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

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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

On The Medieval Diet

‘Today, we are urged to stop eating fast foods with all the nutrition of cardboard and to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. This is actually a return to the peasant diet – a diet that was despised by the nobility. They regarded fruit and veg as the poor man’s food, believing that greens weren’t good for you and that fruit gave you dysentery – the bloody flux.

Peasant bread was much healthier than our white, steam-baked, sliced bread: it was brown, like a good wholemeal loaf. Peas and beans were sometimes added, which made it even more nutritious. In the fields people ate a kind of medieval pot-noodle, a paste of dried vegetables, beans and bread to which they added ale to turn it into an instant meal. Eel pasties were another favourite, and preserved foods such as bacon, cheese and sausages were special treats.

Even for the poorest, the countryside was a larder teeming with wildlife. Rivers were full of fish – there were even plenty of salmon in the Thames – and peasants had elaborate nets and traps to catch songbirds, eels and rabbits. […]

In fact the medieval diet, with lots of coarse grains and grit in the bread, was much better for human teeth than our own. It means they were worn down to a flat plane leaving no room for food to fester. But fossilised plaque in some skeletons’ teeth does suggest that many of the people at Wharram Percy had suffered from bad breath. This was a bit of an issue in medieval times; in Wales a peasant women could divorce her husband on the grounds of his halitosis.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2004. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2005) p. 28-29

A Village Pretending to be Mad

‘Take the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, afforded legendary status by the exploits of its inhabitants.

In about 1200 King John proposed building a hunting lodge near the city of Nottinghamshire. The residents of Gotham realised the implications of this – he would pass through the village on the way to his lodge, making it a king’s highway and thus making them liable to new taxes.

So what did they do? The entire village pretended to be mad. It is said that the villagers built a fence around a cuckoo bush to prevent the cuckoo from escaping, tried do drown an eel, set about pulling the moon out of a pond with a rake and rolled cheeses down a hill to make them round. Since madness was considered contagious the idea of a whole village of lunatics was perfectly feasible, and apparently the ploy worked.’

– Jones. T., Ereira. A. 2005. Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives London, Great Britain: BBC Books (2004) p. 22