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BOOK REVIEW: A Year in the Life of Medieval England by Toni Mount

A Year in the Life of Medieval England by Toni Mount

A Year in the Life of Medieval England by Toni MountJanuary – By this fire I warm my hands,
February – And by my spade I delve my lands.
March – Here I set my things to spring,
April – And here i hear the birds sing.
May – I am light as a bird on cough,
June – And I weed my corn well enow.
July – With my scythe my mead I mow,
August – And here I shear my corn full low.
September – With my flail I earn my bread,
October – And here I sow my wheat so red.
November – At Martinmas I kill my swine,
December – And at Christmas I drink red wine.
~J.L. Forgeng, Daily Life in Chaucer’s England

Author Toni Mount is back again, but this time with an in-depth look at daily life in Medieval England. Her book, A Year in the Life of Medieval England, explores war, medicine, marriage, disputes, work, and cooking. A fascinating almanac of bits and bobs about Medieval England from the most most mundane, to the most important events in its history.

Mount drew on chronicles, letters, wills, diaries, coroner and court rolls to give readers this glimpse into the past. The book focuses on the High to Late Middle Ages, the period between 1066 to 1500, with an entry or two for every day of the year. Where there were no significant historical events for a particular day, Mount offered a recipe or an interesting medical remedy relevant to that time of the year.

Men knocking down acorns to feed swine, from the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter, MS. Royal 2 B VII f.81v. (Wikipedia).
Men knocking down acorns to feed swine, from the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter, MS. Royal 2 B VII f.81v. (Wikipedia).

As we have just entered fall, this medieval tip from the book for Autumnal good health seemed apropos:

September 17th
“According to a fifteenth century medical text, here are the instructions for keeping healthy this month:

In September, all fruits that is ripe is good to eat, and blood is good to let (phlebotomy).For those who letteth him blood on the 17th day for the dropsy, neither the frenzy (insanity) or the falling evil (epilepsy), that year shall he have” ~ W.R. Dawson, A Leechbook of the Fifteenth Century.

The book is peppered with fascinating tidbits like this. Some of my favourites include the origin of the term “spinster” arising from St. Distaff”s Day on January 7th. Or the death of John of Gaunt on February 3rd, and the legend that he killed the last wild boar in England. Mount recounts the story behind the creation of one of England’s most prestigious titles: The Prince of Wales (February 7, 1301), and other general interest stories, such as May 11th, where she tells us how medieval people slept:

Making a medieval bed (unknown)
Making a medieval bed (unknown)

May 11th
“The ditty: ‘Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite’ dates from medieval times. ‘Sleep tight” refers to the ropes beneath the mattress that were strung through the bed frame – they had to be tightened to stop the mattress from sagging. Mattresses could be stuffed with feathers, horsehair, sheep’s wool or rags, with lavender, fleabane or some other bug-repellent herb included between the mattress and the woven mat prevented the mattress from bulging down between the ropes.” ~ T. Mount, Everyday Life in Medieval London

Another interesting aspect to this book was that alongside events and curious facts, readers learn about the cycles of the medieval year. Dates that were important to medieval people but no longer have much meaning included Martinmas the week starting November 11th, when animals were slaughtered for food in the coming winter months. Or Michaelmas, on September 29th, a time when the harvest was over and rents would be collected.

There is a lot of bouncing around in the book since the days are in order but the years are not. If a monarch was born late in the year, but died early in another year, his story is told backwards. However, Mount is always good about referencing the beginning and continuation of a story at the end of each note, such as May 8th: Jack Cade’s Rebellion, ending with a note in brackets (see July 12), making it easy if the reader wants to jump back and forth to knit together a particular story.

Toni Mount’s A Year in the Life of Medieval England offers a captivating look into the daily lives of medieval people; a sort of #OTD (on this day) collection for anyone interested in history beyond epic battles and momentous events, yet still providing a nice blend of vital dates, advice, humour, and daily perspectives.

I leave you with these parting medieval words on how to live a good life by poet John Lydgate (1370-1450):

October 15th
Arise early,
Serve God devoutly,
The world busily.
Go your way steadfastly,
Answer politely.
Sit down hungrily
And get up temperately.
Go to supper soberly
And to your bed merrily,
And be there cheerfully
And sleep securely.
J. Lydate, Table Manners for Children: Stans Puer Ad Mensam

Toni Mount is a popular medieval historian and experienced speaker. She makes her living giving talks and classes on everyday life in the medieval period.

Follow Toni Mount on Twitter: @tonihistorian

For more information about Toni Mount and her work, please visit: tonimount.co.uk

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