Medieval James Himself

Medieval James Himself
Guide at Ozark Medieval Fortress

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Medieval Shopping

“Did they have stores in the Middle Ages?”  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress, guests enter and check in through the gift shop and so March30 (6)frequently ask about shops and merchants of the Medieval.  Our cozy souvenir shop would be a big city super center to a Medieval shopper.  Aside from the fact that there is electricity, modern restrooms and everything constructed according to American building codes, the store at the Ozark Medieval Fortress actually reflects a very important development of the high Middle Ages.  That is the development of money commerce, traders and stores.  With increased peace after the Vikings decided to trade instead of raid, Northern Europe started to see the development of commerce.  Kings began to give charters to start cities as opposed to just nobles with their rural fiefdoms or bishops with their “fiefdoms”.  In the cities, manufacturing by the guilds and trading by the merchants grew.

In the Middle Ages it was most common to have a small specialty shop selling one kind of good, whether it be baskets, pots, meats, clothing or whatever.  Open air stalls during times of festivals were common.  A store would commonly be on the first floor and the family would live above.  Often shops selling similar goods would be located on the same street and the street would be named appropriately, such as Cobbler Street, Bakers Street, or Cooper Street.  The General Store was still a thing of the future and a WalMart store as big as the castle would be unimaginable.  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress the most authentic aspect of the gift shop is in the sale of goods that have been made by the onsite potter, basket weaver, illuminator, weaver and blacksmith.

NOTE: The Ozark Medieval Fortress is now open for the 2011 season. Check their website for operating hours and days.  I look forward to seeing you.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Medieval Illumination

“So, what is ‘illumination’ anyway?”  “Are you talking about castle lighting when they say ‘illumination’ in the Middle Ages?” July3 (23) Most people on tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress have not been to a castle before and have not studied the Middle Ages so that makes this a very good question.  Others have come on tour and been part of study or reenactment groups and are almost reverent about Medieval illumination.  In a nutshell, Medieval illumination is not talking about lighting, but rather the artwork found on manuscripts and in books.  The term comes from the Latin “illuminare” meaning “to light up” and it refers to the fact that the early art on manuscripts was done with silver or gold leaf, which made the pages seem to glow, or light up. 

Aug9 (34) Even if people have not been familiar with the term “illumination”, they have often seen it in Bibles, certificates, old books or documents.  It is the artwork that you see around the printed word.  Before the printing press was introduced in Germany (in about 1450), Bibles and manuscripts were all hand written and copied.  That means a lot of work.  It also means that each copy was valuable.  People tend to add art to those things they value, especially the Bible.

The heyday of illumination was the Middle Ages.  With the change from the scrolls of antiquity to the books of the Medieval there was more demand for manuscripts.  There was also a change from only expensive parchment (made from animal hide) to the availability of less expensive paper (made from wood pulp or cotton rags).  The result was there was an increase in the over all volume of the written word.  There remain today thousands of manuscripts produced during the Middle Ages, unlike the few, by comparison, that remain from ancient times. Oct2 (21)

The illuminators were at first only monks or nuns, but as the demand grew and there were more and more secular works, professional scribes and artists became involved.  Some illuminators were official court artists and others local itinerant scribes and painters.  Also as time went on, colors other than silver or gold were included in the illumination.  The artwork also began to include a broader range of decoration of the page from a simple beginning letter to border decoration to full illustrations.  Illumination became a valued and respected form of art.  It was also among the crafts in the Middle Ages that were available for women.  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress, illuminators have come from Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Medieval Hairstyles

“Did women cover their hair even in the summer?”  July24 (79)Arkansas summers get hot enough to prompt this question on tour at the Ozark Medieval Fortress.  Unfortunately for women, the answer is yes.  As a guy, it always amazes me the amount of suffering that women have endured because of required clothes, shoes, or hair coverings.  During the Medieval, the attitude was modesty over comfort and conformity over individual freedom.  A married woman was expected to have her hair covered in and out of church.  A single, young woman could leave her hair uncovered.  However, it was most common to braid it.  Bathing, including hair washing, was not frequent like today and hairstyles were made to keep the hair under control even though dirty. 

 July10 (101)bNoble women wore their hair long.  Peasant women had to work outside and wore their hair shorter, usually chin to shoulder length.  Like many other things, hair was a sign of status and wealth.  The braided hairstyles were often very complex for the wealthy ladies and included additions of ribbons, gold balls, or jeweled headpieces.  A high forehead was considered beautiful and was respected as a sign of intelligence.  Women who didn’t have this feature were known to shave the hair at the hairline to give them a higher looking forehead. 

Men of the Medieval wore their hair in different lengths depending on location and social status.  In the South (Italy) they wore their hair short like the Romans did and then wore wigs.  The men of the North (Franks, Saxons, etc.) wore their hair to the shoulder if noble.  Serfs were practical  and generally kept their hair short.  Charlemagne, King of the Franks, knew that hair was a status symbol and ordered some crimes to be punished by shaving the head.  July26 (46)

It is important to remember that in the Middle Ages there was a lot of variation by region and ethnic backgrounds.  In the Scandinavian Northland, modesty was met just by braiding the hair.  In the South of France or in Italy, a married woman would definitely cover her head for modesty no matter what the season.  Women had more to fear than critical gossip.  Loose hair could bring the label of immorality or suspicion of witchcraft. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Medieval Broad Axe or Battle Axe?

“What is the difference between a broad axe and Fortress 103a battle axe?”  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress the carpenters get most of the questions about axes and woodworking tools, but sometimes they are directed to me as a guide.  The axe as a tool and a weapon goes way back in history.  They have been found in Egyptian tombs and depicted in ancient carvings as weapons.  The Medieval era saw major changes in the axe.  With improved iron, the heads were stronger and capable of more work (tools) or destruction (weapons).  Some axes for battle were made with very large heads. That’s the kind of battle axe that gets confused with a broad axe.  It is also the kind of battle axe used for executions. 

May8 (7) A broad axe is different.  A broad axe’s cutting edge is shaped like a wide chisel.  It is flat-faced on one side and the other is angled.  It was developed during the Middle Ages in the forest country of Germany to be able to hew logs.  That means chop the rounded edges off a log to square it to make a beam.  In contrast, a battle axe or a chopping axe has the sharp part of the blade is the center of the cutting edge.  A broad axe is unique also in that it is either right handed or left handed and often has a handle that curves to the side.  A log can also be squared into a beam using a pit saw, such as the one at the Ozark Medieval Fortress, but broad axes are actually more efficient for hewing.  Broad axes were used in America to square logs for cabins and railroad ties, but today they have been replaced  with saw mills. 

So if you are looking at a big headed axe and want to determine if it is a broad axe or a battle axe, get close and carefully look to see if the cutting edge is chisel-shaped or sharp in the center of the blade.  Both pictures here are broad axes.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Medieval Basket Making

“Were baskets important in the Middle Ages?”  This is a question asked on the Ozark Medieval Fortress tour as we arrive at the June12 (9)Basket Weaver’s Hut.  I think it is asked because today we think of baskets as just decorations.  The answer is that in the Medieval baskets were very much in demand.  Today we have plastic laundry baskets and plastic storage tubs and plastic food containers.  That didn’t happen until after World War II.  Before that, all across the world baskets were household necessities.  Basket making goes way back - Moses was put in a waterproofed basket.  By the time of the Middle Ages there was enough commerce that, although the average housewife knew how to make a basket, it was common to trade for one from a woman who specialized in basketry.  They were made out of wood split into narrow ribbons, as well as vines or willow shoots. Before weaving could begin, the materials were soaked to make them pliable. Some woods need to be soaked several days before they can be bent for weaving.  Making baskets was one of the few businesses that permitted women artisans. 

May17 (41)At the Ozark Medieval Fortress the basket weaver’s hut is very humble and located  just outside the gatehouse to the castle.  This is authentic to the Middle Ages, since often the basket weavers were gypsies who were seen as dishonest and not permitted inside the castle walls.  They sold their baskets outside the gatehouse.  The basket weavers at the Ozark Medieval Fortress are not gypsies but they do sell their excellent baskets.  They have made woven tool pouch baskets for the masons and the carpenters, as well as baskets for the wool cottage which are used to collect walnuts for dye and hold wool and yarn.  Baskets are used in the garden, the rope maker’s hut and in the gift shop for displaying wares.  Hand made baskets were the vessel of choice for carrying, gathering and storing during the Middle Ages and so were a big part of daily life.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Medieval Knights

“Will we see knights at the castle or on the tour?”  It seemsJuly4 (4) that all of the guests at the Ozark Medieval Fortress have some interest in knights and tournaments.  That is why we have a trail sign and stop dedicated to those questions about knights.  People generally think of knights in the Middle Ages as being like American rodeo riders - on the road going from tournament to tournament.  In reality, the knights were more like the American plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South.  During the Middle Ages the Franks of Western Europe beginning with King Charlemagne began the system which in modern times is called “feudal” but in the Middle Ages was called “vassalage”.  It is a pyramid social system based on the exchange of loyalty and service for protection and land.  At the top is the King who, in theory, owns and controls everything.  Below the King were the powerful lords, then their mounted warriors (knights).  Knights were landowners.  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress it is more accurate to picture a knight as the owner of the castle who keeps busy supervising and overseeing all the activity rather than a man in armor or chain mail. 
Sept6 (22) Of course, all knights were expected to serve their vassalage of military service to their lord or the King, which might be to defend their own castle or to travel to a distant fight.  At the time of the historical setting of the Ozark Medieval Fortress, tournaments were melees and very violent and so were soon outlawed.  Later they became the more regulated events that are so often depicted in movies like “Knight’s Tale”.   All this varied by region.  In Germany, for example, there developed un-landed mounted warriors like knights called “servicemen” who were paid wages.  In general, however, it is best to picture the knight as the lord of the manor, to whom the serfs owed their vassalage duty.
Sept6 (2)
Knights, armor and weapons are interesting and definitely a part of the Middle Ages.  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress many volunteers come to display weapons and talk about Medieval warfare.  For Michel Guyot, our French founder, the focus is on the building of the castle with its architecture, artisans and authentic Medieval techniques, rather than on knights and war.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Medieval Pottery

“Did the same potter make the roof tiles and the pots?”  The answer for a castle community such as at the Ozark Medieval Fortress is yes.  July22 (110)The community here is a mid-sized one.  In a town or village there would be several potters.  The potter, however, like other Medieval craftsmen had assistants.  Unlike some crafts, women were welcome workers in the pottery shop.  Potters were in demand.  Glass was known from the ancient world, but was expensive and in the Medieval was used primarily for the cathedral windows, jewelry and specialty items such as an hourglass.  You would not find bottles like our plentiful Coke ones of today and you sure would not throw a bottle away.  The main containers for liquids were wooden cooper-made buckets and barrels and potter-made containers that varied from very small to big.  How big?  That varied.  In the Roman era, remember, pottery containers were the main dry food storage and water vessels.  They brought large pottery containers of water to Jesus at the wedding and the use of such pottery continued after Rome and throughout the Middle Ages. 

July22 (112) At the Ozark Medieval Fortress there is no need yet for such large containers.  The potter has been plenty busy making traditional Medieval water bottles, pitchers, tankards and bowls.  He has not made plates: it was more common to use stale bread or wood for plates.   The roof tiles are made on a flat wooden form.  The other pottery creations are done on a potter’s wheel.  Guests at the castle can visit with the potter and see a display of wares typical of the Medieval.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Medieval Pottery Kiln

“Why do they have a pottery kiln next to the castle?”  and “Where did they get the firebrick for it?”  On the Ozark Medieval Fortress Aug19 (19)tour, questions about the kiln are most often answered by the potter at the Pottery Hut.  Sometimes, however, I get the questions.  It is important to remember that pottery was a valued contribution to Medieval life.  This was in part because of drinking/water vessels, food containers, bowls, and the like.  Pottery was also important to the building of the castle because, especially in France, the roofs were covered with tile shingles.  It is expected that 12,000 tiles will need to be made by the potter at the Ozark Medieval Fortress for the first roofs and will be needed in six years.  Since the kilns must be built first, that means 3,000 clay tiles shaped and fired per season over the next four years. 

The kiln is near the castle because that is how it was done in the Middle Ages.  Like the blacksmith shop and community oven, the kiln was owned by the lord and vassalage was served there.  With the kiln (and potter’s shop) near the castle, the lord kept control and the licensed potter had customers for his wares. 

Sept6 (18)The question about the firebrick is excellent and a good excuse to brag about Mitch, the potter at the Ozark Medieval Fortress during the first season when the first kiln had to be built.  This first kiln is used to bake the firebrick that will comprise the permanent kiln. He used the white Ozark clay that was dug on site, loaded it on the donkeys and mixed it by hand.  He then had to form it into bricks and sun-dry them in small batches until he had enough to build the temporary kiln.  He covered that with mud to help hold in the heat and he will bake the firebricks for the permanent kiln in this oven.  Making pottery in this type of kiln means staying up all night, as the fire must be kept going for 24 hours.  All this he did in the heat of summer.  Whether making common household utensils or making roof tiles, potters were an integral part of the Medieval community.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Medieval Games

“Did people in the Middle Ages work all the time?”  The answer is definitely not.  They certainly worked hard and dealt with many problems, but that makes a person appreciate free time even more.  There was no work on Sunday for religious reasons, they enjoyed the festivals on holidays and they actually played games.  At the Ozark Medieval Fortress guests have been able to play several games popular in the Middle Ages. 

March5 (2)The most popular in the past as well as with our modern guests is Bocce Ball.  The Romans played it and the name comes from the Latin “Boccia” which means “ball”.  The game is very much like American marbles, but with much bigger balls.  A small target ball is thrown first on short grass and the goal is to roll your bocce ball the closest to the target, called a “pallino” ball.  Initially the balls were stones; in the Medieval they were clay or wood. In modern times balls are often metal.  Bocce was introduced to the United States by the French and George Washington had a Bocce court set up at his home Mt. Vernon.  A similar game played with thick wooden pegs called “kingpins” is also played at the Ozark Medieval Fortress.

Hopscotch is another outdoor game that was popular in the Middle Ages.  Tradition has it that Roman soldiers started it in Great Britain.  The court was 100 feet long and the soldiers played in full armor for training - like football players dance through old tires.  Children throughout Europe picked up the game and made it their own.

In the Middle Ages, people also played a variety of board games, Parchisi was known in Europe as were similar games.  The main board game was chess.  The game came from the Muslims of the East.  Chess was so respected that a Spanish writer in the 1100’s listed it as one of the seven necessary knightly skills.  Chess became so popular and money bets so common that Louis IX (King of France during the historical time of the Ozark Medieval Fortress) banned money bets on all chess games, but that didn’t dampen enthusiasm for the game. Now chess can be played online and thousands of players are available at any given time.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Medieval Two Wheeled Cart

“Is the big wheeled horse cart at the Ozark Medieval Fortress really authentic?”  You Sept2 (34)bbet.  I’ve talked about the wheels separately.  The big wheeled cart we use actually came from France and the design is not only very European and Medieval, but dates back to the Romans.  It shows good engineering, excellent use of carpentry skills and the well-developed Roman knowledge of blacksmithing.  Two wheeled carts are pictured even before the Romans in Assyrian and Greek writings. 

The large wheels allowed the cart to get over holes and rough ground with less chance of getting stuck.  The heavy-duty shafts allowed it to be used by draft horses or oxen.  The location of the axle balanced the weight of the load so that it was on the wheels, and not all on the animal.  The carts were also equipped with brakes, which is important in northern as well as southern Europe because of the hilly terrain. Sept20 (14) A loaded cart going downhill can push the horse right off the road.  Typically, a carter stood in the two wheeled cart when it was empty and walked along side the horse when the cart was full.  The brake lever was accessible to the carter either way.  By the Medieval, the feature of the hinges to allow the cart to dump had been developed, as had the horse collar which permitted heavier loads.

At the Ozark Medieval Fortress all these features are seen in the French two wheeled cart.  This is not foreign to Americans, since the technology was brought to the colonies and used throughout our Westward expansion.