Wandering back in time – through a real medieval village

Writing about Easter in the Middle Ages has got me thinking about village life back then. It’s harder to pin down the lives of ordinary medieval people because they left little of themselves behind. I’ve walked over a fair few settlement earthworks in my time, those spectral lumps and bumps in the land, but the other day I got to wander around a very special place: a living medieval village. So come with me on a wander around the enchanting homes and buildings of a real community from the Middle Ages.

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Cosmeston Medieval Village

Welcome to Cosmeston Medieval Village in South Wales, the remains of which were discovered in the late 1970s during the construction of the country park in which it now stands. Named after the Costentin family from northern France, this was part of the Anglo-Welsh border lands partitioned out after the Norman Conquest to keep the unruly Welsh in check. During the 1980s a thorough archaeological investigation was undertaken, revealing an entire lost community. Buildings emerged and everyday artefacts surfaced such as a fishhook, a jug and a penny from the reign of Edward 1st. So it was decided to reconstruct the buildings, keeping each on its original site, with future excavations aiming to explore the manor house, the dovecot and the field systems around the settlement. In the meantime it’s open to visitors, and occasionally the buildings are used by costumed re-enactors for their original purposes. So now it’s time to turn off your mobile phone, leave your modern day worries behind, and imagine walking along with me as we go through the gates to Cosmeston and begin our journey back in time.

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In the doorway of the Reeve’s House – better wipe our feet, this is a posh one…

Our first stop is the Reeve’s house, a good start because it’s the poshest home on site. The Reeve is a fairly wealthy freeman, and his job is to manage the farming of the manor. He assigns work to the peasants who are bound to the lord and his land, and he keeps an eye on the all-important boundary markers. He pays the highest rent to the lord for both his house and a barn for his farming tools and ploughs, and for storing wood, an extensively used material in medieval life. His comfortable and well-appointed house consists of a whole, entire room, divided into distinct areas of work and rest. And you can see how wealthy he is by the fixtures and furnishings. The walls are lime-washed and brightly painted, the windows shuttered, and he has an array of colourful pottery and a comfy mattress on his bed. Another sign of wealth is the wooden floor, whereas more commonly this would be beaten earth scattered, if anything, with rushes. So wood is luxury, indeed. But in truth, I do think the Reeve’s house has a comfortable and homely feel. I’m sure I could make do.

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Inside the Reeve’s house: wooden floors, comfortable furnishings, brightly coloured walls and shuttered windows – what more could you want?

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Farming tools in the Reeve’s barn

Next we come to the peasant’s cottage, a typical farmer’s home rented by the villager from the lord. This is a dinky little dwelling, doubling up as an animal shelter during the cold months for the sheep kept by many villagers for their wool. There’s a meagre bed, a coracle for fishing, and not a lot in the way of comfort. And the floor smells of damp earth. So living like this in such cramped conditions with few washing facilities must make for a thoroughly aromatic place to live. Still, I’m sure the sheep get used to it. Any spare space could be sublet for a little extra income, and outside there’s a small yard where the animals live in better weather, while some peasants also rent a small piece of extra land on which to grow vegetables.

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Inside the peasant’s cottage: bare earth floor and cold comfort

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In the back yard of the peasant’s cottage: some had a little patch for cultivating vegetables

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The peasant’s cottage from the main street, with the bakers next door

Adjoining the peasant’s cottage is the busy bakers – with added extras. The baker only works here as he lives off site, and in many places he’s the only person allowed to make bread and use the village ovens. Should a villager dare to bake their own bread, they’re rewarded by being branded on the hand with a hot iron in the shape of a cross. The baker prepares and sells six types of bread from his premises, ranging from the expensive loaves made from sifted white flour to the lowly version for peasants made from a mixture of wheat, rye and flour. The very poorest have to make do with plain rye, sometimes enriched with ground acorns or even stone dust.

But I promised you extras, and the bakery doubles up as the village tavern. As the scent of freshly baked bread fills the air, in here we can meet our fellow locals and have a chat, play games and drink beer. But the most common drink these days is mead, so I think I’ll just hang around here for a while…

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The other half of the bakery – the village tavern 

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The bar in the tavern – is that a jug of mead?

Next to the pub/bakery is the village oven where the bread is baked. This small building houses two ovens either side of a passageway. The baker lights the bread oven and his apprentice tends it with wood and a bellows until it’s ready to receive the dough. The first bread of the day goes to the lord of the manor, but because it has sat on a bed of ash and the bottom often burns, this is sliced off and the ‘upper crust’ is presented to the lord – hence the saying. The other oven is used for a variety of purposes, including smoking and drying meat and fish, drying damp grain after harvesting and roasting barley for ale.

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The back of the bakery, with the village ovens behind

Wandering back down along the other side of the lane, we come across two more buildings, one big and one more modest. The first, a cottage, is that of the swineherd, who looks after the village pigs. Divided into three sections, the swineherd’s home also has to be shared with the animals, as well as serving as his living and working space. Apparently, lords love their pigs, apart from when they eat them, but the animals do have comfortable and positively pampered lives first. At Cosmeston, the lord has built a palatial pigsty behind the swineherd’s cottage, to where the pigs can retreat after their regular forays into the woods to forage for fallen acorns and fruit. Nothing is wasted in these Middle Ages, so aside from the meat, candles are made from the ‘tallow’ fat, which is the most common form of medieval lighting.

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Inside Swineherd Cottage, with tallow candles drying on the right

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The posh pigsty: the lord is said to have spent more on this than he did on the village houses!

The final stop on our tour is probably the grandest. The Tithe Barn is the only building that doesn’t belong to either the lord or the villagers, but is owned by the church. Divided into two sections and brightly decorated, one side houses the village priest who’s responsible for checking and storing all tithes paid by the villagers and recording them in the ‘scriptorium’. The church taxes everything grown, produced or earned at 10 per cent, ‘tithe’ meaning one tenth. The other section of the barn produces further income for the church by being hired out to travelling traders or surgeons.

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The side entrance to the Tythe Barn, and the village stocks – so be good!

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The tax man commeth – the village priest in his scriptorium

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A small altar in the Tythe Barn

Leaving through the wide double doors of the Tithe Barn, we have now only to wander through the gardens of the village apothecary, where herbs for medicines are grown and gathered, and past a small hovel of unknown purpose, which it’s thought may be used to store plants during the winter.

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Leaving the Tythe Barn through it’s large double doors…

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Looking out into the village from the herb garden

And so we arrive back at the village gates. I hope you’ve enjoyed our wander through a medieval village, and poking around the residents’ homes and workplaces. But right now, I think I’ll just pop back to the tavern for a goblet of mead and a chat before buying a loaf of white (of course!) bread, and nipping back home – to the Reeve’s house, or maybe the manor, or better still the place I really belong – a castle…

 

 

76 thoughts on “Wandering back in time – through a real medieval village

  1. What a wonderful tour around the ye olde village – fascinating. It was probably a very peaceful way to live (Vikings not withstanding).

    I think I’ll join you in the Tavern for a goblet or two of mead if you don’t mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mike. I’m glad you enjoyed the tour, and it’s interesting that you saw some parallels to American colonial villages. Thanks for reading, and for commenting. 🙂

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    • You’re very welcome, Martha. I couldn’t resist that! I’m so glad you enjoyed the wander round Cosmeston. Thanks for reading, and for commenting. Cheers! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Frank, and it’s always great to hear from you. I understand completely – there are times when I’m either too absorbed in preparing for an assignment, or just lacking time to do all I want to, but it’s always nice to get back to my blogging friends and enjoy a good read. I’ll try for some more clouds soon, but in the meantime I’m glad the village tour hit the mark. Have a great day. 🙂

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  2. Another great insight into medieval times Alli, and also another place of which I knew nothing about. Now I know why I prefer white bread, particularly the ‘upper crust’ 🙂 Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Malc, glad you enjoyed the tour. Cosmeston has also been used as a film set for several TV shows and films. It’s not hard to see why. I’m all for the upper crust too. And of course, Cheers! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi April, yes it does seem unusual to see a wooden floor in a medieval village cottage. It certainly wouldn’t have been a common sight. I suppose because it was comparatively expensive, it was a luxury, a demonstration of wealth and a status symbol. Everyone would have known he was boss in the village, living in a house that was a cut above the rest. Thanks for reading, and for commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • From what I’ve read, it was tiles or stone that people used to show their wealth and even lords of the manor had beaten earth on their ground floors. A wooden floor doesn’t seem like a luxury, just odd. I’d love to know what made the people who reconstructed the village put in a wooden floor.

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      • I think it depended on where you were as well as your status, and the availability of materials and craftsmen locally, and a lot of these fixtures would have varied accordingly. The archaeology will have indicated a wooden floor and that’s why this would have translated to the reconstruction of the building. I hope that helps, and if I ever manage to find out more, I’ll let you know. 🙂

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    • Me too, it was lovely to wander round in our own time and explore, but I’d love to see it all in action one day. Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

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  3. It is so interesting to learn what daily life was like back then. Even to learn details like what would happen if you tried to bake your own bread. And the saying “upper crust” All is very fun to learn about! Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robyn, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I love this kind of thing too, and it’s amazing what you can learn through the little details, and things start to make sense. Thanks for reading and for your kind comments, as always. 😀

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  4. You have brought the village to life so wonderfully and deserve that goblet of mead. Cheers. I am inclined to think that the houses of country folk in Ireland and other places hadn’t advanced much from these medieval abodes even well into the 19th century.

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    • I’m sure you’re right, Albert. That’s an interesting point. Thanks for reading, and for your kind comments, and I’m very pleased you enjoyed the tour of Cosmeston. Cheers! 😀

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    • Thanks Marilyn. That’s exactly what I say – it’s as close to going back to the middle ages as you can get. It was a nice day, and thanks for reading. 🙂

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  5. Very interesting post. Reminds me of Chysauster Village on the Isle of Man although we didn’t look around that properly. How awful that you weren’t even allowed to bake your daily bread but had to buy it even when you were poor! and what a punishment.

    Thought the word ‘reeve’ sounded familiar – it’s ‘grieve’ in Scotland…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, it’s ‘grieve’ up there then! I hadn’t known that. Very similar word though, as is so often the case. I love these reconstructed villages, so it was great to find a medieval one. I didn’t know there was anything like that on the Isle of Man, but it’s good to know where they are for future reference.

      Yes, the punishments were tough if you stepped out of line. Usually all the money made by the bakers/pub got taxed by the lord, so I guess if you made your own bread you were cheating the system.

      Thanks for reading, as always, and I’m looking forward to seeing your latest crop of photos from your recent adventure. Hope the processing has gone well. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh thanks, Marilyn! And it’s true, there’s a lot to be said for life back then. And they didn’t pollute the planet with plastic and chemicals either… 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks for the village tour – just wish we could have joined for the white and the mead 🙂
    – enjoyed each photo and learned a lot with the pigs and how the Lord’s loved them – and ate them – and then how their fat was used – and well makes sense that every part is used.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, and at least the pigs had a lovely life, which is more than can be said for some of our animals today.
      Glad you enjoyed the tour, and that the photos helped to build a picture of what it was like. As for the bread and the mead – at least you were there in spirit, so Cheers, Yvette! And thanks for reading. 🙂

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  7. Hi Alli! So nice to get back to your site and spend some fascinating time with you after so long. We’ve been spending time off-grid. Turns out the places we want to go don’t have internet. So I’m going to put the ol’ nuthatch on the back burner for a while. But when we’re in more developed areas I look forward to visiting with you and reading about your latest adventure! We’re here for about a week and I hope to catch up with all I’ve missed. :). I’m quite excited to read this post. In your previous posts, I’ve learned so much about the “upper crust” – or the ones whose lives left some histories of themselves behind. It’s so nice here to learn more about the everyday. It’s the bigger picture that connects the battles and the royals and the funny laws to real life for me. I think that’s neat. Also, living off grid for the past few weeks, I feel an odd connection to their lifestyle. The hierarchy and the way they structured their community is so interesting. Like you mentioned in one of your comments, with the influence of the church and of rank, I suppose they managed to keep a pretty secure order. And considering the situation of the peasants and so forth, that seems an applaudable feat. It’s funny how a simple life could be intricate and complicated in so many ways. That was a great tour, Alli! I enjoyed the comparisons, the insight into daily life, and – as always – your little bits of humor and anecdotes that allow us to experience the place and time with personal perspective. What a cool place! Thank you for sharing. Again, I’m excited to catch up with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lindsay, it’s so good to hear from you again! I guessed you were probably off-grid and travelling, but I did get a bit concerned that you were both OK. This is going to sound very weird, but I’m just sitting here and studying, when I was thinking about you and hoping you were alright, when I looked up at my screen and there you were!

      I’m really glad you enjoyed the tour, and I can see why you would feel a connection with the people from villages like Cosmeston while you were offline. And on the whole it wasn’t a bad life – the peasants may have been bound to the Lord, but everyone knew their place and their duty, and in turn the Lord had a duty of care to the peasants, so it was a kind of symbiotic relationship. I was quite comfortable in the Reeve’s house and the pub anyway, and it’s nice to think in some way you were there with me too. Have a great time on your travels, and keep in touch when you can and let me know you’re OK. Thanks for reading and for your lovely comments, as always, Lindsay, and take care. 🙂

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      • I’m so very sorry you worried. It actually wasn’t our plan to set out that quickly, or stay gone so long, but I guess that’s life. Lol. Kind of you to be concerned. I appreciate you. You’ve been on my mind as well. Wondering what you were getting up to and genuinely excited to read about it all. Also, I imagine the end of classes is near? And, of course, your summer tour. Can’t wait to stay in touch! I do like the idea of the symbiotic relationship with peasants and lords. I imagine it was maybe even comforting for both, then, to know that life would only work with contributions from everyone. It’s a neat time, I think. So cool to see how people work out their lives in such different ways. So thanks again for bringing all that to life! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s life, indeed. No worries – as long as you’re ok and enjoying your travels. I can imagine you must be in and out of grid areas all the time. Still, it sounds very exciting.

        Yes, the end of my module is nearing now, and I have a very gruelling final assignment next week followed by the dreaded exam on 14th June, so it’ll be ridiculously intense from now until it’s all over. Can’t wait for that now. Walking round the whole of North Wales will be a relaxing holiday after studying Latin and Augustan literature since October! It’ll be good fun. And I’m also looking forward to keeping in touch with you, and hearing how your own lives are working out.
        Glad you enjoyed my post about the little people and their interactive communities. 🙂

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    • Thanks for this, Yvette. And no worries – I still giggle when I remember it, even after all these years, so thanks for bringing it back to mind and making me smile again… 🙂

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  8. Wonderful! I’ve heard of Cosmeston, but really know nothing about it, so doubly-enjoyed your tour. Very nicely presented – as usual – thank you. It all looks rather neat, though. The peasants’ hovel looks almost welcoming. You’d enjoy the Weald & Downland Museum, I think – http://bitaboutbritain.com/weald-and-downland/ – if you haven’t already been. There’s loads of these reconstructed places now, of course!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mike. Likewise, I’ve heard of the Weald & Downland Museum but I haven’t been there. I’ll check it out. I love reconstructed places because they really give you a feel of how things were, especially if they’re based on archaeological research and on original sites like Cosmeston. Although I guess it would have to be neater now than it was in the day – think of the fun Health and Safety would have otherwise! Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

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  9. What a neat (and useful) experience! And I doubt you need it, but I do recommend any books by Frances and Joseph Gies on the Medieval period…As well as fiction by Sharon Kay Penman and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries…for good measure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much. 🙂 Funnily enough, one of my favourite books is ‘Life in a Medieval Castle’ by F & J Gies! I love their work. And Cadfael was dramatized for TV over here a while ago, and it made a great programme… 🙂 Thanks for reading, and for commenting, and I’m so glad you enjoyed our wander around Cosmeston. 🙂

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