Archive for June, 2016

We all know the images of people covered from head to toe. Even if the clothing doesn’t always make sense to us, it is notable how much skin is hidden. Why is that?

Temperatures, on average, were not that much different than they are today, despite the little ice age of the later middle ages. The prohibitions on indecency were, perhaps, stronger than they are today, particularly when it came to covering heads for modesty. At the same time, there are many images of people exposing themselves (though usually they are surrounded by fully clothed people, or they are exposing just a bit of skin).

I have settled on three main reasons, listed here in the order that they matter to me.

a) bugs – In the absence of insect repellents, layers of clothing would help prevent people being bitten by horseflies, deerflies, blackflies, mosquitoes, etc. This matters when most people live in rural areas. They probably wouldn’t do much against lice, fleas, or bedbugs, though. This one matters to me a lot, after getting bitten about 130 times early last summer while on a long swim at the lake. (I am one of those people who react badly to bug bites)

b) farm work Рhaving spent time helping to store hay, I can assure you that it is hot, itchy work. The first time I helped, I wore capris and ended up with very itchy scratched-up legs. The second time, I wore long pants but a short sleeved shirt. My arms were covered with more scratches and I had bits of hay everywhere. Imagine doing this kind of labour all day, every day, as most people would have done!

c) sun protection – Covering up is a good way to protect the skin. That’s not really news, but it struck me, again, as I looked at the farm-hand helping us with the hay. The skin on his arms, face and neck was almost black, compared to its usual winter shade of pale. It turns out that farmers have relatively lower overall rates of cancer, but higher than average rates of skin and lip cancers. Did medieval people understand the link between exposure to the sun and skin cancer? Not in the way we know it today thanks to scientific research, but they may have observed the pattern. Since it coincides with the pattern that says pale skin equals greater wealth and less need to work, covering up may have made sense for several reasons. Also, loose, breathable clothes that cover the whole body (including the head) are actually cool and comfortable – better than stripping down to shorts and a tiny shirt.


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Several of my cooking buddies convinced me that I needed to do a MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course) called A History of Royal Food and Feasting (University of Reading, five weeks, through Futurelearn). Technically, they just mentioned it in passing, but I have a rubber arm and it twists easily.

The first week is based around the christening of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, and the lessons have lots of links to materials available from Hampton Court, the site of the christening. It’s basic history, but pretty, and I quite like the cook-along assignments and the video segments with the kitchen staff. Tonight I made fylettys en galantyne, which is basically slices of roast pork in a richly spiced gravy (pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mace) with caramelized onions and thickened with bread crumbs.

Mine didn’t turn out as pretty as the picture in the recipe, but it was very tasty.

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Should I ever decide I am tired of researching and making sausage (not bloody likely!), I want to reasearch what some agricultural science folks I know call “minor vegetables”. These are vegetables that are grown for household use, may be virtually known outside the area where they are used, and often have very little status as they are eaten only by the poor.

In the medieval context, this often means potherbs – plants grown or gathered to throw into the pottage. Potherbs were a good source of nutrients, could provide filler until more traditional vegetables were available, and often had sharp flavours that could add interest to an otherwise dull pot of soup or porridge.

I had a chicken carcass that needed to be turned into soup, so I decided to play a bit with potherbs. To be clear, this was not a medieval experiment, just an experiment with some medieval things. After making my broth, I added onion, celery, carrot and potato. After the veggies were soft, I threw in a large handful of lamb’s quarters from the community garden.


Then I decided the soup needed a bit more tang. I added a large handful of wood sorrel. For the record, wood sorrel turns brown immediately when it hits hot water (but it still tastes good).

Then it just got silly: onion tops dried borage and lemon balm, then all the lovage I could grab from the garden while simultaneously handling rhubarb, green onions (for a different recipe), and my compost bucket.

The result was still a bit dull, full of green goodness. Then I added some salt. Suddenly, the flavours popped. Lunch tomorrow will be delicious.

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After a very long dry spell in terms of crafting, I have had a burst of enthusiasm. First I went to an event to beg the boon for my apprentice Alais. Four hours in the car, each way, was ample time to make serious progress on a long-abandoned lace project (even taking time out for drinking tea, napping and chatting). Added to what I accomplished this weekend, I think I may finally have enough to trim my silk chemise. That’s another post, though.

This post is all about my excitement at finally figuring out how to naalbind cow and horse tail hair. This is something I have been trying to master, off and on, for at least three years. Why? That’s a very good question. Odd Nordland, in his book Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in Knotless Netting (1963), had examples of naalbinding made of hair that were used as strainers for milk, and sometimes as pot scrubbers. They were very simple naalbinding, and the strainers hung in some sort of a frame (it usually looked like the rim of a bowl that was missing its bottom). There wasn’t any dating for these strainers, and no details on what kind of hair, but I was intrigued. Who wouldn’t want pot scrubbers made using a technique used by the Vikings? Over the years, I have tried single horse hairs and twisted/coarsely spun horse hair with minimal success. I was told that cow hair might work better, and then that soaking the hair might help it hold a twist.

This weekend, at the Upper Canada Medieval Festival with the Dark Ages Recreation Company, I finally managed to make it work! I started with some horse hair from my old lesson horse Mr. Tibbs, then switched to cow hair when I ran out. I snipped off a few locks at a time (the longer the better), then soaked the hair. I experimented a bit with how many hairs to use, and exactly what stitch to use. I haven’t quite decided what I like most,but it seems easiest to use at least a half-dozen to ten hairs. Here is the result, so far:



It doesn’t look like much, but it will be better once most of the loose hairs are trimmed, and it is full size.

Here’s another picture of me working on it:



On a completely unrelated note, I am very happy with my new hood. I did not get a sunburned neck,for once.

In the background, you can see my new net bag, with a drawstring made of slyng (whipcording using big bobbins – Eluned and I worked on it together, and it’s almost like a game when the bobbins start moving through the air at relatively high speed). I also made a small piece of slyng on my own, using some brown wool and a bit of the wool I dyed with Queen Anne’s lace a few years ago.

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