How they feasted and fasted

BEAUTIFUL LADIES doing embroidery, strong knights jousting, troubadours serenading their lovers, castles hung with tapestries. That is the Middle Ages in our heads. But it was not Charlemagne’s Middle Ages. All of that would come later. The first serious castles were built, not just as his empire was crumbling, but because it was crumbling: people needed strong places to defend themselves against attacking armies. And the whole feudal system of knights and allegiances, troubadours and ladies, would not arise for centuries.

The world of Charlemagne’s day was very local and very dark. Roads built by the Romans were in disrepair, despite Charlemagne’s orders that they be kept up. Most information traveled at the speed of feet. All but about ten percent of the people lived in small villages, growing and hunting their own food. Surrounded by large forests full of wild animals, few traveled far.

Beeswax candles and oil lamps were expensive; people went to bed when the sun went down. Frequently they rose after about four hours, having completed their “first sleep.” They might do household chores, have sex, or simply rest in bed. Then they would go back to “second sleep.” (This sleeping pattern persisted until the 1600s.) Charlemagne kept a lamp and wax tablet by his bed to learn to write, supposedly in part so he could record his dreams.

Houses were small (80–300 square feet), drafty, and leaky. Frequently a house had only one room with a fire in the middle, which often threatend to get out of control and burn the house down. Benches, stools, tables, and beds were common furniture. A bottle of holy water under the bed kept the devil away, and only babies had their own cradles; everyone else shared a bed. Chairs were a bigger extravagance. The very wealthy might have chairs with arms and dressers with drawers. But extra clothes to put in those drawers were few. Laws did not limit rich clothing to the aristocracy (as they did later), but people could only make a fur cape if they could catch a bear, fox, weasel, or squirrel. Men practiced skilled trades, such as blacksmithing and goldsmithing, but only women made clothes. The average woman had a spindle in her hands all the time, even while making dinner.

Nobles wore silk and brocade, and long woolen cloaks over everything. For a time short cloaks came into fashion. Charlemagne hated them, supposedly exclaiming: “What is the use of these little napkins? I can’t cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback I can’t protect myself from the wind and the rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen.” When Charlemagne really dressed up, he wore cloth of gold and shoes with jewels.

During Charlemagne’s lifetime, many people moved from hunting and gathering to settling down and growing large fields of grain. Rye, wheat, barley, and oats were used for bread, which people consumed avidly, and for ale, which they also consumed avidly. Common people ate meat, but how much they ate depended on how good they were at hunting and catching. And famine was common. Weather could easily destroy crops.

During Lent, when meat was not allowed, fish was popular. Depending on their skills at gardening and beekeeping, people could supplement their meals with eggs, onions, leeks, root vegetables, pears, apples, peaches, mulberries, walnuts, honey, garlic, and all kinds of herbs: mint, parsley, sage, and many others.

And people could drink wine (mulberries were as popular as grapes for making it), mead (made with honey), cider, pear juice, and “garne” (fermented grain). Most people ate off of dishes made of wood; only nobles had glass. There were no forks and knives, and—despite the fact that Charlemagne passed laws encouraging people to prepare food with the “utmost cleanliness”—hardly anybody washed their hands.

Here comes the judge

Charlemagne’s laws governing daily life, called capitularies, covered everything (one historian wrote) “from incorrect grammar and choral singing in church to road tolls and murder.” Charlemagne sent pairs of royal messengers (one lay, one ordained) around to read the laws out loud, see that they were being obeyed, and hold court to hear appeals when they weren’t. It was another way of unifying his kingdom.

Churches had been few outside of cities and towns up until about 600. When Charlemagne came to power, he increased rural church-building. Local priests, usually not well educated, knew enough Latin to recite the service. They preached about basic Christian doctrine and behavior, conducted weddings at church doors (followed by Eucharist inside), and sat with people at their deathbeds. Many were beloved by their flocks.

Sundays and saints’ days were times of celebration. No one had to work except for “carrying for the army, carrying food, or carrying the body of a lord to its grave,” the laws said. Eucharist in the church would be followed by singing and dancing on the lawn (despite repeated objections, people sang pagan songs and women danced in circles). Once a year, there might be a great fair in a nearby large city, with booths full of honey, salted meat, wine, cloth, and imported goods like peacock feathers and monkeys (for the wives of Frankish nobles).

At Charlemagne’s court in Aachen, politics were brewing, reforms were stirring, and endless wars were being planned. Those things would touch the lives of all the common people and set into motion changes that would last 1,000 years. But news, after all, traveled slowly. For the moment, people swept their hearths, danced at their weddings, rocked their babies, and laughed to think that anyone might be able to afford an imported monkey. CH

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #108 in 2014]

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is managing editor of Christian History.
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