Society and Customs
all villages or towns became a Burgh: this was a special privilege which
was usually granted by a charter from the King or Lord to the
inhabitants. A charter was a legal document and was written on parchment
by a monk or scribe in Latin. Often, at a later time, a King or Queen
would issue a further charter to confirm the original charter. In some
burghs today, only later charters survive. Many of the 1st Royal Burghs
were created by King David I (1124-1153) and may have been created by a
declaration of the King rather than by a Charter.
There were different types
of Burgh:Royal Burghs - granted by the King or Queen.
Burghs of Barony - like Torry granted by a lord.
Abbatial Burghs - granted by the Abbot of a Monastery.
Ecclesiastical Burghs - granted by a representative of the church.
The people who lived in
the burgh were called burgesses. Burgesses not only had certain rights but also
Examples of Rights and Responsibilities
. to have land in the burgh
. to obey the rules of the burgh
. to trade in the town
. to help defend the burgh
. fishing rights
. to help repair bridges
Only Burgesses who lived in royal burghs were officially allowed to trade
The Layout of
The layout of the Burgh depended on
the geography of the area. If a settlement had formed beside a castle or
monastery on a hill, then streets would have to be built on, or round, the base
of the hill. Charters giving Burgh status were usually granted to settlements
which already existed. Once Burgh status was granted, this led to the
formal laying out of the burgh. In Scotland, a Burgh usually consisted of 1
single street with a back lane running behind. Land was divided into long plots,
known as burgage plots and these would run between the main street and
the back lane, creating a .herringbone pattern.
The Burgage plots were laid out by people called liners. These
were Burgh officers with responsibility for measuring Burgage plots and
supervising building matters. All plots would be the same width. Some
burghs would copy each other and invite the same liners to lay out their burgh.
For example, Mainard the Fleming who laid out Berwick was invited to lay out St
Andrews, and Ranulf, who was also Flemish, laid out Haddington and Glasgow.
Plots and the Backlands
The long narrow plots on which the houses stood were known as tofts
or rigs as well as burgage plots. Houses were built on the part of
the plot nearest the main street. In the area behind, known as the backlands,
(the area behind each house where animals were kept, food was grown, craftsmen
had their workshops, and where the midden and well were) vegetables and fruit
were grown for family use and also for sale. The well was in this area too,
often next to the midden, where all the waste from the house went. Animals, such
as pigs and hens, were kept on the backlands and craftsmen would
have their workshops there too. There was also often an oven which was shared by
2 households next to each other. This oven was used to bake bread for the
family, as baxters were the only people allowed to sell bread. The
plots usually ran to the boundary of the town, with gates out the back to the
townlands, where there was often shared grazing ground for animals. In this
way the fences at the ends of the plots formed the town boundary, with each
Burgess responsible for maintaining his own section. The fences
between the Burgage plots and those creating the dyke or 'heidroom'
at the bottom of the plot were made of wattle which was made up of twigs
woven together. Later, wooden palisading and possibly a ditch, would
protect the inhabitants of the Burgh from unwelcome visitors. Some Burghs had
Tolls were collected at
the ports or town gates, which were often closed at curfew. The
times of curfew were different in summer and winter and varied from Burgh to
Burgh. If there was a danger that strangers might bring disease or plague into
the Burgh, the ports would not be opened to them. As some Burghs grew, the
Burgage plots started to get overcrowded and people even started to build in the
market place. This changed the shape and layout of the original burgh. Also, in
large towns, different market areas were created such as the Fleshmarket or the
Fishmarket. Where space was very limited, some buildings grew up and out - like
must rely on archaeological evidence to find out about the houses which were
built in early Medieval Burghs during the 12th century. This evidence
shows that the houses were a single building with wattle walls and
free-standing stakes to support the roof. There were no windows or
chimneys and the doorway was protected by a leather cover.
The floor was of gravel or earth, with a central fireplace
consisting of a clay-lined hollow or slab. Smoke would find its own way out
through the many gaps in the construction of the building. This building would
be shared with the animals. Gradually, houses became stronger.
Daub, of either mud or dung, was pushed on to the wattle to
provide some kind of wind-proofing and a wooden beam ran across
the roof. People also started to use cobbles on the floors to replace the
gravel. There is no evidence for the roofs of the early houses. These were most
likely made of thatch or heather or straw. Later more
important buildings had colourful pottery tiles on the roofs. There was a
great risk of fire because it spread very quickly once it started.
During the 15th century, stone was used for some buildings but for very few
houses. By the 16th century, some stone was used for houses but it was usually
on the ground floor only. Some houses from this time had stone stairs outside at
the front and some had slated roofs. A reference, in 1317, to the
stone-house in Aberdeen tells us just how unusual stone houses were. We
also know that as late as 1624 there were very few stone houses in
Burghs. In that year, the burgh of Dunfermline was almost completely
destroyed in a fire because most of the houses were made of wood.
Furniture was simple. There was a table in every home which could be put
up and down as needed. In merchant houses there may have been a compter
which was a squared board put on top of the table and used for counting money.
Checked table-cloths were also used for this purpose. There were pottery
pitchers, pewter or wooden plates and knives and spoons but no forks.
There was possibly a linen cupboard and a cupboard for plates. Beds would be of
a box-type. Straw was often used for bedding, although wealthier people may have
had woollen blankets. There would be at least one wooden barrel which
contained the family supply of salted beef or possibly fish. In the early
Middle Ages, straw was used as a floor covering. This straw was often
shared with the animals which were kept in the house. Wealthy people may have
had rugs. It is important not to jump to conclusions about living standards.
There was a difference between the living standards of, for example, a
merchant and a shoemaker but we do not have enough evidence to
describe their lifestyles in detail.
The Parish Church was the most important building in the Burgh.
It was an important meeting point and was used by everybody in the Burgh.
The Parish Church was usually very well-cared for. Inside there were colourful
statues and lovely decorated objects for use during the services. There would be
more than one altar and merchant and craft guilds would pay for their own altars
and make them very beautiful with candles and other expensive objects. The altar
might be dedicated to their patron saint, or to the Holy Blood or
Holy Rood. After 1560, many medieval churches fell into
ruins not just because of the damage caused by the Protestants during the
Reformation but also because the Protestants built new churches to
suit the different form of worship. All the statues and beautiful
decorations were destroyed. Only a few medieval churches, which
continued to be used after the Reformation, still survive today.
The Tolbooth, which was later known as the town-house, usually
overlooked the market-place in the centre of the Burgh. The Market
Cross, the Tron, where weights were checked and Stocks where
people were punished, were often nearby. The Tolbooth housed the Burgh
Court, the Jail and the Council rooms. The "jougs",
an iron collar which was fastened round the neck of the person who was
being punished, was often attached by a chain to the wall of the Tolbooth or the
Parish Church. There was no set pattern for the Tolbooth. Some
Tolbooths still survive to this day, although they have changed a lot over time.
This was the place where, by a law said to have been made by William I
(1165-1214), all goods to be sold in the Burgh had to be presented.
The Mercat Cross was the central point in the market-place, where all
announcements were made. The style of the Cross varied from Burgh to Burgh. It
often had steps and a stone pillar with a unicorn at the top. As burghs grew,
there might be several markets for different types of goods such as Flesh and
Fish or Poultry.
Tron was also known as the public weigh-beam and would be found
near the Tolbooth in the centre of the Burgh. This was where goods for
sale would be checked to make sure that they were the right weight and that
no-one was cheating. The standard measures of the burgh were used and these were
sealed with the burgh seal. It was the Burgh.s responsibility to check that the
weights were accurate and to ensure that the Burgh Seal was kept in tact. The
Tron was usually made of wood so there are no original Trons left
Mecat Cross was often the place where people were punished. For example, the
stocks were usually here, in full view of everyone. The length of time a
person spent in the stocks depended on the rules which they had broken.
The worst punishment, however, was to be banned from the Burgh.
were involved in the trading activities of the burghs. However, officially, only
merchants in Royal Burghs had the right to trade overseas. Merchants in
Royal Burghs could become very rich and they often had shares in ships used for
trading overseas. Many merchants had shops or booths where they would sell
the goods they imported. These might include luxury goods such as
silks and fine fabrics, wines, jewellery and a wide range of
spices which were used to flavour food. The Burgh Charter granted the right
to hold markets and would state the number of markets which could be held in the
year. Markets were often held weekly. People from outside the Burgh who wanted
to sell goods at the market had to pay customs tolls. The Burgh Council
controlled the market regulations. For example, they stated when the market
could start and finish selling. Merchants were often members of the Burgh
Council and in this way held control over the trading affairs of the Burgh.
The Burgh Council controlled the prices and the quality of goods sold in the
Burgh. It was an offence to forestall, that is, to buy goods before
they reached market to avoid paying any extra charges. Regrating
was also an offence. This was when goods were bought up to create a shortage, in
order to push up the price.
Local produce such as cheese, eggs, butter and flour were sold at Burgh
markets as well as goods from further afield. We know that there was a lot of
trade with England during the Middle Ages and that during the reign of
Alexander III (1249-1286) 9/10ths of the coin in circulation in Scotland was
English. Unfortunately we do not have many statistics to tell us more
about this overland trade with England. During the Middle Ages, much of
Scotland's trade consisted of cloth, wool, woolfells (sheep's fleeces
with the skin attached), hides, skins and salmon. From the 1530s,
herring were exported in increasing numbers and there was a boom in the
trade of salt and coal from the towns on the Forth estuary during
the 16th century. Luxury goods were imported. These would include fine
cloth, silks, jewellery and spices. There were 3 main overseas trading
Trade with the Eastern Baltic at Stralsund and Danzig
(present day Gdansk). This did not include Sweden until the 17th century.
Most of this trade consisted of hides or small mixed packs of wares which
included coarse cloth. There are no substantial early records.
Trade with the Netherlands through Flanders and the staple
(trading centre) of Bruges with its port of Sluis. The main export
until at least 1400 was wool. By the 1470s the staple port had
moved to Middelburgh. This port was used until about 1505 and then
Veere (Campvere) on the island of Walcheren was used where there
was a Scottish Colony. Until the 17th century, Scottish goods were
shipped here and taken further inland.
Trade with ports in the north of France, especially Dieppe. Wool, cloth
and skins and other commodities were exported and by 1500 the export of
salmon was increasing. There was a well-established wine trade through
the port of Bordeaux by the 15th century.
The craftsmen found in each Burgh might include Weavers, Tailors,
Shoemakers, Cordiners (leather-workers), Fleshers, Hammermen, (which
included all metalworkers such as blacksmiths, pewterers, locksmiths,
cutlers, shearsmiths, armourers and lorimers who made the
metal parts for horse harnesses and carried out small metalwork), Saddlers,
Brewers, Baxters and Coopers. Coopers were in great demand because
many barrels were needed to store salted beef and fish.
There would be different craftsmen in the Burgh depending on what was needed.
For example, there were many wigmakers in Edinburgh. By the 16th
century, craftsmen had their own Incorporations or Guilds which
had their own rules and regulations. Some rules were drawn up to
make sure that their work was of a high standard. No-one could join the Guild
unless he had first been an apprentice. Apprentices were closely supervised and
their training would last between 5 and 7 years. Before an apprentice was
allowed to be a member of the guild, he had to submit a piece of work as a test
of his skill. The Guilds raised funds to maintain their altars in the
Parish Church and to provide for the care of the widows and orphans of Members.
The Guild also controlled the wages and prices of its members and could
discipline them. The Burgh council was responsible for seeing that the
quality of the goods sold was of the right standard. For example, ale-tasters
were employed to test the quality of the ale for sale and Baxters could
be fined if the bread they sold did not reach a certain weight or quality.
From evidence found in the middens, we can find out about the diet
of the people. Blackberries, blaeberries and raspberries were
eaten and vegetables were grown in the Burgage plots. Oatmeal
was a very important part of
the diet and bread was baked in the oven in the backlands. If food was in
short supply, people were not allowed to sell it outside the Burgh. Shells
of cockles, mussels and winkles have been found. There is also
evidence for chickens, geese and wild birds in the people's diet.
Bones and parts of skeletons show that large animals including cattle, sheep,
goats and deer were butchered. Every part of the animal was
used. Most animals which were still alive at the the beginning of winter
were killed and the meat was salted to preserve it. This meant that there was a
great demand for salt and spices to preserve and flavour
meat. A few of the best animals were probably kept over the winter to
provide breeding stock for the next year.
The water supply was often polluted. The household supply was often too near the
midden where rubbish was dumped and the water in the Wells which
were used by everyone in the Burgh were also often polluted. Water from the
river was used by animals and industries such as the tanning industry.
Because much of the water supply was polluted, people tended to drink ale. This
was sold by the pint or gallon.
Bathing and Washing During Medieval Times
One of the modern myths about
no one took baths.
This is not true.
were normally taken in
tubs. Often times some privacy was provided by a
canopy or tent. In warmer
weather the tub was placed in the garden of the castle, and in cold weather near
a fire inside the castle. When travelling, the tub often accompanied the lord,
together with the bathman. In some castles the bathrooms were built in. At
Leeds Castle, in
1291, there was a chamber
23ft by 17ft, lined with stone, which
4ft of water
taken from the lake that surrounded the castle. There was a ledge for
accessories, a recess for the bath, and a changing room located right above the
bathroom. Some castle bathrooms had
piped-in hot and cold water.
Some lords even had bath mats to protect their feet from the cold. A
lavabo, slop basin, or
stone basin built into the wall.
It was used as a wash basin and sink for washing the hands before and after
meals. Often, a
refillable tank with copper or bronze taps sat above the basin. Some lavabos
were highly decorative and had spouts in the form of animal heads. Some examples
of Castles with lavabos are Goodrich and Conisbrough Castles in England.
was said that a peasant could expect to be fully bathed
in their life; once, when they were born and when they had died! Face and hand
washing was more common but knowledge of hygiene was non-existent. No-one knew
that germs could be spread by having dirty hands.
Animals were slaughtered and butchered in the street and fish were also
gutted in the street. Later there were attempts to have official middens
and street-cleaners. The midden, where all the waste from the
house went, was often next to the Well in the backlands and the
water supply was easily polluted. Rats and fleas were a common problem.
There were many diseases such as measles, scarlet fever, pneumonia and
cholera and examination of skeletons has shown that there was also
tuberculosis, spina bifida and arthritis. Tooth decay
was common. Leprosy was also greatly feared since it could easily spread
from one person to another. A leper house was situated outside the town.
People with skin disorders were often sent to the leper house since
people were so frightened by the disease. Many illnesses were called plague and
there were many types of plague. Pneumonic plague was
probably more common in Scotland than bubonic plague.
Pneumonic plague, which survives well in damp conditions, passed from 1
person to another through the air and was very infectious, leading to a quick
death. Many children died before they grew up and most adults died between
the ages of 40 and 50. Many women died giving birth.
Archaeologists looking at skeletons from excavations in Aberdeen suggest
that the average height for medieval men was about 165 cm and 157 cm for
medieval women. Today it is about 178 cm for men and 165 cm for women.
worn by people during the Middle Ages were mostly made of wool or coarse
linen. Flax which was grown in the backlands or imported from
Flanders, was spun and woven in people's homes.
Only the wealthy would
have been able to afford to buy silks and velvets imported from
Textiles do not survive
well, so there is little archaelogical evidence of the clothes worn.
Some leather from
shoes and jackets has survived and many buckles and brooches.