Sunday, May 17, 2015

Everyday Medieval Possessions

By E.M. Powell

For me, one of the most interesting parts of historical research for my novels is getting up close and personal with history. I've mentioned this in previous posts, along with my fondness for looking at the lives of ordinary people. A recent research trip saw me heading off to Ireland and one of the stops was the port city of Waterford.

Waterford's Medieval Reginald's Tower.

Waterford has a long history, having been first settled by the Vikings. The Anglo-Normans took the city in 1170, with Henry II of England arriving in 1171 and making it a Royal City. Waterford has taken the preservation of its heritage extremely seriously and its medieval past has an entire museum dedicated to it.

Medieval Museum, Waterford

This is in addition to Reginald's Tower, which also has a number of wonderful everyday medieval possessions on display. I found it extraordinary that so many of these objects are almost 900 years old. There was also something very special looking at these objects in the same place in which they had been found. I'd like to share my favourites with you.

Looking Good

To look your medieval best, you of course needed a comb. These are made from antler horn, with the single-sided ones being more typical of medieval combs.

Combs carved from horn.

Archaeologists also found offcuts of antler horn, which tells us that the combs were made in Waterford. And where did you keep your comb? Why, in your medieval comb case of course!

Comb Case

Made of leather, it is beautifully decorated with a pattern of leaves and dates from around 1250.

Another way to make sure you looked smart as well as keeping your cloak secure, was to use pins.

Stick Pin Selection

These stick pins were used to tie a cloak and are made of copper alloy. Each design is different, because they were hand made. 250 pins have been found at Waterford. This represents almost a quarter of all Viking-Age and medieval stick pins excavated in Western Europe, an extraordinary number.

Feet old and young had to be protected from the city's wet clay among other things. This adult's shoe dates from around 1150.

Adult Medieval Shoe

And this calfskin shoe would have been worn by a child. Wooden planks and wicker panels covered the ground to give the wearers some protection from the wet clay that the city is built on. It is due to this same soil that objects have been so well preserved.

Child's Shoe

House Beautiful

I found this set of kitchen implements absolutely remarkable. They could have been picked out of a twenty-first century kitchen drawer, and yet are around 870 years old.

Curfew Bowl & Kitchen Tools

The less familiar object to the left is part of a curfew bowl. A curfew bowl was placed over the hearth at night, which kept embers hot so the fire didn't need to be started from scratch again in the morning. They also helped to prevent house fires.

Houses had be lit as well as kept warm and a variety of candle holders were used. Some were attached to the wall, or inserted into wooden posts or masonry joints. Others were for table top use.

Rush Light Holder & Candle Sticks

Alcoholic drinks were widely consumed in the medieval period due to unsafe drinking water. Waterford was the chief port for importing wine into medieval Ireland. This jug and cup date from around 1320 and are probably French in origin.

Wine Jug & Cup

And, as today, people were mindful of their home's security. These keys are from the mid-twelfth century and would have been used for doors or storage chests.

Keys & Latch Lifter

The object in the middle is an iron latch lifter. This would be used to open a door that was merely latched shut (as opposed to locked) and was probably more for convenience than security.

Make Do and Mend (Or Just Make)

Spinning was of course women's work and they need the tools to do it.

Spinning Tools & Shears

On the left is part of a wooden distaff, which was used to hold the unspun wool fibres and stop them from tangling. Next to it are the wooden spindles and whorls made of bone and stone, which were used for drop spinning.

At the top is a pair of iron shears, which date from around 1190. These were all-purpose and used for spinning tasks, cloth and hair cutting and the odd spot of sheep-shearing where necessary. There are some beautiful carvings on the distaff, which dates from around 1260.

Carved Distaff

What was spun had to then be woven, and it was over to the men who were the weavers. This selection of their tools still looks so new, though they all date from the twelfth and thirteenth century.

Weaving Tools

We have the weaver's comb, made of wood and a range of pin beaters, needles, needle cases and loom weights which are all made of bone.

All Work and No Play

The medievals loved a bit of R&R the same as the rest of us. Here's a selection of wonderful gaming pieces.

Board & Gaming Pieces

The gaming board dates from c1150 and was used for playing hnefatafl, a common board game in the Viking era. The gaming pieces could be pegged into the board, which meant it could be played anywhere, including on board a moving ship. My favourite piece is the knight on the right hand side. He was excavated beside the hearth of a Hiberno-Norse house and is slightly charred. I hope no-one mistook him for firewood- he's far too lovely.

Flute & Whistle

And of course there was music: this is Ireland, after all. The beautiful flute is from the mid twelfth century and has been carved from the bone of a swan or a goose. The little whistle is even earlier- 1100- and again carved from a bird bone.

And finally

While these objects might have been treasured by their owners, none of them are the crowns of kings or the jewels or silks of nobility. Most are ordinary objects worn or used by everyday men, women and children. Yet it's the passage of almost nine hundred years that makes them truly extraordinary.
I shall finish with a cheat object, which would have been owned by someone very wealthy but to which I was particularly drawn.


It's made of copper alloy and at first glance, I assumed it was a necklace or a headpiece. But no. It would have been backed with the best leather and worn around the neck of a greyhound or a wolfhound. Yes; it's a medieval dog collar. As the possessor of a slightly less noble furry friend, how could I resist?

Noble? No.

References:
All photos are copyright E.M. Powell 2015.
Note: the websites listed here only give a flavour of what's on offer. I highly recommend visits if you get the opportunity.
Heritage Ireland- Reginald's Tower: http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/South-East/ReginaldsTower/
Medieval Museum, Waterford: http://www.waterfordtreasures.com/medieval-museum
OPW- The Office of Public Works/Oifig na nOibreacha PoiblĂ­: http://www.opw.ie/en/heritage/
Pollock, Dave, Medieval Waterford- Above & Below Ground: Waterford, Archaeografix (2014)
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill. She is working on the next novel in the series, Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign in Ireland. Find out more at www.empowell.com.
Amazon (Universal)
Barnes & Noble
Walmart

16 comments:

  1. Thanks for the fascinating post! Looking at these objects makes me wonder just how many of our goods would survive that long. Future archaeologist will have far less to work with.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Sue: I'm glad you enjoyed it.As for future archaeologists, I suspect they might wonder why we were so fond of plastic!

      Delete
  2. Really fascinating! I'm always intrigued that people of the past drank wine or ale instead of water, for health reasons. Neither are thirst quenching! It must have been a real struggle to stay hydrated - and upright! The pirates I researched drank rum and grog after their water supplies went bad - no wonder pirates have a reputation for drunkenness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, R.A. I too find it difficult to imagine relying on alcoholic drinks (however weak) instead of water. And putting away a whole lot of rum and grog would definitely have me pirate-like!

      Delete
  3. Enjoyed your post very much. And looking at all the fascinating objects. And I think your dog is very noble!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, Donna! (Dog has just received an extra treat in recognition of her new-found nobility.)

      Delete
  4. Great post, thanks for sharing. What I recall from my research into the 11th century was that in the towns the water might have been foul but in the countryside there were clear streams to drink from. But they did consume a lot of mead wine, ale and once the Normans invaded, French wine.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Regan. You're absolutely right, some people had access to clean streams or wells or would have collected rainwater. And of course the alcohol was weaker than what we would consume today, but I still can't quite imagine it as my everyday drink!

      Delete
  5. Good stuff. Those Medieval folk clearly did believe in grooming and good cooking after all...and I have a greyhound. He has a pattern known as 'tuxedo'- white chest and paws. Doubly noble....?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Definitely,Medieval Girl: I can see him in his fine collar!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Very evocative to see the actual items! Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're very welcome, Anne! I'm so pleased you enjoyed it.

      Delete
  8. Thanks for such a fascinating article. It's clear that people in those days were not a throw-away society, as we have become. Possessions were valued and cared for because they were costly to replace.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're most welcome, Fiona. And I agree entirely. For me, it was also very telling that all animal parts were being used (antlers and bones as well as leather) so waste was being kept to a minimum. We could learn a lot from that mindset.

      Delete
  9. This was very interesting. I am new to your blog and had to share it with my FB friends.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many thanks, Barbara. This is a great blog and I really enjoy reading the daily posts from all the other writers who love their own period of history.

      Delete