Karen Maitland

Tuesday Tidbits from Karen Maitland

Posted on: 25/07/2017 with tags: karen maitland, Medieval facts, The Plague Charmer, Tuesday Tidbits, Medieval, Middle Ages

A jolly John of Gaunt!

One Lammas Day, John of Gaunt was riding through Ratby in Leicester when some locals invited him to join in their festivities for the end of the haymaking. He enjoyed himself so much that as he left he instructed them to meet him in Leicester, saying ‘I’ll give you something to marry your lamb.’ Given his fearsome reputation only fourteen men dared go but, being in an uncharacteristically generous mood, John gave each man who did a ewe, a wether (a castrated ram) and a piece of land in Enderby, which came to be called the Ewes.

Almond milk

This was widely used in both sweet and savoury medieval recipes. It was made from any kind of ground-up nuts locally available and could be stored as a powder. The powdered nuts were mixed with meat stock, vegetable water, honeyed water or wine to make the ‘milk’, and were used in dishes where today we would use dairy milk. Animal milk went sour quickly and it wasn’t available all year round, so dairy milk was mainly reserved to make butter and cheese, which could be stored.

Duru Moon

From old English meaning door. In medieval times, many believed a waxing gibbous moon was a doorway in time into other realms. It was a place between darkness and light, a time of beginnings, and the most effective night on the month on which to call up spirits or summon the dead.


The medieval form of shuttlecock or badminton, known as slapcock, was played with a freshly severed cock’s head, and the object of the game was to cover the other players in as much blood, pulp and feathers as you could, while avoiding getting filthy yourself. It was played by standing in a circle and you randomly batted the cock’s head at one of the other players in the hope catching him off guard.

Plague – a Deadly Weapon

At the Battle of Carolstein in 1422, Prince Coribut, leader of the Lithuanians ordered that plague corpses, together with 2,000 cartloads of excrement, were to be hurled at the defenders of the Bohemian city. A deadly fever broke out, though it is not known if it was the plague, but the many people were reportedly saved by a wealthy apothecary who was able to treat the patients or prevent them catching the fever. 1485, near Naples, the Spanish tried a more subtle approach to biological warfare by giving their French enemies wine adulterated with the blood taken from leprosy patients.

 Mortuary beast

Medieval families were supposed to give the best livestock animal they owned to the Church on the death of a loved one, to make God look mercifully on the soul of the deceased. Many were unable to afford this, for a family might lose many children. So, to persuade them to give the animal, people were told that the souls of the dead rode upon the mortuary beasts and those whose families had neglected to give a beast to God in their name would, in the afterlife, be forced to crawl on their hand and knees instead of ride.

Crooked Tables

Medieval gambling houses offered different forms of gaming including one known as tables, chequers or quek, where marbles or round stones were rolled across the board and players bet on them landing on white or black squares. The outcome could be rigged by having some of the black squares raised slightly higher than the white ones or vice versa. The chequer board pattern made it impossible to see this, especially in candle light. In 1382, William Soys cheated three men of a total of 76 shillings, 8d with such a board. He was sentenced to the pillory for an hour for three days.

Fashionable Ferrets

Medieval illustrations show noblemen and women hunting rabbits, called conies, with ferrets. But the lower classes started to acquire ferrets too, especially poachers. So, in 1390, Richard II made it illegal to own either ferrets or hunting hounds if you weren’t a landowner, declaring, ‘It is ordained that no manner of layman which hath not lands to the value of forty shillings a year shall from henceforth keep any greyhound or other dog to hunt, nor shall he use ferrets, nets, heys, harepipes nor cords, nor other engines for to take or destroy deer, hares, nor conies, nor other gentlemen’s game, under pain of twelve months’ imprisonment.’

A Horse’s Revenge

In the fourteenth century, Sir Robert de Shurland, Barron of Sheppey, killed a priest and was banished by Edward I. He swam his horse two miles out to where the king’s ship lay to beg for pardon, but on his return, a witness said his horse had made the journey by sorcery. So, Robert cut off the beast’s head. A year later, his new horse reared at that spot. Robert was thrown onto the skull of his dead horse and killed. This tale may have originated from a horse’s head and waves depicted on his tomb, probably the sign that he’d been granted the right to any claim wreck he could ride to on horseback at low tide and touch with his lance.


The Plague Charmer

Karen Maitland’s THE PLAGUE CHARMER is out now

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Jo Liddiard

Post author: Jo Liddiard

Jo represents Headline on the H for History team, and likes to spend her Sunday afternoons wandering the gardens of historical buildings. Preferably with ice-cream. Favourite period of history: V hard to pick but probably The Tudors! Favourite historical read: Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy or Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham Upcoming book I’m most looking forward to: Antonia Hodgson’s A Death at Fountains Abbey

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