In 2013, a medieval reenactment group set out to see what it would be like to survive a Russian winter in the Middle Ages. They selected one of their members, Pavel Sapozhnikov, to live on a farmstead, with only ninth century tools, clothing and shelter for six months as part of a project entitled, Alone in the Past. Once a day, Pavel would speak for half an hour into a camera to recount his day, and share his experiences. The rest of the time, he was completely alone, with a monthly check-in to ensure he was still alive. His experiment provided a first hand glimpse of the struggles people faced surviving the winter in the Middle Ages.
We can also glean bits of information from manuscripts, court records, and coroner’s rolls about how people lived and died during the harshest time of the year. How did people stay warm? What did they eat? What did they do? No indoor heating, no double glazed windows, no Netflix, no down jacket, certainly none of the modern day luxuries we consider “necessities”. Winter was a frightening time for many people; if there was a poor harvest, you could starve to death, and there was always the chance of contracting illnesses that could easily kill you, such as pneumonia. Add to that, the onset of the Little Ice Age from 1300 until about 1870, and it meant surviving much colder winters. Winter was the most dangerous time in the medieval calendar year. So, how did medieval people cope?
Winter to set in just after Michaelmas (September 29) and lasted until Candlemas (February 2) when it became warm enough to till the land again. That’s a long time, so for villagers, autumn was spent preserving the harvest for the hard months ahead. For the average person, pottage (a stew made up of boiled vegetables and grains) was a staple during the cold winter months. Everything went into the pot, including fruit if they had any, since it was considered unhealthy to eat fruit raw. Foods commonly found in a villager’s diet would include onions, peas, colewort (arugula or roquette), beans, lentils, and herbs, such as parsley. For protein, cheese and eggs, and some meat when they could get it, such as fat bacon or salted pork would be added to the pottage. For the well-to-do, meat, like mutton, and pigeon, along with butter, figs, cheese, grapes, red wine were prescribed to counter the “phlegmy” effects of winter.
How did people stay warm in the dead of winter? Like us, they wore cloaks, scarves, boots and gloves (not the five fingered kind we know, but a more mitten like style). Homes were often smokey from a stone hearth fire that was ventilated by a hole in the roof. This provided warmth but not the kind we would be accustomed to for such cold temperatures. Indoor heating wasn’t exactly great, so many people wore their outer garments inside to keep warm. In other cold and drafty places, like churches, villagers often brought their own hand warmers to Mass; hollow metal spheres that held hot coals. Wool was the favoured fabric for clothing, but it was extremely itchy so linen was worn underneath. Sweating would reduce the warmth of wool, so medieval people often removed layers when they perspired and then reapplied them when they cooled down.
Just because your chances of surviving winter were grim, and you couldn’t marathon a show for fourteen hours on Netflix, didn’t mean you couldn’t have a little fun. Medieval people did many of the things we do: they played in the snow, they enjoyed sledding, and ice skated (on pieces of polished wood or horse shin bones). Indoors, the most popular past times were games like chess and backgammon. If you were a noble, you might enjoy boar hunting. These activities were a welcomed respite from back breaking labour, and cold winter nights.
“Every man’s house, as also their parish churches, was decked with holly, ivy, bay, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green” ~ 12th century London, Life in a Medieval Village
Christmas was the longest holiday of the year; there were twelve days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany (January 6) were no one worked at all. The lord would sometimes invite his villeins to dine in his hall for the Christmas meal. In some cases, a lucky peasant would be selected to ask two friends to come with him to eat and drink as much they wanted, and whatever they wanted for the duration of two burning candles (one after another). Other peasants were allowed to carry away as much as they could in their cloths.
In spite of the festivities, peasants still had to pay extra rent to add to the Lord’s table, usually eggs, hens and bread. They also had other work to be done even though they were not working on the manor; they had to care for animals, mend fences, tools, and animal pens. There was also general repair work around the home that had to be completed during this brief break.