Life in the Great Hall

In the early medieval period the centre of life in castles was the Great Hall which was a huge multipurpose room built on the second floor. Medieval feasts, wedding celebrations, holiday festivities, and receiving visiting nobles, would all take place in the castle’s Great Hall. Elaborate tapestries and silks often lined the walls, although this was not only for decorative purposes as they also helped to protect against draughts and dampness. Although the castles could be rather dark, the largest windows were located in the Great Hall and small wooden or stone benches were often placed underneath the windows so guests could enjoy the view.

Great Hall furnishings were often sparse but they were very practical. Long wooden tables and benches were used. The tables were covered with white linen during feasts, but could be taken apart quickly and easily for dancing and entertainment. The lord and his family were seated at a table on a raised wooden or stone dais at the far end of the hall. There were no chimneys and the fireplace was in the middle of the hall. Smoke escaped by the way of louvers in the roof, or at least in theory. It was not unusual for guests to sleep in the Great Hall after a night of feasting and merrymaking.

The variety and quantity of food at the lord’s table was in stark contrast to that of peasants. Meat, fish, pastries, cabbage, turnips, onions, carrots, beans, and peas were common, as well as fresh bread, stews, cheese and eggs, and fruit, desserts and tarts. At a feast spitted boar, roast game, swan, or peacock was sometimes served in an elaborate presentation . Drinks included beer, wine, cider, mead, juices, and mulberry and blackberry wines. Water was considered suspect, probably quite rightly, and not as good for the digestion. Ale, which was thin, weak, and drunk soon after brewing, was the most common drink. Fruit juices and honey were the only sweeteners, and spices were almost unheard of until after the Crusades. Meat was cut with small personal knives and food was eaten using the fingers. Food was piled onto trenchers which were a type of flat, dry bread. One trencher and one drinking cup was shared by two people.

The stone floors in a castle’s Great Hall were rarely covered with carpets of any kind. Straw and rushes were used, and later in the Middle Ages herbs like marjoram, camomile, basil, sweet fennel, mint, germander, and lavender were added to help make the aroma more pleasant. These coverings were swept regularly but new material was routinely added to cover up the less agreeable things which found their way onto the floor such as bones, spit, spilt drinks, dirt, and grease. Food scraps were frequently thrown on the floor for the often present dogs to eat.

•  The Roles of Seneschal, Marshal, and Constable

The British scholar H.S. Bennett described the seneschal’s role by saying that “the seneschal must know the size and needs of every manor; how many acres should be ploughed and how much seed will be needed. He must know all his bailiffs and reeves, how they conduct the lord’s business and how they treat the peasants. He must know exactly how many penny loaves can be made from a quarter of corn, or how many cattle each pasture should support. He must for ever be on the alert lest any of the lord’s franchises lapse or are usurped by others. He must think of the lord’s needs, both of money and of kind, and see that they are constantly supplied. In short, he must be all knowing and he is all powerful”. The term Steward is an alternative title for this role within a medieval household.

In great households, the marshal was responsible for all aspects relating to horses: the care and management of all horses from the chargers to the pack horses, as well as all travel logistics. The position of marshal “horse servant” was a high one in court circles and the king’s marshal was also responsible for managing many military matters. Within lower social groupings the marshal acted as a farrier. The highly skilled marshal made and fitted horseshoes, cared for the hoof, and provided general veterinary care for horses. Throughout the Middle Ages, a distinction was drawn between the marshal and the blacksmith.

The constable “count of the stable” was responsible for protection and the maintenance of order, and commanding the military component within the household. Along with marshals, the constable might also organise hastiludes and other chivalrous events.

•  Horses, Riding, and Transportation

Riding horses varied greatly in quality, size, and breeding. The names of horses referred to a type of horse, rather than a breed. Many horses were described by the region where they or their immediate ancestors were foaled, by their gait for example ‘trotters’ or ‘amblers’, or by their colouring or the name of their breeder.

The best riding horses were known as palfreys. Other riding horses were often called hackneys, from which the modern term ‘hack’ is derived. Women sometimes rode palfreys or small quiet horses known as jennets.

Because of the necessity to ride long distances over less than ideal roads, smooth gaited horses were preferred, and most ordinary riding horses were of greater value if they could do one of the smooth but ground covering four beat gaits collectively known as an amble rather than the more jarring trot.

It was common for many people including women to travel long distances, usually on horseback (or if weakened or infirm carried in a litter), and most early medieval women rode astride. The wives of nobles often accompanied their husbands on crusade or to tournaments, many women travelled for social or family engagements, and both nuns and laywomen went on pilgrimages. Women of the nobility also rode horses for sport, including when they were hunting and hawking. It was not unheard of for women to also ride war horses and take part in warfare. For example, Empress Matilda, armed and mounted, led an army against her cousin King Stephen and his wife Matilda of Boulogne.

•  The Often Thorny Subject of Marriage and Dowry

Anglo-Saxon marriage customs allowed that not only did women have rights covered in legislation, and were able to own property and lands, but that the husband was to pay “morgengifu” (‘morning gift’) in money or land to the woman herself, and she would have personal control over it to give away, sell or bequeath as she chose.

This of course all changed after the advent of the Norman Conquest in 1066, bringing with it the customs and laws of the Normans, and indeed there was great change in the rights and status of women.

Women had a very limited share in feudal land owning, the husband owned everything, and Canon Law stated that no married woman could make a valid will without her husband’s consent.

Children were married at a young age, with the age of valid consent for girls being 12 years. Some young daughters were placed in an abbey and ‘took the veil’. It was also fairly common for women to become nuns after the death of their husband. The only women with relative freedom to do what they wanted were rich widows. Some noble women were named heir to titles and estates, but it was still expected that a marriage would take place even for these women.

For those of high ranking birth especially, marriage was most often arranged by the person’s family or by the powerful, sometimes by the monarch himself, purely for political or personal gain, or in some cases as a reward to a favourite or for loyal services rendered.

In fairness though, it would seem that this method and arrangement of marriages was sometimes just as distasteful to a husband, especially if he had no regard for the chosen woman.

•  Church and Daily Life

Church and daily life were very closely tied together, and even the King was expected to attend chapel services. Indeed many Norman Keeps had a chapel, one of the best examples being St John the Evangelist in White Tower, London.

A Book of Hours, an illuminated book of prayers, texts, and psalms become the one of most common type of medieval illuminated manuscript. Some ladies of high ranking households also had a prie-dieu in their living quarters or solar. A prie-dieu is a type of prayer desk mainly intended for private devotional use, but they can also often be found in churches of the European continent.

•  Medieval Literature

The Middle Ages saw the beginnings of a rebirth in literature. Early medieval books were painstakingly hand copied and illustrated mostly, but not exclusively, by monks. A number of female manuscript illuminators are known to history. Paper was a rarity, with vellum, made from calf’s skin, and parchment, made from lamb’s skin, being the media of choice for writing. Students learning to write used wooden tablets covered in green or black wax. Most books during this era were bound with plain wooden boards or with simple tooled leather for more expensive ones. Language and writing also saw further developments during the Middle Ages. For example, capital and lowercase letters were developed with rules for each. Books were treasures and rarely shown openly in a library. They were more likely to have been kept safely under lock and key.

In addition, wandering scholars and poets travelling to the Crusades learned of new writing styles. The concept of Courtly Love grew and created interest in romantic prose, while troubadours sang in courtyards and halls about epic battles involving characters such as King Arthur, Roland, and Charlemagne.


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