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The Noisy Middle Ages

By Danièle Cybulskie

Last week, I wrote a piece on things medieval people would hate about the present day. Some of my readers asked whether or not medieval people would have found it too noisy in today’s world. While I do think medieval people would hate the sheer volume of white noise that surrounds modern life (traffic, fans, airplanes, etc.), the Middle Ages was a noisy time all on its own. Let’s take five minutes to lend the Middle Ages an ear.

To think of the medieval soundscape is to think of bells. All over Christian Europe, bells tolled the canonical hours, summoning worshipers to pray at regular intervals, day and night. This was not just true in monasteries, but everywhere there was a church big enough to support a bell, which meant that in big cities like London and Paris, hundreds of bells would be pealing every few hours. On top of that were bells that pealed in remembrance of the dearly departed, or in celebration. The upside of this was that it kept everyone on schedule without the need for individual timepieces. The downside, of course, was that it was very, very loud.

Besides just the pealing of the bells, living in a medieval city would have been very noisy, indeed. While we moderns have the continuous shushing of traffic, they would have had a continuous clattering of iron-rimmed wooden wheels on stone, not to mention the rattling of whatever was being carted about. Wagons, carts, wheelbarrows – all had wooden wheels which would be turning roughly over the uneven cobbles of paved streets. Along with the noise of wheels were the sounds of the shoes and harness of the carthorses, as well as the shoes of other horses being ridden. Whinnies and neighs would have filled the air, along with all the animal noises of livestock being traded, auctioned, or prepared for slaughter. While the many blacksmiths of a medieval city would have mostly been working in the same area, since medieval cities arranged themselves around trades, the ringing of hammers striking metal would have carried far. Carpenters’ workshops would have added the noise of hammer and saw, with stonecutters contributing hammer and chisel.

In other quarters, doors and shutters would be making their own wooden racket, along with the squeak of metal hinges as people moved in and out of houses and shops. In the markets, performers would trade coins for a song, while the poor begged for alms. Peddlers, without the benefit of other advertising, would be shouting out their wares and services as they made their way along, and laundresses would be slapping and sloshing clothes in water. Around the public wells and fountains, people would be clattering and splashing wooden buckets and clay jugs to carry homeward. As Paul Strohm points out in Chaucer’s Tale, the streets would also be filled with people lining up to buy hot food from vendors, and collecting around communal ovens. Underneath all this sound, you might hear a jingling of coins in purses as people made their way.

For people who lived in castles, pretty much all of these noises would be similar, coupled with the sound of knights practicing their work: metal striking metal, wood striking wood, wood striking leather. Here, they would hear horses moving at speed as knights practiced martial maneuvers, or tilted at quintains. They might also hear trumpets summoning the family to supper, the polished music of professional entertainers, and the clink and murmur of a large company sharing a meal under one roof.

Living in the country, as most people did, would be just about as noisy outdoors as it is today, meaning there would be a lot of people and animal sounds, with things getting noisiest around the sowing and the harvest, or sheep-shearing time (the difference being that we use noisy machines at these times). Country folk would have been rudely awakened by roosters if they were too far out to hear the pealing of bells. From then, the sounds of livestock, woodcutting, breaking stones, and using tools would fill the day. At ploughing or harvest time, everyone would be out in the fields working, and there is every reason to suppose that they’d sing as they worked, although these songs have not come down to us.

The quietest life for a medieval person would most likely have been the monastic life, especially if the monastery was a little distance from other people. Here, a person would hear the buzzing of bees in an apiary, the scratching of quills in a scriptorium, the click of rosaries in the chapel. The sounds of one voice reading from scripture or many voices praying in unison would have been regular, dependable complements to the ever-present pealing of the bells. No wonder this life appealed to so many people as a suitable place of retirement near the end of life.

While perhaps the sheer volume of our modern noise would outweigh anything from the Middle Ages, the truth is that medieval people regularly lived in supremely noisy conditions. What they might hate most about the noise of the modern world might not be the volume, but the startling unfamiliarity of the millions of buzzes and alerts we surround ourselves with each day, so unlike the sounds of home.

For a vivid portrait of life in medieval London, check out Paul Strohm’s Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury, or Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. For an overview of medieval urban living in France, try Frances and Joseph Gies’ Life in a Medieval City.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

Top Image: Hieronymus Bosch, detail from Christ Carrying the Cross



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