Miserable Medievals

Alison Flood wrote a delightful piece in the Guardian Books Blog the other day, quoting some of the complaints added to manuscripts by medieval scribes. now gathered together for our entertainment on Brain Pickings.

It put me in mind of the student copy of  ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ which surfaced at Downie Towers the other day. Flipping through it to see how much I would still understand (not much),  I found that the margins had been defaced by some terrifying intellectual with handwriting remarkably like my own. There was one point, though, where the intellectual seemed to have cracked.

I remember the exact moment when this particular note was written. We were reading the passage where Gawain was suffering terribly from the cold of winter, and our Middle English professor paused to explain that our medieval ancestors would have longed for Spring with especial fervour, since they had no central heating.

Now, most of  the class hardly needed to be told this. We lived in student flats. We spent our winter evenings huddled round electric bar fires in rooms where damp ran down the walls and mice ran across the lino.  The poem aroused our heartfelt sympathy for its shivering hero.  This is my only excuse for the plaintive and ungrammatical sentence inked into the margin:

Me and Gawain are going to club together and buy a gas fire.

5 thoughts on “Miserable Medievals

  1. Damp running down the walls? You were lucky to have damp, not solid ice, like when I was a lass in Yorkshire…OK, but seriously, I can remember on winter mornings when I was a small child seeing “Jack Frost” patteerns of ice on the INSIDE of windows. Didn’t think anything of it; your blood is thicker when you’re a kid, and with luck if it was frosty it might also be snowy and you could go out and play in the freezing white stuff. The Romans had things better organised of course. I know it was only the rich ones who had underfloor heating, but if I ever time-travel back to Roman Britain, I’ll make sure to be rich!

  2. Yes, richer was definitely warmer in Roman Britain (unless you were a slave working on the stoke hole, or a local in a cosy – but smoky- round house). No wonder Dioscorides listed umpteen cures for chilblains.

  3. Of course, one of the reasons for those low ceilings and somewhat “cramped” quarters for the enlisted men was because it was easier to heat with all those warm bodies in them.

    Then again, the smaller spaces also meant that anyone getting sick was certain to pass it along to the rest of their mates rather quickly. 🙂

    1. Good point, Tim. And borne out by the high number of men listed as suffering from ‘pink eye’ (conjunctivitis?) at Vindolanda.

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