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.
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?