Occupants of a Medieval Household or Castle

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Household size. Broadly speaking, the household consisted of the lord's family and his servants. The Black Book of Edward IV provides a guideline for the size of noble households. It suggests approximately ten for an esquire, sixteen for a knight, forty for a baron, eighty for a viscount, 140 for an earl, 200 for a marquis and as many as 240 for a duke. The royal household, ranged somewhere between 400 to 700 strong, depending on the monarch and times.

The numbers are, however, hardly all inclusive, as there was a constant flow of persons in and out of the castle that could also be considered castle occupants. Hospitality was considered a Christian duty and at various times, especially at feasts, there would also be:

minstrels and other entertainers;
peddlers selling their wares;
pages and squires; and
other aristocratic visitors and family.

In The Great Household in Late Medieval England (Woolgar, 1999) there is a detailed description of how an arriving guest was treated:

In the late fourteenth-century text Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain's arrival at the castle of Sir Bertilak was a model of courteous reception: he was greeted by the porter in a most pleasant manner, his business was asked and the porter promptly went to take the message to the master of the house.  The drawbridge was then lowered and he was greeted by servants who went out, kneeling down to welcome him.  Once inside the castle, several men held his horse and saddle while he dismounted, and and led his horse off to the stable  Gawain was brought to the hall by a group of knights and esquires, amid further courteous greetings.  Sir Bertilak himself came down from his chamber to greet Gawain in the hall and make him welcome.  Bertilak took him to a chamber and assigned a servant to look after him; others were also ready to serve him and too him to a resplendent room.  Here Gawain was brought a choice of rich clothes to replace the attire in which he had arrived.  His room was then arranged with a chair before the charcoal fire that burned in the chimney; he was brought a furred mantle and he warmed himself in front of the fire.  A table was set on trestles in his room, it was laid, and he was served with food -- a meal of fish, it being Christmas Eve (that is, a day of abstinence), but with double portions (out of courtesy).


Wow.  Now that's hospitality! 

Additionally, portions of the lord's household was very much so a mobile unit in medieval times. The lord traveled often and he did not travel alone. A large number of servants would move with the lord.

A final circumstance when the Castle household would be filled to overflowing would be in the event of a siege. In this instance, all peasants and animals would seek the security of the castle walls.

The cost to the lord of providing food, shelter and clothing for such an entourage was enormous, and he did so out of the same motivation as the King himself; status and power.

Woolgar (1999) provides many details on the ever-changing household size, largely drawing on household financial records.
Servant RolesThere is no neat and simple "list of servants" that accurately defines the medieval aristocratic household. Two considerations when researching the positions and responsibilities of servants within the household are:
  • The size of the household. As common sense dictates, a large household might devote specialized staff to a task, while a servant in a smaller household would have to be the proverbial jack-of-all-trades.
  • The time period. Servants’ roles changed quite significantly throughout the Middle Ages.
    For example, Life in a Medieval Castle, Gies and Gies (1974) notes that the steward was at first the servant in charge of the great hall and the chancellor was in charge of the chapel, and the chamberlain was responsible for the great chamber. It goes on to say that the steward became the manager of the estate, the chamberlain (or sometimes the wardrobe keeper!) became the treasurer and the chaplain and his assistants became a secretarial department.
Now the question that begs to be asked by the researching historical writer is: when did these changes occur? Well, in the instance of the steward at least, Gies and Gies do go on to say that the steward's role as an estate manager was the most important role of the castle in the twelfth century. In the thirteenth century there were often two steward's; one for the estate, who was most likely also a knight, and another for the domestic household.


A General Categorization of Personnel
Various sources categorize the household in different ways, but there were basically the military personnel, administrative officers and domestic staff. In the largest households the division of labor was extreme, making the naming of all positions beyond the scope of this reference summary. Also, by the 14th century, servants that attended the lord personally were dressed in the lord’s livery, a distinctive costume with the insignia corresponding to the lord's coat of arms.
  • Military Personnel - included knights (household and those performing castle guard duty), squires, men-at-arms, a porter (kept the outer door of the castle), and watchmen. This group was also referred to as the castle garrison.
  • Administrative Officers - The main administrative officer was the steward, or seneschal. Assisted by auditors, he would communicate directly with department heads of the domestic staff to monitor expenses. The estate steward, who was often a knight himself, was also the lord's representative in legal matters and he could oversee the lord's court in his absence. The chaplain or chancellor was in charge of the chapel.
  • The domestic staff - made up the largest portion of castle occupants. It included the kitchen, the buttery, the pantry, the stables, and other offices, employing yeomen, grooms, garcons, and pages.


Related links: (Links checked July/August 2013)

New!  The Finds of July/August is:

Medieval Fostering - by Nicole Hurley-Moore


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The Medieval Lord - from the Medieval Fiefdom web site. Also at this site: The Medieval Lady.

The Medieval Aristocratic Household - a great overview from the site labelle.org (Labelle Compagnie, Inc.). The information is easy to follow without being overly simplified. Pages include:
The Aristocratic Household Proper
The Household: Tenants
The Household: Officers
The Household: Extraordinary Retainers (indentured contracts)
The Medieval Household: Liveried Retainers

The Medieval Child: Service in the Medieval Ages - from About.com.

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Livery and Maintenance - from the site Medieval Life & the Hundred Years War.


Medieval Names Archive - for naming your household occupants.

Print Resources:

Gies, Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1974.

    

Woolgar, C.M., The Great Household in Late Medieval England, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1999.

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