Medieval Life

Carcer

An ecclesiastical prison, where monks and priests were imprisoned in solitary confinement by their superiors for misdeeds ranging from breaches of church or monastic rule to criminal offences. Often confinement would just be for a few days, though for serious offences such as murdering another cleric or monk, it could be a year or more and after that the offender might be banished to a parish or monastery considered to be particularly austere or remote. Carceres could also be used to punish lay servants of the cathedral or monastery, or to temporarily contain them before handing them over to the civil authorities if a serious crime had been committed.

Conditions in the carceres varied greatly, even within the same monastery, some being more unpleasant than others depending on the severity of the punishment required. Some cells were small rooms with beds and food hatches, while others were deep, narrow pits with both prisoners and food being lowered down by rope, or shallow cave-like slits in the rock in which prisoners would lie on sharp, rough stone with not even enough room to fully sit up. In Durham, the prison was below the infirmary and was known as the ‘lying house’, whereas in Ely the carcer was known as ‘hell’.

Cattern Cakes

On St Catherine’s day, cattern cakes – made from sweet dough – were eaten for luck, to keep the family safe over winter. In some parts of the country they ate Cattern pies instead – pastries shaped like a Catherine wheel and filled with minced mutton, honey and breadcrumbs.

Wheels of burning straw, once the symbol of the ancient sun god, were rolled across fields for fertility in celebration of St Catherine. A favourite pastime on this day was to jump over a two-foot high lighted candle. If the candle was not extinguished as you jumped (and you didn’t catch fire), good luck would follow for the year. The rhyme Jack be nimble, Jack be quick / Jack jump over the candle stick may have originated with this custom.

Corpse Road

Only parish churches were licensed to bury corpses, so villagers in outlying areas would often be obliged to carry their dead many miles across moors, hills or forests to bury them. These ways were marked by a series of stone or wooden crosses to guide the mourners. The last known use of a corpse road was in 1736 in Cumbria, between the village of Mardale Green and Shap parish church, a distance of around 6 miles (10 km) over steep hills.

Eena, deena, dina, das

The shepherd’s counting. Many country people, right up to last century, counted in multiples of four or eight for livestock or produce. Some say it is because we have four fingers, other have suggested it is easy to pick out four sheep at a glance without counting them individually. Pebbles, beans or notches on a stick would be used to keep track of how many fours had been counted. There has been much speculation as to the origins of the names of the numbers, which vary widely from district to district, but they may be vestiges of older tribal languages which survived long after the language itself ceased to be used.

Easter Sepulchre

In the Middle Ages many churches had an Easter sepulchre built into the wall on the left-hand side of the altar. This was a long low recess between two feet and six feet long. At the end of the Good Friday services, a statue of Christ was placed in the tomb and kept there until Easter Sunday morning when the sepulchre would be uncovered and the tomb revealed to be empty, showing that Christ had risen. Many old churches bricked up their sepulchres during the Reformation and many more were lost due to rebuilding in later centuries, but a few still remain, such as St Mary the Virgin in Ringmer, East Sussex, and All Saints Church, Hawton, Nottinghamshire. In some old churches if you examine the wall carefully you can still see the outline of where the recess used to be.

Green Mist Baby

Ababy born in springtime when the fields appear to be covered with a bright green mist as the seeds begin to germinate. These babies were likely to be of low birth-weight because of the lack of fresh meat, eggs and vegetables in the mother’s diet during the winter months when she was pregnant. But those babies who survived the birth, had the good warm days of spring and summer when mother’s milk was richer to build up strength before winter. In contrast autumn babies were often bigger when born, but frequently sickened and died during that first winter.

Lych gate or Lich gate

The word lych means corpse and this was a small roofed gate at the entrance to the church graveyard, where the bier could be set down and the corpse-bearers given refreshment before continuing up the path to the burial plot or the church door. Some bearers would have to carry the body many miles over marked corpse roads to reach the church, and when they arrived, might have to wait for the priest, churchwarden and sexton to be fetched, since word may not have reached them that a burial party was on its way.

Many churchyards had two gates, a lych gate and a bridal gate, because it was considered very unlucky for a bridal party to enter through the lych gate. If they did, either the marriage would die or, worse still, one of the couple would be a corpse before their first wedding anniversary.

Monks’ Habits

Wealthy lay people would buy monks old robes to be buried in believing that the holiness of the robe would protect them. If the devil found the corpse dressed in the habit of a monk, he’d be unable to carry the soul to hell. Another explanation for this custom was that grave-robbers would be unwilling to violate a monk’s grave and steal the corpse pennies or other valuables from the corpse, or even the corpse its self to use for necromancy and magic.

Rough Music

Sometimes know as ran-tanning, it was a way of expressing social disapproval of such things as adultery or wife-beating. Neighbours would gather outside a wrong-doer’s house for three successive nights banging metal objects. If by the third night the victim hadn’t taken the hint and left the neighbourhood, they would be dragged out of their home and beaten.

It was erroneously believed that if a ‘ran-tanning’ was in progress and the victim was badly injured or died as a result of the beating, the assailants could not be punished by law. This custom, often used on those thought to be engaged in sexual immorality, continued well into the nineteenth century all over Britain and in one sense still continues today, when local people surround houses of suspected paedophiles to try to force them out.

Scots

As well each household having to give tithes, a percentage of livestock, grain, candles etc., to the Church on pain of minor excommunication, the Church also demanded scots, or sums of money to perform certain rites such as christenings and marriages, including a soul-scot, money paid to the priest to perform the burial rights, in addition to money which also had to be paid for a Mass to be said for the soul of deceased. This scot was enshrined in law by King Alfred, AD871 – 901, and was hated by the poor who saw it as a tax on death.

Singing Loaves

Normally only the priest consumed the consecrated Host every Sabbath. The populace only received it at festivals such as Easter. Instead, after the service, special loaves of bread called Singing Loaves were blessed and each person received a small piece to break his fast. Women vied for the weekly honour of baking the loaves and tried to outdo each other by producing the best when it was their turn.

An ecclesiastical prison, where monks and priests were imprisoned in solitary confinement by their superiors for misdeeds ranging from breaches of church or monastic rule to criminal offences. Often confinement would just be for a few days, though for serious offences such as murdering another cleric or monk, it could be a year or more and after that the offender might be banished to a parish or monastery considered to be particularly austere or remote. Carceres could also be used to punish lay servants of the cathedral or monastery, or to temporarily contain them before handing them over to the civil authorities if a serious crime had been committed.

Conditions in the carceres varied greatly, even within the same monastery, some being more unpleasant than others depending on the severity of the punishment required. Some cells were small rooms with beds and food hatches, while others were deep, narrow pits with both prisoners and food being lowered down by rope, or shallow cave-like slits in the rock in which prisoners would lie on sharp, rough stone with not even enough room to fully sit up. In Durham, the prison was below the infirmary and was known as the ‘lying house’, whereas in Ely the carcer was known as ‘hell’.

Cattern Cakes

On St Catherine’s day, cattern cakes – made from sweet dough – were eaten for luck, to keep the family safe over winter. In some parts of the country they ate Cattern pies instead – pastries shaped like a Catherine wheel and filled with minced mutton, honey and breadcrumbs.

Wheels of burning straw, once the symbol of the ancient sun god, were rolled across fields for fertility in celebration of St Catherine. A favourite pastime on this day was to jump over a two-foot high lighted candle. If the candle was not extinguished as you jumped (and you didn’t catch fire), good luck would follow for the year. The rhyme Jack be nimble, Jack be quick / Jack jump over the candle stick may have originated with this custom.

Corpse Road

Only parish churches were licensed to bury corpses, so villagers in outlying areas would often be obliged to carry their dead many miles across moors, hills or forests to bury them. These ways were marked by a series of stone or wooden crosses to guide the mourners. The last known use of a corpse road was in 1736 in Cumbria, between the village of Mardale Green and Shap parish church, a distance of around 6 miles (10 km) over steep hills.

Eena, deena, dina, das

The shepherd’s counting. Many country people, right up to last century, counted in multiples of four or eight for livestock or produce. Some say it is because we have four fingers, other have suggested it is easy to pick out four sheep at a glance without counting them individually. Pebbles, beans or notches on a stick would be used to keep track of how many fours had been counted. There has been much speculation as to the origins of the names of the numbers, which vary widely from district to district, but they may be vestiges of older tribal languages which survived long after the language itself ceased to be used.

Green Mist Baby

Ababy born in springtime when the fields appear to be covered with a bright green mist as the seeds begin to germinate. These babies were likely to be of low birth-weight because of the lack of fresh meat, eggs and vegetables in the mother’s diet during the winter months when she was pregnant. But those babies who survived the birth, had the good warm days of spring and summer when mother’s milk was richer to build up strength before winter. In contrast autumn babies were often bigger when born, but frequently sickened and died during that first winter.

Monks’ Habits

Wealthy lay people would buy monks old robes to be buried in believing that the holiness of the robe would protect them. If the devil found the corpse dressed in the habit of a monk, he’d be unable to carry the soul to hell. Another explanation for this custom was that grave-robbers would be unwilling to violate a monk’s grave and steal the corpse pennies or other valuables from the corpse, or even the corpse its self to use for necromancy and magic.

Rough Music

Sometimes know as ran-tanning, it was a way of expressing social disapproval of such things as adultery or wife-beating. Neighbours would gather outside a wrong-doer’s house for three successive nights banging metal objects. If by the third night the victim hadn’t taken the hint and left the neighbourhood, they would be dragged out of their home and beaten.

It was erroneously believed that if a ‘ran-tanning’ was in progress and the victim was badly injured or died as a result of the beating, the assailants could not be punished by law. This custom, often used on those thought to be engaged in sexual immorality, continued well into the nineteenth century all over Britain and in one sense still continues today, when local people surround houses of suspected paedophiles to try to force them out.

Scots

As well each household having to give tithes, a percentage of livestock, grain, candles etc., to the Church on pain of minor excommunication, the Church also demanded scots, or sums of money to perform certain rites such as christenings and marriages, including a soul-scot, money paid to the priest to perform the burial rights, in addition to money which also had to be paid for a Mass to be said for the soul of deceased. This scot was enshrined in law by King Alfred, AD871 – 901, and was hated by the poor who saw it as a tax on death.

Singing Loaves

Normally only the priest consumed the consecrated Host every Sabbath. The populace only received it at festivals such as Easter. Instead, after the service, special loaves of bread called Singing Loaves were blessed and each person received a small piece to break his fast. Women vied for the weekly honour of baking the loaves and tried to outdo each other by producing the best when it was their turn.