There was not much comfort in a medieval home. Windows were few, and seldom glazed; wooden shutters closed them against glare or cold. Heating was by one or more fireplaces; drafts came in from a hundred cracks in the walls, and made high-backed chairs a boon. In winter it was common to wear warm hats and furs indoors. Furniture was scanty but well made. Chairs were few, and usually had no backs; but sometimes they were elegantly carved, engraved with armorial bearings, and inlaid with precious stones. Most seats were cut into the masonry walls, or built upon chests in alcoves. Carpets were unusual before the thirteenth century. Italy and Spain had them; and when Eleanor of Castile went to England in 1254 as the bride of the future Edward I, her servants covered the floors of her apartment at Westminster with carpets after the Spanish custom—which then spread through England. Ordinary floors were strewn with rushes or straw, making some houses so malodorous that the parish priest refused to visit them. Walls might be hung with tapestries, partly as ornaments, partly to hinder drafts, partly to divide the great hall of the house into smaller rooms. Homes in Italy and Provence, still remembering Roman luxuries, were more comfortable and sanitary than those of the North. The homes of German bourgeois, in the thirteenth century, had water piped into the kitchen from wells.102

Cleanliness, in the Middle Ages, was not next to godliness. Early Christianity had denounced the Roman baths as wells of perversion and promiscuity, and its general disapproval of the body had put no premium on hygiene. The modern use of the handkerchief was unknown.103 Cleanliness was next to money, and varied with income; the feudal lord and the rich bourgeois bathed with reasonable frequency, in large wooden tubs; and in the twelfth century the spread of wealth spread personal cleanliness. Many cities in Germany, France, and England had public baths in the thirteenth century; one student reckons that Parisians bathed more frequently in 1292 than in the twentieth century.104 One result of the Crusades was the introduction into Europe of public steam baths in the Moslem style.105 The Church frowned upon public baths as leading to immorality; and several of them justified her fears. Some towns provided public mineral baths.

Monasteries, feudal castles, and rich homes had latrines, emptying into cesspools, but most homes managed with outhouses; and in many cases one outhouse had to serve a dozen homes.106 Pipes for carrying off waste were one of the sanitary reforms introduced into England under Edward I (1271–1307). In the thirteenth century the chamber pots of Paris were freely emptied from windows into the street, with only a warning cry of Gar’ l’eau! —such contretemps were a cliché of comedies as late as Molière. Public comfort stations were a luxury; San Gimignano had some in 1255, but Florence as yet had none.107 People eased themselves in courtyards, on stairways and balconies, even in the palace of the Louvre. After a pestilence in 1531 a decree ordered Parisian landlords to provide a latrine for every house, but this ordinance was much honored in the breach.108

The upper and middle classes washed before and after meals, for most eating was done with the fingers. There were but two regular meals daily, one at ten, another at four; but either repast might last several hours. In great houses the meal was announced by blasts on a hunting horn. The dinner board might be rude planks on trestles, or a great table strongly built of costly wood and admirably carved. Around it were stools or benches—in French, bancs, whence banquet. In some French homes ingenious machines raised or lowered into place, from a lower or upper story, a full table ready served, and made it disappear in a moment when the meal was finished.109 Servants brought ewers of water to each diner, who washed the hands therein and wiped them on napkins which were then put away; in the thirteenth century no napkins were used during the meal, but the diner wiped his hands on the tablecloth.110 The company sat in couples, gentleman and lady paired; usually each couple ate from one plate and drank from one cup.111Each person received a spoon; forks were known in the thirteenth century, but seldom provided; and the diner used his own knife. Cups, saucers, and plates were normally of wood;112 but the feudal aristocracy and the rich bourgeoisie had dishes of earthenware or pewter, and some displayed dinner sets of silver, even, here and there, of gold.113 Dishes of cut glass might be added, and a large silver vessel in the shape of a ship, containing various spices, and the knife and spoon of the host. Instead of a plate each couple received a large piece of bread, flat, round, and thick; upon this tranchoir the diner placed the meat and bread that he took with his fingers from the platters passed to him; when the meal was over the “trencher” was eaten by the diner, or given to the dogs and cats that swarmed around, or sent out to the neighboring poor. A great meal was completed with spices and sweets and a final round of wine.

Food was abundant, varied, and well prepared, except that lack of refrigeration soon made meats high, and put a premium on spices that could preserve or disguise. Some spices were imported from the Orient; but as these were costly, other spices were grown in domestic gardens—parsley, mustard, sage, savory, anise, garlic, dill…. Cookbooks were numerous and complex; in a great establishment the cook was a man of importance, bearing on his shoulders the dignity and reputation of the house. He was equipped with a gleaming armory of copper caldrons, kettles, and pans, and prided himself on serving dishes that would please the eye as well as the palate. Meat, poultry, and eggs were cheap,114 though still dear enough to make most of the poor unwilling vegetarians.115Peasants flourished on coarse whole-grain bread of barley, oats, or rye, baked in their homes; city dwellers preferred white bread—baked by bakers—as a mark of caste. There were no potatoes, coffee, or tea; but nearly all meats and vegetables now used in Europe—including eels, frogs, and snails—were eaten by medieval man.116 By the time of Charlemagne the European acclimatization of Asiatic fruits and nuts was almost complete; oranges, however, were still a rarity in the thirteenth century north of the Alps and the Pyrenees. The commonest meat was pork. Pigs ate the refuse in the streets, and people ate the pigs. It was widely believed that pork caused leprosy, but this did not lessen the taste for it; great sausages and black puddings were a medieval delight. Lordly hosts might have a whole roast pig or boar brought to the table, and carve it before their gaping guests; this was a delicacy almost as keenly relished as partridges, quails, thrushes, peacocks, and cranes. Fish was a staple food; herring was a main recourse of soldiers, sailors, and the poor. Dairy products were less used than today, but the cheese of Brie was already renowned.117 Salads were unknown, and confections were rare. Sugar was still an import, and had not yet replaced honey for sweetening. Desserts were usually of fruits and nuts. Pastries were innumerable; and jolly bakers, quite unreproved, gave cakes and buns the most interesting shapes imaginable—quaedam pudenda muliebra, aliae virilia.118 It seems incredible that there was no after-dinner smoking. Both sexes drank instead.

As unboiled water was seldom safe, all classes found substitutes for it in beer and wine. “Drinkwater” and “Boileau” were unusual names, indicating unusual tastes. Cider or perry was made from apples or pears, and provided cheap intoxicants for the peasantry. Drunkenness was a favorite vice of the Middle Ages, in all classes and sexes. Taverns were numerous, ale was cheap. Beer was the regular drink of the poor, even at breakfast. Monasteries and hospitals north of the Alps were normally allowed a gallon of ale or beer per person per day.119 Many monasteries, castles, and rich homes had their own breweries, for in the northern countries beer was reckoned as second only to bread as a necessary of life. Among the well-to-do of all nations, and in all ranks of Latin Europe, wine was preferred. France produced the most famous wines, and proclaimed their glory in a thousand popular songs. At vintage time the peasants worked harder than usual, and were rewarded by good abbots with a moral holiday. A customal of the abbey of St. Peter in the Black Forest includes some tender clauses:

When the peasants have unladen the wine, they shall be brought into the monastery, and shall have meat and drink in abundance. A great tub shall be set there and filled with wine … and each shall drink … and if they wax drunken and smite the cellarman or the cook, they shall pay no fine for this deed; and they shall drink so that two of them cannot beat the third to the wagon.120

After a banquet the host would usually offer entertainment by jugglers, tumblers, players, minstrels, or buffoons. Some manor houses had their own staff of such entertainers; some rich men kept jesters whose merry impudence and ribald humor could be vented without fear and without reproach. If the diners preferred to provide their own amusement they could tell stories, hear or make music, dance, flirt, play backgammon, chess, or parlor games; even barons and baronesses romped about in “forfeits” and “blind man’s buff.” Playing cards were still unknown. French laws of 1256 and 1291 forbade making, or playing with, dice, but gambling with dice was widespread nonetheless, and moralists told of fortunes and souls lost in the game. Gambling was not always forbidden by law; Siena provided booths for it in the public square.121 Chess was prohibited by a council at Paris (1213) and by an edict of Louis IX (1254); no one paid much attention to these demurrers; the game became a consuming pastime among the aristocracy, and gave its name to the royal exchequer—a chequered table or chessboard on which the revenues of the state were reckoned.122 In Dante’s youth a Saracen player set all Florence agape by playing three games of chess at once against the best players of the city; he looked at one board and kept the plays on the other two in his head; of the three games he won two and tied the third.123 The game of checkers was played in France as dames, in England as “draughts.”

Dancing was condemned by preachers, and was practiced by nearly all persons except those dedicated to religion. St. Thomas Aquinas, with characteristic moderation, allowed dancing at weddings, or on the homecoming of a friend from abroad, or to celebrate some national victory; and the hearty saint went so far as to say that dancing, if kept decent, was a very healthy exercise.124 Albertus Magnus showed a like liberality, but medieval moralists generally reprobated the dance as an invention of the Devil.125 The Church frowned upon it as provocative of immorality;126 the young blades of the Middle Ages did their best to justify her suspicions.127 The French and Germans in particular were fond of the dance, and developed many folk dances to mark the festivals of the agricultural year, to celebrate victories, or to sustain public spirit in depression or plague. One of the Carmina Burana describes the dances of girls in the fields as among the sweetest pleasures of spring. When knighthood was conferred all the knights of the vicinity gathered in full armor and performed evolutions on horseback or on foot, while the populace danced around them to the accompaniment of martial music. Dancing could become an epidemic: in 1237 a band of German children danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt; many died en route; and some survivors suffered to the end of their lives from St. Vitus’ dance, or other nervous disorders.128

Most dancing took place by day and in the open air. Houses were poorly lit at night—by standing or hanging lamps with wick and oil, or a rushlight torch of mutton fat; and as fat and oils were expensive, very little work or reading was done after sunset. Soon after dark the guests dispersed, and the household retired. Bedrooms seldom sufficed; it was not uncommon to find an extra bed in the hall or reception room. The poor slept well on beds of straw, the rich slept poorly on perfumed pillows and feather mattresses. Lordly beds were overhung with mosquito netting or a canopy, and were mounted with the aid of stools. Several persons, of any age or sex, might sleep in the same room. In England and France all classes slept nude.129

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!