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Is it true that medieval villages didn't have names?

Is it true that medieval villages didn't have names?

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Recently I've read a certain book about the Middle Ages that has been quite popular with laymen but is held in utter contempt by professional medievists. In fact, I hadn't known the book's reception history before I finished reading it, so I approached it as tabula rasa.

Now, I'm no professional historian myself but I do know a few things here and there, so I spotted some of the glaring errors myself (and of course missed some of the others).

One point which I am almost certain is an error but would like to query you about is this: the book asserted that

[… ] villages were frequently innominate [… ].

Is it true that medieval villages didn't have names? Is there archival evidence with lists of villages or something like this?

My area of focus is medieval Britain (I wrote a book on medieval names found in Yorkshire), and in that context I can attest to villages and even smaller places having names. And there were a lot of them. Just a quick scan through a manor court roll will give you a lot of place names, sometimes of places that have been subsumed into larger cities today, and occasionally of places we can't even identify today.

Another thing to notice from the court rolls is that, while people didn't necessarily travel long distances, they still got around their local area. Note people of various social levels traveling from many villages throughout the (rather large) manor to appear in court.

Look at English surnames as well. (Here's a list of quite a few.) A large number of them are drawn from places where an individual lived or worked or otherwise spent time. They refer to villages, farms, fields, geographical features, buildings, and more. Naming of places is pretty much universal both now and and historically, at least in the cultures I've studied.

I'd like to see the context of the book statement -- perhaps in context it makes more sense (there must have been a reason, and there is that word "frequently" allowing for some wiggle room), but out of context it just sounds very odd.

Edited to add more:

Google says it's from William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire. This is a more complete quotation:

“Because most peasants lived and died without leaving their birthplace, there was seldom need for any tag beyond One-Eye, or Roussie (Redhead), or Bionda (Blondie), or the like.

“Their villages were frequently innominate for the same reason. If war took a man even a short distance from a nameless hamlet, the chances of his returning to it were slight; he could not identify it, and finding his way back alone was virtually impossible. Each hamlet was inbred, isolated, unaware of the world beyond the most familiar local landmark: a creek, or mill, or tall tree scarred by lightning."

This strikes me as… remarkably clueless, and very much a view of medieval people through a flawed modern lens.

(It's true that at some times people were known by one name, though. But even before hereditary surnames came into wide use, you had many, if not most, people known by a given name and a byname that referred to their parentage, or occupation, or appearance, or personality. And contrary to Manchester's assertion elsewhere on that page, it wasn't just the nobility.)

Some villages had histories and thus names going back to Ancient Roman times. A case in point is Matreium in the Austrian Alps, a small village then and now. So the statement that medieval villages didn't have names can hardly be true in an absolute sense.

As to whether villages were frequently innominate (as the verbatim quote claims), I'm not sure. As there were yet no national postal systems to speak of, there was perhaps no purpose in uniform naming of a domain's each and every village. But place names must have been in use by individuals: it seems just such an obvious concern for basic human discourse (e.g. "Where are you from?", etc.)

Plenty of village names come from the medieval times, so yes, they've existed. An example for the origin of such names can be the usual profession of its habitants. That of course led to existence of several villages with the same name around bigger area. Polish language Wikipedia a provides us with a nice list of such names followed by professions, but they're just an example, as there were many more of them. According to this article, between 10th and 13th century there were more than 150 such names of villages around the Lesser Poland region and more than 110 around Silesia region.

What's characteristic, grammatical forms of the villages' names changed with times. Before 13th century they were pointing at people who lived in the village. In 13-14th centuries they changed the way they could point at the name of village, what could be of course connected with losing of its unique, professional character.

Of course many villages changed their name with time. It could also happen if people lost the connection with previous name (f.e. particular profession didn't exist any more).

Medieval villages in Britain certainly had names. Even before the Domesday survey, carried out under William the Conquerer shortly after his takeover of the English throne, towns and vilages had names. Rural areas too, were named, often for geographical features, the local Lord, or the Church (Kirkby, for example). Former Roman fort-towns were know (are still known) by placenames ending in -chester, -caster and -cestre. Some places are known from written sources to have names from pre-Roman (Iron Age) times right through to the modern era. Take somewhere like York; it was known to Anglo-Saxons as Eorfic and Vikings as Jorvic. Both before the 11th century.

There is a grain of truth to what Manchester says. First of all, realize that in medieval times, the population was much more rural and people were more spread out than they are now. There literally hundreds of little crofts for every town. Many of these would have no name, or have some offhand name that was used locally.

This is not just a medieval phenomena. If you pay attention you will notice that the same situation prevails today. Many small communities, especially in rural areas, have no name. For example, north of Cazenovia lake in New York are several small residential communities with their own cemetery and airport, but none of these has an official name.

In the old West it was kind of a joke when a town was "too small to have a name". Sometimes they would give local joke names to transient towns, like "Dirtpatch" or some such.

France is kind of notorious for having small villages without names. During World War II it was a real problem because American soldiers would get instructions like "go 5 miles and turn left at the next village", and then they would turn at the wrong village because many of the smaller villages had no names, so you had to guess which village was meant. Nowadays, a lot of these villages have been given names but in 1944 it was different.

You can also experience the nameless village phenomena by going to rural Africa.

Many towns and villages took their name from the ruling family, the owners of the village.
For example the town of Bronkhorst in the domain of Gelre in the Netherlands is named for the family Bronckhorst (old spelling, the C has since been dropped) that ruled over the area and had its castle there. That keep was probably first built in the 1100s, when the lords of Bronckhorst came to power there.
Fantasy names, with no relation to the surroundings or history/political situation of a town were probably rather less common.

1) I think we're taking Manchester out of context here:

The quote starts:

“Because most peasants lived and died without leaving their birthplace, there was seldom need for any tag beyond One-Eye, or Roussie (Redhead), or Bionda (Blondie), or the like.

Their villages were frequently innominate for the same reason…

It's been a few years since I read the book but clearly Manchester is talking about names from the perspective of the peasants who lived in them and not anyone else. They had little to no reason to refer to their village by anything other than "our village" anymore than they needed last names to identify individuals.

Manchester didn't mean that the villages literally had never been named by anyone ever. He meant that the peasent prespective on the world was so small that they individually did not require or know names that identified individuals or their village to peoples distant from the village itself.

We forget that:

1) culture and language were stratified by class in the medieval age, the nation state in which every social class in a polity was of the save ethnic group had not yet evolved. That meant that nobles spoke one language, the urban middle class another and the peasants yet another. Lack of direct communication made local variation of the same language very extreme.

So, no doubt the local tax farmer from the city had a name for each little village, and perhaps the clerks for the nobles had another but that doesn't mean that the peasants in the village knew what either name was or spoke the language the name was in.

People name things for labels. The same thing can in have as many names as there are reasons to label it. There is no such thing as true canonical name.

2) There were no quantitative spacial maps.

Look at the Doomsday book. It's not a map, it's a list of properties and surviving population with vague spatial inferences of relative direction and distance. If all you had was the Doomsday book, you could not recreate a map of England nor likely navigate to any small place mentioned in the book with any reliability.

All navigation, even at sea, was done by sequential landmarks. Miss one and you were lost. To navigate to a particular village you would have to know and follow precisely, a specific series landmarks making the correct turn at each one.

3) People who actually had knowledge of the wider world most likely wouldn't bother to go through the hassle of helping out a lost peasant. He would have to find someone of his own social class, from at least his general area, identify that individual as such, and then try and solicit help.

So, you're a peasant that calls your hometown "our village" day-to-day. Maybe you've heard someone else call it something or the other in a language and dialect you don't understand. Then an army comes through, binds you, blind folds you, beats you and keeps you hungry and dehydrated while they march in what to you is a random direction. Lose track of your local landmarks for just one branch and your lost.

When they let you go, which way do you run? Whom do you ask for help? The nobles who impressed you in the first place or their servants? Ask to see their copy of the local version of Doomsday book because… oh wait your illiterate. Doesn't matter anyway because they can't understand you and can't be bothered to try.

You likely would have to find an actual chain of fellow peasants, one captured local who knew someone captured a little further away who knew another and so on until you could follow the chain back to someone who lived within spitting distance of your home. How likely was that?

The village could have dozen names and be every public record and famous throughout the land for reasons unknown to the peasant but if the peasant can't map what he knows about the village with what distant outsiders know, he can't find his way home.

25 Stunning Facts About Medieval England Life

There are so many cliches that are associated with medieval period, specially England that usually spring up in history textbooks, and end up presenting loads of hilariously wrong and misconstrued ideas about the Dark Ages we all refer to as the ‘Medieval Period’. Seriously, you must know that medieval England was not all about Knights in shining Armour, Merlin like magicians, witches and shabbily clad peasants!

Life in medieval England was not totally dark or unpleasant. It had some amusing customs that people followed, and peasants were not in existence back then….surprising…right!! So, to further intrigue you, let’s showcase our collection of 25 facts about medieval England that will shock or stun you to no limits! Enjoy reading it!

Did medieval lords have “right of the first night” with the local brides?

Dear Cecil:

Did medieval lords really have the "right of the first night" — that is, the right to be the first to bed the local brides? This figured in the movie Braveheart, and I know I have seen other references to it. I'm not saying the big shots didn't take advantage, but I have a hard time believing this was a generally accepted custom, much less a law.

Paul S. Piper, Honolulu, Hawaii

My feeling exactly. It’s one thing to have your way with the local maidens. It’s something else to persuade society as a whole that this is a cool idea. “Sure, honey, we can get married, but first you have to do the rumba with some old guy with bad teeth.” Also, once the element of surprise was lost, don’t you think this policy would present some risks? Granted women were supposed to be the weaker sex and all, but they knew how to fillet fish.

The right of the first night — also known as jus primae noctis (law of the first night), droit du seigneur (the lord’s right), etc. — has been the subject of locker-room humor and a fair amount of scholarly debate for centuries. Voltaire condemned it in 1762, it’s a plot device in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, and various old histories refer to it.

The 16th-century chronicler Boece, for example, says that in ancient times the Scottish king Evenus III decreed that “the lord of the ground sal have the maidinhead of all virginis dwelling on the same.” Supposedly this went on for hundreds of years until Saint Margaret persuaded the lords to replace the jus primae noctis with a bridal tax.

Not likely. Skeptics point out that (1) there never was any King Evenus, (2) Boece included a lot of other stuff in his account that was clearly mythical, and (3) he was writing long after the alleged events.

The story is pretty much the same all over. If you believe the popular tales, the droit du seigneur prevailed throughout much of Europe for centuries. Yet detailed examinations of the available records by reputable historians have found “no evidence of its existence in law books, charters, decretals, trials, or glossaries,” one scholar notes. No woman ever commented on the practice, unfavorably or otherwise, and no account ever identifies any female victim by name.

It’s true that in some feudal jurisdictions there was something known as the culagium, the requirement that a peasant get permission from his lord to marry. Often this required the payment of a fee. Some say the fee was a vestige of an earlier custom of buying off the lord so he wouldn’t get physical with the bride.

Similarly, ecclesiastical authorities in some regions demanded a fee before a new husband was allowed to sleep with his wife. Some think this means the clergy once upon a time exercised the right of the first night too. But come on, how many first nights can one woman have? What did these guys do, take a number?

The more likely interpretation is that the culagium was an attempt by the nobles to make sure they didn’t lose their serfs by marriage to some neighboring lord. The clerical marriage fee, meanwhile, was apparently paid by newlyweds to get out of a church requirement for a three-day precoital waiting period. (You were supposed to pray during this time and get yourself in the proper frame of mind. Guess they figured a leather teddy wouldn’t do it.)

Did the droit du seigneur exist elsewhere in the world? Possibly in some primitive societies. But most of the evidence for this is pathetically lame — unreliable travelers’ accounts and so on.

A few holdouts claim we don’t have any definite evidence that the right of the first night didn’t exist. But I’d say most reputable historians today would agree that the jus primae noctis, in Europe anyway, was strictly a male fantasy.

None of this is to suggest that men in power didn’t or don’t use their positions to extort sex from women. But since when did some creep with a sword (gun, fancy office, drill sergeant’s stripes) figure he needed a law to justify rape?

Medieval Towns

There were few towns in Medieval England and those that existed were very small by our standards. Most people in Medieval England were village peasants but religious centres did attract people and many developed into towns or cities.

Outside of London, the largest towns in England were the cathedral cities of Lincoln, Canterbury, Chichester, York, Bath, Hereford etc. That these cities were big can be explained simply because they were cathedral cities. These cities attracted all manner of people but especially traders and pilgrims. After the death of Thomas Becket in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral became a very special place of pilgrimage visited by thousands of people each year.

The Domesday Book of 1087 only included six towns in its enquiry. By the time of Medieval England, we do not have accurate figures for these towns and cities as no count was ever made of population and the figure would have changed throughout the year in all large towns and cities.

The big market fairs would have seen an increase in population and it may well have fallen after one had finished. Tax registers – such as the one that helped to spark off the Peasants Revolt of 1381 – were inaccurate as those who could get away with not registering did! If you were not on a tax list, you did not have to pay tax.

Medieval towns tended to grow around areas where people could easily meet, such as crossroads or rivers. Towns needed more water than villages, so a nearby water supply was vital. Rivers would provide the water used for washing and drinking and they were used for the disposal of sewage (if it had not been simply thrown into the streets).

Village people came to towns to trade therefore those who were in charge of a town had to do what was needed to ensure that their town was safe. Many towns had large fences built around them and the gates of these fences were locked at night to keep out undesirables. Cities such as York and Canterbury had city walls that served the same purpose – but a town would not have had enough wealth to build such an expensive protection.

A successful town attracted many merchants to it. Many towns were owned by a lord and it was in his interest to ensure that his town was popular with merchants as they paid tax. The more merchants in a town, the more tax a lord could collect. Taxes were collected by a sheriff. As many people could not read or write, the system was open to abuse and corruption. This is why many people in towns wanted to get a charter.

A charter gave people in a town certain rights that were clearly stated in the charter that town had. Many charters gave towns the right to collect their own taxes thus removing corrupt sheriffs from doing so. It was also common for a town to ask for its own law court so that legal problems could be settled quickly.

Towns were dirty places to live in. There was no sewage system as we would know it today. Many people threw toilet waste into the street along with other rubbish. Rats were very common in towns and cities and lead to the Black Death of 1348 to 1349. Towns might use pigs to eat what rubbish there was. Water was far from clean as a local river would have been polluted with toilet waste thrown into it from villages both upstream and downstream. Therefore, as people would have used this as a source of water (they had no other choice) and because people knew little about health and hygiene, disease was common. Life expectancy could be short. Life for a poor person in a town or city was described as “nasty, brutal and short”.

As homes were made of wood, fire was another danger in a town or city. Walking in a town at night could also be dangerous. Though towns had a curfew (a time when everyone had to be in their homes) no town had a police force to deal with those who broke the law. No town had street lights – the only choice was candles but in a wooden city or town, these ‘street lights’ could prove disastrous.

Building in a Medieval town was expensive as land cost a great deal. That is why many Medieval houses that exist today appear odd in that they have a small ground floor, a larger second floor and an even larger top floor as builders built up and out. This kept the cost down.

A two-floored town house with the top floor over-lapping the ground floor

Shops attracted people to a town. The shops also doubled as a home for the craftsman that worked in it. A sign outside of the shop showed people what that person did for a living. Signs had to be used as so few people could read or write.

The Villages scandals: IRS, STDs, golf carts, and made-up history.

Courtesy of Ted Eytan/Flickr

The Native American tribes that once inhabited Florida left behind some wonderfully mellifluous place names, such as Okahumpka, Wewahitchka, Wacahoota, Umatilla, and Sopchoppy. The early settlers threw in some colorful ones, too: Tate’s Hell Swamp, Yeehaw Junction, and my personal fave, Two Egg.

But the oddest community in Florida has the blandest name imaginable: the Villages. The place doesn’t generate a lot of strange news, like Miami, Key West, and Pasco County. But that’s part of what makes it so weird—even weirder, I would argue, than Gibsonton, the town so odd it inspired an X-Files episode.

The Villages is the largest gated over-55 community in the world. It holds more than 100,000 residents in an area bigger than Manhattan. And everyone gets around via golf cart. The first time I visited, I couldn’t believe it. There were designated parking areas for golf carts at all the businesses. There were golf-cart tracks going everywhere. There are golf-cart tunnels and even a golf-cart bridge to cross the major highways. Why golf carts? Because nobody there really needs a car. Everything they could ever want is inside the gates.

Some of the golf carts “cost upwards of $25,000 and were souped up to look like Hummers, Mercedes sedans, and hot rods,” Andrew D. Blechman noted in his book Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias. They aren’t just for traveling around the three-dozen golf courses, either. According to Blechman, the Villages made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s longest golf-cart parade by lining up 3,321 of them.

There are other records the Villages holds. “We have the highest consumption of draft beer in the state of Florida,” one Villages official boasted in 2002. It helps that the community has its own microbrewery that pipes beer beneath the streets to its town-square restaurants.

And then there are the distinctions they are not so thrilled about. In 2009, the New York Post labeled it “ground zero for geriatrics who are seriously getting it on.” The story reported that couples had been caught having quickies in the golf carts and noted there was a thriving black market for Viagra. A local police officer told the paper, “You see two 70-year-olds with canes fighting over a woman and you think, ‘Oh, jeez.’ ” As a result, the place that likes to bill itself as “America’s Friendliest Hometown” has seen a huge increase in sexually transmitted diseases.

While pretty much anything goes in the community that some residents call “TV,” one thing alone is forbidden: children. They can visit briefly, but that’s it. “It’s amazing that there’s a place in America where children get visitors’ passes like international visas,” Blechman said. The Villages is “an endless playground for adults, but I only found one playground for children.”

My buddy Jerry has parents who bought a home in the Villages 10 years ago. When Jerry visited his folks after they first moved in, the place creeped him out with its Stepford-like uniformity. “It was like Disney World for old people,” he said. Then about five years ago he started thinking of it as “a college campus for old people. It’s like an expensive party school.” (His dad drove one of the golf carts in the parade that made the Guinness book.) Now, he says, he thinks of it as being “like a landlocked cruise ship. It’s got everything you want to do, 16 hours a day. But then everything shuts down at 10 p.m.”

If you stroll around and read the historical plaques, as Jerry did, you find that the area had a fascinating history dating back to before the Civil War, full of Native American attacks, epidemics, shipping accidents, and odd characters like the guy who built a lighthouse on a lake and insisted he be called “the Commodore.” The stories are a load of hooey, concocted over a bottle of scotch and a case of beer by its developers.

The real history starts with a trailer park and a dream. In the 1970s, a Michigan businessman named Harold Schwartz bought land that became the Orange Blossom Gardens mobile home park. A decade in, Schwartz got his son, H. Gary Morse, to leave a Chicago advertising firm and come join him. They put in a golf course and didn’t charge residents for using it, and the lure of free golf became the first step in drawing tens of thousands of new residents. By 1986 they were selling 500 homes a year and adding still more golf courses, pools, clubhouses, recreation centers, theaters, even a hospital. They put up a statue of Schwartz in a Disney-esque pose. After he died, his ashes were deposited inside the statue. Schwartz used to circulate and glad-hand, but not Morse. He’s as approachable as the Wizard of Oz.

For Morse, the Villages has been akin to a private mint. He not only sold the residents their houses. He also owned the mortgage company that financed them. He’s the landlord of all the commercial buildings. He owns all or part of pretty much everything worth owning in the Villages, including the bank, the hospital, the utilities, the garbage collection company, the TV and radio stations, and the newspaper, where never is heard a discouraging word about life in the Villages. (Also never mentioned: the numerous sinkholes that open up because of all the water pumped out of the ground to keep all those lawns and golf courses looking green.)

Thanks to the Villages, Morse is now a billionaire, and he’s built a powerful political base. Morse and his family donated more than $1 million to Mitt Romney. They’ve already given $80,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election committee. All the politicians he supports make sure they come to the Villages for a flag-waving campaign stop.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. According to the Internal Revenue Service, the way Morse has built this grand empire may be about as rock-solid as the sinkhole-prone ground beneath it.

Like many Florida developers, Morse financed a big chunk of construction using something called a community development district, or CDD for short. The district levies fees on the homeowners to pay for roads and other improvements and under state law can borrow money using tax-free bonds. The CDDs in the Villages paid Morse millions of dollars to buy golf courses, guardhouses, and other amenities from him. But the IRS ruled last month that the Villages’ CDD bonds did not deserve to be tax-exempt. Why? Because everyone who sits on the district board—like everything else in the Villages—is controlled by Morse. Those seats are supposed to be filled by residents, the IRS said.

So far Morse has politicians from both parties going to bat for him to make the IRS back off. But his most potent argument against the IRS comes from the Villages’ residents themselves. According to Blechman, most show little interest in seizing control of their community from a leader they never see. Like most Americans, they’re not interested in local politics. Maybe they’d feel differently if, instead of spending millions of dollars, the board was in charge of dispensing draft beer and Viagra.

4. Blasphemy

The Catholic church dominated Medieval Europe, many jurisdictions had religious laws on top of standard laws aimed at maintaining order. One of the most severe of these religious rules regarded blasphemy. Speaking ill of the church, refusing to acknowledge God or the church as supreme, or offering differing ideas than those of the church could all be considered blasphemy.

“[If] we compare murder and blasphemy as regards the objects of those sins, it is clear that blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder, which is a sin against one’s neighbor. On the other hand, if we compare them in respect of the harm wrought by them, murder is the graver sin, for murder does more harm to one’s neighbor, than blasphemy does to God.”

This was a common view that was sustained by many religious heads in both Medieval Christianity and Medieval Islam.

Blasphemy was a severe crime which warranted an equally severe punishment. Many times, blasphemers would be punished with the removal of their tongues. Someone who was found guilty of this egregious offense would be bound and have their tongue removed with hot tongs or pliers leaving them unable to speak for the remainder of their life.

Other punishments included stoning, as according to the Old Testament, and hangings. In fact, the last hanging for blasphemy in England actually occurred in 1697 when a young man was hanged for denying the truth of Christ’s miracles and the integrity of the Old Testament.

Unfortunately, blasphemy was a common crime because it could occur in a moment via a minor slip of the tongue. In the wrong company or in the presence of someone with an agenda, an unkind word towards a local priest or bishop could be spun into heresy or blasphemy with dire consequences. It was often used against someone’s enemy as an easy way to cause them grief. It was difficult to try and prove or disprove what someone had actually said or not.

Our project’s goal

The aim of this project is to create a document that will explain in detail the design of a village, and to provide you with the resources to build your own villages for your games or pleasure. We will provide you with:

  1. Architectural plans (black and white floor plans)
  2. Top view drawings (full colour) of all the components, in a format that you will be able to reuse to build your maps (png with transparency)
  3. An outlook on how each building was used
  4. List of technologies and tools that were involved
  5. Information about the skilled labourers that worked on these buildings, and the villagers, freemen and nobles that lived there
  6. Infrastructure and map designs of 3 villages (see below) with documentation regarding the know-how behind their design

We will also expand on the economy and culture of a village to give you some hints and tips regarding what your adventurers, and what other visitors, might expect from a realistic medieval village.

This article will also serve as the directory for all the resources we will be building, in order to have a place from which they can be systematically accessed.

The Medieval Village

In order to give you a thorough view on the inner workings of a village, we will focus on four distinctive types of villages:

  1. Lancestrike, a small hamlet at the verge of the forest
  2. Fulepet, a fishing village on the warm, south-west coast
  3. Sojourn, a medium-sized village owned by a Knight at the cold northern fringes of a Kingdom
  4. Ravenmoor, a large-sized, prosperous village of a Baronet, on the verge of becoming a town

Each of these villages has a slightly different focus and economy, and will serve to show the variety that can be achieved when you design your own. This project will also take into account that these villages belong to a world where magic exists, and we will expand in topics related to it.

The Buildings, Structures and Locations list

For each of the following structures, we will be showing you a bird’s eye view (so you can put it on your maps), an architectural plan and finally some information regarding the inhabitants, fittings and everyday usage of the building.


Cottage example by Dimitris

  • Blacksmith
  • Woodcutter
  • Mill
  • Charcoal Maker
  • Fishery
  • Bake house
  • Brewery
  • Furrier
  • Carpenter
  • Tailor & Cobbler (shoe maker)
  • Barber
  • Mason
Arable land
Manorial Buildings
  • Church
  • Monastery (satelite Manor)
  • Well
  • Barn (Tithe Barn)
  • Granary
  • Cattle Barn
  • Stables
  • Warehouse
  • Market
  • Tavern
  • Inn
  • Almshouse
  • Great Hall
Non-arable Land
  • Meadow
  • Pasture
  • Woodland / Forest
  • Marsh
  • Field (Fallow)
  • River and Pond

Continue reading Let’s Design a Medieval Village Series

Medieval Towns and Villages

At the time the Domesday Book was compiled in 1087, there were only 18 towns in England with a population of over 2000. Many of these medieval towns were originally Roman towns. But what if you want to establish a new town or village. What things do you have to consider when choosing a site?


It might be a good idea to position your new town or village near an existing castle. Castles are built for defence and contain knights and soldiers trained in weapons. This would give you good protection against raiders and invaders. Merchants also trade goods with castles and you might be able to trade with them as well. This will help to make your town richer and will attract more people to live there.

High Ground

If there is not a castle nearby then it might be a good idea to position part of your new town or village on some high ground. You would then have a good view of the surrounding area and be able to spot possible attackers in plenty of time to prepare your own defence.


You think you have found the perfect spot for medieval towns, but is there a water supply nearby? Remember, there is no running water. Water has to be fetched each day from a river or stream and your people do not want to have to walk miles for it. A wide stream or river will also help to defend your town as attackers will have to find some way to cross it.


You have found a site with high ground that is near a stream. Your people will want to build themselves somewhere to live. Stone is the best building material for medieval towns as it offers the best protection against both attack and the weather. Having a good supply of stone will also allow you to build a wall around your town for added protection. Stone is also useful for throwing at your attackers and for making weapons.

Much of Britain in the medieval period was covered with forest so it should not be too difficult to find a site with a good supply of wood nearby. If there is not a lot of stone your people can make themselves houses from wood. You also need wood to make handles for axes and spears. But the most important thing about wood is that it is needed for making fires. A fire is essential for cooking, heating and for scaring off wild animals.

You have positioned your new town or village near a stream so there should be a good supply of fish. However, your people will not want to eat fish all the time and it is against the religion to eat fish at certain times of the year. You can send hunters out into the forest to catch meat, but you need to grow crops and vegetables as well. It is therefore important that there is some land that can be used for farming.

Planning and designing medieval towns, as we have seen, is a laborious effort.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the medieval period. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Middle Ages.

What Was It Like to Be an Executioner in the Middle Ages?

Forget the image of the hooded executioner swinging an ax much of what we think we know about these medieval figures isn't true.

One afternoon in May 1573, a 19-year-old man named Frantz Schmidt stood in the backyard of his father's house in the German state of Bavaria, preparing to behead a stray dog with a sword. He'd recently graduated from "decapitating" inanimate pumpkins to practicing on live animals. If he passed this final stage, Schmidt would be considered ready to start his job, as an executioner of people.

We know the details of this morbid scene because Schmidt meticulously chronicled his life as an executioner, writing a series of diaries that painted a rich picture of this profession during the sixteenth century. His words provided a rare glimpse of the humanity behind the violence, revealing a man who took his work seriously and often felt empathy for his victims. But what's more, Schmidt wasn't necessarily all that unusual historical anecdotes reveal that the prevailing stereotype of the hooded, blood-spattered, brutish executioner falls far short of the truth.

So then, what was it like to do this work hundreds of years ago in Europe? And how did "executioner" become a legitimate job title in the first place?

"What's common to all [countries in Europe at the time] is that they're all trying to have better criminal law enforcement," said Joel Harrington, a historian at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the author of "The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century" (Picador, 2013), a book about Schmidt's life.

The problem was that things were "a little like the American Wild West, in that most criminals got away," Harrington told Live Science. "So when they did catch them, they really liked to make a good example and have a public spectacle" &mdash hence the need for public executioners to carry out that work.

But people weren't exactly lining up for the job of hanging, beheading or burning criminals at the stake most people understandably saw this as undesirable work. In fact, those who ultimately became executioners didn't choose the job for themselves. Instead, it was bestowed upon them.

In some cases, butchers were roped in to become executioners, or convicts were offered the job as an alternative to their own deaths. But typically, executioners came into the jobs through family ties most in the profession were men whose fathers had been executioners before them, Harrington explained. Even the diarist Schmidt was descended from an executioner. His father had unwillingly received the job when randomly ordained by a prince as a royal executioner.

Over time, this passing of the baton from father to son created what Harrington called long-standing "execution dynasties" that spread across Europe during the Middle Ages.

But the existence of those dynasties also reveals the poor image executioners had at the time. People were trapped in this family cycle of employment because, in reality, they had few other opportunities to work, according to Harrington. People whose professions revolved around death were people that the rest of society did not want to associate with. So executioners were typically consigned to the fringes of society &mdash and even forced to literally live at the edge of town.

"People wouldn't have invited executioners into their homes. Many executioners were not allowed to go into churches. Marriage has to be done at the executioner's home," Harrington said. "Some schools would not even take the children of executioners."

This social isolation meant that executioners were left to consort with others forced to occupy society's underworld, "undesirables" such as prostitutes, lepers and criminals. That only boosted public suspicion of executioners and their families.

Executioners, therefore, were a conundrum: crucial for maintaining law and order, yet shunned because of their unsavory work. "Attitudes toward professional executioners were highly ambiguous. They were considered both necessary and impure at the same time," said Hannele Klemettilä-McHale, an adjunct professor of cultural history at the University of Turku in Finland who has studied representations of executioners.

Yet, there were some professional perks to this morbid work. Executioners benefited from something called "havage," a kind of tax that gave them the right to take a portion of food and drink from market vendors for free, said Klemettilä-McHale. What's more, "the authorities usually gave [the executioner] free lodging and released him from tolls and taxes," she told Live Science. These small allowances were intended to compensate for executioners' social isolation &mdash and to compel them to stay in the job.

But at odds with their lowly societal position was the professionalism that executioners were expected to show in their work. While the business of execution may seem like it would require little more than brute strength and barbarity, in reality, executioners needed a relatively high degree of expertise to do the job smoothly, said Klemettilä-McHale.

"The officeholder was expected to be successful at every execution. If he failed, he was accused not only of incompetence, but also of cruelty," she said.

In some regions, executioners were limited to three strokes for a beheading &mdash and if a grisly scene resulted from one too many swings of the ax or sword, there could be serious consequences. "Sometimes, an unsuccessful executioner was attacked by the furious spectators, and if he survived, the authorities punished him by withholding his fee [or] with imprisonment or dismissal," Klemettilä-McHale explained.

There was clearly a powerful incentive to execute as cleanly as possible, and that meant having a relatively good understanding of the human body. Contrary to popular opinion, executioners weren't uneducated. In fact, those in the profession had uncommonly high literacy rates for members of their social class, along with fundamental knowledge of human anatomy, Harrington said.

This led to a surprising irony of the job: Some executioners could double up as doctors. This created an interesting societal paradox: &ldquoPeople who didn't want anything to do with an executioner socially would come to his house and ask to be healed," Harrington said. We know, for instance, that Schmidt "had many, many more patients he healed than people he executed," Harrington added. In fact, Schmidt wrote that doctoring would have been his chosen career, had he not been forced into execution.

Clearly, executioners from olden times were more than just blood-spattered brutes. Instead, the history books paint a picture of regular people forced into a job that nobody else would do &mdash and in a time when execution was deemed essential for keeping the peace.

"Forget that image of the hood and them being anonymous and sadistic," Harrington said. "They would have seen themselves as law enforcement officials."

There's a final twist in the story of Schmidt. Over the course of his career, he had gained an unusual degree of respect due to his notable professionalism, which led to his appointment as the official executioner of the town of Bamberg, Bavaria. That earned Schmidt a generous salary and allowed him to live a very comfortable life with his family in a large home. However, he was still stigmatized because of his work &mdash a fate he did not want to pass on to his children.

So as a retired 70-year-old, Schmidt made it his mission to restore his family name. He appealed to Bavaria's authorities to release the Schmidt sons from their father's tormented legacy, and his bold bid was a success.

His children were ultimately freed from a life at the executioner's block and given the right to pursue their own careers, as Schmidt had always wished to do &mdash a happy ending to the executioner's tale.

Is it true that medieval villages didn't have names? - History

The real and true name of Lelant

A sign at the entrance to our village is in Cornish and says Lannanta. I suppose some people might be led to believe that is the way the Cornish-speaking people spelt and said the place name fifteen hundred years or so ago. Well, we simply don't know what the people who founded this village called it or how they said it. We don't even know when they founded it or who they were. Most likely they didn't write the name down because they couldn't write.

There is no entry for Lelant in the national Domesday Survey of 1086. The first written record of the village name appears to be in about 1170, far too late for us to be reasonably sure about the name's derivation (Archives of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral number 3762, page 54). The word is spelt in 1170 Lananta, with one middle N unlike the Cornish name sign in our village which has two. The name is perhaps made from two parts: lan or lann, probably meaning a religious enclosure, and anta, usually said to be the name of a Christian missionary-settler. We cannot even be sure about this two-part explanation or whether there was such a person as Anta. And we don't know what this place was called before the supposed arrival of Anta. We don't know why the church is named after Uny and the village after Anta.

The village name appears in several medieval/mediaeval documents thereafter and is spelt/spelled in about a dozen different ways that I have counted so far. The most common spelling is Lananta. Four-fifths of the medieval instances have lan with only one middle N and a varying ending in A or E. Beware: I've not yet seen any of the original medieval documents I'm relying here on transcriptions and they might be miscopied. It will take me a long time to look at the originals which have survived.

So there is a hotchpotch of spellings of our village name in the Middle Ages. Altogether a dozen different ways of spelling the name, and about a score of different ways if we count the spellings in the Tudor years as well. And there might be more that I haven't come across yet. How would you decide which of so many different spellings to put on the present Cornish name sign?

Now variety in spelling is a common feature in English until well into the eighteenth century so there is nothing unusual in this Lelant spelling hotchpotch. Writers had a freedom in spelling which we feel we don't have unless we are advertisers and, for example, William Worcester in 1478 spells Lelant in several different ways in his notes (Worcester 1478). So whatever goes on Lelant's Cornish name plate, there will be other different and valid spellings behind it. We can't say one is correct and the others wrong. Spelling is a human invention to approximately represent spoken sounds and a spelling is correct if enough native speakers use it.

Ah, native speakers. That's another important difficulty. Whose spellings are these anyway? Let us try to be clear. First, what we do not have. Obviously we don't have any audio recordings of villagers speaking in medieval times. And there are no bits of paper on which the medieval Lelant villagers, the people who spent all their lives here and spoke the name in their native Cornish, scribbled the name of their village for us - anyway, they mostly couldn't write. We do not have, as far as I am aware, any medieval documents written wholly in Cornish by native Cornish speakers in which our village name occurs.

So what do we have? Broadly, we have instances of the village name in medieval documents of the royal government and the church. The bulk of medieval official documents were written in Latin with some entries in French, Latin and French being later replaced by English. They were not written by native Cornish speakers in Lelant, though some of the references to the village might well be informed by local report. We have, for example, a report of 1433 in which arbitrators in a dispute came to the estuary and looked with their own eyes at the scene of the dispute and the record says Lananta (Dunstan 1966, ii, 134). Broadly, the documents were written by people whose first daily language was medieval French or medieval English or even medieval Latin, people who knew no Cornish. The scribes had to find letters to represent what they thought was the Cornish sound and word and to do that they had to use the contemporary conventions of their Latin and French and English alphabets and pronunciation and handwriting, which changed over the years. We see a similar struggle to represent English words after 1066 in Norman-French sounds and handwriting. We do not know how far the village name is Latinised, that is cast into a form which conforms to the medieval Latin spelling system, and how far it faithfully reflects the unrecorded Cornish spelling. The village was often called Uny Lelant and there is a plaintive note by George Oliver in 1846 trying to decipher the name of Uny, the church-saint, in a fourteenth century document which sums up the difficulties: "The word is spelt in the original roll with an E followed by five minims, Y, and three minims" (Oliver 1846, xxii). Something like Euniyni or Ewnyni, heaven help us.

We might well see these very various and numerous spellings of Lelant as attempts by people who did not speak Cornish to spell the village's Cornish name in Latin, though as all the spellings agree around LNT they are probably close approximations to the local word. However, in what sense is any of them a genuine, unmediated medieval Cornish spelling?

Behind the spellings are a village people talking. However much we strain our ears, we cannot hear them clearly. The spellings only suggest, only approximate to, the spoken word. We don't surely know how the pronunciation of the village name changed over the medieval years. The nearest we can get to probable truth is that Lannanta, the spelling on the sign, is a spelling in medieval Latin and English like all the others. Of course there was a real and used spoken Cornish word behind it (and the other spellings of the name), but we cannot know what this reality was with certainty though it probably sounded very like the spellings.

So there are several difficulties which we have to face. The written history begins only round 1150 and we don't know how the name fared before that. The name was spelt in a number of different ways in the middle ages and Lannanta, the name on the present village sign, is unrepresentative of these. The spellings were not written by Lelant villagers or by other native Cornish speakers. We don't surely know how the native Lelanters said the name or how they would have spelt it if they could, though we have a realistic idea.

There is another difficulty. All but one of these medieval spellings are agreed on the beginning of the name as LAN or LEN or LANN, whatever follows. The present spelling is universally Lelant. There has been a change in the third letter from N to L. I find the explanation that I have seen for this, assimilation, unconvincing, and, if there were contemporary comments on the change, they do not appear to have survived. The change does not appear to reflect any English language influence. It is difficult to date the change precisely but for some years the two pronunciations, with N or L, would probably exist side by side in Lelant, perhaps different generations using different pronunciations, perhaps fashion playing a part. As far as I can see, the first surviving writing with L is in 1478 (Worcester 1478). In the compositio, dated around 1500, setting out the agreement for the chapel for Anta, the village name is spelled both Lanante and Lalant (DRO Bishop Redmayne's Register). The L form starts to be common in the second half of the sixteenth century and by the 1600s is vastly predominant. Matthews records several references to Lelant in the late sixteenth century from the borough accounts of St Ives, the first in 1573 (Matthews 1892, 145). All these St Ives references have an L and not an N as the third letter of the name. Presumably the spelling followed after the change in the spoken language, reflecting what was happening there, so I think we can say that villagers were pronouncing the name with an L in the middle in the first half of the sixteenth century and perhaps before.

We are back to native speakers again because we have evidence that suggests that in the late sixteenth century the villagers of Lelant still spoke Cornish rather than English as their first language (Henderson 1958, 300). This suggests strongly that the change to Lelant was made by people whose native language was Cornish. The village name is spelt Lalant (or variations of this, all with a middle L) often in the borough accounts of St Ives of the 1500s and this must represent a local and native Cornish pronunciation (Matthews 1892). The spelling change must represent a distinguishable change in pronunciation. Lelant then is the Cornish villagers' word for the village and it has been the Cornish name since at least the 1500s.

Lelant is the Cornish word used by the last native Cornish speakers in our village.

We aren't talking just about language. The question thrown up by our village sign is basically, Whose Cornish counts? and that is definitely an ideological question not a language one. Whose language counts, that of ordinary villagers or distant scribes or modern enthusiasts? The last Cornish speakers or speakers at an earlier date? How sure are we of the way native Cornish speakers of any time ordinarily spoke and wrote in the past? Are purity and corruption legitimate concepts in language history, or are they a serious misunderstanding of how languages and cultures work and change?

So at the end of it all what is the real and true Cornish name for Lelant? Ah well, truth, said Oscar Wilde, is rarely pure and never simple. He must have had Lelant in mind.

DRO: Devon Record Office,Bishop Redmayne's Register 1496-1501 Chanter 12, folio 12 verso

DUNSTAN GR (ed) (1966) The register of Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Exeter (Volume 2) Devon and Cornwall Record Society, Exeter

Exeter Cathedral Archives, Archives of the Dean and Chapter, number 3762, page 54. In an email of 5 September 2006 the cathedral archivist confirmed the spelling Lananta in about 1170 in these archives.

HENDERSON Charles (1958) 'The ecclesiastical antiquities of one hundred and nine parishes of west Cornwall: Lelant' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1958 but written in 1923-24. The 1170 reference to Lelant is on page 297. The Cornish language reference is on page 300 and is to a case in the consistory court in 1572 and it is also cited in HENDERSON Charles Calendars 10, 229-230 (at the RIC).

MATTHEWS JH (1892) A history of the parishes of St Ives, Lelant, Towednack, and Zennor Elliott Stock, London. Lelant in various forms but all with a middle l appears on pages 145, 149, 150, 153, 157, 167, 170, 237, 240, and 253 for example.

OLIVER George (1846) Monasticon dioecesis Exoniensis PA Hannaford, Exeter and Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. A copy at Morrab Library includes supplements.

WORCESTER William (1478) Itinerary. A copy is in Supplementary papers at the back of volume 4 of POLSUE Joseph (1872) Lake's parochial history of the county of Cornwall Lake, Truro. Reprinted 1974 by EP Publishing, Wakefield. Lelant references are at pages 98, 104, and 105 in this edition. Lelant is spelt Lallant, Lananta, and Lalant by Worcester. .

A list of examples of the various spellings of the name of Lelant is found in GOVER JEB (1948) The place names of Cornwall (typescript at CRO)

The form lann which was used on the village sign as that, and not lan, was considered by the Cornish language advisers to Penwith District Council to be the Cornish word. Lann appears in PADEL OJ (1985) Cornish place-name elements English Place-Name Society, Nottingham. Though it does not mention Lelant, it discusses lann as a hypothecated Cornish word, that is, a form which has not been found as a separate word in a text.

This is a list of the forms of the name in various centuries:
12th century: Lananta
13th: Lananta, Lanante, La Nante, Lannante, Lannantha,
14th: Lanant, Lananta, Lanante, Lanantha, Lanaunt, Lannante, Lenant, Lenanta,
15th: Lanant, Lananta, Lenanta, Lalant, Lallant
16th: Lananta, Lanante, Lanantt, Lanaunt, Lannant, Lenant, Lalant, Lalante, Lelant, Lelante, Lelaunt

The 1291 taxatio appears to spell the name Lauvanta, Lavanta, Lananta, and Lamanta (JH DENTON et al).