Chastity of Monks


‘Unlike other monks, Cistercians wore plain, undyed wool – for which reason they were known as the ‘White Monks’. The return to heroic monasticism meant that they ate only the coarsest wheat bread, and were ordered to avoid coloured glass in the chapel, and gold and silver on the altar.

And they were not allowed to wear underpants. St Benedict had not mentioned them in his list of permitted clothing for monks, so the Cistercians would have no truck with the evil things – much to the amusement of a number of their contemporaries. Some called it ‘bare-bottomed piety’ and Walter Map, the twelfth-century author, wit and foe of Cistercians, suggested they shunned underpants ‘to preserve coolness in that part of the body lest sudden heats provoke unchastity’.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 99

Enterprising Monasteries


‘This brings us back to Bury St Edmunds and its war between the monks and the townspeople. The town belonged to the abbey, which had benefited so much from various kings that it also owned the entire county of West Suffolk. The abbots built or expanded the town of Bury St Edmunds, and controlled its commercial life. Everyday business transaction involved a cut for the monks – whether a tradesman ran a barge on the river, a stall in the market, sold fish or supplied building materials. The abbey administered justice, and pocketed the fines it took. It ran the royal mint – being abbot of Bury St Edmunds was literally a licence to print money. The abbey even owned the horse droppings on the street – and of course the monks took their cut.
Whether it was collecting manure or grinding corn, every abbot guarded his monopoly jealously.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 106

Medieval Sanctuary


‘But for much of the Middle Ages, sanctuary was a hotly debated subject. In some places the area of sanctuary around a given religious building was enormous – the boundaries being clearly marked by special ‘sanctuary posts’. […]

Most sanctuaries, however, could only offer a short-term solution to the average criminal’s woes. If he refused to leave at the end of the forty days, he was as good as dead. Any layman who even communicated with him after the forty days were up would be hanged. When he finally emerged, he would be immediately executed on the spot, unless he swore on the Gospels to ‘abjure the realm’. In which case he would be issued with a crude sackcloth garment, without a belt, and a wooden cross to carry and he would have to make for the nearest port. There he would have to take the first ship out of England, and for every day he failed to find a passage, he would have to wade into the sea up to his knees. […]

The majority of them just threw away their wooden crosses on a lonely stretch of road and melted away into the woods to take up a new identity or join the many bands of outlaws that plagued the country.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 79-80

Medieval Haggling


‘The borough courts, though, were busy with much more specific matters. Certainly, from the time of the Black Death between 1348 and 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351, which attempted to control wages, local authorities regulated the price of all bread and ale that was sold. The courts used the law to enforce these regulations, and imposed their own systems of punishment (town courts could not outlaw criminals), which ranged from mutilation to forcing traders in bad goods to eat their produce in public, or have their bad drink poured over them. As with rural juries, maintaining the law was a matter of shame and reputation.

Haggling over basic commodities was illegal, and in most food markets bargaining was punishable by a fine and holding an auction was seen as a criminal act, held in secret. The ‘law of supply and demand’, that insists on higher prices when goods are in short supply, was regarded as anathema and therefore not allowed to operate in these medieval markets.

It can be argued that the true end of the Middle Ages came in the seventeenth century, when prices were allowed to rise in times of dearth, and the laws of supply and demand took over.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 76

Duke William IX of Aquitaine


‘Duke William was without a doubt a true original. He was excommunicated twice. On the first occasion, in 1114, when the bishop of Poitiers imposed the penalty for some unknown offence, he held the bishop at sword point in the cathedral and demanded absolution. He didn’t get it, which says something for the bishop’s courage and possibly explains why the duke’s crusade hadn’t achieved anything. The second excommunication was caused by William’s affair with the Viscountess of Chatellernault, alarmingly known as Dangerosa. It was said he kidnapped this mother of three and installed her in a tower in his palace at Poitiers. William of Malmesbury says he even had her portrait painted on his shield, so ‘I could bear her into battle as she had borne me into bed’. The duke’s wife was not at all happy about this.

William also fantasized about establishing a convent of prostitutes, and his verse includes a great deal of crude sexual joking, with women portrayed as fine horses to be mounted, or as captives, and he jokingly records his seduction by two ladies whose only concern was to avoid disclosure.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 48

How To Be a Medieval Minstrel


‘One thirteenth-century poem defines a true minstrel as one  who can ‘speak and rhyme well, be witty, know the story of Troy, balance apples on the point of knives, juggle, jump through hoops, play the citole, mandora, harp, fiddle, and psaltery.’ He is further advised, for good measure, to learn the arts of imitating birds, putting performing asses and dogs through their paces and operating marionettes. […]

And the entertainment demanded by the early medieval monarchs was reassuringly downmarket. For example, Henry II’s favourite minstrel was Roland Le Pettour. The king rewarded him with 30 acres of land for his masterwork, described as a leap, a whistle and a fart’. Roland’s great musical talent, it seems, was that he could fart tunes. The land was solemnly passed down from father to son for many generations, on the condition that the incumbent turn up at court each Christmas Day to perform the leap, the whistle and the fart!

Another act that was apparently popular with English royalty was a version of putting your head in a lion’s mouth, although this one involved a minstrel who spread honey on his member and then brought in a performing bear. What happened next isn’t actually explained, but whatever it was probably doesn’t figure in Winnie-the-Pooh.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 42-43

See other: Hall of Fame Posts

On Medieval Etiquette


‘A certain robustness was needed in an environment where good manners was often just a question of not picking your nose in public. A medieval guide to etiquette warns: don’t scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breaches or on your chest; don’t snap your fingers; don’t comb your hair, clean your fingers or take your shoes off in the presence of lords or ladies. Messengers arriving at a house removed their weapons, gloves and caps before entering – though they were permitted to keep their caps on if they were bald. The guide also recommends not urinating in the hall – unless you happen to be the head of the household.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 42

See other: Hall of Fame Posts

Why Sheep Replaced Peasants


‘As the country recovered in decades following the Black Death landowners tried to restore the old systems, rediscovering old laws of compulsory service that had been forgotten in the good times when England was increasingly moving to a money economy. […]

The old feudal consensus had broken down, and the lords realised that if the peasants were now free form any obligation to them, they were equally free form any obligations to care for the peasants. Thus it was that the peasants came face to face with their greatest natural enemy – sheep.

Labour had become expensive and your average lord could now make more money out of sheep than he could out of his peasants. There was more wool on sheep, for a start, and you could also eat them – with is possible with peasants but socially taboo – so the lords started to throw the expensive, troublesome and uneatable peasants of their land and replace them sheep.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 34-35