The (not so) stinky Middle Ages: why medieval people were cleaner than we think

Did people in the Middle Ages take baths? Did they wash their clothes and hands – or have a general awareness of hygiene practices? If there’s one thing we think we know about our medieval ancestors, it’s that they were mud-spattered, lice-infested and smelt like rotting veg. Yet the reality appears to have been far less pungent. Here, Katherine Harvey digs the dirt on the medieval passion for cleanliness.


Pancake Racing

What better way to celebrate Shrove Tuesday than to run with a pancake-laden skillet?

Every year, in late February in England, the last hurrah before the 40 days of Lent comes in the form of pancakes.

Historically, eggs and milk that wouldn’t keep over Lent had to be used up, so pancakes became the traditional food of the day. According to lore, back in 1445, a baker had to rush to church while her frying pan was still on the stove. She had no choice but to run there, juggling the hot pan and flipping the pancake as she went. This whimsical sprint is now recreated every Shrove Tuesday across England.

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Grey Maier {Atlas Obscura User}

Medieval Minims – the hidden meaning of a medieval pen-twister

mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt

While admittedly bizarre, this medieval Latin sentence is nevertheless perfectly comprehensible. It has been translated as:

The very short mimes of the gods of snow do not at all wish that during their lifetime the very great burden of (distributing) the wine of the walls to be lightened.

A page from the florilegium containing the minim sentence at bottom right, 13th century, France. MS IV 524 Bl. 3r © Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library/Lower Saxony National Library/Hannover.

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Alternate history: what if Richard III had won at Bosworth?

Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Emeritus Michael Hicks about how Richard III might have recovered his reputation, to some extent, and consigned the Tudors to historical obscurity.

Richard III had a clear advantage going into the battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485. As king of England, he commanded an army two or three times the size of the ragtag Lancastrian force that sailed from France, he had brought more cannon, and he was a seasoned warrior. His enemy, a Lancastrian with a tenuous claim to the throne named Henry Tudor, had never seen battle. When Richard heard of Henry’s landing, he was overjoyed: he had a chance to crush this pretender once and for all.”

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The True Story of Roland the Farter, and How the Internet Killed Professional Flatulence

A plate originally from The Image of Irelande, by John Derrick, published in 1581. Note the flatulentists on the right side (h/t the Lavatory Reader). (Photo: Public domain)

Roland, court minstrel to 12th century English king Henry II, probably had many talents.

But history has recorded only one.

Referred to variously Rowland le Sarcere, Roland le Fartere, Roland le Petour, and Roland the Farter, Roland really had a single job in the court: Every Christmas, during the court’s riotous pageant, he performed a dance that ended with “one jump, one whistle, and one fart”, executed simultaneously.

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What We Get Wrong About Medieval Libraries

When we picture the libraries of the Middle Ages, we see heavy tomes chained to wooden benches, far away from an accessible open space. It is a place forbidden, guarded jealously by the hooded librarian of The Name of the Rose, Malachi of Hildesheim—a domain of men. No books can leave this prison.


St. Gregory offering his book to Bishop Leandro, miniature from Commentary on the Book of Job, from the Abbey of Citeaux. France, 12th century. De Agostini via Getty Images

How to cook a medieval feast: 11 recipes from the Middle Ages

Food has been central to the social life of humans for thousands of years and, in medieval Europe, food consumption ranged from everyday sustenance to extravagant feasts.

The diet of the rich and poor was very different. While the upper classes and their households enjoyed fresh and imported foods, the rest of the population had to live off what the local land could produce which, at the end of winter or in times of shortage, might be very little!

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Earthenware tile showing a feast, probably the wedding feast at Cana, Christ’s first miracle. One of a group of eight floor tiles at the British Museum associated with the church at Tring, Hertfordshire. 14th century.

The Language of Love in a 12th Century English Law Book

In the final scene of Legally Blonde (2001), Elle Woods quotes Aristotle as part of her graduation speech: ‘The law is reason free from passion.’ ‘No offence to Aristotle,’ she continues, but ‘I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law.’ Elle captures a contradiction between a common conception of law as emotionless, and the practice of law as something that in reality always involves emotions. This tension between the theory and experience of law is one that goes back centuries, even millennia.

From Cotton MS Claudius B IV f.5v, c11th-12th century. Courtesy the British Library

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Parchment in prison: imprisoned medieval writers

In 1484, Lewis of Caerleon (d. in or after 1495), a Welsh physician who served Lady Margaret Beaufort and her son (the future King Henry VII), was arrested at the order of King Richard III for his loyalty to the Tudors. Despite being incarcerated at the Tower of London, Lewis obtained writing materials and employed his scientific knowledge to compose several innovative astronomical works.

Lewis of Caerleon’s table on solar times ‘newly made in the year of Our Lord 1484 in the Tower of London’ (London or Cambridge, 1485–c. 1495): Add MS 89442, f. 121r