The Histoire tells us nothing about the daily life at Tancarville’s court; I suppose the poet might have wondered why you’d talk about something so commonplace. None the less we can imagine something of William’s life in the great hall of his lord.
You might want to imagine him in the hall itself, stuffed full of people smoke, noise and animals particularly dogs. A book of manners survives from the late 12th century by a man called Daniel of Beccles’ – the Book of the Civilised Man. It is full of useful little gems like, while in the hall you shouldn’t scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breeches. You know these are wise words I feel. You were advised not to urinate in the hall, which is something I always find tricky to remember. Joking aside, the fact that the anti wee-ing rule didn’t apply to the lord, or than Daniel found it necessary to issue the instruction in the first place is slightly mind boggling and gives an impression of the chaos going on.
Entertainment in the hall would be provided by minstrels and jesters. Monks by and large disapproved; one wrote:
The great men of the land, sons of the kingdom of vanity, are accustomed to retain men of this kind, who have the ability to rouse those lords and their households into joking and laughter with their silly words and gestures
All of these entertainers would be rewarded with coin, or giving clothes funnily enough was a recognised way to reward jongleurs, and on occasion, we can see land given in reward – there are a couple of Domesday. Which is a roundabout way of me being able to mention Herbert, son of Roland, who held 309 acres in Suffolk from Henry II, referred to in the 13th century as
The sergeanty that used to belong to Roland the Farter…for which every Christmas he used to leap, whistle and fart before the king.
I think this gives you a pretty accurate feel for the level of humour we are talking here. Witty wordplay seems also to have been popular. But yah, mainly farting.
Mealtimes were massive affairs of long benches and massive shared platters from which you took your food on an individual trencher. Once you found your place, at a suitable distance from the lord depending on your status, you would need to sit up straight, not place your elbows on the table, don’t speak with a full mouth, picking your teeth or nose were not a good idea, if you wanted to spit you should turn away from the table. I can hear my Granny telling me all this as I sit here. Except the spitting bit of course. That was fine in our household, just after licking road clean wi’tongue. Oh, and if you needed to belch do it at the ceiling
While indoors, William would have seen the elder men playing chess and dice, and maybe he’d take part himself. You can forget Bobby Fisher or Kasparaov though – these games were always about gambling which was endemic and could lead to rows and violence
If you lose money playing at dice or chess do not let anger plant savage rage in your heart
Advised Daniel again. The gambling is a big thing; as I have drifted through the monarchs of medieval and early modern England, there has been one constant. It’s not religion, adherence to law, whatever, it’s gambling. The accounts are stuffed full of references to paying off their gambling debts. I suppose it’s a way of passing the time when you don’t have the internet.
Plenty of William’s life though would have been spent out of doors; because one of the other constants of lordly life was the hunt. Villagers might sneak out to hunt for food and risk life and limb; but hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic pastime, and all the Angevin kings were potty for it. Henry II was described as
‘a great connoisseur of hounds and hawks, and most greedy of that vain sport [of hunting]’,
Another monk. Tancarville was hardly less enthusiastic. A whole industry was formed around it – huntsmen and falconers, men to look after the lords’ dog, mews and buildings to house them, forresters, tax exemptions to provide suitably protected land on which to hunt. The obsession drove Moralists like John of Salisbury up the wall
In our days the scholarship of the aristocracy consists in hunting jargon
D’you know, nothing changes does it. just substitute the offside rule or whatever. Anyway, The target of hunting was most commonly deer or birds, but there were many others – boar, foxes, hares; or it might be a wildcat, though when it was cold, they might wish it was a little otter. When it was cold – a little otter? Hmm. The vast majority of hunting was done on horseback, whether fully or partially. Even if you were stalking deer, a 15th century treatise recommended 2 on foot, one of horseback, along with a scenting hound; it was noted that deer were not disturbed by horses. If it was a chase horses and dogs would be used, if falconry the men and women would usually be mounted; though on Tancarville’s land much of the hunting with hawks would have been in the marshes where foot may have been safer. For some of this, skill at the bow would be a necessity, but horse riding would have been the essential, and it was for so many activities in life. By the time he grew up, William would have spent thousands of hours in the saddle. As it happens, none of the sources we have, whether the histoire or anything else, really make much mention of William and hunting; slightly surprisingly, it seems that hunting did not really float his boat. Maybe less surprisingly, neither music nor dancing figure highly either. But when it comes to skill at horse riding – well, now we are firmly in Marshal territory.
To say that horses were an essential part of the life of an aspirant knight, or indeed anyone in the medieval world, is to just gloss over an entire topic of conversation. There were multiple types of horses, and the multiple types of horses had a direct impact on the aspirant knight – in terms of whether or not they could ever afford to be a knight. Because at the top of the tree, the ultimate piece of kit knightwise was the Destrier, the war horse. As a contemporary explained:
The destrier is spared while travelling to be reserved for a greater labour…when it goes armoured into battle, it shows the greatness of its noble heart and its boldness through its joyful limbs and swift and happy movement.
A knight nerd like William would have dribbled over a catalogue of nice destriers. The trouble was that a good destrier cost a good deal more than Kevin’s fur lined sheepskin jacket, it cost a genuine, honest to goodness no poo packet. One of William’s modern biographers Thomas Asbridge makes it pretty clear:
These cost anywhere from £40 to £100, sometimes even more. Working from the rates current in the 1160s, for the average price of one destrier William could have purchased either 40 palfreys, 200 packhorses, 500 oxen or a staggering 4,500 sheep.
I am sorry to introduce money into the conversation when talking of the noble destrier, but the point is that being a knight was super expensive, which we’ll come back to. To be a knight you either needed to have the relevant land and income to support yourself, or you needed to be in the employment of a lord who would provide kit for you. It would for a while become the most important consideration in William’s life.
There were other horses though, and we know that at various times William was forced to rely on them. There was the Palfrey, a fine, high quality horse which was ridden by ladies of knights at their ease. They might be
decorated with handsome trappings, little bells jingling sweetly at its breast
The workhorse, though was a rouncey, ‘suited to servants and robbers’, and as we will see, even down on their luck aspirant knights. Even a Rouncey was a significant outlay, and a Palfrey positively pricey. And then of course you have to keep the darn things, and they are hungry.
While we are on kit and money then, there were of course other things that a knight would need. Weaponry and armour were the tools of his trade, and it is here that William would have spent a lot of his time, relentlessly training to develop the skill with a range of weapons; to be able to fight in a variety of situations, on horse and foot, using the relevant weapons; to do that while wearing armour. And to develop strength, nimbleness and flexibility he needed to do so effectively, let alone the skill and technique.
The main weapon would have been the sword; very often double edged, 34 inches long with a broad point. Swords might be mass produced for major campaigns but William would have dreamed of something special; a fine mixture of iron and steel, carefully balanced, strong and yet sharp enough to slice through an unarmoured limb. However, William seems to have been a particularly big and bouncey sort of chap, and although I am not suggesting he didn’t have a nimble brain, fast feet and a wicked feint, brute crushing force was to become something of his trademark. And as you’ll see when we go through the armour bit, your well dressed knight was reasonably impenetrable, and so blunt, crushing weapons like the mace and Warhammer might often be more effective; and a dagger would be an essential supplement too. But the other main weapon for the mounted knight was of course the lance. A super unwieldy length of ash, possibly up to 12 feet long, and seriously difficult to control.
On to armour then. We are still in the age of mail, and the mail hauberk is the principle bit of indispensable kit. The word Hauberc, incidentally, is predictably of French origin, it has French written all over it really, but rather delightfully the word seems to share a common root with a number of languages, based around the word to cover, and a common origin speaks of how common a garment and idea the hauberk is of course – every country on earth had burly blokes wandering around trying to knock 7 bells out of each other and take their ham sandwich. The hauberk, or coat of mail if you like could be constructed of as many as 30,000 little metal rings sewn together which is quite remarkable, and immediately you appreciate THAT in a world without automation that would sot you a bob or two and you wouldn’t find every tom dick and harry wandering around in one – everything here speaks again of a specialist class. Usually it reached all the way down to the knees, but it would have a sort of split skirt so that you could ride your horse.
Now you can imagine that if you just put your mail coat on over your bare flesh and someone kept hitting you, it would be super painful and you’d come out of your sparring sessions covered in little red ring patches, looking as though you’d had a particularly nasty attack of ringworm or something. Also, although mail was good at stopping sharp sword and so on, you could still be bludgeoned to death. So, before you put on your mail short or whatevs, you would first put on a puffy quilted under jacket, a bit like a Gille, though not necessarily jaune, which is my feeble attempt at modern political comment which will be incomprehensible within a few weeks, if it isn’t already. The Aketon was essential kit – it absorb the blows of blunt instruments. Then there were other bits of mail, almost equally important – mail mittens, rather endearingly called mufflers, though none pink and fluffy as far as I can see, and chaussures, mail leggings. Such as worn by Miss D’Arc in Bill and Ted.
The head is interesting of course, presenting as it does a prime target. Threefold protection here though on the same principles – a quilted cap to absorb blows; then a mail coif, which might be attached to your hauberk like a hoodie. And then a metal helmet. At this time, it’s probably the conical mail helmet the frenchmen wore in the Holy Grail, with a nose piece, but we are moving towards the flat topped all over protection helm. There was a trade off – field of vision plays protection, though oddly everyone seems to have moved towards the latter. Finally, there’d be a wooden shield – probably triangular which is easier to use on horseback. With added hardened leather or even metal plates maybe.
So there we are, a set of kit that would take some time to put on. Let me make 3 points about this. It cost a bunch of money, and was absolutely essential, so as we said either you needed to be well off or have an employer who thought you’d be good at protecting him and was willing to provide it all. The day of the warrior farmer is long gone. Secondly although it’s heavy and you need to be fit and all that, the weight is evenly distributed and you are pretty mobile. And thirdly, you really are pretty invulnerable, you are very well protected from most of what the 11th century can throw at you, there are no small tactical nuclear devices available. Now, I couldn’t even play Rugby without spending the morning on the loo, so you know the idea of being hit by a sword and a mace whatever I was wearing would be quite beyond me. But despite my levels of personal cowardice most of these burly blokes could go into battle with relative impunity. To say that it was a game is far from the truth, it’d be terrifying, but while you might expect to pick up some nasty blows, death would be surprisingly unlikely if you had reasonable kit.
So, our young hero William was thoroughly keen to try out his kit, and show that he could use it.