Life in the 12th Century, by Edge

The following article may offend some miserable gits with no sense of humour. If you are a miserable git, then you have been warned. Don’t come whining to me.

To envisage a life after electricity, we must look back to a time without it. Most people can think as far back as the American Civil War for a lifestyle but that is modern history with Morse Code (1844), Railways (1804) and Steam Ships (1787) and not where we need to look at all. We need to go right back.

In the 12th century there was a rural population of around 2-3 million in an area of England of over 50,000 square miles and just as in today’s world, most people were in towns and villages.
Imagine the only man-made sound you can hear outside is the church bell.
Your world is at most a 20 mile radius and you never go out of it in your life time just like your father and his father before him. Your sons and daughters are going nowhere as well.

You wash hands and face every morning as well as before and after meals. You wash your feet once a week and maybe have one or two baths a year.

There is no deodorant nor toothpaste let alone mouthwash. I think this is how Country Dancing started with everyone trying to get upwind of each other in a polite manner.

Tooth decay was a constant problem and there were no dentists. There were no Antibiotics or Doctors as we know them. Germs were regarded as evil spirits and the work of the devil.

Tough luck if you had a skin condition, you’d be cast out as a leper even if it was only exzema. How would you like to go around with a bell and shout “Unclean! Unclean!” Even I can think of better “Chat up” lines than that.
I hope you are getting visuals here!

So the world revolved around food and work and God. Food was available from two main sources:
1.The Wild.
2. Farming.

From the wild you have Fish, Birds, Animals and Bees including Crayfish Mussels and sea food.
Plants you already know and fruit and nuts were of great importance. I am sure you already know that you can eat more roasted nuts than raw ones.

There were many laws as to what you could catch and what you could not, with painful penalties.
Your hunting dog was a vital member of the household and cherished and loved, he was needed as there were no guns. Nets and hooks were essential. Bows and Slings were practiced every Sunday by law. The Quarter staff and “Back-Swording” were practiced everywhere and in Somerset the popular past time of “Shin Kicking” was still going on in the pubs when I was there in the 1970s

Rabbits were husbanded by a Warrener who looked after the rabbits and trapped or killed the predators like foxes, raptors lynx and wolves. Every monastery had a Warrener and that name is still common in England today as a family name, at the time it had status.

The most important part of a rabbit is the “Vell”. This is the translucent jelly immediately under the skin which is the fat reserve and to separate it, one uses your finger tips to push it from the skin in a blob. Failure to do this will result in reduced calorie availability from the rest of the rabbit. The vell is vital to add to the cooking.
Skinning and gutting can be done using the long fore claws on the front foot , if you don’t have a knife.
Good snaring employs a pear- shaped noose NOT a shiny round loop. Snares are placed along the run and NEVER at the entrance of a warren as no rabbit in its right mind is going to creep up slowly out of the inner darkness to the bright entrance and say to itself. “Oh, Look at that a shiny new thing that stinks of Man and was not there yesterday? I think I’ll just put my head in it and see what happens!”
A rabbit runs with its ears up and forward and will bat a round snare sideways as it runs through .

Snares should be electric guitar strings so you have a light snare for squirrels and a heavy snare for a badger or deer. The string should be boiled and then buried in soil/dung hill to age and go dull.
To catch one rabbit you need 50 snares.
Never handle snares with clean hands, as the rabbit will smell your ”Lynx Africa” shower gel and go “Phooey!!!” Rub soil over your hands before handling with minimum contact. Snares should be kept outside in a dry place to blend in with the local scents. However I digress .

You tell the age of a rabbit by squeezing its head-if spongey the rabbit is young , a hard skull denotes an old rabbit and will be tough. A rabbit with long teeth is fit for a dog or someone you don’t like very much (mother in law?)

Pigeons were encouraged by the building of Dovecotes which were in everyone’s garden. From them you got young “squabs”  as pigeons lay twice a year and you could either collect the eggs for your own use or sell them to get money for things you could not make. letting the eggs hatch gave a crop of squabs (young birds) same options. Feathers were good for stuffing clothes and bedding.

The manure of pigeons is so strong that it will destroy a wooden floor so all dovecotes had to have a stone or lime-cement base. This was of great importance in the compost heap as it was very high in nutrients once it had rotted down, putting it on growing plants fresh would burn the plants and kill them .Also the pigeons would eat insects and this helped to keep down pests in the garden, don’t let the damn things near your growing peas and beans though, they’d scoff the lot in record time.

So, Pigeons give you eggs, young birds, feathers and dung to sell or use.

Ponds were dug and in sandy land were lined with clay, (there is an art to this) and allowed to grass over. These “Dew ponds” were used to grow Carp which fed on the flooded grass before being harvested by draining the ponds and catching the fish in the bottom, some would be moved to another pond to multiply and so on. Monasteries had a monopoly on this whereever they could and then did a right marketing job on everyone having to eat fish at certain times throughout the year. Now we have “Fish on Fridays” in remembrance of this. The Church made a fortune-again.

Bees were kept for the honey which was used for eating, flavouring, as an antiseptic, skin softener and the most important thing: MEAD!!! Plus, beeswax for the church candles; why for church use only? Cos only the money grabbing church could afford them, that’s why. Common folk had “Rush lights” which give as good a light as wax candles. You can make them, right?

Now the thing that Rabbits, Pigeons, Carp and Bees have in common is that they are all husbanded and COST NOTHING. A regular supply of good quality food when you need it and no refrigeration needed.

Now as to farming, I won’t bang on too much yet will say that you were in your wife’s good books if you proudly bought back a sheep’s head to make a broth with, a grand dinner for a Scotsman and no mistake.

Now you may think that you are prepared to eat anything in a pinch.
But are you? Really? You think?
So, let’s see….. Fancy a Cow Heel pie? Pigs trotters? Tripe (Cow’s Stomach)? Lung ? What about the famous dish my wife had in Romania: Cock’s Comb and Testicle Pie.
I can vouch that once tasted it will never be forgotten-even after therapy.
Luckily for me ,the wife did not want to eat cooked testicles again.

I adore Ox tail stew but an Irish vet was not impressed. ”Ox Tail?”

We make our own Haggis and do not go near the traditional recipe of Lung, Heart and onion. (Lung is bland and the dogs like it, but for me it’s too fattening, very high in calories). Now a pig’s head is a fine feed either roast the jaws or boil the lot to make brawn, Yummy !!!

Now you may have noticed that there is no mention of fillet steak and such.
So when you are faced with, pig’s feet, head, penis and testicles as you raw ingredients.
You’ve got to ask yourself one question: “WHO’S HAD THE REST OF THE PIG?”

Welcome to life in the 12th Century. Truth is there was not much meat eaten on a daily basis, Oh no :- “Peas pottage hot, peas pottage cold, peas pottage in the pot, nine days old”.

Don’t forget stone ground flour for the daily bread which had the added excitement of chewing hard down on your crust to find a piece of stone in the right place to crack a tooth. Happy days!!

So this is why Spices were so important to a terribly monotonous diet. Forget a huge pile of MREs. Make sure that you have vast quantities of herbs and spices as well as growing herbs all around on a Guerrilla gardening basis. You know how to cook Rice and beans 50 different ways, right?

Life isn’t all bad, we have fruit wines, cider, beer, mead and whisky and let’s face it given the daily grind of following an Ox’s rear end all day you could do with a drink now and then, especially as all water is suspect and only beer is safe to drink.

Fire lighting was a flint and steel job. But more likely you’d beg a glowing coal from someone else and they’d borrow a light from you if they needed one. Now, odd thing, I have never seen much mentioned about the importance of banking up a fire to keep it in overnight. Yes, there is plenty about playing with fire steels to prove your credentials as a Bushcrafter but the concept of only lighting one fire a year and keeping it in seems to be forgotten.

Carbohydrates are not plentiful in the wild so wheat and roots had to do (no potatoes at this time) A veg garden with fruit trees, bushes and nut trees were everywhere and preserving was done with salt, smoke air drying and vinegar. Nettles were a good source of vitamins as today and young Lime tree leaves are delicious in a sandwich when soft and tender.

Lime trees provided cordage for tying everything including prisoners taken to sell as slaves. Just sayin’, you’ve got to make some money somehow what with Christmas around the corner and all.




30 Comments

  1. I doubt many People in 12th century medieval europe ´d a Hunting dog.
    A Guard – Shepherd, work dog yes, Maybe used for Hunting but not a Special Hunting dog,

    BTW we europeans used lamps not candles in our homes OTOH Okay i get it the english were usually a bit behind in Technology, but that much behind.

    What the english practiced by law were bow and bill but not the sling, who´d vanished for at least centuries from Military use by then, they were not alone in that except e.g. the flamish preferred the godendag, the swiss pike and halberd and burghers usually replaced the bow with the crossbow(which you could use to defend your City against armoured enemies)

    1. Using the Medieval Period as an example of society after civilization breaks down is probably a useful exercise. First, Barbara Tuchman wrote a book on your subject: “A Distant Mirror,” using the Middle Ages as a possible reflection of our possible future. I read this before stumbling into Survival Blog many years ago.

      Second, several individuals mentioned Joseph and Frances Gies. A married couple, they wrote about the various roles people played in the Middle Ages, going into minute, well-researched, detail of their everyday lives.

      Last, Prager “University” has an outstanding 5-minute talk on “How Dark Were the Dark Ages?” A guest prof explains, and convinced me, that the period should have been called The Brilliant Ages!

  2. An excellent book is “The Year 1,000’ , a description of life and conditions in England in 1,000 AD. It was published just before Y2K. A fascinating read about society and technology at the time, told using the calendar as an outline of the cyclical nature of agrarian life.

  3. In many places throughout history, the water was contaminated and dangerous. Here’s an example from our own American history:

    “Due to the unsafe drinking water, passengers on the Mayflower drank beer as a main hydration source — each person was rationed a gallon per day. They started to run out as the ship approached Plymouth Rock.” From BusinessInsider May 21, 2018. [The teetotalers claim it’s a myth]

    Of course, anyone back then caught bathing in the hygienically safer Beer Supply might have been burned at the stake (or drawn and quartered). Even a sponge bath with beer would have been considered alcohol abuse.

    SurvivalBlog has articles about home Beer brewing and Wine-making. The new motto for many might be: Beans, Band-aids, Bullets, Winemaker and Beer-Brewer.

  4. As an avid reader of history and all things old, I enjoyed this article very much! I am not affiliated with Jas. Townsend & Co. at all, but I would like to mention that he has a wonderful channel on youtube with colonial methods and 18th century period cooking often reading journal excerpts for a reference point.

  5. Just think of all the Iowa corn fed beef, nothing but a memory! All the wonderful bacon, chops and pork loin, chicken now more valuable for eggs and manure. We are blessed in a town of 5,000 in having two well stocked grocery stores.

  6. Very funny, but on a serious note, having helped my husband raise pigeons, we wished they only bred twice a year. They will sit on 2 eggs for about 21 days, hatch them and feed them. About 6-8 week later they will shove those youngsters aside and sit on 2 more eggs. This is year round, my husband is forced to toss eggs away due to space limitations. I am sure that on a SHTF situation, we could keep on letting them breed to their hearts content and have some food for us and others, another way of saying squab. If you raise California Kings, (they are about twice the size of a standard pigeon) you will get more meat. My husband is raising racing homers at this time which could also have a good use. Maybe I should write about this another time.

  7. A good read of the 1850’s is “Life in a Medieval City” by Joseph and Frances Gies. It goes into detail of every aspect of city life of Troyes in the Middle Ages.

  8. If you want a look at some useful skills along these lines you need to read “Lost Country Life” by Dorothy Hartley (Pantheon, 1979.). It covers English life skills/culture/technology in the 1500’s. It’s good enough that I have two copies.

  9. Yes, this is a very good article. Enjoyed it immensely. It makes me question my limited efforts at preparing for a breakdown. And it makes me look at how soft I really am. Thanks for the great web page and good writing.

  10. What a great article with information new to me. Would love to learn more. As to squabs, was once invited after ‘haying’ ion an Austrian village farm to dinner. The mom went into the attic and pulled some squabs for dinner. Quite the experience!

    1. Quarter staff, think Little John from Robyn Hood. They were usually a wood staff from 6 to 10 feet in length. Used as a weapon they were very formidable. Very easy to defeat swordsman with one if you had training and were competent. There are some great stories on line of English using Q Staffs in battle.
      Back-swording, I’m not as sure about. I know that in knife fighting we use a technique called back cutting. It’s a technique we’re you feignt a stab and the use the back tip of your blade with a flick of your wrist to inflick great damage with just the tip of you blade it’s very deceptive and deadly. I’m not sure if this is what he’s referring to. This technique takes a lot of practice and is very hard on forearms and ligaments. Hence the training needs to start slowly to develop without hurting yourself. Hope this helps.

  11. I want to share the shock I had when our genealogy showed our original patriarch from Sussex, England, who arrived here in 1636. He died at age 95 in Virginia. His son lived a shorter life, dying at age 93. Yes the average lifespan was shorter, but subsequent males in our lineage have all died in their 70’s, except one who died of a heart attack at 40. So much for 20th century stuff!

    1. The word “average” is critical here. Average someone who died at age 80 years and someone who died at age 6 months and you get 40 years. The average was driven so low by high infant and childhood mortality, as well as women dying in childbirth. If you survived to adulthood, you had a good chance of living a long life.

      I find this a gross misuse of statistics, when people assume that because the average was low, no one lived to old age in the past.

      1. VoxLib, I so agree with you. Most folks, even those who are well-educated speak of the “average lifespan” of our ancestors being so short. It is an oft-repeated and seldom questioned trope.

        The historical record indicates that those who survived the childhood diseases and deadly risks of adolescence ofyen lived into their 60s and 70s.

        Carry on

      2. VoxLib, I so agree with you. Most folks, even those who are well-educated speak of the “average lifespan” of our ancestors being so short. It is an oft-repeated and seldom questioned trope.

        The historical record indicates that those who survived the childhood diseases and deadly risks of adolescence ofyen lived into their 60s and 70s.

        Carry on

  12. Entertaining article. Thank you.

    A couple of points:
    I’ve watched enough British shows to know that up until recently, the Brits were eating fresh water eels as a source of protein.

    And, I’ve often considered raising pigeons, but have concerns about our healthy hawk population as a threat. Can anyone weigh in on this?

  13. Good article. But one other difference would be that back in 1200 there was still plenty of game. After the event, most animals will be hunted to near or actual extinction

  14. Just by coincidence, a weekly newsletter I receive on http://www.Medievalists.net included an article titled, “What Did Medieval Peasants Eat?” It doesn’t go into much detail, but it does show some reenactors prepping a peasant’s meal. Someone might be interested in this. See what Edge started? Thanks, Edge.

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