Trials and tribulations of food preparation in the 14th century.
By Lesley Wilson
A cast iron pot sits over an open fire, wisps of steam escaping from beneath the lid. Beside it is another smaller pot containing damper, a form of yeast-less bread Australians love to bake on these occasions. The smell of beef stew mingles with the heady perfume of night jasmine and I think myself lucky to be sitting outdoors, on this balmy night, waiting to share a delicious supper with a group of friends. This we do for fun. Not so the Yorkshire folk I write about in my medieval adventure trilogy. For these folk, cooking over an open fire was a necessity. Whatever the season, come rain, hail, or shine, they coped with primitive facilities every day of their lives. As an ex-pat Yorkshire-woman, I can relate to the inclement weather they endured.
Many poor peasants lived outdoors, making do with tree branches covered in bracken for shelter. Food was cooked in the open, using whatever kindling they could beg, borrow, or steal to fuel their fires. Those fortunate enough to afford a roof over their heads, lived in dingy, single-roomed cottages. In winter, they shared these cramped quarters with livestock, the animals’ body-heat helping to keep the family warm. No doubt the smell of unwashed humans, coupled with the odour of fresh animal dung, was woeful.
A waste-not, want-not society, folk utilised every commodity they could lay hands on, including cow dung, dried and mixed with straw, to burn alongside the precious commodity of wood. I wonder what those medieval people would have thought of Aussies, burning cow pats to repel mosquitoes.
Cottagers’ fires were kept alight on a central hearth inside their dwelling, twenty-four hours a day, but tamped down at nigh to save fuel. As well as providing cooking facilities, the fire supplied heating and lighting. Windows were none existent in peasants’ homes; the only airflow, apart from a specially constructed smoke hole in the roof, came from an open doorway. In cold, wet weather, people were reluctant to open up to the elements, thus enduring smelly, unhealthy conditions. Sparks from the fire often drifted into thatched roofs, setting them alight. To save their homes from burning, folk bucketed water from a nearby stream, or well, to douse the flames.
Medieval housewives favoured three-legged, cast iron cauldrons for cooking. The heavy vessels were thrust directly into the fire or hung from an adjustable hook attached to an overhead beam. Since the women had no quick method to regulate the heat, they needed to keep a wary eye on the pot, to make sure food within didn’t boil dry and burn. Pottages (or stews) were their staple food. Seasonal vegetables, pulses and herbs, along with whatever meat they had, were added to a stock made from boiled bones. As winter approached, food became scarce, and the pottage was watered down until it became near tasteless.
Earthenware containers were pushed in amongst hot ashes around the fire’s perimeter and eggs, regarded as a delicacy, were baked in their shells or cracked directly on to the hot hearth. No doubt a fair amount of soot was consumed.
Goodwives cooked and cleaned, cared for the animals and children. They tended the garden where vegetables were grown for the table. Once a week the local market provided a venue for selling or bartering surplus produce.
Ploughing commenced in early spring followed by the sewing of oats, barley, and wheat across the landowners’ fields. Women and children handled the latter chore. All daylight hours were then spent running around the fields’ perimeter, shouting and banging wooden spoons on pots, to keep greedy birds at bay. Once the crops were harvested, the women could glean what grain was left on the ground. At their lord of the manor’s insistence, medieval housewives paid a miller to have their gleanings ground into flour. Draining financially for the peasants, but a nice little earner for their lord and master. Once the flour was made into dough it was dropped into an iron pot, covered it with a lid, and baked in the fire. Only licensed bakers and wealthy households were allowed ovens, for they consumed tremendous amounts of precious firewood.
Husbands, who were lucky enough to have gainful employment, worked all hours tending their masters’ land. Tools were primitive, and horses pulled ploughs fitted with wooden tynes. It was back breaking work.
At the end of the year, before winter set in, many cattle were sent for slaughter and salted down to provide food through the cold months of the year. Hunting venison and wild boar was the prerogative of the landowner and, once the animal, whatever it may be, was butchered, the unwanted offal was distributed to the peasants. Pies, bulked out with carrots, turnips, and onions made the offal go further. Snared rabbits and pigeons added extra meat to poor folks’ diets.
The landed gentry lived in a medieval version of luxury, and employed servants to shoulder most of the heavy work. They entertained guests in the Great Hall and, to escape unpleasant cooking odours plus the risk of setting the roof on fire, the kitchen was often located in a separate building a short distance away from the main house. A covered walkway kept inclement weather from ruining the food in transit.
This form of transportation reminded me of my school days in the 1950s. At noon each day an elderly gentleman towed a trailer, behind his bicycle, from the kitchens in the junior school, where meals were cooked, to the small senior school a couple of blocks away. Eight large aluminium boxes, submerged in hot water, contained lunch for the high school pupils and their teachers. Innocents that we were, we regarded this method of moving food around the district as state of the art. I suspect our eccentric headmaster, who owned the school, saved money by avoiding the use of external caterers.
Kitchens in wealthy medieval households enjoyed comforts that were not available to the peasant classes. Trestle tables and benches were plentiful, as were pots and culinary implements. Cavernous inglenook fireplaces, usually constructed against an end stone wall, provided substantial cooking facilities.
High ranking servants received payment, but lesser serfs often worked for nothing more than their keep and a roof over their heads. Scullions, at the bottom of the pecking order, were expected to turn spits, clean fish, scour pots, and fetch and carry for the senior servants all hours of the day and night. A huge ladle was the cook’s trademark. Used in the cooking process and for serving food, the solid implement also made a handy weapon. Many a poor serf was on the receiving of a hefty clout for committing minor misdemeanours.
Gentry consumed vast quantities of venison, fish, chicken and eggs. Feast days saw a whole pig, impaled on a spit and slow roasted. Scullions, taking turns to wind the spit handle, became mottled and scorched from the fire’s fierce heat. If the embers showed signs of cooling, the lads were expected to resurrect it with the aid of huge bellows. Fuel required for cooking and heating was manhandled into the kitchen and Great Hall by overworked servants. For the less well off, life was hard and unforgiving.
As I tucked into a plate-full of stew and damper on that lovely tropical evening, I gave thanks for being born in the 20th century.
To round off my blog, I have added a passage from Oric and the Alchemist’s Key. Apothecary Ichtheus is enjoying supper with his apprentice, Oric, and friend, Nathaniel, the shepherd, followed by a somewhat unnerving journey home. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.
A Spooky Night Out.
Ichtheus heated the pigeon stew and spooned generous portions onto three wooden platters. Each fat bird, surrounded by turnips and onions, dripped with delicious gravy. Conversation stilled until the bones were sucked clean. Belching gently, Ichtheus reached for the first bottle of nettle wine. A short time later he opened a second bottle. The imbibers stretched out before the fire, feeling lazy and mellow.
Nathaniel produced a flagon of mead, and mellowness swiftly degenerated into intoxication. “I say Ichtheus!” Nathaniel slurred his words, “Did you hear about that old crone?”
Ichtheus raised his eyebrows drowsily, “What old crone?”
“The one they branded a witch.” Nathaniel paused for effect. “I heard that some half-wit locals dragged the poor old hag from her hovel and carried her to St Griswald’s Church. ‘Tis said they never gave her a chance to defend herself. ‘Tis said the fools built a pyre in the middle of the graveyard and burned her alive.” He shook his head blearily. “What a terrible way to die.”
Outside Nathaniel’s cottage, cold air struck Oric and Ichtheus like a body blow. An icy moon sailed in an ocean of night sky, towing silver clouds in its wake. In a hurry to get back to Bayersby Manor and his warm bed, Ichtheus set a brisk pace.
Oric followed with the dog.
The only member of the trio not staggering was Parzifal.
“What ails you, boy?” Ichtheus slurred. “You will have me fall upon my backside if you continue to run into me like that. Pish! Can you not hold your liquor?”
Oric gave a hiccupping titter. “‘Tis not my fault, Master Ichtheus, ‘tis you that has over imbibed, not I!”
They soldiered on, tripping over each other until St Griswald’s Church loomed into sight. Nathaniel’s talk of witches and ghosts overrode Oric’s good sense, and he hung back. He had guts aplenty for everyday things, but ghosts were another matter altogether.
“What a great booby you are,” chafed Ichtheus, cuffing Oric’s ears affectionately. “Come, we shall sing a song to cheer ourselves.” Without further ado, he launched into his favourite hymn.
Oric joined in half-heartedly. Neither of them had an ear for music, and the noise they made set Parzifal to howling.
Moonlight cast long shadows, creating a black and silver scene. Trees took on sinister shapes, and a sudden breeze made an old yew tree creak. The owl hooted from his perch in the bell-tower, causing Oric’s neck hairs to stand on end.
An urge to relieve himself overtook Ichtheus. While he fumbled with all his extra clothing, Oric and Parzifal sloped off around a bend in the pathway. Ichtheus was in full stream when the pair reappeared, running as if chased by demons. Oric crashed into his master and bowled him over. Unable to turn off his tap in time, Ichtheus pissed copiously into one of his boots.
“Damn your eyes, boy!” Ichtheus staggered to his feet, “What in heaven’s name are you about?” He shook his foot. “You blithering fool … look what you have caused me to do.” He set his wet boot on the ground and was disgusted to hear it squelch.
Oric’s voice rose from hoarse whispers to high squeaks of sheer terror. He grabbed Ichtheus by the arms. “Master! Master! I saw it. Her! The thing!”
“What thing, boy? What THING?” Ichtheus shouted and shook Oric as if he were a rag doll.
“The witch! You remember! The one we talked about with Nathaniel. That old hag that was burned! I saw her around the corner,” Oric pointed a shaking finger. “She is there, I tell you. All of a quiver and a dither, she smiled and beckoned to me.”
“What rubbish, boy!” Filled with nettle wine, mead, and bravado, Ichtheus strode down the path to investigate.
Parzifal loped alongside, rumbling with growls. Feeling less brave by the minute, Ichtheus rounded the bole of a giant oak-tree.
“Oh, my sainted aunt!” he gasped, his bravado deflated like a pig’s bladder pricked by a dagger. He seized Parzifal’s collar and huddled into the oak’s dark shadow. Summoning every ounce of his courage, he took another peek around the tree trunk.
Not more than twenty strides away an old woman sat upon a rickety cart. She dithered and beckoned, just as Oric had described. Something was in the trees, too. Pallid, disembodied faces floated about as if imbued with a life of their own.
Prickled from head to foot with gooseflesh, Ichtheus lost his nerve. He turned and fled on liquid legs towards the churchyard gate. Parzifal chased after his master. Now horribly sober, Ichtheus stopped at the gate to make sure the apparitions did not follow. He tried to catch his breath and slow his racing heart. It would never do to let Oric see him in this state. Oh, dear, no! The lad would never allow him to live it down.
Oric was hiding in a ditch.
“Get out of there, boy! There is nothing to be afraid of,” Ichtheus bluffed in his boldest voice. “The ghost you saw is naught but a trick of the moonlight. However, to spare you further distress, we shall traverse the churchyard’s outer wall instead of cutting across the middle.”
The sight of his master’s rigid face stilled Oric’s tongue, but he did not believe a word Ichtheus said.
They galloped around the churchyard’s perimeter. Only when they had gained the cover of the overgrown footpath did they slow their pace. Not a word passed between them until they arrived back at Bayersby Manor.
Still shaken, Oric bid his master a subdued goodnight and crawled, fully clothed, into his inglenook corner.
Ichtheus removed his boots and dropped thankfully onto his truckle bed, but he took a long time to fall asleep.
The Oric Trilogy
The Complete series Book 1 - 3
By Lesley Wilson
Returning to the manor after an early morning foraging errand, Oric finds his home alight, the inhabitants dead, and his mentor mortally wounded. The old man relinquishes a key, warning Oric that a terrible disaster will surely occur should it fall into wrong hands. The alchemist also hints of great wealth, but he dies before he can impart any further information.
In his quest to unravel the mystery surrounding the alchemist’s key, Oric experiences many challenging adventures before a surprising and lifechanging conclusion is reached.
Pick up your copy of
The Oric Trilogy
Born in North Yorkshire, Lesley Wilson was inspired to write stories at an early age. She turned her father’s garage into a theatre and produced juvenile dramas. Local kids who watched her shows were expected to donate a penny to the RSPCA.
In her early teens, Lesley joined an amateur theatre company and took part in many productions.
On a train trip to Italy in 1957, Lesley met a young man. A whirlwind courtship followed before he joined the British Army. Fifteen months and hundreds of letters later, Lesley, aged seventeen, boarded a troop ship bound for Singapore, where she married the love of her life.
Lesley’s careers have included fashion modeling, market research and running her own business but writing has always been her true passion. She completed a course in Creative Writing and Journalism with the London School of Writing and has been an active member of a writers’ group.
She now lives with her husband in North Queensland, and enjoys frequent visits by her two teenage grandchildren. When Lesley isn’t writing, she loves to read, entertain friends, and travel.