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A Medieval Peasants’ Winter

By Lucie Laumonier

Coping with cold and snow, the medieval way.

A season stretching from the beginning of December to mid-March, winter is still associated, in the Northern Hemisphere, with cold temperatures and precipitations. “Winter is cold and moist,” astutely wrote Bartholomew the Englishman in his thirteenth-century encyclopedia, The Proprieties of Things. “But in winter, coldness has more mastery than moisture, for then is great binding and freezing of air and of water, for the great fairness of the sun; of which fairness comes great coldness in Winter time.” Bartholomew the Englishman continued: “And so Winter is all contrary to Summer. Therefore, all things that lived and sprang by the benefit of Summer, fade and die by the hard cruelness of Winter.”

In the later Middle Ages, winter was symbolically associated with old age, poverty and death. These negative connotations had roots in the natural phenomenon that occurred during winter; they also served to enhance the symbolism of spring, a time of rebirth and renewal. For medieval peasants, winter was a time of slowing-down of agricultural labour. Cold weather and snowfalls made work more difficult and posed numerous challenges to those whose houses were poorly heated. What medieval peasants did in winter times and how they coped with cold temperatures and snow are the main topics this article covers. Stay warm and keep your mittens on!

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Medieval Winters and Climate

Knowledge of medieval weather and climate comes from a great variety of sources, from written records informing on the day-to-day weather in given communities, to the analysis of ice cores or tree rings, which sheds light on long-term climatic trends. In the High Middle Ages, for instance, Western Europe experienced a “climatic optimum” sometimes dubbed the “medieval warm period” (c. 900–1300). Warmer temperatures and mild weather participated in the great medieval expansion by enabling the settling and development of new arable lands. The medieval climatic optimum corresponds to the settlement of Greenland by Icelandic explorers. Across Western Europe, agriculture was possible at higher latitudes and elevations than before. In England, for instance, grapes grew hundreds of kilometres north of their current range. During that period, winters were less severe, with fewer and lighter snowfalls.

By the early fourteenth century, however, the first signs of the “Little Ice Age,” an era of cooling, were perceptible on the continent. The Little Ice Age stretched to the early nineteenth century, with a peak in cold temperatures around c. 1550–1700. The Little Ice Age was not characterized by unremitting cold weather (as, today, global warming does not mean a linear increase of temperatures). Atmospheric cooling—like atmospheric warming—manifested itself through weather anomalies and extreme events, such as sudden floods, hail and snowstorms, temperature fluctuations, intense precipitations during summer and colder-than-usual winters. In sum, while temperatures did decrease during the Little Ice Age, extraordinary weather phenomena were its most striking features.

The winter of 1363–1364, for instance, was extremely cold in mainland Europe. Several chronicles concur to state that the major lakes and rivers were frozen at some point between December and March. Near Mainz, in Germany, the Rhine river was icebound for no less than 70 days. The Rhine was so deeply frozen that the people of Cologne, downstream, held a market on the ice! That winter, snow-covered the Belgian town of Fosses for one hundred days. Today, the town only receives ephemeral snowfalls. In Southern Europe, during the same winter, the shores of the Atlantic ocean, near Bordeaux, France, as well as the Venetian lagoon and the Rhône’s estuary were frozen. The most telling sources on the impact of the Little Ice Age in Europe are Mediterranean chronicles, documents written in regions usually typified by their warmer—yet often humid—winters.

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During the Little Ice Age, southern chronicles often reported on heavy and unusual snowfalls. In February 1352, for instance, several intense snowfalls were reported in the Florence area, in Italy, where the snow cover persisted for the whole month. Another Italian chronicle reports that, in 1359 and across central Italy, “the snow rose to an extraordinary height; so, to lighten up the roofs, the snow was thrown into the streets, and some of the towns were blocked so the inhabitants were trapped for several days in their homes.” In Bologna, 18 feet of snow had reportedly fallen, and even more snow covered the city of Modena. In stark contrast with these catastrophic snowfalls, late medieval illuminated calendars yield beautiful depictions of winter landscapes, some peaceful, some joyful.

Snowy Landscapes and Farm Work

But immaculate landscapes only emerged as a staple representation of winter scenes in fifteenth-century calendars. Earlier instances are rare and often connect to scientific manuscripts rather than calendars. This change connected to the intensification of cooler temperatures across Europe, a result of the Little Ice Age. In calendars, snow was preferably associated with the month of January. Except for a few calendars, such as London Rothschild Hours (c. 1500, see here), the December countryside looked barren. Naked trees and cold brown tones dominated most of the December pages, where peasants were busy slaughtering, butchering and cooking the pigs that had been feeding on acorns on the November page. Now fattened, the animals were ready to be killed and processed to sustain the family for the cold months to come. Only the pigs that had gained sufficient weight were slaughtered in the winter.

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of peasants slaughtering a pig and working in a snowy landscape, – British Library Add MS 35313, f. 7r

As calendars illustrate, slaughtering and processing the pigs was a collective work that required a lot of different tasks and steps, from collecting the pig’s blood to processing the entrails and carcass. Then, it was time to salt and cure the meat for preservation. Charcuterie and cured meats, such as salted ham, were staple foods in the medieval diet. Blood sausage or black pudding, made from pig blood, were poor people’s food, fairly common for the medieval peasants. Besides butchery, winter was synonymous with farm work for medieval peasants. The beginning of winter up to Christmas corresponded to the planting of winter crops in the fields that had laid fallow the previous season. In England, winter crops were usually wheat, although some sowed barley. In the manor of Cuxham, half of the lands were sowed with wheat at the beginning of the winter season. The crops germinated before the cold set in, and would, hopefully, swiftly grow once spring came.

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In January, however, calendar landscapes were covered with snow and painted on a backdrop of clear blue skies. January conveyed the impression of coldness, stillness and a slowing down of activities. The usually busy peasants of the calendars warmed their feet by the fire, sharing a meal inside, enjoying some rest. Come February, they were back to work. February was snowless, with the exception of Isabella of Castile’s breviary, where peasants chopped wood, their feet in the snow. While winter was a time for rest, farms still required work. Peasants spread manure to fertilize their fields; they harvested cabbages and leaks; they planted new vines and pruned their older ones; they cut and pruned their trees. Repair work on the buildings, fences and tools, as well as harvesting firewood punctuated the daily life of peasants. Moreover, those who had cows, pigs, sheep and other animals still had to feed and care for them.

Some illuminators took a different route and represented playful winter scenes. The c. 1460 Hours of the Duchess of Burgundy features a lovely snowball fight set in a city, where grown-ups and children are hard at play. Looking at the illumination, one immediately realizes that none of the players are wearing weather-appropriate apparel. This is a testimony to the idealistic nature of such representations. Regardless, snowball fights were common enough in the later Middle Ages to appear on a number of illuminated manuscripts and frescos, from the late fourteenth century onwards. Other winter pleasures and leisures depicted on manuscripts include ice skating on bone or, later, iron skates. Ice skating was extremely common in Scandinavia, but less developed in Western Europe, where it was first mentioned in a twelfth-century English manuscript. Northern Europeans were more accustomed than Western Europeans to snow and cold temperatures. Obviously, for medieval peasants living in England or France, winter was probably much more challenging than fun.

Snowball fight from the Hours of Adelaide of Savoy, Duchess of Burgundy.

Keeping Warm

Unlike today, when we can control the temperature in our homes, medieval people could not. Medieval houses were poorly insulated and subject to constant cold drafts. The fireplace did not always suffice to heat peasant houses. Some were equipped with portable braziers. These were quite the safety hazard, and were involved in a number of house fires and disastrous incidents. The problem of cold temperatures was acute, especially in stone buildings and spacious elite dwellings where few rooms had their own fireplace. At that time, windows were rarely equipped with glass. On the island of Maguelone, southern France, the windows of the cathedral buildings were sealed with mortar during winter, to reduce drafts and coldness. Most people “sealed” their walls’ openings with paper; only a few could afford expensive glass windows. In the 1230s, for instance, some windows in the Palace of Westminster in London were glazed, “so that the chamber may not be so windy as it used to be.” Glass windows did not really protect from the cold, but they drastically reduced the issue of air drafts.

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No surprise then that medieval peasants slept with a nightcap! They also heated stones or bricks in the fireplace, then carried them carefully,  wrapped in fabric, to their beds to warm the sheets. People wore extra-warm clothes inside and, when possible, stayed by the fire. Woolen coats, scarfs and mittens were common. Some lined their winter clothes with fur. Although fur is often associated with luxury clothing, peasants are believed to have lined their winter clothes with rabbit and lamb. Peasants could collect the pelts of the small game their lord allowed them to catch and process them to make warmer clothes. Sumptuary laws, however, were very clear on who could wear what according to their social standing. The 1363 English Sumptuary law, for instance, only allowed lamb, rabbit, cat and fox furs for the wives and daughters of craftspeople and land-owning peasants.

Feeling the cold! British Library MS Yates Thompson 36 f. 11

Heavy snows and cold temperatures were sometimes deadly. During the 1389 winter, the chronicle of the Mediterranean city of Montpellier reports dramatic snowfalls in the region of Lozère, where occasional snowfall were and still are relatively common. “That year,” wrote the scribe, “in January, February and March, the snowfalls in Lozère were so great that they destroyed many farmsteads and that many people died, because their houses fell down on them. Other people died of cold, others of hunger, because snowfalls had lasted so much longer than usual that people had run out of provisions. And there are people of the country whose memories date back 80 years, who say that they had never seen such great snowfalls.”

This example shows that, in Western Europe, heavy snows often brought travel and communication to a halt. If Scandinavians and Russians had mastered the art of skiing, Western Europeans largely ignored it until the early modern era. Northern Europeans had skied as a mode of transportation and for hunting purposes since the Mesolithic era. Their skis came in different forms and lengths, depending on their usage, enabling them to operate when snow fell. Outside of Scandinavia, medieval peasants relied on their boots and horse-dragged sleighs, which did not enable cross-country travel during bad weather. Isolated hamlets, especially in more mountainous areas such as Lozère, paid a heavy toll to the Little Ice Age when terribly snowy winters came.

The higher frequency of snowfalls at the time probably influenced the representations of winter in manuscripts and on the late medieval calendar pages. In fact, the period during which winters were becoming snowier coincides with the rise of snowy landscapes in art. While variations in manuscripts might correlate with regional differences and climates, we should keep in mind that the sensation of cold is subjective. A fourteenth-century Scandinavian may have found the Italian winters rather mild, despite their occasional snows. But for a native Italian, used to warmer temperatures and hot summers, the difference was huge. In parallel, Northern Europeans had more experience in coping with cold and snowy winters with their skis, compact houses and pelts. Keeping warm and surviving winter was a challenge for most mainland and Western European peasants.

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Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

Further Reading:

Richard Jones, The Medieval Natural World, Routledge, 2013

P. S. Langeslag, Seasons in the Literatures of the Medieval North, Boydell & Brewer, 2015

Jeffrey L. Singman, Daily Life in Medieval Europe, The Greenwood Press, 1999

James B. Tschen-Emmons, Artifacts from Medieval Europe, ABC-CLIO, 2015

Click here to read more from Lucie

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