parents often got together to arrange marriages for their respective children, whether their children liked it or not. If the child managed to find a man or a woman who he or she actually loved, who also advanced the family’s social-status, then so much the better. But this was considered a secondary concern. In the Middle Ages, women were expected to be quiet, obedient, caring, good cooks, seamstresses, life-partners and above all, the property of men.

Due to the general filth of the Middle Ages, combined with a lack of understanding about hygeine, medical science and other factors which we today take for granted, the fear of death was never far away. Few diseases were curable in the Middle Ages and while broken limbs might be treated, if infection set in due to open wounds, there was no way to heal them. Medical aid was usually provided by monks in monastries, by the church, barber-surgeons or wise women: Something like a witch-doctor who knew all kinds of natural, herbal remedies.

Deaths were recorded by Seekers of the Dead, old women or pensioners who viewed corpses to determine cause of death. They would be paid a few pennies to examine the body and arrange for its removal from the household. It would not be until the 1500s, after the Middle Ages, that the Bills of Mortality, which were official records of deaths, were established in London and surrounding villages.

Upon death, the funeral had to be arranged. Often, simple coffins were used and the bodies buried in the local churchyards, marked by simple gravestones, enscribed with the person’s date of birth, death and his name. Some, more expensive gravestones might have had fanciful, death-themed carvings on them. Wealthier families, such as the local landowner, might have a family crypt. In small villages, a death was something that could affect the whole community and often, several people would show up for the funeral. The sandglass, symbolising life, was a common engraving on gravestones. A sandglass with sand drained through meant that life had ended. A sandglass on its side with sand in each of the two bulbs, indicated a life ended before its proper time.

Who was Who?

The Medieval social structure was defined by the Feudal System. The Feudal System was the belief that each person had his own special place in society and that in this place they would (unless something special happened) remain. At the top of the Feudal System was the King. Below him were the noblemen. Barons and Earls and Dukes and so-forth. Below them came the knights. Below knights came the various classes of the peasantry. Although divided into various classes (from freemen to villeins and serfs), there were few differences that actually set them apart, since life was generally a big struggle for all.

The king, as supreme head of his country, granted lands to his noblemen, who, as his representatives, were expected to carry the king’s law and the king’s word to parts of the kingdom where the king himself could not visit regularly. The noblemen swore an oath of alliegence to the king, and knights, further down, swore an oath to their local landlords. The peasantry, however, the lowest and poorest class of people in the Medieval world, were the most numerous in number. They fell under the direct rule of their landlord, who could tax them and use them as he wished. Far from the king’s eyes, some noblemen became greedy, corrupt and lawless, taxing their peasantry to exhaustion. Taxes were given in the form of harvest and grain. Crops such as wheat, rye, barley and whatever else the peasants could grow, were taxed, and a certain percentage of this food had to be delivered to the local lord. Food which the peasants kept for themselves which had to be ground from wheat to flour to make bread, had to be ground up and crushed in the only mill available in the village…the lord’s mill, for which the lord would charge another fee for the peasantry to use.

Medieval Food and Drink

Medieval food was pretty basic for the peasantry. Most of their food came from grains; the most common of which were barley, oats and rye, which they turned into porridge, gruel or bread. They also ate fruit, vegetables and whatever fish they could catch in nearby streams, rivers or lakes. Wealthier people such as noblemen, could afford to feast on game birds such as ducks and pheasants and anything else which the landlord could afford to flush out of the woods around his estate and shoot with a bow and arrow. Hunting on the lord’s estate only permitted at his lordship’s personal invitation, so peasants could not expect to get their hands on such delicacies as fresh meat.

Fresh meat was in fact, very hard to come by, and was eaten mostly by the upper classes, who could afford to eat, not only game birds, but also chicken, pork, bacon, ham and if they were lucky…beef. Due to the high costs of transportation and mediocre food-preservation methods available in the Middle Ages, exotic foods which were not locally available were often so expensive that commoners could not hope to ever eat them.

In the days before refrigeration, however, Medieval people did find ways to preserve food. Foodstuffs such as meat and fish were either dried, salted or smoked. This killed off bacteria, gave the food a nice (if salty) taste and allowed it to keep for longer periods of time. Fruit was either dried, sugared or preserved in honey. Where possible, some foods were kept in cold-houses, where snow or ice was used to lower the room-temperature and ensure that the food remained fresh.

While they were able to preserve food to a certain extent, Medieval people did not possess the technology or understanding to purify water. Drinking water was often dangerous due to the impurities and pollution that was to be found in local streams and rivers (in the days before sewers and toilets, rivers often served as drains!). Because of this, the most commonly consumed beverages were wine, beer and ale. Due to the general absence or lack of water in these beverages, they were considerably safer to drink than plain water. And everyone drank it…even children! In fact, there was even a special children’s ale brewed specifically for younger people to drink!

Ale and beer were often sold in alehouses, inns and public houses (‘pubs’) and a single village could have several of these institutions all over the place! Public houses lasted and continue to last for a long time. Some of the oldest pubs in the United Kingdom have survived from the Middle Ages, including Ye Olde Man & Scythe (est. 1251), Ye Olde Salutation (est. ca. 1240) and finally, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which claims to have been established in 1189!

Men of Letters

Education was a rare treat for people in the Middle Ages. A very rare treat. Most people could not read or write at all. The most learned places were churches, monastries, castles, palaces, universities, colleges and schools. If this sounds like a whole heap of educational institutions, think again. To be able to attend one of these places, you had to be rich. Really rich. Books and scrolls were worth their weight in gold in Medieval times. Before the days of the printing press in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the main way of copying out texts was to do it by hand with a quill pen and an inkwell of ink. This took weeks, even months of daily writing in a special room known as a scriptorium (latin; a place for writing).

A Medieval monastry’s scriptorium with a scribe at work

Because so few people could do it, writing was considered a real artform in the Middle Ages, and bold, decorative hands were created, characterised by the gothic German ‘Blackletter’ script, of bold vertical lines and thin horizontal lines, which was achieved by writing with a flexible-point quill-pen. Other characteristics of Medieval texts included colourful borders and pictures, illuminated (coloured) letters at the tops of pages and paragraphs which were deliberately larger than other letters, so that people would know where to start reading each text. Scribes, learned persons and men of letters were so rare that only the wealthiest of people could afford to have an education. A king or queen would employ a tutor or a schoolmaster to educate their princes and princesses in reading and writing, skills as rare in the Middle Ages, as finding a competent watchmaker today.

A page of illuminated gothic Blackletter script from a Medieval manuscript

The main writing implements of the Middle Ages was another reason why many people were illiterate. The pen was a goose-feather quill, a tool which took considerable time to clean, dry, temper, slit and cut correctly. Paper, parchment and vellum were expensive, handmade commodities, far out of the reach of the peasantry, who were more interested in staying alive, rather than reading about how to do it!

Another huge barrier to education in the Middle Ages was that, as members of the Church were the only ones who could generally read, most documents were written in the language of the Church, and not the language of the People. The language of the people was…English! (Or German, French, Italian, Polish and so-on). However, the language of the Church was…LATIN! This rather significant language-barrier meant that, even if the peasantry were able to read and write, it would’ve been largely useless, because all the church-documents were written in a totally different language!

For those who could read and write, however, they enjoyed the rare ability of being able to send letters and record thoughts and ideas. In the days before organised postal services, messages were delivered by private messenger. Forget Private Messaging services on internet forums or MSN Live Messenger; this form of messenger-service was a rider on horseback! To protect the contents of their documents and letters, writers often signed and sealed their documents with sealing-wax, marking the hot wax with a sealing stamp or signet-ring, partially to ID them as the sender, and also to act as an anti-tampering device. Traditional sealing-wax dries fast and it dries hard and brittle. If a seal was broken by anyone other than the intended receipient, then it would be immediately obvious that the privacy of the document had been breeched. You can read about the history of seals, sealing-stamps and signet-rings here.

A signet-ring used to seal documents with wax. The coat of arms, monogram or family-name was deliberately engraved into the ring in mirror-fashion so that the imprint would turn out the right way around when the ring was pressed into the hot wax

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

As Harry Potter learns in one of his History of Magic books, “Muggles were particularly afraid of witchcraft in Medieval times, but not very good in spotting it”.

These days, the idea of actual witches and wizards seems ludicrous: the stuff of fairytales, legends and novels by an acclaimed English childrens’ author. But in Medieval times, there were real and very intense beliefs and fears in witches. And not all witches were women, either!

In Medieval Europe, under the Feudal System, peasants lived and worked on the land owned by their landlord. They were not generally allowed to leave this land without their lord’s permission. Because of this, families grew, died, intermarried, mingled and gave birth to sucessive generations all in the one little village or town year after year, decade after decade, century after century. Small, close-knit communities in hamlets and villages, in a day where few people travelled beyond the village boundaries, were quick to spot any and all persons who were either new to the area, or who acted in a strange manner.

Anyone who did act in a strange manner, or who was new to the district, was always the first suspect in anything that went wrong. Witch-trials were popular and bloody spectacles throughout Europe and punishments for witches varied. In European countries, the common penalty for witchcraft was death by burning, whereupon the ‘witch’ was strapped to a post and had faggots (clear your minds out, perverts…a ‘faggot’ is a bundle of kindling!) tossed at her feet. The faggots were then lit and the victim died from either burns or smoke inhalation and suffocation. In England, however, hanging witches was the more common form of execution.

A lot of our modern stereotypes about witches (that they have black pointed hats, that they have warts, that they have flying broomsticks and black cats and all the rest of it) all have their origins in the Middle Ages. It was believed that witches kept demons (called ‘Familiars’) near them, in the shape of animals. It is from this belief that we get the stereotype of witches always having a black cat with them and where we also get the superstition that it’s bad luck to have a black cat cross your path. The presence of bodily blemishes (such as pimples or warts) was also seen as the mark of a witch. Such an evil person was sure to have marks of evil (characterised by warts!) all over them!

Law and Order

In Medieval times, with knights and crusades and wars and witches and the Black Death and fat, warty toads bouncing around all over the place, it’s probably little wonder that Medieval law and order was especially harsh and barbaric (gotta keep those toads in order, don’t we?).

Medieval laws were set by the King (or queen), or by the king and/or queen’s top subjects: Their noblemen. Laws covered everything from how many loaves of bread a baker needed to bake, what constituted proper ale and even what side of the road you were allowed to drive on. Local city or village laws also related to keeping what was known as the King’s Peace: The peace and tranquility which the monarch promised all his subjects. Keeping the peace was done by instituting such laws as providing each village and town with a ducking-stool (into which, chattery women could be strapped and ducked…dumped…into the nearest pool or pond) and the enforcement of curfews after dark. Noblemen were allowed to pass their own laws on their peasantry as they saw fit…and some noblemen saw fit to tax their peasantry very harshly indeed.

Medieval punishments were even worse than the laws for which the punishments were seen fit. Various medieval punishments included…

– The Rack – Being stretched on the rack until your arms and legs ripped out of their sockets.
– The Gallows – Being hanged by the neck until dead.
– Hanging, drawing and quartering – A particularly gruesome method of execution awarded to persons found guilty of High Treason (crimes against king and country).
– Impalement – Being impaled by a long, blunt wooden pike. A favourite of the Medieval king Vlad Tepeche, Vlad the Impaler.
– Sawing – Being strung upside down on a frame and having your body sawed in half lengthwise, starting between the legs, with a massive saw.
– Breaking on the Wheel – Being strapped to a wagon-wheel and having your limbs smashed and broken by a sledgehammer.
– Being boiled in oil – Another Medieval favourite! King Henry VIII of England (AKA Old Greedy Guts) sentenced a cook to be executed by being boiled alive in a pot of oil, for trying to poison his master’s gruel!

Other, lesser punishments included…

– The Whipping Post – Being strapped or tied to a post and flogged.
– The Stocks or Pillory – Being confined to a set of stocks (head & arms locked in a wooden frame) or pillory (feet, as well) and being left there for a pre-determined period of time. In rare instances, people actually died in the stocks or pillory, from abuse from passers-by.

Of course, if laws existed and punishments existed, someone had to uphold the law and someone had to deal out punishment. Who did what?

The job of upholding the law was given to various persons. Ordinary citizens were expected to keep law and order, of course, but there were persons whose job it was, to specifically keep the peace. Some might have been knights, or they might have been reeves of the shire. The local reeve of the shire, or the Shire Reeve, was the local custodian of the peace. Does the word ‘shire reeve’ sound kind of familiar? It should. The shire reeve still exists today…but probably not in a manner which medieval peasants would recognise. In Modern English, the job-title is spelt…Sheriff.

It was the local lord or if he was available…the king, who was generally in charge of meting out punishment. That was until naughty King John was given a small piece of paper to sign. The title of this piece of paper?

Magna Carta Libertatum.

That’s its name in Latin. Translated to English, it means “The Great Charter of Liberties”.

The Magna Carta, created in 1215AD, was a document that restricted the power of the king and held him legally accountable if he was a naughty little boy…like King John. One of the main rules of the Magna Carta was that it forbade the King from pronouncing judgement on criminals.

A copy of the Magna Carta

Sickenesse and Healthe

Medieval understanding of the human body was rudimentary at the very, very, very best. People did not understand how the body digested food, how it got sick, how it healed itself, how blood circulated, and dozens of other ‘how’s. Without highly scientific TV shows like “House” to teach them, Medieval physicians were often medicating their patients purely through superstition and guesswork.

Medieval medicine was based on the theory of the Four Humours, a very old system of medical belief that dated back to Ancient Greece! Humourism, as it was called, centered on bodily imbalances…but not in the way we might think. To find out more about the history of medicine, read the link above.

Medical practicioners were few and far between in Medieval Europe. Physicians were expensive and generally ineffective. Most people had to rely on the local priest, the local wise woman or the local barber-surgeon, who gets his title because he was just as likely to give you a mullet as he was to slit open your gullet. Medieval medicine was a mixture of practicality, tried-and-tested methods, myth, legend, old wives’ tales, natural remedies and superstition. There are various stories of surgeons and doctors in Medieval times performing truly amazing operations and having their patients survive. Amongst these include removing stones (such as kidney-stones) from the body and removing arrows shot into various places on the body…such as a direct hit to the face!

Of course, the biggest scare to the Medieval world came in the 1340s, with the Black Death (also called the Great Plague, the Plague, the Black Plague, the Bubonic Plague and The Sickenesse). It wiped out literally millions of people through the years of the late 1340s and came back almost every generation since then. There are still instances of the Black Death today, although the number of these instances are greatly reduced from the horrifying figures of the Middle Ages.

Victims of the Black Death

Medieval Jobs and Occupations

There were all kinds of jobs in the Medieval world. Blacksmiths, coiners, sadle-makers, roofers, farmers, goldsmiths and printers. Many English surnames come from the classified employment advertisements of the Middle Ages.

Surnames like…

– Sadler (saddle-maker).
– Sandler (sandle-maker).
– Chandler (…eh…chandler. That is…a candle-maker).
– Fuller (A fuller, someone who removed impurities from cloth).
– Tyler or Tiler (A roof-tiler).
– Slater (someone who provided slate for roofing!).

Many jobs were unskilled, but some occupations required great skill, such as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, jewellers, coiners, printers, watchmakers and swordsmiths and armourers. Persons engaged in such occupations usually formed guilds with other such persons, in order to protect their skill-sets and also to advance the quality of their craft. Guilds were kind of like labour-unions/exclusive clubs where persons of the same craft or occupation could gather and protect their ideas and skills from others. This was usually done in structures called guildhalls (like a clubhouse). Guilds, as formal institutions, however, had to have some sort of legal status. A guild could not be formed without the permission of a person of authority. In England, this authority was usually the reigning monarch who would give various craftsmen the right to form a guild through the issuing of Letters Patent; a legal instrument allowing for the formation of various offices, organisations and institutions.

Other Aspects of Daily Life

What about all the other aspects of daily life, apart from food, reading, writing, laws, order, education (yawn!) and all that rot? What else happened? Didn’t anyone ever have a bath?

Actually, bathing was not that common in the Medieval era. It was not seen as being necessary, it was seen as too much hard work (and after a day ploughing the fields, the last thing you wanted was more work!) and it was seen as pointless, because once you were clean, you would only get dirty again the next day!

But, in the rare instances that people actually bathed in the Medieval world, it was either done in a ready source of water (a stream, lake or river) or it was done in the bathtub. Bathing in a bathtub was such a hassle that most people just didn’t bother! You had to light a fire, boil the water, fill the bathtub, wait for the water to be juuuust right, then you had to strip, get in, scrub, scrub, scrub, get out, dry down, put your clothes back on and then tip out the water.

Oh, but only…and ONLY…after every other person in the household had used that exact same bathwater to have their baths, too! Hot water was too scarce a commodity to waste on just one person!

What about clothes and bedsheets? Weren’t they washed?

Yes. But again, very rarely. It wasn’t generally seen as being necessary, and men and women could wear the same clothes for days or weeks on end before having them changed. In mose cases for the peasantry, they didn’t have very many other clothes to change into, so there was no point in washing them!

Entertainment in the Medieval world came in various forms. Without books to read or xBoxes to play on, movies to see or late night peepshows, entertainment was found in sports such as skittles, darts, bear-baiting, puppet-shows and that favourite of all childrens’ pastimes!…


Fairytales were born out of the Middle Ages as stories to distract peasants from their miserable lives. Stories like Rapunzel fed the dreams of peasant girls that they would be whisked off by their Prince Charming. Hansel and Gretel probably made little peasant boys forget their own hunger for a while, while also teaching children not to wander from home, lest they find ugly witches with houses made from gingerbread. More stories, such as Cinderella and The Magic Flounder were more famous fairytales, told to children (and probably to adults as well) to entertain them when there was nothing on the local stage to watch.


The Feudal System in Medieval Europe

From about the year 1000 until the end of the 1500s, the people of Europe lived, worked and died by a social and governmental system known as ‘Feudalism’. Most people have a weak idea of what feudalism is, but we often forget about it when we watch movies, which portray the Medieval period as romantic, exotic, exciting and amazing. In truth, there was every little romance about living in the Medieval period and living by the Feudal System. It was hard work, sacrifice, slavery and most likely an early grave for anywhere from 70-90% of the population of Europe.

What was Feudalism?

Feudalism in its simplest form was a pyramid of power. At the very top was the king. Below him were barons (noblemen), below them were knights, below them were the peasantry. The peasantry was the largest chunk of the pyramid, right at the bottom, and it could make up to three quarters to nine tenths of the entire population. Amongst the peasantry, the classes were even further subdivided into Freemen, Villeins, Cottagers and Slaves.

The king was at the very top. He ran the country, he decided who got what, he settled disputes, he allocated land and he reigned supreme over his subjects. In theory, the entire country belonged to the king and people couldn’t live there without his personal say-so. Of course, in particularly large countries, it was impossible for the king to see what was going on around his country all at once. To help him do this, he appointed barons or noblemen to be his eyes and ears. The idea was that the king gave a nobleman, a person who had proved himself worthy, a plot of land. In return for the land, the nobleman was expected to govern his part of the kingdom and was expected to pay taxes and provide the king with knights in the event of a military conflict. The land which noblemen could have could be immense, and to protect their royal presents, many noblemen built castles (for which they needed royal permission and funds). Noblemen could set their own laws and taxes within the lands which they controlled.

Below the king and his barons were the knights. A knight was an elite soldier, trained, almost since birth, to kick medieval butt. You can find out more about knights here. The local lord was expected to have a group of knights ready and waiting for the king, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, in case of a war. Most knights were rather run-of-the-mill and ordinary. However, if you were really brave and ballsy, you could actually make a pretty good living as a knight, and some stood a chance of becoming wealthy and powerful noblemen themselves.

Below the knights were the common masses, subdivided, as I said, into Freemen, Villeins, Cottagers and Slaves.

The Peasantry

Under the Feudal System, the peasantry was the lowest class of people. They were more-or-less disposable slave-labour. With so many peasants, it’s probably not surprising that there were various classes of peasantry, free and unfree peasantry. Free peasants being called Freemen and unfree peasants being called serfs, the latter bieng further subdivided into various groups.

Freemen, as the name implies…were free. Free to do more or less as they wished. They were tenant-farmers, who rented land from the local lord and who could grow their own crops and do as they pleased. They paid lower taxes than most other peasants, so if they played their cards right, they could make a fairly decent living for themselves. However, freemen in Medieval society were generally few and far between.

Next came Villeins. Villeins were the biggest chunk of the peasant workforce. Despite the fact that life was hard for them, they did manage to make a living and they did have various rights and rules which governed their lives, much like the more lucky freemen above them. Unfortunately, what rights and priveliges they had couldn’t always fill their bellies and they were expected to work hard on the land to get their food. If food was scarce, they might turn to crime. ‘Villein’ is the medival word which we get the modern ‘Villain’ from. What rights they did have must’ve seemed like royal luxuries to the people below them. Villeins were able to own houses, or at least rent them, they might, or might not be allowed their own land. One unpleasant condition (amongst several) of their existence was that they could not leave the land of their lord without permission. The only other way to leave your lord’s land and servitude was to marry a freeman, who had his own house and grounds. One, less than legal way to escape servitude was to run away and live in town for a long enough period that you could earn your freedom. In order to earn this freedom, you had to live in town for at least a year, though. Considering all the things that happened in towns, and the possible lack of employment, surviving your first year there could be very tough.

Next on the social ladder was the Cottager. As the name suggests, a cottager lived in…a cottage. Unlike Freemen or Villeins, cottagers had no land to call their own. Freemen had their own fields or land around their homes. Villeins might be given a neat, ‘house-and-land’ package from their landlords, but cottagers got nothing. They were expected to work the lord’s fields, for the lord, every single day. In return for this servitude, they were given small huts or shacks (‘cottages’) and a small percentage of the harvest which they worked so hard to produce.

The very last and lowest rung of the medieval social ladder was the Slave. Slaves had almost no rights at all, if they were lucky in the first place, to have any given to them. Slaves worked exclusively for the lord and were paid in food. Unlike Freemen and Villeins, they could not own land and they generally survived on donations given to them by wealthier people.

Life as a Peasant

As you can probably guess, peasant life was incredibly hard. If you didn’t work every single day of your life, you wouldn’t survive another day. To many peasants, regardless of class, life generally meant backbreaking field-labour. Under medieval law, the king owned everything. What the king gave to his lords was stuff which the lords had to pay rent on. For that rent, anything within the lord’s land belonged to him. This ‘everything’ included the crops, the people, the animals, the wood, tools, clothing, mills…everything. In theory, the very clothes that the peasants wore, belonged to their landlord.

Away from the watching eyes of the king, landlords were free to wield their not-inconsiderable power. Landlords were allowed to set their own laws and taxes, and did so freely. Peasants were often exploited, but those were careful and attentive could climb the social ladder. Villeins and Freemen could actually amass a comfortable level of wealth if they knew how to trade their goods and services correctly and they might be able to buy their freedom, or move away from the lord’s land and start new lives elsewhere.

The things that peasants could, or could not do, were many and varied. Villeins were not allowed to leave their lord’s land, but they could be allotted a small amount of their own land to farm for their own purposes. Peasants could not hunt on the lord’s estate, and lived mostly on bread and cheese and fish. Lords could dine on such delicacies as game birds, pork, beef, chicken and wine. Peasants had to tend to their lord’s land before they tended to their own and they were allowed to take wood from the lord’s land only if it was already dead (so that means no cutting down live trees for firewood).

Peasants who owned land were allowed to farm what they desired on their land, be it wheat, corn, barley…anything that would grow. However, wheat was a constant. Taxes were paid in wheat, and so a crop of it always had to be available. As I mentioned in my articles on castles, peasants expected to be allowed to seek refuge in their lord’s castle or fortified manor-house in the event of danger to the land. The local lord was also expected to give charity and alms to the poor or impoverished on his lands, and to take care of his peasants in the event of a famine, drought or other natural disaster.

Serfdom, or the system of peasants existing as unfree labour to a landlord, lasted for a surprisingly long time. Although the Feudal System collapsed in the 1600s with the rise of armies, the end of knights and the establishment of permanent towns and cities as places of home and business, serfdom itself existed for a long time, well into the 19th century in some places.


“I dub thee, Sir…” — Knights in Shining Armour

We have a lot of ‘Sirs’ these days. Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Michael Parkinson…all famous people…all knighted by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, of the United Kingdom for various services. It must be fun to be able to say you’re a knight and have ‘SIR’ in front of your name. But these days, admittedly, being given a knighthood is more a ceremony than anything else. You wouldn’t expect Paul McCartney to put on a suit of armour, hop on a horse, cry out ‘Tally ho!’ and charge off to Iraq, would you?

While these days knights have very little in common with the “knights of old”, people have always had a fascination with these strange and alien beings, the best of the best, the bravest of the brave, the strongest of the strong, the Green Berets, the SAS or the Marines of the Medieval world…but who were knights? What did being a knight mean? And most importantly…

How the hell did you become a KNIGHT anyway?

What was a knight?

A knight was a medieval soldier, a gentleman soldier, and a gentleman soldier who fought a gentleman’s war. He was an elite warrior and fighter who swore an oath of alliegence to the king. This is why in movies set in the medieval period, some people who bow to the king would address him as “my liege”, as he was the person to whom they had sworn alliegence.

A knight was expected to be many things. He had to be an expert warrior above everything else, but he also had to be courageous, brave, courteous, protective, polite and respectful of authority. He had to be in top-condition all the time and he was expected to keep his equipment and his horse in fighting condition as well, for he never knew when the king might call upon him to ride into battle. The knight held a position of respect and responsibility in his community and he was expected to uphold the law and not to abuse his authority, which was given to him by the king.

The Code of Chivalry

A knight was expected to behave like a knight…but how was a knight expected to behave anyway?

A knight’s life was regulated over by a set of rules, regulations and guidelines known as the Code of Chivalry, or the Chivalric Code. These days, if someone is said to be behaving ‘chivalrously’, it’s generally assumed that he’s kind and polite, compassionate and helpful…however, that is just one tiny iota of the vast and complex code of honour and conduct that regulated a knight’s life. So what is the full Code of Chivalry?

The original Code of Chivalry, also called the ‘Knightly Virtues’, were divided into three parts, they were:

1. Warrior Chivalry. Here, you were expected to fight for what was right. You were expected to obey your lord or your your king (whoever was your ‘superior officer’, so to speak), you were expected to be merciful, courageous, fair, selfless and you were expected to protect those who could not protect themselves, be they the weakly, the sickly, the poor, the young or the delicate. So effectively…the sick, the elderly, the impoverished and the children. You were expected to fight to the best of your ability for a child or for the innocent poor, as well as you were expected to fight for the life of your liege lord or your king.

2. Religious Chivalry. Religious Chivalry meant being faithful to God. It meant protecting the innocent, it meant being generous to others, to protect the church and to battle evil and misdeed and to be a beacon of what was wholesome and good in the world.

3. Chivalry of Courtly Love. This is the branch of chivalry which most people still recognise today. The knightly virtue of Courtly Love meant that a knight was expected to be a man of honour. That he was to be as good as his word. That he was to be discreet. He was expected to be polite and courteous, especially to women. He was to protect the womenfolk and to be helpful, kind-hearted and understanding, firstly of his own lady (either the wife of his lord or the queen, or to his own wife), and thereafter, to all ladies indiscriminately.

A Knight’s Tale

We’ve covered what a knight was and how a knight was supposed to act…but now, probably the most important question is…how did you become a knight?

I’m sure everyone would love to be a knight in shining armour. I’m sure a lot of kids back in the Medieval Era wished they were knights. Dressing up in armour, doing brave things, winning all the hot chicks and getting bags of cash from the king for all the awesome stuff you did…It’d be like a professional wrestler today. But to become a wrestler…and more importantly…a knight…isn’t easy. In fact it was so not-easy that if you intended to become a knight, you had to start training from the very day you could walk! So…where did you start?

Hither Page, Come Stand By Me

First and foremost, to be a knight, you had to have some sort of social-standing in life already. Most people who became knights had wealthy parents, were the children of knights, or were the children of wealthy or powerful noblemen who had good connections with the king. Money was a key part of becoming a knight; you had to be rich, or at least well-off, because you needed the money to pay for the training, the horse, the armour, the sword…it all came out of your own pocket. And once you had the money and you were considered knight-material, the training would begin. Don’t get cushy, training a knight was the medieval equivalent of special forces bootcamp today.

Considering that the training was so hard, if you intended to be a knight, a real knight, a knight in shining armour, then you had to start training young. Very young. How young? Try seven years old.

That’s right. If you intended to be a knight, you had to start at the age of seven. These days, kids at the age of seven are in elementary school learning how to read. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, if you intended to be a knight, you had to start training at this age…and it wasn’t softened up just because you were a kid. So how did it work?

Once the decision had been made to turn you into a knight (usually by your parents), you were sent off to a neighbouring castle or even to the king’s household itself. Here, you would start your training as a page.

A page was a knight-in-training. You learnt how to ride a horse, you learnt how to throw spears, how to fight with a sword (using a human-shaped dummy known as a quintain as a target). You had to learn how to ride a horse and use your sword effectively at the same time and you had to do sparring-matches with the quintain, stabbing its shield with your sword and then hopping out of the way as the dummy swung around on its stand after the strike (the dummy’s movement was to simulate an enemy knight swinging his sword back at you, after you’d taken your swipe at him).

Apart from all the physical training, the young page also learnt things which other children his age would give their eyes to be able to do. He was taught reading, writing, various languages such as Latin or French, and the lady of the house or a lesser noblewoman in the king’s household, would teach the boy courtly manners so that he would know how to act in front of the king (if he ever met him).

As you can see, being a page wasn’t just some weekend correspondence course you did through the post, or a weeklong workshop you did down at the local community center. Starting at the age of seven, you were expected to do this stuff for the next seven years at least! Your training as a page didn’t finally stop until you were fourteen, or in some cases, as late as sixteen!

‘Ello Squire!

Once you finished your page’s training, about the age of 15, you then became a ‘squire’, or, to use the full term, an arming-squire. Becoming a squire meant that you had a position something between a knight-in-training, a junior knight, and a personal manservant. A squire was a teenage trainee who was assigned to the service of a specific knight. His knight was his mentor and his master who was supposed to teach the young whip everything he was ever likely to need to know about knighthood. The squire did everything for the knight, he served his meals, he accompanied him, he cleaned up after him, he took care of the knight’s horse, he accompanied him on journeys, he followed him to tournaments and matches and he assisted him in combat.

Much like a valet, a squire was also expected to look after a knight’s clothes. And what does a knight wear?

Yep…a squire was expected to learn how to look after the knight’s suit of armour, in training for when he would someday (maybe) wear his own. The squire was expected to dress his knight and know where everything went and how it fitted and held together. He was expected to know how to do a few basic repairs to the metalwork and of course…he had to know how to keep the armour clean! His master couldn’t be a knight in shining armour if the armour wasn’t shining!

There was no Brasso back in the 15th century, no steel wool, no Simichrome polishing-paste. How was the squire to keep his knight’s kit clean?

14th and 15th century Brasso was a polishing agent made up of sand…vinegar…and…urine. The squire would rub this stuff onto the armour and scrub it in and wipe it off over and over and over, to get a nice, glittering shine. In the middle of a battle, a squire was expected to be hot to trot at a moment’s notice. When his master was out in the fray, slashing, bashing and crashing away at the enemy, the squire was expected to be able to repair broken pieces of equipment, he was expected to help the knight if he was injured, he was expected to run out into the middle of hell with a new piece of kit for his knight and he was expected to protect his knight if he was in trouble.

A full suit of armour, with the helmet, shoulderpads, breastplate, arm and legplates, kneepads, gauntlets (gloves) and sword. Under this would be a chainmail suit and more clothes to act as padding against the weight of the metal.

Along with all this stuff, one of the most important parts of becoming a knight was learning how to wear authentic, 15th century medieval armour! All knights wore armour, so as a squire, part of your more advanced training was to learn how to put on a suit of armour, how to take it off, and most importantly, how to move around and FIGHT in a suit of armour! These days when we think of protective clothing, we think of bulletproof vests or kevlar or something like that. Medieval armour was nothing like that. A real, full suit of medieval armour was made of steel and iron and it was incredibly heavy. You had the helmet, the visor, the breastplate, the backplate, the armplates, legplates, you had the gauntlets. Under all this you had the chainmail and your tunic and your trousers (hose). You had your socks and your shoes and your protective metal overshoes. Add to this your belt, your dagger, your sword and your shield…you were a walking tank, carrying at least (note, at LEAST) 30-50 kilograms of metal (about 80-100lbs). Part of your training was to dress up in full kit and spend the entire day in your armour, walking around and doing your regular duties. This was to get you used to wearing the armour in all kinds of weather and to be able to move around in it comfortably during battle. You were also expected to be able to mount, ride and dismount a horse in full armour.

I Dub Thee, Sir Knight

Exactly how long it took you to become a knight was variable. Official training from page to squire took seven years. How long it took you to become a fully-fledged knight from just being a simple arming-squire depended on a lot of things, but it usually hung onto the size of the squire’s nuts and how brave and courageous he was during battle. Don’t forget, a squire wasn’t just a servant, he was a junior knight-in-training, and he WAS expected to fight or at least to defend himself and his master in battle. If the squire was brave enough, if he was courageous and ballsy enough, if he had proven himself to his knight or to the local lord or even to the king himself…he might get a nice word about him put into the next ‘graduation ceremony’, and the king (or more commonly, the local lord), would consider him knight-material.

The Knighthood

If young Jimmy Ryan had started life out in the 14th century as the son of a wealthy nobleman who desired Jimmy to become a knight, Jimmy would have started training at the age of seven, as a page. At the age of fourteen, he became a squire. After proving himself worthy after years of loyal service, the knight might speak to the lord or the king (depending on who he served), or the squire himself might speak to the big man. If the lord or king decided that the squire was indeed worthy, he would agree to arrange the knighting ceremony. While there was no fixed age from which a squire became a knight, it usually happened in the squire’s early 20s.

Officially, a knighting is called an ‘accolade’ or a ‘dubbing’, hence the term “I dub thee…”. It was performed in the following manner:

The king or lord, having decided the squire was indeed ready for knighting, would arrange a time and place for the knighting ceremony. The night before the big day, the squire would dress in clean, white and red robes and clothes. He would pray and fast throughout the night, purifying his soul for the next great moment in his life. While this was going on, a priest would bless the sword which the squire was to recieve and then lay it down on an altar, ready for the ceremony.

In the early morning, before dawn, the squire would bathe, making sure he was thoroughly clean. He then put on his best clothes, attended confession with a priest, had breakfast, and then headed off to the place where the ceremony was to take place. By now, it would be dawn.

Just like a graduation ceremony from university today, this was a big event. It wasn’t just the knight, the king and a flock of peasants. It was everyone. The squire’s family, his best friends, the wealthy and the powerful and the respected families and personages…anyone who was anyone, would show up for the big day, to watch this historic event.

When everyone was assembled, the ceremony took place. The squire would kneel in front of his liege lord, or his king (again, depending on who was available), and the person in charge would raise the sword (placed on the altar earlier that day) and he would do the motions which we’re all familiar with. He would tap the flat of the sword-blade on one shoulder, and then on the other, while saying something along the lines of: “For services rendered, I dub thee, Sir James Ryan…”. In older times, the lord or king might actually strike the squire with the sword, but somewhere along the way, it was decided that this was a bit dangerous, so it was replaced with the gentle shoulder-taps which we recognise today. This over with, the squire was officially proclaimed a knight and what followed would be a night of food, wine and making merry, into the small hours of the next day.


Medieval Execution

This has been on my list of possible topics for a while now, and at least three readers have asked me to write a posting about it…so here goes…

In the Medieval period, from 1066-1500s, most countries were ruled by monarchies. Kings, queens and princes. Medieval times were dangerous times to be alive and with religious persecution happening on almost a daily basis, with different kings wanting their religion to be the one which everyone followed, it’s not surprising to know that kings were willing to go to great lengths to see their decrees, commands and orders, carried out. Social discipline in the Medieval period was strict, and any disruption to social order was severely punished, as were any crimes committed against the people or even worse…against the monarchy! What were some of the more infamous forms of punishment, torture and execution that were used throughout the Medieval Period? This article will cover ‘execution’. Subsequent articles will cover torture and punishment.


Burning at the Stake.

Popularly associated with the crime of witchcraft, burning at the stake involved strapping the victim (a woman), to a wooden post in a public place (such as a town square), and surrounding that post with logs and faggots. Before you get antsy, a ‘faggot’ is a unit of measure meaning a bunch of sticks. The faggots and logs were then lit and the victim was sent to her fate. How was it done and how did the person die?

Upon being found guilty of witchcraft, the woman would be walked up the pile of wood and would be tied to the stake at the top in such a way that they would not be able to move. The executioner then used a burning torch to light the faggots at the bottom of the pile of wood and then stepped back to watch his handiwork. Despite what you might believe, most victims of burning did not actually die of burning. Most would have died of smoke inhalation long before they actually ever caught fire. However, on some occasions, when smoke inhalation didn’t kill the victim, she would be tied to the stake until her clothes, and later, her flesh, started to burn, literally killing her by burning her alive, at the stake.


Beheading, or death by decapitation, was how most noble people were executed if they were found to have committed a crime. Beheading was quick, relatively clean and a great spectator…ehm…event. The job of beheading the victim came to the executioner, in this case, commonly called the ‘headsman’, for obvious reasons. A noble who was accused of treason (crimes against the king or country) was usually executed through beheading. It was done like this:

The condemned man (or woman) was allowed to say a few words before death. He or she would then get on their knees and rest their head on the chopping-block, face down. A priest might say a short prayer, and then the headsman would do the deed. Despite what you may think, it actually takes a considerable amount of strength to decapitate someone. If the headsman was particularly strong or if the axe was very sharp or heavy, he might be able to lob off the head in one, clean blow. However, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes it could take two, three or even four blows of the axe to decapitate someone and kill them. Even then, if the head didn’t fall right off, you’d have to take out a knife (called a ‘slitting knife’) to cut away the leftover skin and muscle so that the head came away completely. While this was going on, blood would be pumping out of the neck and saturating the execution-platform in blood, making the entire place wet and slippery.

Having decapitated the victim, the executioner then held up the head, and would call out to the crowd: “Behold the head of a traitor!”, as a warning to anyone else who dared to incur the king’s wrath.

Once the head was lobbed off and held up to the crowd, it would then have to be boiled with herbs and spices…not to eat it…but to preserve it! This was because once the head was off, it was shoved onto a spike and propped up on a wall or bridge or some other prominent place, for public display. The headsman certainly didn’t have an easy life. Usually, headsmen were big, beefy fellows with black masks or hoods over their faces. This was to protect their identity from people who might resent having the condemned lose their heads. Once the ordeal was over, however, the headsman did get to keep any clothes that the deceased had. And before the deed was done, he might even get a fat tip from the condemned nobleman, who wanted a quick, clean (so to speak), job.


Although still in common practice today in some countries, hanging was the standard execution for most capital crimes such as murder or rape (then called something pretty and euphamistic like ‘unlawful carnal knowledge’). Hanging involved a scaffold (called a ‘gallows’) and a length of rope, done up in a distinctive ‘noose’ knot. Everyone thinks hanging is simple – you tie a rope around the guy’s neck and let him dangle, but there was actually a fair bit of skill to making someone cark it through hanging. Factors influencing how the hanging was to be done included the weight of the victim, the type of neck he or she had, the type and length of rope and the length of the drop. The ‘drop’ is the distance between the victim and the ground. But casting aside all the technical tiddlybits, this is how it was done:

The noose was put over the victim’s neck and done up nice and tight, with the knot draped over one of his or her shoulders. The victim was allowed to say a few last words, and then a lever was pulled. The lever opened a trapdoor under the victim’s feet. their own body-weight sent them down, the noose tightened…and the job was done. Despite what you might see in movies, the point of hanging was not actually to strangle the victim. If a condemned prisoner was strangled from the hanging, it was considered a botched job. The point of a successful hanging was to actually break the neck. Since it’s harder to break someone’s neck than it is to strangle them, you can now kinda see why it was such a technical job, involving weights, distances, neck-thicknesses, lengths of rope and all that other stuff.

The Brazen Bull

One of the lesser-known methods of execution. And probably just as well. The Brazen Bull was invented in ancient times, and it worked by throwing the victim into a hollow statue of a bull made of brass (hence the name). Once the victim was inside, the door at the top of the bull was locked and a fire was lit under the bull’s belly. The metal absorbed the heat and the inside of the bull soon became absolutely roasting hot. As the victim screamed, his voice would come out of the bull’s mouth, making it sound like a bull’s bellowing. Eventually the heat got so extreme that the victim was literally cooked to death.


Impalement is best known today due to the actions of a certain, 15th century nobleman known today by the various names of…Vlad Tepeche…Vlad the Impaler…or…Vlad Dracula. Vlad Tepeche or Vlad Dracula (‘Dracul’ = Dragon. ‘Dracula’ = Son of the Dragon) was a Wallachian nobleman who was infamous for killing anyone and everyone who stood in his way, by his favoured method of execution – impalement, from which he recieved his epithet – Vlad the Impaler.

Impalement was barbaric at the very least, but Vlad didn’t care. He impaled thousands of his own people – Men, women and children, for the pettiest of crimes. Usually, the sharpened, wooden stake was driven through the victim’s abdomen and he or she was then hoisted up and put up in the air, being left to slowly bleed to death. Even worse was that sometimes, the stake was inserted up the anus, to come out the mouth. Either way, it was a very slow way to die. The stakes were cut so that the victim didn’t die immediately from shock. Instead, they’d die from a combination of starvation, blood-loss and exposure in an execution that could take hours…days…even weeks. It’s probably not surprising to know that Vlad Tepeche was universally hated. In the end, he was captured by frustrated Wallachians who had had enough of him, and he was dispatched from our world as he had done with so many others – by impalement.

Hanging, Drawing and Quartering.

The ultimate medieval execution. And for good reason, too, when you find out just what it involves. Hanging, drawing and quartering was the punishment used for those people who had committed the crime of High Treason, meaning a crime against the country, or even worse…against the reigning monarch. Elizabeth I of England wrote down once, specifically what hanging, drawing and quartering meant…those with weak stomachs, or who have just finished a significant meal…click to another web-page now.

The victim was first hung, much like how everyone else was hung (see above), only in this instance, the goal of the hanging was not to break the victim’s neck, but rather to bring on unconsciousness through lack of oxygen. Once this was achieved, the victim was cut down and then came the next stage.

To be drawn. According to historical records, to be ‘drawn’ meant to have your abdomen literally drawn open, like a zip-fastener. The executioner took out a knife and opened you up from the ribcage down to the bellybutton. Your intestines were heaved out and burned on a brazier. Your genitals were removed and also burned. Your heart (still beating), was cut out of your body and held up, and the executioner would say: “Behold the heart of a traitor!”

By this time, you’re probably dead (remember, you’re awake during all this). Once you were dead, your body was quartered.

Quartering meant decapitation, followed by chopping off your limbs (arms and legs), so that you made up four ‘quarters’. These would then be posted around the community so that everyone could see you (or…part of you), and know what you had done.

Despite how horrific hanging, drawing and quartering was, it was an accepted part of life in the United Kingdom for centuries, and at least from the 1500s to the 1700s. Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th century London diarist, wrote of such an execution in his personal diary:

    “I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.”

Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Saturday, Oct. 13th, 1660.


Living in a Castle – What was it Like?

Apart from being fortresses, apart from being places of safety for the commonfolk if their land was under attack, a castle was also a home. Castles built in more peaceful parts of Europe could actually be quite grand and magnificent; they were the mansions in rich neighbourhoods, of their day. But what was life actually like in a castle? Who lived there, what did they do, what was the food like and what happened on a daily basis? While many castles were indeed massive, being small cities in themselves, what were they like to live in?

Who Built and Primarily lived in Castles?

This is obvious. The king and queen, right? Well…yes and no. Certainly, the king or queen would have lived in a castle or a palace, and certainly one of great size and grandeur, but there are dozens, hundreds of castles all over Europe. Crowned heads of France, Germany, Poland, England and all the other countries in Europe, couldn’t possibly live in all of these, did they?

No, they didn’t. The truth is that the majority of castles were never built for a king or queen or any other reigning monarch. Most castles were in fact built for noblemen! In the days when it was still customary for a king to lead his troops into battle, charging on ahead with his standard, or remaining at the rear, directing his forces on the battlefield, the king rewarded especially brave or couragous soldiers or knights the best way that a king could back in those days. He gave the knight with the big balls a nice, fat chunk of land. As Gerald O’Hara says in ‘Gone with the Wind’, “Land’s the only thing worth fighting for, worth dying for! Because it’s the only thing that lasts!” Once a deserving warrior had been given his plot of land, he was allowed to do what he wanted with it. Less ambitious noblemen (since a knight was made an earl or a baron after his services to the king), might build a manor house. Those who desired to build a castle, however, had to get written, signed and sealed permission from the king. It was illegal to build a castle without the king’s permission. Once permission (and funds) had been granted, however, building could go ahead.

Since there were obviously more noblemen and knights than kings, it’s easy to see now, why the main occupants of a castle were not actually the members of a royal family, but more likely, the members of a noble family, comprising of the lord, his lady and any children or relations, along with servants and any close friends and colleagues.

What was it like living in a castle?

Even when it wasn’t under attack, living in a castle was hectic, noisy and they were often packed full of people. Despite what you might think, a castle was not the most comfortable of places to live, even in a castle that was built primarily as a home, instead of as a defensive structure. Castles were large, dark, draughty and cold. Windows were often small, with wooden shutters or (if the nobleman could afford it), leadlight glass-panes. Glass was expensive back in the medieval period, so most castles did without glass in their windows. Most rooms would have had massive fireplaces. Without central heating, this was the only way to warm up a room during winters where it could drop to several degrees below freezing.

Much of the furniture or decorations which one generally associates with castle chambers actually served double purposes. Tapestries were big, pretty cloth pictures which depicted famous events or people, but they were also there to keep the heat in and to stop it escaping through the walls, like a form of insulation. The enormous, four-poster beds which one associates with grand bedchambers didn’t have those hanging curtains and canopies around them just for decoration or privacy. When the sleeper went to bed at night, the curtains were closed to keep out draughts and keep in the heat.

What about answering calls of nature? Well, the usual callbox, the modern toilet, didn’t exist back in the 14th century. Instead, you either used a closed stool (which was a special seat with a bucket underneath it), or you used a privy, which is a seat with a hole in it. Waste going through the closed stool (which is where we get the term ‘stool’ to mean ‘feces’) was collected in the bucket, which was then removed, emptied, washed and replaced. Waste which passed through the seat of the privy (which was an early kind of toilet), ended up in one of two places. If the castle had a moat around it, the waste probably ended up in there. If it didn’t have a moat, or if the privy was located somewhere without access to the moat, bodily waste ended up in the cesspit at the very bottom of the castle. A cesspit is an early kind of septic tank.

Lighting in castles was either natural sunlight, or the light given off by candles or an open fire. As a result, castles were often very smokey. It took at least three or four candles to produce enough light to really read or sew or do anything else by. Any chandler who took up residence in the castle (a chandler is a candlemaker) was bound to make a pretty good living out of it.

What about washing up and bathing? This may come as a shock to most people, but regular bathing as we know it today, did not exist until the very late 19th century. Certainly in the 13, 14 and 1500s not many people bothered with it. Firstly, work was so hard and manual and labour-intensive that you would build up a sweat the moment you got out of the bath-tub, so bathing was seen as a waste of time. Secondly, the trouble of running a bath back then just didn’t make it worth it. There was no running water. If you wanted a bath, and especially a hot bath, you had to boil the water yourself, over a fire, you had to lug it upstairs to the bathtub, fill the bathtub, get the tempreature right, put the soap in (if you had any), stripped naked, got in, washed, got out, dried, put your clothes back on and then you’d have to bail out the entire bathtub by hand with a bucket! It took so long it just wasn’t worth it! And certainly people didn’t brush their teeth, either. Wealthier people had a type of tooth-powder which could be scrubbed and scraped around the gums and teeth, but it was not particularly effective.

Castle Residents.

Apart from lords, ladies, earls, barons, dukes, kings, queens, princes and princesses, who else might have lived in a castle? This isn’t everyone, just everyone I could remember:

The Priest.

Especially grand castles (such as Windsor), would have its own chapel. If the castle had a chapel, it was certainly obliged to have its own priest. Often, the priest was one of the few people who knew how to read and write.

Ladies in Waiting.

A Lady in Waiting was a lesser noblewoman, who waited (that is, served) the queen. They were her companions, assistants and confidants. Women’s clothing of the medieval period was often so elaborate that it was impossible for wealthy women to either dress or undress themselves.


People gotta eat. A castle, especially a royal one, could have dozens, even hundreds of cooks. There would be one or two head chefs, with up to 200 underlings who did everything from carting food, preparing ingredients, stirring pots or cleaning stuff up. The lowest person in a castle’s kitchen was a fellow known as the turnbroach, also known as a spitboy. These two titles pretty much sum up what his job was: To turn the spit. The spit was a long, metal pole with a crank-handle on the end. Meat (beef, chicken, pigs and any other meat that required cooking) was spiked onto the spit and put up on a rack above or next to the fire. The turnbroach’s job was to turn the spit and cook the meat. It was an incredibly boring and amazingly hot job. A castle kitchen could have nearly a dozen (or more!) fires, cooking stuff. They were incredibly noisy, smokey and VERY VERY hot.


Can’t have a castle without guards! Guards and soldiers lived at the castle to protect it in times of danger. When the castle was safe, guards would patrol the walltops, keep a lookout, and control entry or exit to the castle by manning the gatehouse. Guards were on watch all day, and usually did their work in shifts.

Gaoler and Turnkey.

The goaler (sometimes called a dungeon-master) was the man who looked after the castle’s dungeon, or prison-cells, if the castle had any. The turnkey (usually there were more than just one), were regular dungeon-guards. As their title suggests, their main job was to…turn keys, to unlock and lock the cell doors.


The castle gong-scourer or gong-farmer was at the very bottom of the castle heirachy of residents and his job was quite literally, the pits. The cesspits, that is. The job of the gong-scourer was to shovel out the…ahem…contents, of the castle’s cesspits and remove it from the premises. This was a terrible job to do and gong-scourers would have smelt horribly, especially in the middle of summer.

Castle Food and Dining.

The kitchen was an important part of a castle, as it is the important part of any residence. Chefs and cooks had a lot of work to do. King Henry VIII’s court could number up to 1,000 people…and they ALL had to be fed. What was food in the medieval period like?

There were of course, the staples. Bread, cheese, meat, fish…but what kinds of bread, meat, cheese and fish, and where did it all come from?

Any meat served in the castle was likely to be duck, goose, chicken, beef or pork. If the lord of the castle went hunting and managed to shoot down a game-bird such as pheasant, that was eaten as well. Bread was just…bread. But it looks a bit different from what we’re used to. Medieval bakers didn’t have baking-tins, so their loaves of bread came out shaped like circles, instead of the long, rectangular loaves that we’re used to today. Bread was baked in massive, brick, open-fire ovens. Cows and chickens provided the castle with milk, butter, cream and eggs. Grains such as wheat or barley were crushed and ground up in massive water-powered grainmills and the resultant flour was stored in sacks or barrels in the basements.

What about drinks? Well, most people back then would have drunk either beer, ale or wine. Any water for drinking was usually drawn from wells inside the castle, but most people preferred to stick to alcohol. Why? Because don’t forget that the main source of water in a castle was from the moat (if it had one), and all kinds of nasty things such as human excretment went into the moats. You don’t drink out of your toilet. It was common-sense. Drinks like beer, wine and ale had no water in them, so they were considered safer to drink. Everyone back then drank beer or ale, even the children! In fact, some brewers brewed a special ‘children’s ale’ for kids to drink.

So, what was mealtime like? What was breakfast, lunch or dinner like?

Most meals would have been taken in the Great Hall, the main chamber of the castle. The royal or noble family usually sat up on a dais (a platform) at the far end of the room, which gave them some privacy, but also allowed the lord or king to watch over his subjects while he ate. Food was brought in by servants and when each dish was put down, it was customary for each servant to take a mouthful from his presented platter, to show that it was not poisoned. In royal courts, the royal food-taster would do this for them. The food-taster might have had a wonderful diet with all the great food he could nibble on, but he would have lived in constant fear that someone would try to kill the king or queen by poison in their food or drink.

Despite what you might think from movies or cartoons, in the medieval period, most people did not actually eat from plates with cutlery as we know it today. Instead, everyone was given a thick, wide slice of bread, called a trencher. The trencher was your plate. You dumped all your food on top of it and ate off of there. And table-manners should be observed, of course. In the Medieval Period, if you had to clear your throat for whatever reason, it was rude to spit into a cup or a bowl or even into a handkerchief. Instead, the expected thing was for you to hock it right out onto the floor!

If you ate food off of a slice of bread, did you use cutlery? Not really. Most people would have eaten with their hands, but you were also usually given an eating-knife and a spoon; forks had not yet come to the table in medieval Europe.

Grand feasts and parties are often associated with castles and mealtimes, and certainly when a king was on a progress (tour) of his kingdom, any castle he stopped at was expected to throw a grand banquet in his honour. Extra care was put into food-preparation; cakes and pies were moulded into special shapes. There were even special ‘presentation pieces’ which were there purely to be looked upon as works of art, and not to be eaten!

Of course, not everyone ate from bread trenchers. Wealthy people could afford plates and bowls made from gold, silver or pewter. As times went on, even the more common guests at banquets were eating out of plates made of wood, but the term ‘trencher’ still remained.

Condiments served with meals were usually pepper and salt. Salt in medieval Europe was so prized that only the wealthiest of people could afford to add it to their food. It wasn’t easy to get salt back in those days, which was what made it so expensive. It’s because of this rarity that we get the phrases “worth his salt” or “below the salt”.

At the end of a meal, once everything had been served and put away, you would pick up your trencher (that big slice of bread), which would now be covered with gravy and sauce and bits of meat and fish and other yummy things, and eat it! If the king or lord of the castle was feeling generous, as an act of charity, he would implore his guests and diners, not to eat their trenchers at the end of the feast. Instead, they would be gathered up and given as alms to hungry peasants and beggars who lived outside the castle in the village nearby.