Medieval Life

Belina Lansac’s way of life

Life five hundred years ago was very different in many ways from now. Think about it. How would you survive without social media, internet, electricity, motor cars, fridge, freezer . . .? However, the late 15th century was a time of innovation because of the invention of printing and the increasing use of paper. In that way, it was similar to the introduction of the internet in our times. Ideas could be exchanged, trade was easier, knowledge of the outside world increased.

Nevertheless, the daily task of cooking food was time and energy consuming. Firewood had to be obtained and lit and managed according to the type of cooking. Cauldrons could sit on a slow burning area while in another zone a fish or an egg could be fried quickly – if you knew how to manage both the cooking and the fire, or had help to do that.

Gascony was already known for its good quality bread. The main dish was garbure, which was – and still is – a cabbage and vegetable stew, simmered with preserved duck or goose or salt pork. It is also the traditional dish of Ecuador. Click here for a modern recipe to make your own garbure.

Except in times of famine, there was not a vast difference between the table of a minor village squire and that of his subjects. They all ate vegetables, lots of bread, and meat. But the Church dictated abstinence from meat and all other animal products every week on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, on the eve of festivals, and during the forty days of Lent.

Feast Days for noble and bourgeois households were times for banquets, and rich people could indulge in some splendid food. People washed their hands before their meal. Beakers of wine were shared. Dogs and cats sat on the floor under the table. Servants strode in bearing dishes of pheasants, swans, geese and other poultry - because birds, and the people who ate them, were considered to be nearer to Heaven.

Click here for a recipe for pheasant, and Click here for a recipe for a grete pye for Christmas feasts.

Spices were expensive and were NOT used to camouflage meat that had gone off (another 19th century myth). Well-off farmers, millers and urban people ate lamb, mutton and pork. Belina and Guillaume Lansac mostly ate eggs and cheese (Click here for a recipe for eggs with mustard sauce).

Rivers were full of fish, pike for example. Click here for a recipe for chaudumé of pike. When I lived in Kent, my neighbours’ teenage son would sometimes give me a pike which he had just caught in the river Medway. Very fresh – and sometimes still alive and biting! I wish I had known about this recipe.

Many people had no means of cooking at home. Professional pastry cooks would make large and small pasties and these would be sold on trays in the street. Belina often bought them. Click here for a recipe for Lombard chicken pasties.

Everyone kept chickens. Click here to discover how and why they did.

Fires can be dangerous and the medieval housewife had to know first aid (click here for some methods) and she had to do the washing and ironing, or supervise others doing such onerous tasks. Click here to read more

The medieval housewife also had to know safe ways of clothes storage and pest control. Click here to read more

Cats were popular pets in medieval times, especially in flour mills because they protected the grain from mice and rats. Belina, Jordi and Catalina cherished their cats for that reason but also for companionship. Exeter Cathedral had cats on its payroll and a cat-sized hole through the north transept wall. Presumably, Condom Cathedral also employed cats to keep down rodents. However, the tower was in such a bad state in the fifteenth century that the cats had many entrances.

There is a legend in the village of La Romieu, not far from Condom, which dates to a famine in 1342. The starving residents had eaten all the cats and it was forbidden to keep any. But a little girl called Angeline begged her parents to let her hide her own two cats. With the disappearance of all the cats in the village rats took it over and started eating all the remaining crops until Angeline released her two cats and they quickly killed off all the rats. Stone statues of cats have been placed throughout La Romieu as reminders of the Legend of Angeline.

Men went hunting, for sport and for food. Gascony still had many forests but there were laws about who was allowed to hunt where and what Click here to read more about hunting. The rivers contained an enormous amount of fish, but fishing was a commercial task not a sport. There were many days in the year when meat eating was forbidden: every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; on the eve of festivals; during the forty days of Lent.

Medieval Printing Press Medieval Banquet
Medieval banquet – what Viola Lussan missed in ‘A Mystery of Blood and Dust’

Click here to find a list of books on medieval cookery.

Leprosy and the Plague

Some Crusaders returning from the Holy Land in the 12th century brought leprosy with them. Many more suffered from a much less dangerous skin disease, but were thought to be lepers. In Gascony these people were called crestias. There was a widespread fear of catching leprosy from them and they were forced to live on the outskirts of towns and villages and not marry non-crestias. There was an even stronger belief that their ‘leprosy’ was not catching if wood was involved and so they became woodworkers. Carpenters, for example. In the 15th century they were respected for their craftsmanship and everyone was aware that St Joseph was a carpenter.

Medieval Woodworking Craftsman

The discrimination against crestias became much worse in the 16th and 17th centuries, and their name was changed to cagots.

Recommended books (in French):

Histoire des cagots by Osmin Ricau (1999, 2004)
L’énigme des cagots by Gilbert Loubès (2006)

The first epidemic of the plague was in the 6th century. The second one was in 1347, coming to Europe from Central Asia. It was thought to be a problem in the atmosphere and possibly caused by a ‘conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the house of Aquarius’. Medieval doctors studied astrology as well as medicine. It was not until 1894 that a Swiss doctor, Dr Alexander Yersin, discovered that rats were the main source of the plague.

The plague returned from time to time and it was endemic in Venice from 1477-1498. It was in Perugia, Mallorca, and Valencia in 1475 and in Königsberg the following year. In 1478 there was plague throughout Europe, with 6,662 people dying from it in Venice, and 2,000 more dying elsewhere having fled from Venice. 1479 was another very bad year for the plague, and Mathurin Lussan died of it (in A Mystery of Blood and Dust). So did John Paston (in The Paston Letters). 14,000 people died in the Hotel-Dieu, Paris in 1481 and the plague did not end until 1482 in Paris and Perpignan.

Medieval people tried to flee from the plague. They held religious processions, and in 1483 Barcelona and Gerona sent representatives to Santiago de Compostela, praying especially to St Roch (a plague victim) and imploring St James to lift the plague from their cities. Gascons in Condom would have known about the continued risk from the plague. It was a problem added to two years of very bad winters and floods.