Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Medieval Peasant

Last week I was in Sussex for 'A Medieval Experience Day' at the Weald and Downland Museum - always one of my favourite places to visit. It wasn't quite what I expected as I'd thought we'd go through a fairly typical day in the life of a medieval peasant from getting up to going to bed. It wasn't quite like that but it still was very enjoyable and interesting. Later in the day we got chance to dress in period clothing which was probably my favourite bit - I just love dressing up:) The costume is absolutely authentic being hand sewn and using the same fabric that would have been available in the medieval period. The belt is a cord woven on a lucet and threaded on to the belt is my knife in a leather scabbard and a cloth pouch which would contain various personal bits and pieces. They aren't visible in the photo but I'm also wearing a pair of black leather boots.

I'm standing in the doorway of 'my' cottage which is actually Hangleton, a reconstruction based on archaeological evidence from a 13th century flint cottage in the deserted medieval Sussex village of that name. A home like this would have made me a fairly well off peasant, the poor would simply have lived in hovels made of sticks, straw and mud.

This is the back wall of the main room showing the window, you can see how small it is. Since there was no glass in those days (unless you were extremely wealthy) it would have been very draughty indeed in the cold weather even with the wooden shutter closed. Hangleton only has two windows, this one and one in the small inner room. You can imagine how dark it is inside even on a summer's day.

This is the small inner room and on the right you can just see the corner of the bread oven.

The bread oven which is really rather large for such a small cottage. Our tutor thought that it would probably be used to bake bread and pies for other villagers who had no oven of their own.

The main room has an open hearth where all the cooking was done and it was also the only source of heat. It was also the source of a great deal of smoke! You do get used to it after a while and in fact if you are crouching on the floor it's less smoky than when you are standing up. You can see the various cooking pots around the edge of the fire. There were seven of us on the course and between us we made Fish in a Coffin with Lumbard Mustard Sauce, Sowpys Dorry, Herb Fritters, A Cheese Pottage and Poor Mens Wardens in Syrup. The 'coffin' in case you're wondering is a paste of flour and water used to encase the fish while it cooks. It wasn't eaten except probably by the family pig.

Lunch is served! It doesn't look especially appetizing but looks can be deceiving. The fish in a coffin is on the right and you can see the thick brown pastry crust which has been broken open to reveal the fish stuffed with herbs which was really delicious. The mustard sauce is in the bowl at the side of it.

Anyone for Sowpys Dorry? This doesn't look too great either does it? Actually it's a sort of white onion soup made with almond milk and served over toasted bread (the sowpys or sops - as in sops in wine). I can assure you that it tasted a whole lot better than it looks:)

This is one of the dishes that I was involved in making - the cheese pottage. Again it looks less than appealing and I wasn't over anxious to taste it. However having helped make I thought it would look bad if I didn't:):) It was fantastic! So good that I'm planning to make it in the winter as a breakfast dish. Here's the recipe:

120gm cracked wheat (bulgur wheat)
375gm ricotta cheese( or any soft curd cheese)
60gm honey
1 egg

Place cracked wheat in a bowl and add just enough water to cover it Leave to soak for 10-15 minutes. When soft drain away any remaining water and add the cheese, honey and beaten egg. Bring slowly to boiling point but don't let it actually boil. Simmer for 10 minutes stirring regularly until it's a porridge consistency. Serve immediately with extra honey if you like.

Here we have the Poor Mens Wardens in Syrup. Wardens are a very ancient variety of hard cooking pear that were used to make Warden pie which I gather was a great favourite of Elizabeth I. These were cooked in cider, honey and a spot of cider vinegar with caraway and sweet cicely. They hadn't been poached quite long enough but would have been really nice if the pears had been softer. I might give this a try at some point too.

This basket contains both wool and linen which has been dyed using natural plant materials. Most people have the impression that medieval people lived in a sort of brown and grey world but nothing could be further from the truth. The colours that can be obtained from very ordinary plants such as nettles, woad and onion skins are really lovely. In the afternoon we were able to try our hand at some of the crafts that most women would have been expert at as they would have been taught by their mother from childhood. Spinning with a drop spindle is something that will need a good deal more practise on my part! Lucet weaving I've done before and can manage to make a reasonable job of. The weaving I didn't even attempt! It was a really enjoyable day and a nice group of people to work with too. As well as the practical part we learned something about medieval history too which is something I shall probably read more about during the long dark nights to come.

As I walked back I passed these wonderful teasels in the garden of Poplar Cottage.

I couldn't resist a quick look inside as well. Poplar is a 17th century labourer's cottage.
I'm going back to Sussex in September for a course on hedgerow preserves and I plan to spend some time looking round the rest of the Museum then. I've done posts on the Weald and Downland Museum in the past, for anyone interested just click on 'Weald and Downland' in the labels on my sidebar - there are posts on Tudor cooking and herbs.


Lucy Corrander Now in Halifax! said...

Astonishing. What a brilliant way to learn. The costume is surprisingly becoming. I find it hard to imagine life before potatoes and tomatoes but I can imagine the food was good.

Lynda (Granny K) said...

That' a smashing picture of you Rowan! I bet you had a memorable day.

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

I'm not sure how to say this make an excellent peasant! As it was so dark inside I don't suppose anyone cared what the food looked like. It sounds like a fantastic way to spend the day - though living that way all the time, including mid-winter, can't have been so much fun.

La Maison said...

What an experience, I enjoyed your post, thank you.

Hermine said...

A wonderful post Rowan,
very interesting. what was nice about this adventure, was that you took part in it.
you look just like "maid marion"!
your post reminded me of about 25 years ago, when i was asked to join in and help at a medieval pageant that my youngest son was taking part in. It all took place in the palace of Sintra. very authentic.
The large bread oven, could have been the bakers home.! Amazing how low the ceilings were in those days. The food.. i take your word for it.
most enjoyable.
thank you Rowan.
happy thursday

Hollace said...

As always, I appreciate the research and beauty as well as the poetry that you synthesize and share.
The colors of yarn are surprising. The orange dye is astonishing.

MorningAJ said...

That's somewhere I'd love to go. I've never managed to get there yet, though I've wanted to see it for years.

I think the food looks interesting. I might have a go at a couple of those recipes myself.

WOL said...

You always find such fun things to do! I don't know about the fish, but the rest of it looked very tasty. Nothing like a window on the past to make us appreciate our modern conveniences. The main room looked like it had a dirt floor. Was the little room a kitchen? The peasants who lived in that cottage must really have been well off as the main room wasn't divided off to share with the cows and pigs!

Patricia said...

We were staying at Petworth last year and attempted to go but on the day the heavens opened and there were muddy floods on the site. You look as though you had a great day Rowan and it was good that you were able to take part as well. My gr grandparents came from Singleton and we hope to visit the area again soon, so fingers crossed that we can make the museum this time.
Patricia x

George said...

What a wonderful experience, Rowan. I will have to take your word about the food, especially the fish in a coffin, but you clearly make an absolutely splendid medieval peasant.

Dartford Warbler said...

What an amazing day, stepping back in time! You would have needed your long, warm outfit on a cold day in that cottage, without windows....brrr.

I love the atmosphere at Singleton. Somewhere I would love to revisit one day.

The natural colours of the wool dyes are beautiful.

JoAnn ( Scene Through My Eyes) said...

What a wonderful treat you had - such a grand experience. I truly envy you the joy of your country.

Rosie said...

As John says in his comment, Rowan, you do make a wonderful Medieval peasant! I bet the day was great fun and informative too. It's years since I went to the Weald and Downland Museum and I'd love to visit again! I remember on the same holiday we visited an iron age farm at Butser Hill somehwere in that region. Hedgerow preserves sounds interesting, hope you enjoy the course:)

Louise said...

Sounds like a great and interesting day!

Roy said...

That is some Peasant.
I much preferred the one with the silver hair and the long legs.{:)

Mac n' Janet said...

Oh Rowan I do envy you this adventure, what a wonderful way to spend a day. Have your ever read the book Down The Common? It's the story of a year in the life of a medieval woman. It's by Elizabeth Baer, I think.

bright star said...

I really enjoyed this post.How fascinating ,you look cute in your costume but did it itch!!!! I would love to go there.

jill said...

Oh what a lovely day you must of had and so interesting,love your outfit love Jill xx

Bovey Belle said...

I thought I recognized that face!

WHAT a wonderful day you had, and how envious am I?

Not so sure about the food - the appetite being based on what the eye perceives, I think. Eyes shut and a mouthful then . . .

I loved the spinning and weaving bit. If you want some Teasels I have them growing wild in the paddock.

Dog Trot Farm said...

How lovely to be able to participate in historical venues Rowan. I so enjoy hands on learning, whether it be past or present. Hope you are enjoying what is left of these late summer days, thank you for another interesting post. Hugs from Maine, Julie.

Mary said...

Such an interesting day out - love the pic of you Rowan - you look quite the medieval lady!

Hugs- Mary

Jacqueline~Cabin and Cottage said...

My goodness what an interesting experience! Just like time travel. Love the costume. Before I read how authentic it is I thought it looked very real. Very cool!

Grizz………… said...

Ha! You make a smashing peasant! Authentically garbed and apparently armed. Sounds like a great day all around…and a fun way of getting a first-hand insight into medieval life. Loved the post and photos. I'm going to have to try that cheese pottage.

Pomona said...

What an amazing day - sounds really good fun, and really illuminating too.

Pomona x

Gracie said...

That I'm sure was an amazing experience! Very intersting they managed to cook also the ood in the old way...Thanks for sharing.

Sandies' Patch said...

What a great day!
Will try those recipes, especially as we have a pear that sounds very much like the one you mentioned on this estate!

Thank you for sharing your day.
Love the costume btw.


Sandie xx

Unknown said...

Looks like a really interesting experience! Love the concept of having an indoor braai - I get smoke all over me even when cooking outside, so wouldn't trouble me too much inside. Interesting to see the windows of the houses as well, given that South Africa huts also lack windows. The idea here is to keep the sun out and the houses cool, which is the exact opposite of the reasoning behind smaller windows in England.