How did peasants in the Middle Ages survive the winter?
August 16, 2014 6:11 PM   Subscribe

What strategies were used by peasants of medieval Europe to prepare for and survive the harsh winter months?

What types of foods did they stockpile, preserve, grow, forage and rely upon? How did they source fuel, clothing and insulation to keep warm? Did they use any other strategies to preserve heat and stay healthy?

Open to answers from a range of places and epochs, but rural England around the time of the Black Death is particularly of interest.

(Adapted from an unanswered question at reddit's AskHistorians).
posted by dontjumplarry to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
There are accounts of "hibernating" French peasants, well into the 19th century. I can't find the original source mentioned, but I've heard accounts of making nests of straw or leaves.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:26 PM on August 16, 2014 [14 favorites]

Humans are mammals, and generate heat. They wear clothing to stay dry and for warmth. They can make fires. They can use straw or other materials for insulation. I'm not a historian, but I'll bet people slept together and slept with or above the large animals they kept for milk and meat. I find that in Maine winters, when I keep the heat at a comfy 65F, I get better at tolerating the cold, and I hate to be cold. On the 1st 50F day in spring, it feels really warm, whereas 50F days in fall feel nippy. People used to not have air conditioning, and now I'm amazed at how intolerant Americans are of quite small differences in temperature. All that said, a cold Middle Ages winter sounds absolutely miserable.
posted by theora55 at 6:55 PM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here is an image depicting peasants in winter (February) from the Limbourg Brothers' Tres Riches Heures, painted in the early 1400s.
posted by PussKillian at 7:41 PM on August 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

In Iceland in the middle ages they built houses around thermal springs so they had indoor hot baths, and records and stories suggest they spent a huge amount of the winter just sitting in them. (Although of course the steam would heat up the house as well). Women would bring the men food and visitors and anything they needed so they never had to get out. Visitors would hang out in the bath with the family.

(I can't give you the cite because I don't remember, but that info is from a book about the life of women in Iceland that I randomly happened upon in our university library once.)
posted by lollusc at 7:42 PM on August 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

There were a surprising number of food preservation technologies available to them, more than you might think.

Fermentation of various kinds was a big one: beer and wine and cider.

Cheese making was important; hard salted cheeses, stored cold, will keep nearly forever and they are good sources of fat and protein.

Pickling was a big thing. You could pickle nearly any kind of vegetable, and if kept cold (cold cellars were a very big thing) they would keep for months or years. (One of the reasons apples were an important crop was vinegar making.)

A lot of kinds of fruits (and vegetables) could be stored as-is in a cold cellar, particularly tree fruits like apples, peaches, pears, and cherries. Also cucumbers, carrots.

Some places practiced dessication (jerking) as a way of preserving meat and/or fish.

Salting was also a way to preserve meat and fish, though it wasn't as common because salt was expensive.

If grain is kept dry, it will keep over a winter. The best way to do that is in clay jars.

In terms of fodder for livestock, the big thing was hay.

To keep warm, they burnt firewood and wore wool.

Most of this depended on having barrels, which is why coopers were common. A well-made barrel could be used for a hundred years.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:59 PM on August 16, 2014 [40 favorites]

They had root cellars, so root vegetables (potato, swede, turnip, parsnips, etc.) They had storehouses for hams and other salted meats. Sustenance hunting is a year-round activity, and venison and hares, for example, would have been winter game. Smoked and salted fish was available, and in some places, there was winter fishing. Fuel was a year-round endeavour, since fire was needed for cooking, laundry and many, many other household tasks, and people shored up the wood pile. Bread would obviously be made all year round as well, and was a staple.

If you are concerned with weather, you may want to lock down your dates and have a look at the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age.

In fact, the Wikipedia article on Medieval Food and cooking is very comprehensive.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:10 PM on August 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

By the way, nuts (especially walnuts) stored well, and eggs could be pickled.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:12 PM on August 16, 2014

DarlingBri: no potatoes; those came from the New World much later. But definitely turnips and parsnips.

Chestnuts kept well, too.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:16 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

For the most part firewood came from local trees and was chopped and split by hand. For a while I was collecting dead peoples garbage (the dealers called them "antiquities") and used to be amused that every axe on E-bay was a "knight's battle axe!" even if was obviously a felling or broad axe of the period.

English winters are generally milder than in many places in the states. When I was over there last (in December, people kept apologizing to us about the cold and I had to break it to them that it was a good 10° warmer there than back home. In Celsius.

If you plant for it and understand that you simply aren't going to have all the different foods you might enjoy in July in December, you can still be harvesting things from a garden come Christmas. They also had all kinds of food preservation technology, as has been cited. Somewhere I have pictures of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum's Bayleaf Hall's garden in early December - it's still pretty lush.

For the most part, if you were a medieval peasant, you survived the winter by preparing for it all summer.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:58 PM on August 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

For that root cellar, also include onions. They were a big crop, and they could be stored in a root cellar or could be pickled.

Beans stored just as well as grain did, and were an important source of protein (as well as being tasty).

Some of these medieval food preservation technologies were either invented in, or perfected in, monasteries, who then shared out the techniques. Monastic wines are legendary, for example, and monks were the first to add hops to beer. (As a sterilizing agent, so that the beer wouldn't go bad. The pleasant flavor was simply a fortuitous side effect.)

Monasteries were the medieval era's equivalent of corporate farms, and generally had the advantage of economy of scale since a single monastery would work dozens of acres of land, and had a large and willing work force.

DarlingBri's point about locking down your dates is very important. The climate in southern England was a lot different during the Medieval Warm Period than during the Little Ice Age. For instance, during the Medieval Warm Period, grapes for winemaking were a major crop in Southern England. That all stopped with the Little Ice Age.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:05 PM on August 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

Another way to preserve meat is sausage making. In some areas, sausage making was a really big deal. And if it's handled right, and stored in that cold cellar next to everything else, sausage could last pretty much forever.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:18 PM on August 16, 2014

Calling on knowledge from way back in middle school here, when I spent my free time as a costumed interpreter, portraying a German peasant from the Pfalz ca. 1710 (yes, post-medieval, but their lifestyle didn't change all that fast):

Staying warm in the German winter could be quite tricky. To cope, houses were built with thick, wattle and daub walls and plenty of interior doors. In a quality farmhouse, such as ours, the kitchen and main living area would be adjacent but partitioned, allowing the main room to be heated smokelessly by means of a masonry kachelofen, which could be stoked once in the morning, from the kitchen, and left to continue radiating heat throughout the day. This kept the air clear in the parlor while conserving what little fuel they had available: mostly deadfall and sticks, as most landlords forbade the cutting of trees, for firewood or otherwise. The use of a raised hearth and tripods in the kitchen likewise improved fuel efficiency, making it practical to cook over extremely small fires. (With the added bonus of reducing the risk of accidental skirt-related immolation, an all-too-common cause of death/injury in some other regions.)

When not working indoors, layers were key: clogs over wool stockings, wool overcoats over waistcoats over shifts, and so on. The base garment for men and women alike would be the shift, a long linen shirt reaching roughly to the knees. It would essentially never be taken off except for bathing, allowing a certain continuity of clothing on cold mornings. Beds would use straw stuffed mattresses and thick feather blankets. If necessary, a hot brick could serve to keep toes toasty.

As to food preservation: drying, smoking, fermenting, pickling, and salting were all known techniques. Although some fresh foods would certainly disappear from the table in the cold months, a well-run village could boast more or less reliable sources of spelt, rye, fermented goods such as sauerkraut and quark, dried beans and lentils, root vegetables, and so on.
posted by fifthrider at 11:52 PM on August 16, 2014 [26 favorites]

Should note, incidentally, that in the area that I interpreted, not only did landlords forbid cutting firewood, they of course also proscribed poaching. No sustenance hunting, therefore, or at least not outside of truly dire circumstances.
posted by fifthrider at 11:55 PM on August 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

A little later, but check out the series Tudor Monastery Farm for insight into farm life.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 5:41 AM on August 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am not a historian, nor do I even know any by sight. But Medieval England was an extremely prescribed place where every square inch of territory had been measured and claimed by, effectively, an army of occupation that came over in 1066. This big quantification is the Domesday Book. Sure, some people had rights to little bits of the lords' largesse, and lots didn't. If you were caught hunting the king's deer, you would be put to death. I'm not even sure if peasants were allowed to hunt rabbits? Because rabbits were established in warrens - they are not indigenous to Britain - and were part of the lord's demesne.

There were complicated rules about who could forage where and what they were allowed to take. Here is an old Guardian article that touches on some of this:
Those ... who carry wood, bark, or charcoal on their backs for sale, although they get their living by it, shall not in future pay chiminage.
Every freeman shall at his own pleasure provide agistment [care and food for animals] for his woodland in the forest and have his pannage [collection of fallen fruit, nuts and wood]. We also grant that every freeman may freely and without interference drive his swine through our demesne [proprietary] woodland in order to agist them in his own woods or wherever else he pleases. And if the swine of any freeman spend one night in our forest, that shall not be made the excuse for taking anything of his away from him.

So you can extrapolate from stuff like this and conclude that pigs were an important part of the diet, and that as the people owning them were freemen they probably got to eat the pigs themselves. But you have to wonder, what about the serfs? And how often did it happen that some baron would strong-arm a poor freeman's herd of pigs away? And it's a joke-cliche that in English, the names for animals in the field (pig, hog, cow) are derived from Anglo-Saxon while the names for the meat at the table are derived from French (pork, beef.) Here is something from Wikipedia about forest law which shows by implication what a pervasive reach into everyday life those laws must have had.

All this is to say I think you need some rather more exact historical sources for your research and I'm sorry but I have no idea where to point you to for this. But educated guessing is going to lead you astray.

A quick google for possible sources brings up
British Library: Medieval Realms
Medieval Household, Wikipedia
Medieval Peasants
The search terms you want are 'domestic history' or 'domestic society'. Though there's much more out there about aristocratic life than peasant life, unless you've got access to academic journals.
posted by glasseyes at 5:42 AM on August 17, 2014 [18 favorites]

To add to Chocolate Pickles list above, lye curing (ie: lutefisk) has been around for a long time too. Lye can be easily derived from hardwood ash. Only helps if you've got a surfeit of fish, but I'm sure there's other stuff (besides olives and maize, both not exactly mid to northern European) that can be lye cured.
posted by straw at 7:48 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you were caught hunting the king's deer, you would be put to death. I'm not even sure if peasants were allowed to hunt rabbits? Because rabbits were established in warrens - they are not indigenous to Britain - and were part of the lord's demesne.

I just was watching a television documentary Going Medieval by this guy, as it happens, in which it was claimed that rabbits and small birds could be hunted.
posted by XMLicious at 8:32 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

As the middle class became more of a thing and the separation (or more importantly the cost of the separation) between the lifestyle of a noble and a peasant became wider, a whole bunch of things that were previously beneath anyone's notice - "Rabbits? Whatever, they breed like, well, like rabbits." - suddenly became a thing for which taxes were levied or some sort of fee or fine were collected. This correlates with castles becoming less of a military installation and more of a palace.

I know none of the details, but have seen things which imply that even one of relatively modest means might be granted hunting rights. The Wikipedia article on Royal Forests might be of use to you. I'm not sure how royal forests differed from everywhere else (and there was a lot more everywhere else) but I'm sure there's a PhD thesis or three out there.

Here are some pictures of the gardens I mentioned earlier (along with distance shots of a mob of English schoolchildren).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:48 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

straw: maize is another thing that came from the new world. Also peppers and cranberries.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:13 AM on August 17, 2014

Tudor Monastery Farm BBC series is full of all sorts of insights into life in that time.

Something you may not realise is that they had feather beds and covers at this time throughout a lot of Europe. I can't think of anything warmer to snuggle down in during winter.

Also the UK was a major wool exporter during this time and every area had a mill, so wool clothing etc which is very warm was cheaper comparatively than it is now a days.

A lot of tv shows show people running around in cotton like fibres, but for poor people linens etc were not common and would mostly be used as a kerchief or undergarment with nice warm wool being the major fibre used. Even very fine garments can be woven from wool with skilled weavers/spinners and good quality wool. Though it would be a cheaper coarser cloth for poorer people. Also most poor peoples clothing was dyed colours and not the brown colours you see in films. Blue being a popular choice as the dye was very cheap. Colours would fade over time though so that really poor peoples clothing would not be as intensely coloured. Wool clothing was easily repaired with darns etc to so would last a person many years.

Having visited people with veggie gardens in the UK, even in winter plants can be harvested from the garden, some even taste better & sweeter after having had a bit of frost or snow on them. As others have said food preservation takes many forms and a lot of root vegetables like potatoes etc do well in root cellars or even just banked up under dirt/straw to be dug up later as needed remembering the ground doesn't freeze as hard or deep in the UK.
posted by wwax at 9:24 AM on August 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

What types of foods did they stockpile

My layman's observation/hypoethesis is that you can look to a regional or cultural "delicacy" for this, because it probably originated as the poorer foodstuff that people had to survive on when good food - fresh fruits and vegetables - was not available (or limited). Delicacies were often unusual out of necessity, though today unusual food is more often intentional - motivated by novelty-seeking/art/hedonism.

Looking at some of my own cultural delicacies, such as a Christmas meal and desserts (Christmas being the biggest annual meal that in the USA would be Thanksgiving), Christmas cake is something that (same as wedding cake) you can literally put it in a cupboard for a year and it's still cake, so you can make it ahead of time when the fruits/berries are available. Many of the customary puddings and treats are similar - they often don't reflect "what's the most delicious thing there could be?" as much as "what's the nicest thing that it's possible to have despite very limited winter food options?".
posted by anonymisc at 11:56 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tangentially, wool has invaluable property that it keeps you warm even when wet. Particularly useful if you're laboring out in the snow.
posted by kjs3 at 12:01 PM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here is a page about mediaeval food: Cook it! History cookbook. And do remember there are no potatoes, tomatoes, maize nor pumpkins in England in the time you are interested in.

"Rabbits were kept in specially made warrens where they were protected from poachers by an armed warrener. These animals were the property of the lord. The king had royal forests all around the country, in which only he and his friends could hunt. Lords, likewise, had stretches of private forest."

posted by glasseyes at 3:18 AM on August 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thirding Tudor Monastery Farm. I found it surprisingly interesting, and look forward to doing a few things they did myself. Like someone above said, it's a bit later, but it gives a good idea of many of the things a peasant would be doing in the spring, summer, and fall to prepare for the winter. Not much hunkering down, though.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:57 PM on August 21, 2014

There's a reason the term "bread" is a ubiquitous synonym for sustenance in English.

In the 21st century affluent West, we place FAR more emphasis on constant access to fresh produce than people did before refrigeration. In addition to the many varied food preservation techniques mentioned above, there's also the simple fact that wheat is a nonperishable year-round foodstuff. It won't kill you to eat mainly carbs and animal products for a few months out of the year. Add to that stored root vegetables and tree fruits and you've got a pretty good diet during the winter.
posted by Sara C. at 6:35 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Rabbits were introduced by Norman nobles, and took a long time to become very common.

According to 17th probate inventories: bacon. lots and lots of bacon. And cheese - and also butter, which is a way to preserve milk fat. This was in addition to bread (made from wheat, rye, barley, oats in the north), of course - but England has always been (since the Neolithic) a country of livestock raising as much as crops.

I knew a historical economist who's speciality was Medieval English food production. He was studying a terrible cattle plague that came through in the early 1300s in England - probably rinderpest - and had a hypothesis that the devastation to the cattle herds left the English malnourished and thus more susceptible to the Black Death when it came through.
posted by jb at 6:47 AM on August 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you PussKillian for giving me historical precedent for warming my junk in front of the fire on cold days.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 8:30 AM on August 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Carlin peas were apparently grown in the 'Monastic gardens of the Middle Ages', so I assume there were other bean species that were grown for drying and use over the winter.
The end of winter and the beginning of spring is the worst time food wise as stored food stocks are running low and new crops are yet to be planted as the ground is still frozen.
posted by asok at 5:31 AM on September 1, 2014

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
posted by adamvasco at 12:11 PM on September 3, 2014

Here is an image depicting peasants in winter

Ha, I've always loved that picture. Worth zooming in to see how they're warming their, um, genitalia by the fire.
posted by three_red_balloons at 1:36 PM on September 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I learned a lot about this topic from reading The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, An Englishman's World. It does sort of a month by month look at the life of a peasant around this time.

Did they use any other strategies to preserve heat and stay healthy?

It's worth keeping in mind that even ideas like public health were not really a big thing until the 1800s when we started learning more about how disease spread. So people in the winter shared houses with their animals and everything sort of stunk and was pestilent by today's standards.

You might also like to read Home: A Short History of an Idea which talks a lot about how our ideas of "home" evolved over time and how the nuclear family/domestic unit was not so much of a thing then as it is now. People lived more in group domiciles, kids got farmed out all over the place, etc

Even up to Colonial times the idea of sleeping all the way through the night was something that didn't really happen, people were up and down, stoking fires, tending to animals, dealing with food preparation, so while winter "hibernation" was definitely a thing, it's not like people slept all the time, they just did a lot less when the weather was punishing.
posted by jessamyn at 2:29 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Joseph Giles has been writing about medieval life for 30 years.
posted by adamvasco at 7:04 AM on September 18, 2014

jessamyn: It's worth keeping in mind that even ideas like public health were not really a big thing until the 1800s when we started learning more about how disease spread. So people in the winter shared houses with their animals and everything sort of stunk and was pestilent by today's standards.
You're going to have to provide a citation for that "pestilent" claim. Unhygienic, perhaps, but hygiene is as much about perception as reality, in practice.

The fact is, if living with animals produced a tremendous disease vector, it would die out over a period of several generations - yet it survived as a practice well over a millenium.

Treatment of animal waste is a huge potential disease vector, for instance, but burning manure in a fire (as fuel) turns out to be a great win-win answer. The risk still occurs when the manure is handled (especially before drying), but apparently the natural revulsion to touching fecal matter was enough to keep a safe behavioral barrier up - so, shovels instead of hand-handling the steaming fresh turds.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:11 AM on October 6, 2014

She's talking about people actually keeping their livestock indoors with them during the winter, though - like, your pigs crapping on the dirt floor of a one-room thatched hovel right next to where you sleep and eat or your cow with bovine tuberculosis, which is transmissible to humans, breathing the same air as you in a confined unventilated space all winter.

At least that's how life for pre-1800s poor people was depicted at a touristy "heritage center" museum I went to while visiting Scotland. If it's an accurate depiction, I don't think the likelihood of recurring transmission of diseases and parasites under those conditions deserves too much skepticism... I mean we're talking about literal instances of lying down with dogs and getting up with fleas.
posted by XMLicious at 4:54 PM on October 6, 2014

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