What medieval life taught me

A few days ago, I offered to come up with a list of what I could write about from my time as a medieval recreationist and ask folks to vote on what they want to read about. 

I have been thinking about it and am now lamenting the sorry state of my memory! It’s been years since I was in that world and I’ve forgotten a fair bit. So, rather than write ad nauseum about a particular branch of medieval living that I can’t really remember anyway, I thought I’d hit you all with a list of neat factoids that may be useful for preps. YMMV.

 In no particular order:

1.       Pies can be your best bet for preserving meat in the event of a prolonged blackout, as long as you can bake them (usually over a fire). Some medieval pastry was made SUPER salty and not meant for eating, therefore preserving the filling on the inside which was great in the days before refrigeration or while on campaign fighting. A fellow recreationist made some pies with the pastry made from an actual medieval recipe and paid to have the bacterial load tested at day 1 and then again weeks later. There was no difference in the readings after keeping the pie in a larder. Also, the pastry was so unpalatable, anyone who tried it immediately spat it out!

2.       I’ve mentioned previously in a comment, a good way of keeping pests from your food is vinegar-soaked bags if you can’t refrigerate them for whatever reason. You want a natural cloth with a fairly close weave (really small gaps between the threads of the fabric. We used linen). Soak the bags in vinegar, let them dry naturally, then pop whatever you want into them. We had pepperoni and choritzo in these bags hanging from the kitchen pavilion over a camping weekend and flies ignored them completely. 

3.       Beeswax soaked linen was used as a kind of medieval cling (or saran) wrap. These days you get beeswax wraps with resin so it sticks to itself, but back in the day, they used twine to wrap up what was covered in the wrap, or to hold it down over a jar. (Ever notice how all old jars have that little lip at the top? It’s the perfect spot for the twine.) 

4.       Sewing – I have a few of these, since it was my focus – 

a.       Linen is your friend. Worn mostly as an undergarment closest to the skin during the middle ages and renaissance, linen wears extremely well and holds up to the rigours of washing, getting softer over time. If you can afford it, linen is a vastly superior fabric to cotton. It wicks away sweat and cools you down in summer, while allowing your skin to breathe under layers in winter. 

b.       Thinking thread, plant with plant, animal with animal. A friend made a dress out of linen with polyester fabric and wore it for years. As I mentioned, linen gets softer over time but polyester thread doesn’t, so her threads were literally wearing away the fabric around the seams. The lesson I learned from that is I use cotton thread with linen fabric (linen thread is too costly and sometimes hard to come by) and silk thread with wool fabric. They should wear together and hopefully result in less mending later on.

c.        Not all seams need to be backstitched when sewing by hand if you ever need to make your own without a sewing machine. I am a lazy-ish costumer – I will use a sewing machine on any seam or for any stitching you won’t see and hand stitch what you can see. However, the jacket I am wearing in the below pic was entirely sewn by hand for an experiment in period construction techniques. Each piece of this jacket puzzle had the seams folded in and tacked down, then each piece was sewn together using a whip stitch. This jacket saw me through a few winters and has been handed to someone else to use. For those interested, I used a wool/poly blend for the outer fabric and linen for the lining.

 GB 16th Cent Dress

5.       Poles and laundry are a match made in heaven. If you ever need to hand wring your washing, a sturdy pole is just the thing. Say you’ve just washed a towel, take one end around the pole so that you have one end in each hand. Twist for as much as your hands can stand, or as much as the fabric can stand. You’d be surprised how much liquid comes out and a good choice if you can’t get your hands on a mangle. I use the clothes line pole for this. After you’ve twisted out as much of the water as you can, give the piece a flick, with a good snap of the wrists, and you can work out a goodly proportion of the wrinkles before hanging it up. (Another tip, to avoid wrinkles, is to fold the washing as you bring it on off the line, while it’s still warm from the sun. Saves ironing!)

6.       Soap – I left the group before my friend and I could experiment with it, but apparently, if you run water over wood ash, you get lye, which you need to make soap. I imagine that different types of wood would give you lye with different sodium hydroxide (NaOH) concentrations and would be a great art to master. As in, “I burned birch/oak/pine/etc and the ash would make the best laundry/body/etc soap”. (FYI, I have been making my own soap for about 8 years now, but using store-bought NaOH.) 

7.       A linen cap, or head covering of some description, is a great way of keeping dirt out of your hair, therefore you don’t have to wash it as often. Not a real issue if you’ve got short hair, but a pain in the proverbial if you don’t have access to a shower. My bestie can’t go for more than two days before she has to wash her hair. When we had four-day long camping events (plus set up and take down days), she usually only had to wash her hair once over that period. (I am lucky that my hair is trainable – these days I can go for at least 2 weeks before I need to wash my hair.) 

8.       A wash and some clean underthings are almost as good as a real shower, as I’m sure any hiker or camper will tell you. Over the aforementioned 6-day camping event, I would only use a small basin of soapy water and a face cloth for washing and change my chemise (the linen layer that was against my skin). Nothing quite beats that first shower when you get home though… 😊

 I think that’s it. Phew, what a long post! 

Does anyone else have handy hints from history that may be useful in preps?


  • Comments (22)

    • 4

      Just an idea. I don’t know what fats you  have been using for soaps but I recently have made a chart of saponification factors for different fats. NOT ones I currently use. Those I have already. But in a worst case situation….if I were to get fat from a harvested deer…..I have no idea what the saponification rate on that would be, I hope to never need the info and do have my fave recipes but…..you never know! I hope to be able to get some fats from a local processing “plant” and give deer soap a try this year. 


      • 3

        Hi Liebrecht,

        I have a favourite recipe that I’ve been using for a few years now that gives me a relatively long lasting and creamy bar of soap. I developed it using an online soap calculator and a secret ingredient (sodium lactate. Shh, don’t tell anyone…;))

        You’re absolutely right, though – I should have a hard copy of SAP values for oils other than olive, coconut and castor in case the internet and pet oils aren’t available. I will get on to that this weekend!

        I’d love to se how you get on with your deer soap. Even though my pet soap is vegan these days, I have used lard and beef tallow in the past.

      • 1

        I have a large jar of beef tallow and also many jars of pork lard that I am wanting to turn into soap. They are very pure and there is no gristle or other contaminants in it. 

        My main hold up is that I am worried that the soap will have a beefy or porky smell to it after it’s done curing. I could use essential oils to mask the smell, but I don’t want beefy lavender soap either.

        Have you made soap with tallow or lard and did it smell?

      • 4

        Hi Robert,

        Hehe! Beefy lavender soap! I can imagine the ad campaign for that as stocking fillers for the men of the house this festive season… (Rather like a beer campaign here from yonks ago.) Give me a second while I have a quiet chuckle with myself… 🙂

        I have used beef tallow and lard when I first started making soap and found that, after curing time, there wasn’t much of a smell to it at all. They just smelled like soap. 

        I don’t know how long tallow or lard soaps last and if they have a problem with rancidity though. When I experimented with animal fats, I only made a 1kg batches. Then, my soaps at the time were a little on the soft side, so I went through it in the shower rather quickly. I haven’t experimented with a new soap recipe in a while, so I may give a tallow or lard soap another try in the near future.

        I have found that essential oils don’t last long in cold processed soap, unfortunately. They smell great initially, but the fragrance fades over a very short time frame. I have had better luck with re-milling a soap and adding EO, but that’s a palaver I’d rather not repeat on a regular basis.

        There is a whole world out there of fragrance oils for soap, but they are synthetic, so may be a no-go for you if you have sensitivities. These days I just don’t bother with fragrance at all. Just plain ole soap smells just fine.

      • 1

        I’m sure many people wouldn’t mind smelling like beef, heck I think if I threw some bacon grease in there people would love it! Bacon everything is amazing.

        But I like plain unscented soap like you. I’ll give this a try and we’ll see how it turns out. Thanks for sharing your experience with how yours has turned out before.

      • 4

        Soap 101. Clean tallow and lard will not smell like beef or pork. More tallow makes a harder, less lathering soap. More lard makes a softer, more lathering soap. EOs, on the whole, do not “last” in soaps but the guys were quite fond of cinnamon scented and that did hold it’s scent longer. Cinn EO not ground out of the spice cabinet tho. All fats have different properties depending on what YOU want. More lather, longer lasting, etc. My go to is castille soap as rendering tallow DOES reek. For that matter, you can use Crisco. Now listen carefully…..this is important….go to Majestic Mountain Sage lye calculator and plug in the amount of each fat YOU want to use. Different fats have different saponification values so you need to use the correct amount of lye for each. Use a balance to measure your lye. Too much makes soap with unused lye and it will burn you. Too little will make a gloppy horrid soap. Soap does need to age about 6 weeks to allow the complete process. Some folks ignore this but ” follow the science”<smile>. You can read about the properties of various fats to make your own creation. Orrrr….use the MMS calculator to use up dribs of fat/oils on hand and make a useful product from them. I admit I do not like ” pieces” of stuff in my soap like rosemary but that is just me. You can add ground oatmeal, chocolate ( tho I always end up with the chocolate in the soapmaker not the soap). Goats’ milk is overrated but if you have it, use it. I have only used handmade soaps since the 90s and taught classes on bath products. So YMMV but go for it. Oh..do NOT be tempted to use a disposable foil pan as a mold. Do not use aluminum at all. You can use a new kitty litter pan. The silicon baking things like for muffins are great. They are awful for baking but they do work wonderfully for soaps. I have one shaped like train cars that the kids loved for soaps. 


      • 1

        Thanks for your input and tips! I am going to give it a try this week and I’ll make a forum thread in a few months of how it turned out if it in fact turned out good.

      • 1

        LOL. Everything in my teacher heart wants to say ” Come on over and we can have a soap making day!”. I had some of the kids’ pals over last year and did a soap making afternoon with them. Or maybe I just like having folks to play with<smile>. BTW…..if you are at all skilled with woodworking, you can make a wooden soap mold. Doesn’t have to be a big deal BUT add hinges on one corner and some way to hold the square/rectangle closed and then when the soap is firm, you can unhook the one side and remove from the soap slab. Also, if you cut the soap when FIRM but not weeks into curing, it is easier to cut. I think I read that you used a shoebox for a mold. Make sure that the soap traces before pouring or that is when it glops out. In my experience, YMMV, but soap is sometimes an art as trace will NOT happen on your time table. Same ingredients, same recipe but once in awhile it will be ornery and take a long time. My fave thing for soap making, castille soap, is to plan the afternoon on the couch with a great movie on and the soap pot next to the couch. Stir while you watch<smile>. Have fun!


    • 6

      I absolutely loved this! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge and experiences with us. 

      The meat pie as a preservation technique and beeswax linen as a saran wrap alternative were my favorite parts that I just learned about.

      • 5

        Beeswax wraps are definitely still a thing! https://theprepared.com/blog/review-bees-wrap/

      • 3

        Hi Gideon,

        So glad my waffle was useful! 🙂

        I don’t know where the current trend for beeswax wraps came from but I am very grateful to whoever rediscovered it!

        The modern addition of (usually) pine resin makes the cloth stick to itself so you don’t need to tie it off with twine. It just needs a few seconds of hand heat to mold and seal/stick.

        Gotta love medieval glad wrap!

    • 4

      I started Revie War reenactments around ’87 so soap etc  is just “normal life” skills at this point<smile>. I admit my obsession is spinning tho. And weaving and all things fiber. I also have my fave ” go to” soap recipe but over the years have fallen prey to ” I wonder what would happen if…..???” so have fiddled with it. One prep that I have not seen discussed here is EOs.  Not just having them on hand but the ability to distill them. 


      • 1

        What’s an EOs?

      • 3

        Hi Liz,

        EOs is internet shorthand for essential oils. Some EOs are derived through distillation (like lavender) others you can just squeeze out, like any of the citrus oils.

        A neat party trick is to take a citrus peel, like orange) and give it a squeeze while horizontal to a candle flame (facing away from anyone, of course). You can make your own orange fragrant sparks!

      • 2

        Hi Liebrecht,

        Talk of fibre leads me to think about yarn and, well… I started knitting during last year’s lockdown and just can’t seem to stop! (I think I’m in love with alpaca wool.)

        Alembics were used to distill the good stuff out of herbs. There’s a short and sweet history about them here

        One on of the episodes from the Tales from the Green Valley series showed one of the historians using what I assume to be a small one, probably sized for household use, rather than commercial.

        I have an even smaller one that was made by the very talented potter, Alex, from Flaming Gargoyle Pottery, but have yet to test it. I have no idea how I would go about testing the resulting liquid for purity though.

        Testing my alembic is going on my “To-do-on-my-end-of-year-holiday” list!

      • 3

        A dear friend sent me a still<smile>. For EOs. I also have a lovely crop of mullien this year. I am fond of orange peels steeped  in vinegar to use as a beauty product. As I said, these things are just normal life here<smile>. And yes, paca is nice but I prefer angora. I taught spinning so have lots of fibers and each has it’s own best use. I also had sheep/goats/rabbits and pacas so familiar with the care of the actual animals too. An aside….at a Rev reenactment, the kids were listening to a surgeon. He was mentioning frankinsense and myrrh and asked kid if he knew where else they and gold were? Kid answered…In Mom’s guest room with all the other potions. Gotta laugh! 


    • 3

      I’m not sure but do you have a youtube? As I see some similar advice another of my historical sewing ladies has given. Either way I saw your mention of linen thread and I plan to start spinning in the next month, I’m kinda crazy and want to learn the whole process, but maybe in a year or so if you would like to do some trades. 

      • 3

        No Youtube as I am not fond of tech<smile>. 

        Do you plan on spinning on a hand spindle or a wheel? The difference in hand spindles can make you swear or enjoy it. Wheels are easier to deal with in different styles. Historically accurate ones are double drive but scotch tension is much less annoying. 

        Next up. You can learn to spin with flax but you will NOT be happy. And wet spinning flax is a major PITA. Wool is more forgiving and you will have a usable product faster on the learning curve. Flax would be more of an intermediate type fiber. Do not make the mistake of getting poor quality wool because ” I am only learning”. A good spinner can make bad wool better but a beginner does not have the experience to treadle, draft and pluck out ugly spots all at the same time. Garbage in, garbage out for spinning also. 

        I have always taught wool prep from dirty fleece to yarn BUT beginners spin nicely prepped wool until they get the hang of it. If you are learning on a wheel, I suggest you get some regular hobby store type yarn and tie that to the bobbin and practice feeding that on. This will “teach” your hands while you get the hang of treadling. After you can make the wheel go around well, THEN add the hand gestures to draft and feed real fiber, The whole thing is sort of like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. Once you GET IT, it is easy. 

        Corriedale or a med Romney make good beginner wools. The down wools take a bit more practice tho they are lovely. The long wools will also be more challenging at first. If you intend to weave, the med wools are forgiving and work out quite nicely. And just for an idea of volume needed…..it took 7 spinners to provide yarn for 1 weaver. So knitting things is a good idea for starting.


      • 2

        Hi Liebrecht,

        I have a small amount of Corriedale in a box with a drop spindle just waiting for me to get off my behind and have a go at spinning. I had the lofty view of spinning myself some yarn to weave into a scarf. Mind you, with the amount of wool I have, it would need to be a scarf for a pixie!

        When you look at how long the process takes from fibre to cloth, especially by hand, you can appreciate why fabric was so expensive back in the day, and why dresses often got mended and patched then handed down to next generations and re-made to the current style rather than just chucking it out and buying new. 

        Learning how to mend and/or re-make is a definite skill in its own right. I think it makes sense to learn how to fix or re-purpose your own things.

      • 3

        LOL. We all start somewhere! On the Corriedale. It may be hard to accomplish this as a beginner but if you spin fine and use a lace knit pattern, you can make a bigger scarf!  Weaving just sucks thru yarn.

        I know the time involved as I competed in ( and won) Sheep to Shawls and also judged them. XDH wanted a cap so I washed, dried, nat’l dyed, prepped the wool from fleece, spun and knitted the thing in 24 hours. I do have a really fast wheel. Actually 7 wheels but each has it’s own best use.

        My personal ” best” was prepping, washing. spinning, weaving, cutting out and sewing a wool and alpaca jacket in 9 days. It was a dare from one of my students while I was getting ready to teach a 3 day class. With cow to milk, other beasties to care for, a home to run, meals to cook and supplies to get ready for the class. She ended up bringing me coffee every day of the class! I did learn to sew at 6 and without patterns until I was 13. Then patterns and machine. 

        And on the topic of a woman defending herself. Go look at wool combs<smile>. Once you can use them to prep a fleece, you are strong enough to use them as defense<smirk>. 


    • 5

      I used to be in the SCA (Society of Creative Anacronysm). As one of the first female melee fighters (about 20 years ago) what I learned the most was how little 5’2″ me could use my small size as an advantage to fighting big guys! I’ve never had to fight anyone in real life but if I did and had a big stick or pole I’m set lol. Not sure this is a handy hint from history but I can say at least that females or anyone small can indeed defend themselves

      • 4

        Hi EzlyAmmuzzed,

        My first experience in seeing someone of short stature giving it to the big guys was one of my first events with the SCA – a fighter who was a very slight man used physics (essentially) to his advantage, leveraging his smaller size against guys half-again as tall as him and likely twice the weight. He used a poleaxe in the melee I was watching and was a “one and done” fighting machine.

        Yes, you don’t have to be big and brawny to protect yourself! Personally, unless they keel over from the “Aunty Death Stare of Doom” I’ve perfected over the years, I need to learn to protect myself! I don’t think I could do too much damage with a sewing unpicker or knitting needles… 🙂