When Knights were Bold - E. M. Tappan

Daily Life in a Castle

The Château Gaillard was built primarily for a fortification; but in general a castle was meant for a dwelling-place as well as a fortress, and its keep was the home of the master and his family. Their life was not always so narrow and cramped as one might fancy. Some castles, to be sure, consisted of little more than a single strong tower and a moat; but in others the outer court was large enough to contain not only a garden, a poultry yard, and a watermill, but also a lake or fishpond for a time of siege, an orchard, and even cultivated fields. This outer court was sometimes almost like a village, for there was often a forge, a bakery, a carpenter's shop, a falconry, and a stable, besides houses and a church. In the inner court there was frequently a chapel also; but this church more than once served a double purpose. It was sure to suffer if the castle was stormed; and then a messenger was let down from the postern gate to make his way to friends and report that a sacrilegious enemy was attacking the Church of God. If they would then win the favor of the Church authorities, they must hasten to the rescue.

The centre of the daily life of the castle was the large room known as the hall. This varied greatly at different times and in different places. In the earlier days, the hall was only a bare room with some flat stones in the centre. On these meat was cooked, and the smoke found its way out through a hole in the roof as best it could. As time passed and towers were built of several stories, fireplaces with flues were made. The floor was tiled and strewn with rushes. The walls were hung with banners, tapestry, and standards bright with armorial bearings. Here and there were shields and armor or a cluster of lances. Long oaken tables with wooden benches stood ready for use, or else before each meal trestles were brought in, and boards were laid upon them, for in those days "the festive board" was a literal board. The table of the master of the castle stood at one end of the hall. This place was called the dais. At the opposite end of the room was a wooden gallery for musicians, built halfway up the wall.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


When bedtime came, coarse mattresses were laid on the floor; for here the people of the household and their guests were to pass the night. The bed of the noble and his wife stood at the farther end of the hall, separated from the rest of the room by curtains; but later, when other stories were added, a room for them and also other bedrooms were built, some on the upper floors and some in the thickness of the walls. In the simpler castles the furnishings of these bedrooms were few and plain, hardly more than one or more beds, a bench or two, and a wooden chest; but in the dwellings of the wealthy there was considerable display. The posts of the beds were sometimes gilded, inlaid with ivory, or ornamented with precious stones; and the bed coverings were of silk or fur with a golden fringe. There was also a wardrobe made gorgeous with bright colors. The chests were handsomely carved, and for jewels there were smaller chests covered with leather. Frequently there was in one corner a richly ornamented shrine enclosing a relic of some saint. It is said that in Italy the beds were often put high up on trestles to escape the rats and mice.

There was a certain rude magnificence about the place, but there was not what the people of to-day would call comfort. For instance, those heavy stone walls must have been cold, but in England, even so late as the fifteenth century, a fire in one's bedroom was regarded as a foolish indulgence; and the rooms were certainly not so light as we wish our rooms to be. It was not safe to make the windows too large, and even a window of generous size would not let in much sunshine if cut into a wall ten or fifteen feet in thickness. The rooms were often made more cheerful, however, by decorations of red and yellow and blue, or by paintings of flowers and leaves, conventionally treated and decidedly crude, but bright and cheery.

In those wardrobes and richly carved chests in the bedrooms there was no lack of expensive clothes. In the fourteenth century England tried her best to keep her people from extravagance in dress and to oblige them to wear goods of English weaving. Parliament decreed that no one but the king, queen, and their children should be allowed to wear imported cloth, and that no one should wear foreign furs or silks unless he had a yearly rent of 100. In the fourteenth century, 100 would buy as much as several times that amount to-day, so that a man had to be very well to do before the law would permit him and his family to dress as they chose.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The fashions changed as extremely, if not quite so rapidly, as to-day. Toward the end of this century, English ladies wore tight-fitting dresses with long, full skirts. The sleeves were tight, extending down to the knuckles, and with sixty or seventy buttons on each arm. A few years later, buttons were no longer seen on the sleeves, and the sleeves themselves came only to the wrist. They grew larger and looser, so loose that finally a second pair, made to fit closely, were worn under them. Tightly fitting jackets were introduced and were worn with full skirts of some other color. The only rule in regard to wearing colors was apparently to have plenty of them. A blue petticoat, displayed by lifting a purple skirt adorned with a broad yellow band and worn with an ermine-trimmed jacket, was evidently regarded as being in most excellent taste; and apparently a combination of long, loose robe of blue, yellow girdle, red cloak, and red shoes was felt to be above criticism. At several periods during the Middle Ages it was in the height of the mode for a lady of rank to wear a dress presenting the coat of arms of her husband's family and her own; but it must have been a wee bit startling to see a noble dame appear in a dress white on one side with some conventional figures in black, and yellow on the other side with a gorgeous red lion rampant for ornament. This costume was completed by a tight blue jacket trimmed with ermine, a close red cap, and a crown.

But of all the remarkable fashions, those pertaining to the headdress were the most astounding. In the thirteenth century and again in later times, married women wore the wimple, that is, a covering of linen or silk arranged in folds over the chin, neck, and the sides of the face; but this gradually disappeared in favor of even more surprising modes. At one time the hair was put smoothly into a net, often made of thread of gold; then it was so puffed out at the sides that a fashionable lady had the appearance of wearing horns. These grew higher and higher, but at length a steeple-shaped cap took their place. This was followed by one made of wire and various sorts of thin material put together in such a way that the cap stood out on either side of the head like the wings of an enormous butterfly. Another style of headdress was made like a giant cornucopia, and was worn slanting up and back. From this hung a sort of drapery that floated over the shoulders; and from its highest point a long scarf streamed down the lady's back to the floor. One sort of headdress was shaped like a harp, one like a heart, one like a tower with battlements, from the top of which a long white veil floated. One was like a large crescent with a generous amount of drapery, and one looked exactly as if two large napkins had been shaken out and hung by their centres over long sticks which in some marvelous way were made to stand firm in my lady's hair.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The heads of the men were free from such wild freaks of fashion, but they, too, delighted in bright colors. A long loose gown of brilliant red, its full sleeves lined with ermine and half concealing another pair which were blue and tight, the trimming of the whole of the most dazzling yellow, was thought to be a quiet but appropriate costume for a king. This garb was completed by a sort of fez worn on the head, red and with red drapery hanging around it well banded with yellow. Small attention was paid to cleanliness. The English thought the French exceedingly extravagant because they changed their ruffles once a week and put on clean shirts once a fortnight.

For men as well as for women strict laws were made, even if they were not strictly obeyed. Toward the end of the fourteenth century serving men in England were forbidden to wear cloth costing more than two marks, that is, sixteen ounces of silver, apiece. Men practicing any handicraft might wear cloth only and no jewelry; while if their wives ventured to wear any fur save that of lamb, coney, cat, and fox, they were in danger of getting into trouble. Squires whose income from land was two hundred marks a year were allowed to wear cloth of silver and a "reasonable" amount of silver ornamentation. A gentleman with the same income, but not a squire, was limited to cloth, and even a "reasonable" amount of jewelry was forbidden him. Even a knight with an annual income of 200 was forbidden to wear cloth of gold and the ermine and minever, or perhaps squirrel, that were sacred to royalty. Shoes were worn with pointed toes so long that they had to be fastened to the knees with slender chains of gold or silver. Laws were passed limiting the length of those toes to two inches; but sumptuary laws, as laws concerning dress are called, are rarely obeyed; and while the lawmakers continued to make them, the people moved on serenely and broke as many of them as their purses or their credit would permit. To the humbler folk it was a mark of rising in the world to dress themselves a little more richly than the law permitted; and as for the great folk, it would have been strange enough if these people so independent in other affairs had shown themselves meek and yielding in the matter of the clothes that they put on their own backs and paid for out of their own pockets. The wearers of the crown hardly set them an example of simplicity, for it is said that Richard II had a coat of cloth of gold decorated with precious stones which was worth thirty thousand marks. His nobles had no hesitation in following the lead of their lord, and it is claimed that one of them had two hundred and fifty "new sutes of apparell of cloth of gold or tissue." Such was the dress of the day, and the sombre old stone walls of the castles must have afforded a most excellent background for its display.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


These brilliant costumes were not for everyday wear, however, for even in a fortified castle there were common days and a home life. The hall was the centre of this home life, the general living room, as has been said. Of course its size varied greatly according to the wealth and wishes of the master of the castle. One hall is described as being able to hold one thousand men. Others were small; but whether their dimensions were wide or narrow, the general character did not alter. For seats there were chairs and benches, and sometimes handsome cushions on the floor, and there was always a fireplace, for many generations in the centre of the room, wherein big round logs blazed and glowed. Even the best of fires in an open fireplace, however, are inclined to "burn the face and freeze the back," and the tapestry on the walls served a useful purpose in adding to the comfort of the hall. In the castles of wealthy nobles, these hangings were sometimes made of brocade or cloth of gold and silver brought from the East; but in the fifteenth century very handsome tapestries were woven in Europe, especially in Flanders, in what is now called Belgium, and at Arras in northern France. Indeed, the Arras tapestry came into so common use that Shakespeare says "behind the arras," when he means behind the tapestry. Some tapestry was simple, but that which was made for kings and princes and cathedrals was often most elaborate. It pictured scenes from the Bible or from the lives of saints or from hunting and hawking or from some of the romances which were such a delight to the people of the Middle Ages.

Early in the morning the watchman of the castle sounded his horn from the battlements of the keep to say that the sun had risen and all was well. The day was short, for people in general did not sit up very long after the five o'clock supper. The dinner hour was from nine to eleven in the forenoon. In the hall were held the mighty feasts in which the noble appetites of the day so rejoiced. What would a modern caterer say to a bill of fare that began boldly with venison, a quarter of bear, and the shoulder of a wild boar, and worked its way valiantly onward through a course of roasted peacocks and swans, a second of poultry, and a third of waterfowl and small game to venison and pheasant pasties and pigeon pie? By the time that this was reached, the feast was fairly under way, and the guests were well prepared for such trifles as shad, salmon, mullet, and eel-pie, the last a special favorite. After this came pastry of all sorts and sweetmeats, then cloves, ginger, and other spices. These made people ravenously thirsty, and they were quite ready for the big cups of wine mixed with honey or spice that now appeared. The young pages of the castle attended upon the guests, but the heavier waiting was done by stalwart serving men.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


A feast like this was only a simple repast compared with that served in 1403 at the marriage of Henry IV. There were only six courses, but a course included an amazing collection of eatables. The second course, for instance, comprised venison served with frumenty, a dish made of milk, sugar, and wheat; jelly; sucking pigs; rabbits; bitterns; stuffed hens; partridges; leach, that is, a mixture of cream, sugar, almonds, and isinglass; and boiled meat of some sort. The course ended, as did every course, with what was called a "sotelte," or subtlety. This was somewhat like what is known to-day as a "float," only on a very small scale. One that was served at this feast was an image of a pelican sitting on her nest with her young ones, and beside it Saint Catherine holding a book in her hand and disputing with the doctors. Another much more elaborate was made for the coronation of Henry VI. In this, the Child Jesus sits on his mother's knees. Saint George and Saint Denis kneel one on either side. King Henry bears in his hand a petition for the favor of the "Blessyd Lady, Cristes moder dere." These subtleties were made of sugar or pastry and added much to the interest of the feast. In general, however, the glory of a banquet consisted not in nicety of cooking and elegance of serving, but rather in providing unlimited quantities and countless varieties of food. The peacock and the swan were looked upon as the most luxurious dishes of the age. The peacock was carefully skinned, then roasted; but before he was brought to the table, his skin was fastened around him with skewers. An old recipe for serving the swan is as follows:—

Make a stiff bed of paste about the thickness of your thumb and color it green. Comb it out, and it will look like a meadow of green grass. Take your swan and gild him over with gold then have a kind of loose, flying cloak of a vermilion color within and painted with arms without; then set the swan upon this bed, cover some part of him with the cloak, stick about him small banners upon little sticks, the banners painted with the arms most agreeable to the people seated at the table.

As time passed, less meat and more vegetables were used. The bread was of various sorts. In England the best and finest was marked with the figure of Christ and was called "Our Lord's bread." There were at least two grades of bread below this, not counting the "wastel bread," a very coarse brown bread. Wine was much in evidence, but the everyday drinks were different varieties of ale or mead.

The dishes used at table varied as greatly as they do in the homes of to-day. The cups or goblets were handsome when the expense could be afforded. They were made of gold or silver and beautifully ornamented with precious stones. Often a feast was lighted by men ranged along the walls of the room, bearing flaming torches; and the jewels must have gleamed and flashed in the ever-changing glare. People ate from trenchers, or rude plates. At first, thick slices of stale bread were used; then trenchers were made of wood and were kept measurably clean by being scoured with ashes. People of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries were well content to eat two at a trencher. The phrase, "a valiant trencher man," was the literal description of a man with a good appetite—and appetites were good in those days. Even in the sixteenth century, Anne Boleyn, wife of Henry VIII, regretted that she could eat for breakfast only half a pound of bacon and drink only half a tankard of ale. She ascribed her loss of appetite to the late hours that she was keeping, "being scarcely in bed before ten," she lamented.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


The serving dishes were made of wood, pewter, silver, or gold, according to the wealth of the master of the castle. Knives and spoons and fingers were used as weapons of table warfare. Forks were in use in Italy, but it was well into the seventeenth century or even later before they became at all common in the other countries of Europe. For a long while they were looked upon in monasteries as a foolish and sinful luxury. An Englishman who traveled in Italy in the early part of the seventeenth century was pleased with the custom, "seeing that all men's fingers are not alike clean," as he said pathetically, and he brought home one of these new implements for his own use; whereupon one, a merry friend of his, persisted in calling him the "furcifer," or fork-bearer. For folk who were not "fork-bearers," water and towels were passed around several times during a feast. The table linen was clean and plentiful; but the floor was covered with rushes, with bones and other refuse, and perhaps had not been swept for twenty years. A feast in a nobleman's castle was a grotesque medley of splendor and filth.

No entertainment was looked upon as complete without music. This was provided by minstrels. They used a sort of violin, and also the harp, lute, guitar, bagpipe, flute, and double-flute, horn, and trumpet, and sometimes the drum, tambourine, cymbals, and handbells. A noble usually had one or more minstrels in his service who wore at their girdles his badge, a little scutcheon engraved with his coat of arms. While the great folk feasted, the minstrels played and sang, sometimes in their own gallery, sometimes, on less formal occasion from seats on the floor, or even on the edge of the table. They sang merry little ballads and favorite bits from the longer poems glorifying the noble deeds of heroes, and they also gave long recitations from the romances that the people of those times found so thrillingly entertaining.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Besides the minstrels who were members of noble households, there were also the wandering singers, some of good family, who became minstrels for a time in order to gratify a taste for roving. Many of these had real talent, and they roamed through the lands, sure of a friendly greeting, a cup of wine, and a generous meal wherever they might go. If the minstrel's songs were pleasing to the lord of the castle, the singer went away rejoicing in a goodly sum of money. If neither the lord nor his guests were liberally inclined, many minstrels were not above stopping in the midst of their song or story and saying, "If you wish to hear any more of this poem, you must make haste to open your purses." Minstrels were free to go where they would, for all classes of people welcomed them. It is told of Alfred the Great that he disguised himself as a wandering singer and went fearlessly into the camp of his enemies. Whether this is doubtful or not in the case of Alfred, it was certainly true in many other cases; for at the sound of a harp or violin the good folk of the Middle Ages seemed to lay aside all caution and forget all danger.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Besides music, other entertainment was provided for the guests at these banquets by jugglers, or sleight-of-hand performers, who went through acrobatic feats and the old tricks of balancing weights on long poles, tossing up balls and keeping several up in the air at the same time, exhibiting trained bears, and carrying on any sort of jesting that seemed to amuse their audience. A similar entertainment was provided by the "fool" of the castle, for kings and wealthy men were in the habit of keeping a jester who was known by that name. He often wore a cap and bells or a costume half one color and half another, or even shaved half his hair and half his beard to suit the rather crude ideas of what was considered comical. His joking was frequently coarse and rough, but it was to the point, for only a keen, shrewd man could play well the part of fool. In Shakespeare's dramas it happens more than once that the fool manifests more closeness of observation and more common sense than any one else in the play.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


Among these strolling companies of singers and jugglers there were also women dancers, who met with great favor. The popular notion of a dexterous dancer was one who could support herself on her hands while her feet were high up in the air. If she could rest her hands on two swords and still maintain her equilibrium, that was indeed skill, and the spectators shouted their applause and threw their coins with delight.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


But the hall was far more than a mere place of feasting. Here sat the lady of the castle and her maidens, daughters of other noble families who had come to her to learn housewifery just as their brothers had come to her husband to learn to become knights. These young girls were taught to manage a household, to sew and embroider, to card wool and spin and weave. They learned to say the prayers of the Church, to sing, and to play simple accompaniments on the harp or viol. A little of astronomy too, they learned, enough at least to name a few of the constellations; possibly a little of reading and writing, and more than a little of falconry. They must ride well, of course, for to make a poor appearance in the hunting field or in practicing the "mystery of rivers" would be indeed a disgrace. One thing they were taught with especial thoroughness, and that was enough of surgery and medicine and nursing to care for a wounded knight. Somewhat of warfare, too, they must know; for when the lord of the castle was away, it was his wife who must command the men at arms and either save or lose her home. The girls of the castle played checkers, chess, backgammon, and battledoor and shuttlecock, they had their pet birds, magpies, larks, and sometimes parrots, or popinjays, as they were called. Falcons were pets as well as hunters, and often made their entrance into society perched upon the wrists of their mistresses. The maidens of the Middle Ages liked to go on picnics, to dance, and to wear their best clothes; they enjoyed putting on jeweled belts and pretty ornaments and soft furs and dainty silks just as much as any girls of to-day, and they were just as delighted when there was to be a tournament as girls are to-day at the prospect of any entertainment.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


All sorts of folk came into the hall. In many places the poor of the neighborhood came every morning to ask for bread. If any fighting was near at hand—and the chief business of the time was fighting and hunting—a wounded man often made his way to the castle to beg for help and care. Sometimes, as has been said, a knight errant called to the porter at the gate and bade him bear a friendly challenge to the other knights within the walls. Then followed a delightful confusion. The lists were staked out in some meadow near the castle or perhaps in the outer court. The crowd of followers and dependents of the lord flocked about the ropes, and the ladies of the castle waved bright-colored scarfs from windows and battlements. Vassals, or those who held land of the master of the castle on condition of service, came to "pay homage," that is, to kneel before him, their hands clasped in his, and promise to be faithful to him. Traveling merchants came to open their packs and reveal the dazzling fabrics of the East. Pilgrims who had wandered through many lands in order to visit some holy place were always going to and fro and always welcome.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


When ten or eleven o'clock had come, the horn was blown, the long tables were spread, and all gathered around them, whether rich or poor, noble or simple. Those to whom special honor was to be shown were seated "above the salt," that is, near the lord's end of the table and separated from the common folk by an elaborate salt-cellar. After the meal, there were games—chess, backgammon, cards, and checkers—and also music and dancing. Every visitor had some story to tell; the dogs lay about the hearth, and now and then one pricked up his ears and wagged his tail sleepily when he heard his master praise some exploit of his in the hunt. The flames blazed up merrily, and the gloomy hall became bright and cheerful. It was the very heart of home, and when a wounded knight lay dying in some foreign land, it was his own hall, which he should never see again, of which he thought with eager longing.

[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan


[Illustration] from When Knights were Bold by E. M. Tappan