Thursday, October 24, 2013
Favorite Author and Guest Today, Denise Domning, Author of Wonderful Medieval Romances!
Of the two genres, Denise says she frankly prefers the rats, grime and fleas of the twelfth century over the ghettos and drug use of modern Kansas City. For Denise, writing means using words as her time machine and painting an accurate portrait of a past.
You can see my review of her novel THE WARRIOR'S GAME just below this post. And, you can stay in touch with Denise via her website, www.denisedomning.com
Today she is sharing with us the sounds of the medieval time period in which her Warrior Series is set. And, Denise has graciously agreed to give her boxed set to one lucky commenter!
Zounds! The Sounds!
It wasn’t until the fateful and awful events of 9/11 that I truly understood how much sound frames our experience of life. For three days after that day, our world fell into an awesome quiet. For most of us it was the first time we had heard nothing in the skies above us except birds. Until then, I hadn’t realized how pervasive the steady thrum of jet engines is in my life, or how completely unaware I was of that sound. It was a pivotal moment in my understanding of how differently we “Moderns” experience the world from those folks living in the late twelfth century.
It was also a potent reminder of how powerful the sense of hearing is when an author wants to evoke a bygone era. Why? Because what cluttered the ears of past generations is vastly different from the roar of cars, rattle of kitchen appliances and gentle whirr of our computer fans that clutters our ears these days.
So what were the folks back in the Middle Ages completely unaware that they were listening to? Let’s start in the countryside, and in the Twelfth Century that means most of the population. During this period London was England’s biggest city, with a little over 30,000 people in residence. By the Fifteenth Century, the second largest city in England was Norwich, weighing in at around 6000 people.
Of course, birds aren’t the only animals making noise with the dawn. Sheep and goats bleat, cows low (or moo, depending on which word you like better), all wanting their masters’ attention. In the distance the local water source, be that brook, stream or river, tumbles and dances in the newborn light. Leaves rustle and toss with the breeze. Inside the cottage, the ceramic lid that protects the hot ashes clatters as it’s taken off the fire. Bellows gust as the hot coals are encouraged back into crackling flame. Everyone coughs, because even though the smoke is supposed to wind its way out of the hole in the roof, the smoke is everywhere. And everything–absolutely everything–in the cottage smells like smoke.
After they break their fast (as in breakfast), the day’s chores begin. The ring of blacksmith’s hammer is rhythmic and even as he brings it down again and again on the thick piece of metal he’s turning into a tool. The bellows that keep his fire hot enough to soften iron gust and whoosh. At the mill, the miller snaps the goad over the back of his ox and the big creature begins to walk his endless circle. As he moves, the grinding stone rumbles, turning steadily to grind wheat or rye or oats into flour. The sound is loud enough that the miller has to raise his voice to speak to customers. The knife sharpener’s wheel rumbles as turns, the knives he sharpens ringing and sending off sparks as he hones the blades; the potter’s wheel rumbles as he shapes clay into new pots. The carpenter’s saws rasp with a whee-haw as they’re pulled through lengths of wood. The wheelwright and cooper hammers thud dully as they work narrow strips of metal onto their wheels and barrels.
Meanwhile, everyone sings. At the fuller’s cottage newly woven cloth is being fulled or waulked–the process of felting or tightening the weave so the fabric won’t unravel–to the cadence of a specific set of songs, each set providing the right rhythm to a different part of the fulling process. (You can hear this song HERE.) Yet more songs rings out from the fields where the men swing their scythes. This keeps their movements in sync and prevents accidental injury. And down at the stream, the women sing as they rub their clothing clean while their youngest children chatter and play.
At day’s end, the fire cover clatters back into place on the hot ashes and everyone makes their crunchy way onto their straw-filled mattresses. Outside, owls hoot and shriek, and the robin sings if there’s even the least little light to keep him awake. In the barn, and most often in the house as well, rats and mice skitter and rustle. So does the occasional hedgehog, come in to enjoy the relative warmth of a cottage. In those areas kept wild for the pleasure of noblemen, stags trumpet to attract mates, the rare wolf howls and boar offer up blood-curdling grunts.
It isn’t as pleasant for those who live in the burgeoning towns of this era. Here, the rooster still wakes the household, since just about everyone who can afford to keeps their own chickens. There might also be the grunt of a sow and the squeal of her piglets from the shed outside the back of the house.
Householders might also be able to hear the tumble of water, because every town and city has a reliable water source. But chances are that in the city the water is foul with human and animal wastes, as well as polluted by industrial wastes. And you thought it was just our era that was polluted? Nope, humans were hard at destroying their environment, even a thousand years ago. But that’s another article.
Here in the medieval city, folk tell time by the bell. Trade means money and money means charitable donations to your parish church, and that means a church bell. The size of a bell determines its voice, the bigger the bell the deeper the tone, and, of course, the more expensive the bell. Since all churches are Roman Catholic in Europe at this time, the bells all ring out about fifteen minutes before each of the day’s services. In London at this time there are thirteen monastic houses as well as one hundred parish churches. Imagine the cacophony, all the bells ringing every three hours during the day, and of course for every funeral or event that might need to be announced to the public.
Add to that the same noises described for country life, but multiply it by a deafening factor. In the “shambles,’ another name for where the butchers ply their trade, animals bleat and bellow their last as they’re slaughtered for meat (and let’s not even talk about the stink). In towns, the need for smiths, whether ironmongers or those who work more precious metals, is much greater than in the country but here new technology is changing the way this work is done. Water power is being used to full cloth, temper metal as well as grind flour. The water turns the wheel that turns the gears that drops hammers on the metal or cloth. The never-ending thumping and clanging is so overwhelming that town councils are passing new ordinances limiting when these mills can run.
Where there are merchants, there must be customers. Very few homes in the towns and cities are simply a place to live. Instead, most of these houses are also the homeowner’s business establishment, with his shop located on the ground floor. Every day, our merchant throws open the shutters of his shop and is off and running, or rather shouting as he pitches his goods to all passersby. The shouting isn’t limited to just storefronts. Regraters, think of them as the mobile food trucks of today, walked the streets. With their handcarts or wheelbarrows filled with something to sell, be that old clothing or fresh fruit or cheese, they shouted for folk to come buy their excellent wares.
Where there’s trade, there’s wagon traffic to move goods from one place to another. Bellowing oxen, their owners shouting and snapping goads at them, drag wagons along mucky lanes. Mounted merchants lead long trains of pack animals through the city. Priests and monks ride past stuck carts on braying donkeys. Cats yowl, dogs bark, pigs grunt, chickens squawk and sweetly cooing doves rain you-know-what down from above.
Like today, day laborers stand on corners and call out in the hopes of being hired. At night, they’ll be replaced by the women who sell themselves to earn their daily bread. And then there are the ale houses. These are the pubs of their day. Every alewife has her own recipe and serves food as well as her drink. The folk who frequent her establishment are generally travelers or people without the ability to cook their own meals, people sleeping in corners of sheds or in warehouses. Often the alehouse is their only chance to enjoy the warmth of a fire and of community, so the singing commences, twining with the other noises of the night.
Walled cities mean limited space for houses, so dwellings are crammed helter-skelter, taking advantage of every free space. With neighbors so close, there’s no privacy. Every marital spat, every man practicing his sackbut, every family celebrating some milestone can be overheard, whether by folks on the streets or the family next door. If things get a little rowdy, the watch will be called and the offenders asked to hold it down. And so they would until the first bell of the morning stirred the roosters to start crowing at dawn the next day.
I suppose like those people who live in New York City today, the denizens of London in the Twelfth Century took the noise in stride, the same way I heard but no longer listened to the sound of jet engines in the sky above. But one thing’s for certain. Ancient Londoners looked down their noses at the rubes from the countryside who found the bustle and bellow of their beloved city than they could take.
What surprises you most about the sounds of medieval life?