Summer in the Middle Ages
“Summer is a hot and dry season,” described Bartholomew Anglicus in his mid-thirteenth century encyclopedia, On the Properties of Things. Summer, he continued, lasts three months; it starts with the sign of Cancer, on June 17 and ends at the close of the sign of the Virgo, on September 18. Five hundred years before Bartholomew wrote his encyclopedia, bishop Isidore of Seville, in the Etymologies, explained that Summer (aestas in Latin) took its name from “heat” (aestus in Latin) and “burnt” (ustus in Latin), because the season is usually hot and dry.
In the medieval rural world, Summer was harvest season, a busy time of the agrarian calendar. Summer also came with its challenges: heatwaves, sunstrokes, drought and fires were a feature of the season. How medieval people dealt with heatwaves and what labours were associated with summertimes are the focus of this column.
Bartholomew Anglicus explained that, because the sun was at its apex during Summer, it shone directly on the people’s heads, causing an excess of yellow bile, the dry and hot humour often associated with bursts of anger. Summer heats the body, dries it through perspiration and weakens it, added Bartholomew, causing fevers and other “hot and dry diseases”. Medical treatises included pharmacological recipes designed to appease and reduce sunburns. A tenth-century Anglo-Saxon medical compilation known as Bald’s Leechbook advised to “boil in butter tender ivy twigs [and] smear therewith.” Emollients were commonly used to cure burns, as they are still today.
Women from the elite sought to keep their skin as fair and as white as possible. Skin colour was a marker of socio-economic standing — tanned skin was associated with the peasantry and signalled one’s humble background. Medical treatises, especially the ones concerned with women’s cosmetics, featured recipes to protect the skin from the sun. The eleventh-century De Ornatu Mulierum, attributed to Trotula of Salerno, included a camphor-based balm protecting the skin from the sun. These are the ancestors of modern sunscreen. We do not recommend doing this at home!
To avoid sunburns, medieval physicians recommended wearing wide-brimmed hats and using parasols, when possible. Illuminations of peasants hard at work in the summer heat show them wearing hats, shirtless or with light pieces of clothing, such as on the August page of the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry. This illumination also features a swimming scene. On the bank of the river, one man is naked, drying himself in the sun. His companions are swimming, fully immersed in the water. These men may have been farmers, cleaning themselves and getting some fun cool down after a long day of work.
Medieval people indeed enjoyed getting in the water when temperatures rose. But swimming was not a skill many honed. An ordinance issued in the city of Paris, France, in the late fourteenth century, highlights the dangers of swimming in the Seine river:
Because in these hot days many people have had enjoyment and desire to go bathe in the Seine river, many great inconveniences have unfolded, because many of these people have drowned in the river, which is a very pitiful thing. To reform the foolish minds of young people and other people who go bathe in the river, we forbid that anyone bathes naked in the river, otherwise they’ll be put in jail.
This ordinance is a lovely and fun reminder that medieval people too delighted in swimming in cool streams – or even in highly polluted urban rivers – as we still do today.
Agrarian Work in Summertime
Jean de Brie, the fourteenth-century “good shepherd” you might be familiar with if you read this column, recommended that, from June onwards, shepherds should rise early, when temperatures are still cool, to bring the animals to pastures. There, he should make sure they’d find sufficient shade. In July, the shepherds would move the flock to higher elevations and ensure they don’t suffer from overheating. In August, he recommended the sheep stay in their stables in regions where grain had not yet been harvested or else they might devour the wheat! In September, the flock could be released in the harvested fields for them to feed on the hay.
Summer, indeed, was the time of harvests. Harvests usually started in June, when peasants reaped the grasslands to get hay and fodder for their flocks of sheep, their horses and their cattle. In July, they turned to wheat fields. Wheat harvests are heavily featured on the illuminated calendars of late medieval books of prayers. Bathed in a golden light mirroring the colour of ripe wheat, illuminations show peasants hard at work, reaping the ears of grain. Some are shirtless due to the heat, some are drinking from a flask. Staple representations of such harvest scenes can be found in Isabelle of Castille’s Book of Hours, from the fifteenth century.
But the actual period of harvest varied depending on the latitude at which farmers lived. Southern peasants from the Mediterranean basin harvested earlier than northern peasants from, say, England or Germany. The former Mediterranean farmers started reaping in July, while the latter often began their harvests in August. The precise dates of harvests also varied annually, to adjust to weather and the growth of cereals. Calendars rarely reflected these geographical variances, although some occasionally did.
Harvests mobilized flocks of workers who came to the larger estates seeking temporary employment. Most were paid in cash or in nature (often in wheat sheaves). Some were providing “free” labour through the corvées they owned to their lord. Harvests were done by hand or using a scythe or a sickle. Tools were sometimes provided by the lord, or peasants had to come with their own to find employment. Besides reaping, workers made the sheaves, secured with a rope or a strand of rye. The workers usually received wine for the day, because, you know, what could go wrong when doing hard physical work, drunk, in the summer’s heat?
Having reaped the fields, workers had other tasks at hand. They moved the sheaves to storage areas. Then, they threshed the ears of cereals to loosen the grains from the straw. In some regions, such as in Normandy, peasants went back to the fields to reap the straw if it had not already been cut. Straws served to make thatched roofs, mattresses, bedding for horses and cattle – which could feed on it, although hay was (and is) more nutritious for animals. Once the fields were cleared out, the poor could exercise their right of “gleaning”, or harvesting the grains that had fallen on the ground.
Summer was indeed the season of harvests. The harvesters’ days started at dawn before the sun heated too much. Work, agrarian especially, had to be adapted to the hot and dry temperatures to prevent sunstrokes.
Plagues, Droughts and Fires
But summer was also synonymous with plagues, droughts and fires. The plague waves of the second pandemic that started with the Black Death usually struck in Summer (with exceptions, of course). From the mid-fourteenth to the seventeenth century, across Europe plague mortality peaked between June and September. This mortality trend had not escaped medieval people. Scientists and physicians alike concurred that air, during Summer, was “corrupted and infected,” potentially carrying the “miasma” that was thought to cause plague outbreaks.
Summer’s heat and dryness were fire hazards, both in the wilderness and in cities and towns, as they are still today. During the year 1048, the Chronicle of John of Worcester reports that: “fire in the air, commonly called wildfire, burnt many townships and cornfields in Derbyshire and several other regions.” Summer droughts exacerbated the risks of fires. At the height of summer heat, a royal ordinance provided, the dwellers of Paris had to keep a pot of water next to their door in case of a fire emergency.
Forest fires were a recurring issue for the community of Tortosa, northeastern Spain. Between 1370 and 1462, the city’s officials recorded in their books of accounts the expenses entailed by their efforts of extinguishing these fires. Two-thirds of these fires (67.4%) occurred between July and September, at the height of the dry and hot season. The causes of the fires are only known in 20% of the cases. Every time, the fire had started because of careless people, often shepherds. In Tortosa, making a fire in the forest in the summertime was strictly forbidden.
In many ways, the medieval summers resemble our own. People enjoyed swimming around in cool streams; they looked for shade and ways to protect themselves from the heat. But summers were also synonymous with wildfires and droughts, issues that are becoming more pressing today with the climate emergency. Meanwhile, fields could not await. For medieval peasants, summer was a highly busy season.
- Summer in the Middle Ages