The importance of the number 7 in medieval times

It will come as no surprise to those of you who have found yourself exploring medieval people’s relationship with the cosmos this week to discover that seven was a significant number in the medieval world. Everything was supposed to be in balance whether it was the elements or the humours – so unsurprisingly in a world that saw seven planets with the world at the centre of the cosmos that there should be corresponding balance elsewhere – from seven sacraments, seven virtues and sins to seven metals. Each one of the metals linked up to it’s own planet and it’s own day of the week. There was also a religious significance thanks to Biblical interpetation -seven days to create the Earth; the four corners of the world link up to the Holy Trinity resulting in completeness – a balance between the spiritual and the world – harmony. Number theory connects the world to the Divine in much of medieval thinking. And from there study of numbers and organising things in numerical pattern draws mankind closer to the Divine.

The theme of numbers can be seen in many medieval works – Dante’s Divine Comedy being the one that sticks from long ago study. And of course patterns such as those created by the Fibonacci sequence are pleasing to the eye. I’m not quite sure how the seventh son of a seventh son fits into the pattern but for today at least here are the seven planets of the medieval cosmos and the seven metals that alchemists worked with.

 Day Planet Metal
 Sunday Sun Gold
 Monday Moon Silver
 Tuesday Mars Iron
 Wednesday Mercury Mercury
 Thursday Jupiter Tin
 Friday Venus Copper
 Saturday Saturn Lead
medieval metals and their planets

Of alchemists and kings

Fathers of Alchemy from Elias Ashmole’s book on the subject

Dr John Dee is probably England’s most famous alchemist thanks to his employment by Elizabeth I. He cast the horoscope which identified 15 January 1559 as an auspicious date for Elizabeth. Just in case you’re wondering, as well as being an astrologer and mathematician Dr Dee spent quite a lot of his time trying to talk to angels. Rather alarmingly he also managed to get involved in a scandalous wife swapping episode which probably also explains why Dee is notably absent from most school texts.

It turns out that the English had a bit of a reputation for alchemy. Elias Ashmole collated late medieval works in the Theatrum Chemicum Britanium of 1652 (and there is no one who knows me who will be surprised that I didn’t cover that during my recent Zoom class.) He began with the introduction “severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language.”

I was a bit perplexed to find Chaucer on Ashmole’s list until I read the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale and found a counterfeiter – well base metal does appear more precious than it started out! It turns out that the tale is based on a real case which can be found here on the National Archives blog:

Ashmole did not comment on whether he believed in the Philosopher’s stone or not.

It also turns out – according to some “histories” that Edward III employed one the form of Franciscan friar Raymond Lull – who somehow or other convinced Edward that he could produce enough hard cash to fund a new crusade. You will all be delighted to hear that Edward’s investment paid off because his alchemist apparently turned several tons of lead into gold which Edward promptly used to pay for his war against the French – oddly I don’t recall reading about effective chrysopoeia during the reign of Edward III. Unsurprisingly Lull disappears form history leaving a tall tale behind him – the real Lull, a Catalonian, died when Edward was a toddler, though it is true that he spoke Arabic and studied various Islamic texts.

It turns out though that in this case there is fire to go with the smoke. A Patent Roll of 1330 identifies Edward III’s interest in alchemical transmutation of base metal and twenty years later John de Walden was arrested and sent to the Tower of London for relieving the Plantagenet monarch of 5,000 gold crowns and 20 pounds of silver to “work thereon by the art of alchemy.” His arrest would suggest that Edward wasn’t totally convinced by the end product.

Johnathan Hughes, The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth Century England, Bloomsbury Publishing

words words words 3- monastic habits

Sorry can’t resist the very bad pun. How many words pertaining to monasteries can you identify – could be architectural or to do with monastic life and roles?

Alchemy – Nicholas Flamel

The tomb of Nicholas Flamel

For people who are not fans of Harry Potter (strange I know but there are some) Nicholas Flamel is a character in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And he was a real person who lived in fourteenth century Paris.

Alchemists believed that the world was made up of four elements and that eventually all substances would return to a pure state – so in the case of base metal they were speeding things up in their bid to transmute lead into gold and in the case of the Elixir of Life they were slowing things down. Or put another way they were attempting to work out the secrets of the cosmos.

Now, the problem with this was that until the lead transmuted into gold there wasn’t a great deal of money to be had – although if you found a rich patron then things probably became more straight forward. Though obviously states tended to be a bit twitchy about people manufacturing gold without their say so and the Church had it’s doubts about men usurping God’s role (though apparently Martin Luther found it all very interesting.) Nicholas Flamel paid his bills by working as a copyist, a public writer who wrote letters for people who couldn’t, a landlord and a bookseller – he had a licence from the University of Paris. He also speculated in property.

Apparently Nicholas laid hands on a very old book allegedly written by Abraham the Jew. Flamel translated it being familiar with kabbalah, and lo and behold Abraham knew the secret to the Elixir of Life. The problem was that he wasn’t that well versed in the language or the symbolism so he decided that he needed some help.

He concluded that the best place to go was Spain where he met a Converso – a Jew who had converted to Christianity. Conchez, the Converse, obligingly undertook to help Nicholas. Unfortunately Nicholas had travelled all that way without the book. Conchez died in Orleans and Nicholas spent the next two decades deciphering the text.

Until in 1382 he apparently found the formula and became very very rich.

There are a couple of problems with the story. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of evidence of alchemy in Mr Flamel’s life. The money? His wife Perenelle, who he married in 1368, came from a wealthy family. That and the fact she’d already been twice widowed. His will does not suggest fantastic wealth.

Perenelle was apparently, according to the story, Nicholas’s able assistant.

Nicholas Flamel by Balthazar Montcornet – 17th century

The story – no smoke without fire and all that? Became popular about 200 years after he died… though some writers claim that they saw him in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

And where does all this come from? Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques was published in 1612 – which possibly goes to show that just because a book is old doesn’t make it totally trustworthy! Unless you happen to think Flamel was an alchemist in which case you might take an entirely different view! And you might also argue that given what I wrote earlier about Church and State views that you might want to look like a mild mannered entrepreneur rather than a proto-scientist.

Did I mention that other alchemist…Sir Isaac Newton?

words words words – churches and cathedrals

Where did the month go? Sorry – got carried away with decorating, sewing mask (seriously who’d have thought) and generally pottering around. And if I’m honest “words, words, words” is rather bigger than I thought….or rather didn’t think.

But it has given you a good long time to come up with a list of words associated with churches and cathedrals. How did you do? I am sure that there are others – this is not a complete list. However after a month with no posts I think it’s time I got back to my more usual blogging habits.

Architectural style:

Saxon – pre-Conquest . Buildings were often constructed from wood or incorporated into medieval churches but one give away are chunky, deepest windows with triangular points at the top. And here’s a thought the Saxons developed the idea of church towers – the usual reason given is that they were for watching out for the enemy.

Norman (Romanesque) – semi circular arches and vaulting. Quite chunky looking buildings in most cases. Small windows, thick walls and the dog-tooth zig zag pattern which is a common motif of the period. A carved stone font.

Early English (began about 1200) The whole medieval period of church building also has the label Gothic.

The rounded windows give way to larger, pointed windows (lancet windows). Or put another way pointy arches were invented. The ceiling was pushed up by the use of clusters of piers to support arches which became narrower than the Norman columns. Vaults which also helped to push the ceiling up were constructed in four parts (like a cross). Stained glass starts to be used and rose windows are introduced.

Decorated (about 1290) – does what it says on the tin. Everything that cane decorated is. We’re also at fan vaulting and tracery. Four leaved flowers and geometric patterns or “diapering” were very popular as well.

Perpendicular (1350ish) Sharper lines, huge windows, massive towers, tall spires.


aisle – walkway down the middle or sides of the nave. side aisles tend to be lined on one side by columns or pillars.

altar or communion table – usually situated at the East end of the church or at the crossing in cathedrals. They can also be found in side chapels.

ambulatory – aisle around the east end of the choir joining the choir side aisles to make a continuous passage.

apse – semi circular bit that sticks out from the east end of the building – not to be found in all churches.

arcade– series of arches carried on piers (architectural term for columns.)

aumbry – a small recess or cupboard in the wall of a church for storing sacred vessels and vestments.

blind arch – an arch with no opening. Usually decoration.

boss –  a stone at the intersection of ribs in the vaulting that projects down from the ceiling. Very often they are elaborately carved.  The boss ties the vaulting together a bit like a keystone in an arch.

buttress a support built against a wall which reinforces it. This means that medieval masons were able to build taller walls because buttresses braced the walls to act against the lateral (sideways) forces acting from the roof.

campanile -detached bell tower.

 capital– the stone on the top of a column.

chancel – area at the east end of the church beyond the nave. There is usually a step up from the nave to the chancel.

chapel – small building or room set aside for worship – the “room” might be created by wooden partitions or be a specific stone built chamber. Larger churches or cathedrals often have many chapels dedicated to different saints. Chantry chapels are where prayers for the dead are said.

chapter house – meeting place for the governing body of a monastery or cathedral. Chapter houses in England are usually polygonal with a central column supporting the roof.

choir, sometimes quire, area with seating for the clergy and church choir. Choirs can usually be found in the chancel, between the nave and the sanctuary. Medieval choir-stalls, involve seating at right-angles to the seating for the congregation in the nave and these seats would often be highly decorated misericords which are not so much seats as perches to lean on during lengthy services.

clerestory–   wall that contains windows high above eye level usually in the nave or side aisles of Romanesque or Gothic churches.

cloister – usually four sided area surrounded by covered walkways, the middle tends to be an area of grass or garden.

close– the precincts in which a cathedral and any other buildings that supplement a cathedral stand. There may well be a gatehouse and walls around the precinct.

corbel – stonework that sticks out of the wall to support something above it – such as an arch or a beam. Often decorated.

crypt – stone chamber beneath the floor of the church containing, coffins, relics or these days chapels.

galilee – porch at the western end of the church used as a chapel for women and/or penitents. It can refer to the entire western end of the nave.

gargoyle  – a grotesque carved with a spout to take water from a roof and away from the side of the building.

lancet window – pointed window that is part of the Early English evolution of church design.

lantern tower – tower above the crossing with windows to give light on the floor below.

lectern – reading desk, often in the shape of an eagle, made to hold the Bible during services.

misericord  The Latin word for “mercy” gives us misericord – folding wooden brackets in choir stalls that clergy could lean against during long services. They are often beautifully carved.

nave – the main body of the church where the congregation sits today but where they stood in the medieval period as there were no pews.

pew -long wooden benches in the church. Pews started to be placed in churches at the end of the medieval period. Many bench-ends were carved with animal and foliate designs. Box pews are high sided enclosed pews with doors. Some even had their own stove to keep people warm.

pulpit – raised stand from which the preacher addresses the congregation.

pulpitum – stone screen, sometimes wood, that divides the choir (the area containing the choir stalls and high altar. Basically, if acts like a rood screen in a smaller church.

reliquary– casket containing relics.

reredos – decorated screen behind the altar.

rood – another name for a cross

rood screen – the screen separated the chancel from the nave, often surmounted by a cross during the medieval period.

sanctuary – the area beyond the chancel where the altar stands. Again, there is often a step up from the chancel to the sanctuary and there may be a rail as well. Think of the journey east through the church as gradually becoming more Holy – the “zones” are marked by steps, screens and rails.

stoup – basin for holy water near the west door. Can be built into the wall or free-standing.

transept – crossing place usually at the east end of the nave between the nave and chancel where the building is built in a cross shape.

Tympanum – area above a door enclosed by an arch.

words words words 2: churches and cathedrals

Well it’s taken a bit longer because of the thinking time! Clearly the cogs need more time to go around when I’m thinking of words and the definitions which go with them. However, we’ve arrived at the second of the words, words, words challenges. How many specialist words can you think of to do with churches and cathedrals relating to architecture or spaces within churches and cathedrals — and no, gift shop is not the first word on your list. Nor is cafe – I mean I know I have a reputation but really!

Words words words – castle glossary

beware – not all castles are as defensive as they look! Bodiam Castle, Kent.

How did you do? It’s probably one of those activities that build over the period of a couple of weeks. It certainly has for me and has been a popular challenge with He Who Is Occasionally Obeyed. No doubt we’ve forgotten a few. If you’ve got more than 50 can I just check that you’re not James St George who built Edward I’s castles?

Anteroom: small outer room – think of it as a waiting room or a connecting room that you have to get through before arriving in a larger room. Ie a large body of men couldn’t rush through an anteroom and attack everyone in the great hall , they’d have to file through.

Bailey: A courtyard defended by the outermost ring of a castle wall is called the outer bailey. Sometimes the bailey is also described as a ward. The outer bailey usually contains ancillary buildings. In very large fortifications that is an outer, middle and inner bailey. The inner bailey is the courtyard nearest to the keep. If a castle is built on a hill the arrangement may be described as an upper and lower bailey – but basically it’s all the same – a way of describing how close a courtyard is to the defensive centre of the castle.

Barbican: A stone building protecting the gateway or entrance of a castle.

Barrel vaulting: ceiling curved like the inside of a barrel.- at its most simple a set of arches side by side. Helps make the walls thicker and stronger. Often reinforced by ribs.

Bastion: Angular projection in the wall – to provide better defensive fire.

Battlements: A parapet with indentations and raised portions (merlons). Battlements are sometimes called crenellations. You would need a licence from the king to crenellate.

Berm: the bit of land between the moat and the curtain wall.

Buttery: Room to store drinks – rather than butter think wine, beer and ale.

Buttress: stone support for a wall.

Cannonier – gun port – demonstrating that castle architecture evolved to reflect the development in weaponry.

Casemate: fortified gun emplacement

Cistern: Tank to store water.

Concentric: Castles built with rings of stone walls one inside the other. Think Edward I.

Crenet: Another name for an embrasure which is the open bit behind an arrow loop where someone can stand and draw their weapon.

Curtain wall: Connecting wall between towers of a castle – or if there are no towers the wall that makes up the main defensive portion of the castle.

Drawbar: The rather large wooden beam used to secure the rather large wooden gates.

Drawbridge: The wooden bridge that clatters down or up so that horses can gallop across the moat into the castle – as evidenced on many a good black and white Hollywood blockbuster.

Drum-Tower: A large circular tower that was usually low and squat.

Fore building: The building infant of the keep – a bit like a pawn in front of the king on the chess board – it’s there for defensive purposes.

Fosse: A ditch surrounding a castle – for those who can’t afford moats or who wish to demonstrate their grasp of Latin.

Garderobe: Castle toilet. The garderobe was often a projection from the wall over the moat or alternatively it was a chute that dropped into the base of a tower which periodically had to be cleared out (lovely.) You would also keep your spare clothes in the garderobe chamber as the smell kept moths at bay….and possibly everything else as well.

Gatehouse: A building protecting the entrance to a castle. Larger castles might have an outer and an inner gatehouse adding to the number of defensive structures to be surmounted by attackers.

Gate passage: passageway beyond the main gate leading through the curtain wall to the outer bailey.

Great Hall: The main room in the building where the castle owner and his family lived. We tend to think of great halls as being part of the keep but there are castles where the great hall is separate to the main defensive structure.

Hoardings – the wooden structures built out from the top of the curtain wall or towers.

Keep: Main stone tower of a castle. It was also known as a donjon.

Lancet: Long, narrow window with pointed head – good for defensive projectiles. Plus who wants a big draughty window with no window panes in the middle of winter? To be fair many solar windows were lined with thin horn window panes or glass or there would have been shutter.

Loop: Narrow opening in castle wall that was used by archers to fire on attacking soldiers.

Machicolations: Projecting stonework on the outside of castle towers or walls, with holes in floor for dropping missiles on people attacking the castle.

Moat: A deep wide trench round a castle, sometimes called a ditch or a fosse.

Motte: A mound of of soil. Some mottes were only about 5 metres (16 feet) high, but some were over 18 metres (60 feet). The Normans built wooden watchtowers on the top of their mottes. Gradually motte and baileys were rebuilt in stone. Many small motte and baileys date from the Anarchy when Stephen and Matilda fought one another for the throne.

Motte and bailey: basic keep sitting on top of a mound. The mound would usually be surrounded by a palisade. Motte and bailey castles were initially built from wood and were later rebuilt in stone – somewhat reducing the fire hazard. The bailey was a bit of flattened earth near the motte.

Mural tower: A tower built into the wall.

Mural passage: A passage or corridor in the wall itself.

Murder-Holes or meutrieres in the roof or ceiling of a castle – usually leading to a gate house or through a passage into a ward.These were used for pouring scalding water, hot oil or other equally unpleasant stuff on attackers who had managed to enter the outer defences of a castle.

Palisade: A strong timber fence built on top of an earth rampart – usually seen in depictions of early motte and bailey castles of the kind build by Norman Conquerors.

Pantry: room near the great hall used to store food.

Parapet: A low wall on the outer side of the main wall.

Portcullis: Grating made of metal and wood. The portcullis was dropped vertically from grooves to block passage through the gate of the castle – to prevent entry or indeed exit through gateways. Castles often had more than one portcullis so that attackers might find themselves trapped beneath the handily placed murderholes.

Postern gate: the back door – for daring escapes and raids.

Rampart: A defensive stone or earth wall surrounding a castle.

Sally port: Another name for the back door for daring escapes and raids.

Screen(s) passage: Passage way for the transport of food and drink from the pantry and buttery by servants for the enjoyment of those in the great hall.

Shell-Keep: A wall surrounding the inner portion of the castle -think of an onion. The curtain wall is the outside skin, the shell-keep is the layer closer to the middle of the onion.

Solar: The upper living room of castle. The solar was usually situated above the hall and was used mainly as a bedroom. It was often the only semi-private accommodation in a castle.

Spiral staircase: does what it says on the tin.

Tower: Towers usually comes as square, polygonal, or round – and let’s not forget the drum tower.

Turret: A small tower. A turret on top of the main tower was often the main observation point in a castle.

Vice: a spiral staircase – cos why have one self explanatory word when you can have another more complicated one as well.

Wall-Walk: A passage along the castle wall. It can also be called an alure if you really want.

Window seat: Does what it says on the tin.

words words words 1

Little Moreton Hall

Every specialist subject has its own glossary – or jargon if you’re being unkind. Clearly a change is as good as a rest so we’re going to move away from pictures for the time being – your challenge this week is to think of as many specialist words related to medieval castles as you can. And your starter, for absolutely no points is garderobe – which is of course a medieval toilet.

Picture quiz 11 answers

It’s a tenterhook! – the devices by which cloth was attached to the drying frame or tenter. As the cloth dries the tenterhooks prevent the cloth from shrinking. Hence – on tenterhooks…and if you look at the map you may find tenterfields near wool producing mills.

So there you have it.

History Jar Podcast 7 – The Stuarts

After a little delay the Early Stuart podcast is now available covering James I and Charles I.

With many thanks to Andrew Durrant of This is Distorted

And the legal bit:

This podcast uses sounds from free sound which are licensed under creative commons:

Beheading SFX by Ajexk at