Category Archives: History

Stretching a Medieval Penny: The Somewhat Empty Purse of a Medieval Shoemaker


Medieval re-enactor acting as a cobbler.

All novelist struggle with crafting believable characters. For historical fiction writers, I think the challenge is even greater. We walk a tight rope with believability on one side and intrigue and relatability on the other. Needless to say, it was after a great deal of research that I created Ansel Schumacher. The breadwinner in my novel, The Fairytale Keeper, Ansel is a shoemaker living in 13th century Cologne. To develop a better understanding of what his family’s economic situation would have been like, I created the chart below.

There are a few things worth noting before reading the table. First, if our shoemaker didn’t sell shoes, he didn’t make money. Luckily, Cologne was a city 40,000 strong and its relic of The Three Magi drew thousands of pilgrims each year. During tough economic times, a cobbler could spend less on food and drink—foregoing expenses like spices and proteins.  But there were a few expenses he couldn’t escape: rent, taxes, and tithes. Based on my research, the average shoemaker[1] living in the middle 13th century made 44 pennies each month. Here’s what his monthly budget might have looked like.

Monthly Bill Amount Description
Rent[2] 9 pennies A typical craftsman house would have had a workshop, solar, and two bedchambers.
Food[3] 15 pennies
  • 4 1/2 pennies on grains to make pottage, oatcakes, and ale
  • 4 pennies on bread.
  • 4 pennies on small amounts of either salted herring, eggs, offal, other cheap meat, cheese, milk, or almond milk
  • 1 penny on spice blends
  • 2 pennies on produce, pickled produce, dried nuts, fresh fruit, or fresh herbs
Ale[4] 3 ½  pennies 4 cups a day per person in 4 person family.
Tithes 4 ½  pennies Ten percent of a person’s income went to tithes.
Taxes[5] 4 ½ pennies Tax rates fluctuated, but on average ten percent of a person’s wages went to taxes.
Household Expenses[6] Varied based on need.
Savings 7 ½ pennies  (unless there are household expenses)

A 13th century shoemaker would have bought food for his faimly at a market, like the one in this artist rendering.

[1] Hodges’ List of Prices does not list the wages of a shoemaker. I make the assumption that a shoemaker probably made the same amount as a weaver, which Hodges does list. In the year 1407, a weaver made 5 pennies per day. According to another part of Hodges’ list a thatcher living in the middle 13th century made 44% of what a thatcher living in 1407 would have made. Assuming that this rate of inflation applied to everyone’s pay, I have adjusted my imaginary shoemaker’s income and the prices of the items he buys accordingly.

[2] Hodges’ List of Prices lists the rent of a craftsman’s home in the 14th  century to be 20 schillings per year in London. I’ve adjusted this according to the wages of the middle thirteenth century in which a craftsman made 44% the wages.

[3] This is a ball park figure in the most extreme sense of the phrase. First of all, this budget assumes our shoemaker lived in a city and was not able to grow a small garden of his own. Therefore, he had to buy everything at the market. Someone living on this kind of income would have relied on pottages and breads most likely. He might have had money for a little meat now and then, when meat was allowed. Nearly half the year–when one accounts for Lent, Advent, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays—people living in the Middle Ages were not allowed to eat meat. Only fish was permitted during these times. Ian Mortimer says the price of fish was high, but Hodges’ list states the purchase price for 5-10 salt herrings at 1 penny. Salted herring was probably the cheapest form of fish and people grew quite sick of it, especially by the end of Lent. Also worth noting, many foods were available seasonably.

[4] In The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer states that four gallons of ale fetched a penny in the 14th century. I think it’s safe to assume that someone living in the thirteenth century could purchase it or brew it (as women were expected to do) for about half of that. Assuming that each person in a four person household drank an average of 4 cups of ale each day, the family would go through roughly a gallon a day. Surely when times were bad, cobblers drank less, relied on their wives home-brewed ale, or in dire times collected water in cisterns. They may have also spent more money on better ale or wine during times of celebration and wealth.

[5] Like today, taxes could be levied on income, goods, or property.

[6] Household expenses could be anything from household goods, clothing, grooming, and healthcare. I imagine most woman came with the goods needed to keep a peasant household. Even peasant women came with a dowry of some sort by the thirteenth century. Hodges’ List shows peasant dowries of between 15 and 57 schillings in the 14th century. Adjusted for the 13th century, this would have been 6 and 25 schillings, roughly 2 to 7 months of a cobbler’s pay. Little wonder women were praised for birthing sons. I think this also is evidence that people living in the High Middle Ages were savers and not spenders. That being said, children would come with expenses of their own. A cobbler might have to pay for them a fee for them to be able to start an apprenticeship or their clothing and shoes would get worn. Certainly during hard times, people in the Middle Ages would have kept raged shoes a little longer in order to make sure they had enough money for food.

Hodges, Kenneth. “List of Prices of Medieval Items.” Hodges. List of Prices of Items in Medieval England. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2014.
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Touchstone, 2014. Print.
Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969. Print.
Powicke, F. M. The Thirteenth Century: 1216-1307. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
Photo of Medieval Shoemaker:

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like:

Penny, Pfennig, and Denier: Comparing the Coins of Medieval Europe

Halfpennies, Farthings, and Nobles: A Guide to England’s Medieval Coins

Inventing the Penny: Charlemagne’s Lost Effort at a Standard Currency

Halfpennies, Farthings, and Nobles: A Guide to England’s Medieval Coins

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut early next year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.
The Coins of Medieval England

Medieval coinsI began researching Medieval coinage of the Holy Roman Empire–especially in the area that would become Germany–for my Medieval fiction series. It was a far more complex topic than I anticipated. The coinage went from simple and organized in the ninth century–with Charlemagne’s  declaration that a penny would be 1/240th of a pound of silver—to complex by the thirteenth century. (I’ve written an article entitled Inventing the Penny: Charlemagne’s Lost Effort at a Standard Currency that delves into this.)

For my purposes, I wanted to know what German coins were worth and what a person living in thirteenth century Cologne could buy with them. I thought developing a better understanding of the English coins might help me since I would be using Hodge’s List of prices—a list of Medieval items and their prices along with dates of purchase—to determine this. Below is table containing England’s Medieval coins, the year they were established, and their value.

Image Coin Name Established Value
farthingEnglish Medieval Farthing


Richard II



1216 1/4 of a silver penny
halfpennyEnglish Medieval Halfpenny


Henry IV



1100s 1/2 of a silver penny
English Medieval Penny English Medieval Penny

1199 – 1216

King John

Silver Penny


800s 1/20 of a schilling or…

1/240th of a pound of silver

groatEnglish Medieval Groat


Edward III

Silver Groat


1200s 4 silver pennies or…

1/3 of a schilling

During the Middle Ages, the schilling was a unit of account. People didn’t carry schillings in their purses. Schilling


N/A 12 silver pennies
quarter nobleEnglish Medieval Quarter Noble


Edward III

Quarter Noble

(1s 8d)

Mid 1300s 20 pennies or…

1 schilling and 8 pennies

half nobleEnglish Medieval Half Noble


Henry IV

Half Noble

(3s 4d)

1351 40 pennies or…

3 schillings and 4 pennies or…

1/6 of a pound

Edward_III_nobleEnglish Medieval Noble


Edward III

Noble (6s 8d) Mid 1300s 80 pennies or…

6 schillings and 8 pennies or…

1/3 of a pound

During the Middle Ages, the mark was a unit of account. The English didn’t carry marks in their purses. Mark N/A 160 pennies or…

1/2 of a pound

During the Middle Ages, the pound was a unit of account. People didn’t carry pounds in their purses. Pound (£) N/A 240 pennies

60 groats

20 schillings

6 Half Nobles

3 Nobles

2 Marks

Banks and Money.” Currency and Banking in the Late Middle Ages. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.
Brooke, Christopher Nugent Lawrence. Europe in the Central Middle Ages: 962-1154. Harlow: Longman, 2000. Print.
Cavendish, Richard. “The Farthing’s Last Day.” History Today. History Today Volume: 60 Issue: 12, 2010. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
“Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe.” Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. Print.

Inventing the Penny: Charlemagne’s Lost Effort at a Standard Currency

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The second book in The Fairytale Keeper series–The Countess’s Captive-debuted earlier this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.

Charlemagne and the Silver Penny


Charlemagne simplified the currency of Medieval Europe in the ninth century.

For certain, easing the trade of goods and services is the truest purpose of standard currency. When Charlemagne declared that 240 pennies should be minted from a pound of silver, he eased the trade of goods and services throughout the Holy Roman Empire. For the next 400 years, the penny was made from real silver just as Charlemagne had ordered. Therefore, it had a standard value. The penny might have been called different things in different areas—the  French denier, the German pfennig, the Spanish dinero, the Italian denari—but each coin had  the same silver content, and the same value.

Because of Charlemagne’s efforts, an English wool merchant could sell his wool to a weaver in Flanders who could sell his woven wool to a dyer in Cologne who could sell his died fabric to a merchant in Venice who could sell his wares to a fashionable noblewomen with ease. None of them would have to worry about the value of the coins they traded. It’s similar to what the Euro does for Europe today.

Diluting the Penny

English Penny from the twelfth century featuring King John.

This English penny from the twelfth century features King John.

Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries kings, noblemen, minters, and counterfeiters diluted the penny with some dire consequences and disastrous results.

During the reign of English King Henry I, the percentage of silver in coins plummeted. As punishment for minting low-quality coins, each mint master had his right hand cut off on Christmas day in 1124 at the Assize of Winchester. The threat of mutilation wasn’t enough to keep moneyers’ honest, and the improvement in coin purity was only temporary.

Reducing the silver content in coins was not a practice exclusive to England. In fact, records suggest it was worse in other parts of the Holy Roman Empire, especially the German lands.  According to Medieval Denominations, by 1100 the standard German pfennig had twenty-five percent less silver than it did in the days of Charlemagne—dropping its value to three-quarters of an English penny.

Medieval Pfennig

This thirteenth-century German pfennig minted in Cologne bears the likeness of the archbishop, not the king.

By 1299, the problems presented by diluted coins were so prevalent that England forbid their import. Maurice Powicke states in his book, The Thirteenth Century, that King Henry III  tried to rid England  of “the false and debase…coins which had been brought into England and Ireland from German and Rheinish ports.”

As I survey the twelfth and thirteenth-century German coins at Fitz Museum, I can see that the minting of Rheinish coins was not nearly as regulated as it was in England. In the German lands, many dukes, lords, counts, bishops, archbishops, as well as the emperor, had minting rights.  Germans—whether counterfeiters, dishonest minters, or greedy noblemen, I can’t be sure—blended baser metals, such as copper, into the coins.  People called the debased currency black money.  In some cases, coins had less than one percent of the silver than they should have.  Not surprising, merchants from across Europe preferred coins with a high silver content, such as the groschen.

Clipping and Shrinking the Penny

Edward I

Edward I blamed Jews for clipping coins.

Besides decreasing the silver content of coins, minters devalued their coins through the process of clipping. Despite the threat of mutilation and execution, clippers trimmed the edges of the coins, collected the fragments, and made a profit, all while passing off the coins as having the same value as unclipped coins.  In 1277, Edward I hanged Jewish merchants for clipping coins.

As well as clipping and reducing the silver content in coins, minters also reduced the mass. When King Stephen I depleted the treasury in 1140, he ordered the penny’s weight to be reduced so he could pay his military expenses in wars against his niece, Matilda.  English barons also began issuing their own coins. Large amounts of counterfeit and low-quality coins drastically reduced the value of the penny. During the time of Charlemagne, a shilling was worth twenty pennies. During Stephen’s reign, the shilling’s value dropped to twelve pennies, nearly decreasing the currency value by half.

Just as a bad king can debase a currency, a good king can improve it.  In 1182,  Henry II, demanded silver content in pennies be high and consistent. One hundred thirty years later, during the reign of Henry III, the first recorded public assessment of a coin’s purity was performed. It was called Trial of the Pyx and is still performed in Great Britain to this day.

Diversity in Coins


Gold coins, like the noble, made an appearance in the 13th and 14th centuries and quickly spread through Europe.

As political and economic systems became more complex, so did the coinage. During the high middle ages, the diversity in coins skyrocketed. Because the coins varied in silver content and size, they aren’t as easily comparable as the penny, pfennig, and denier of the ninth century. Trying to compare the values is a daunting task that I tried, but probably won’t continue. I can imagine what a burden this must have been for merchants and those in charge of accounts.


“Banks and Money.” Currency and Banking in the Late Middle Ages. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

Brooke, Christopher Nugent Lawrence. Europe in the Central Middle Ages: 962-1154. Harlow: Longman, 2000. Print.

“Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe.” Medieval Coin Denominations of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

“Medieval Sourcebook: William of Malmesbury: Counterfeit Money in the Time of King Stephen, 1140.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.

“The Fitzwilliam Museum : Coins and Medals Home.” The Fitzwilliam Museum News. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.

Behind the Name: Why Otto the Great Was so Great

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.

Otto the Great

King Otto I the Great of Germany

Otto I was the son of Henry the Fowler and his second wife Matilda. On August 7, 936, a month after the death of his father, Otto was elected king and later crowned by the archbishops of Cologne and Mainz.

Otto I successfully consolidated power by confronting—and defeating—his disobedient vassals and siblings in war. Otto’s half-brother Thankmar joined the dukes of Bavaria and Franconia in rebellion in 938. Otto was victorious, and in the end, the duke of Franconia surrendered, the duke of Bavaria was banished, and Thankmar was defeated and killed. A year later, Otto’s younger brother Henry revolted, supported by the King Louis IV of France, Giselbert of Lotharingia, and the duke of Franconia—who had only just been forgiven for his previous rebellion against the king. Both Gilselbert and the duke of Franconia were killed in battle. Though Henry begged his brother’s forgiveness—which was and granted—he took part in a conspiracy to kill the king in 941. Otto forgave him again, and Henry remained faithful thenceforth.

Otto the Great Adelaide of Italy

German King Otto the Great and his wife, Adelaide of Italy

Despite internal conflicts, Otto was able to spread and strengthen his the kingdom. He kept out Slavic and Magyar invaders, resisted France’s claim to Lotharingia, founded three bishoprics in Denmark, and secured his interests in Italy and Burgundy via his marriage to Adelaide of Italy. In 962, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII, whom he would depose two years later, placing Leo VIII in his place. Antipopes rarely kept their seat, but Leo VIII, with the help of Otto, remained pope until his death. By suppressing revolts, ousting invaders, and using the Church to spread his kingdom, Otto was arguably one of the most successful German kings of the Middle Ages. He died on May 7, 973 in Memleben, Thuringia and was buried next to his first wife, Edith, daughter of the English king Edward the Elder.


From Medieval Nobles to Modern-Day Nobody: The Somewhat Tragic Trail of My Ancestry (And Probably Yours, Too)

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.


Emperor Fredeirkc II

My 22nd Great-Grandfather, Emperor Frederick II

I have the blood of kings and emperors flowing through my veins. Well, just a trickle of it.  That doesn’t make me original. That makes me ordinary. Most Americans can trace their lineage to an ancestor of notoriety and wealth…yet most of us have little of either. So how did we end up here? Why aren’t we living off trust funds and jet-setting to summer homes? How did we go from Noble to Nobody?

To answer my own question, I began my research with my 22nd great-grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. From his birth in 1194 up until 1332, things looked REALLY good. It was all emperors and countesses and duchesses and dukes.

Then, I stumbled upon my 18th great-grandfather, Philip of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, Constable of Jerusalem. Constable! How did we go from dukes to constables in one generation?!

Sadly for poor Philip of Brunswick-Grubenhagen, he was a sixth-born son, and many of his siblings lived. In Medieval Europe, it rarely paid to be a sixth-born son with a brood of healthy brothers and sisters. All the titles and lands were doled out by the time poor Philip humbly approached his father with out-stretched palms.

Janus I of Cyprus

My 16th Great-Grandfather, King Janus I of Cypress

Strangely enough things started to look up with Philip’s daughter, my 17th great-grandmother, Helvis of Brunswick-Grubenhagen. Like most girls, she married a man like gold-old dad—another constable. But because Helvis’s husband outlived three older brothers and a nephew, he became King James I of Cyprus. Helvis jumped from constable’s daughter to queen in her lifetime, basically winning the Medieval lottery of social hierarchy. Sadly for her and her husband, they spent much of their marriage as captives in Genoa.

Their kingdom passed on to their son, Janus I. I perused the records on his descendants, holding my breath a few times as I stumbled across girls or third-born sons, but by the grace of God, my ancestors either married well or outlived their rivals.

Everything was going great up until 1641. That was the year my 9th great-grandfather was born: Francis Savoy. Poor Francis. If there was anything worse than being born a sixth-born son, it was being born a bastard.

Thomas Francis of Savoy

My 10th Great-Grandfather
Thomas Francis of Savoy

We can blame Francis’s father—Thomas Francis of Savoy, Prince of Carignano, Count of Couldn’t-Keep-It-In-His-Pants—for this socio-economic nose dive. If Prince Thomas had married Francis’s mother, Francis would have inherited the princedom Carignano. Instead, Francis was shipped off to Eastern Canada where he worked as a general laborer until his death.

For the next 250 years, my ancestors were stuck at the bottom rung of society. Things changed drastically in the 20th century…for the better. My parents and grandparents, like so many others born in this century, utilized education and perseverance to join the ever-growing middle class.

So let’s say I go back to the dukes of Savoy and quickly trace their descendants until the present day, following eldest sons whenever possible. If I continue down the line until I reach someone approximately my age, I land on Milena Gaubert.

Born to Princess Helene of Yugoslavia in 1988, Milena is the great-great granddaughter to the last king of Italy. I could find little on Milena. In a tabloid article from 2011, Milena lent her father–an aid to former French president Sarcozy–support when her mother named him in the Karachi scandal. That’s it. Milena may be living a Paris Hilton lifestyle, but if she is, she’s quiet about it.

Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia

Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia

The dead end was pretty dissatisfying, so I researched Milena’s relatives, discovering an Uncle who was a little less shy.

Prince Dimitri, 50, has relatives in eleven royal families. He was raised near the palace at Versailles, though his family summered in a Renaissance palace in Vaglia, Italy. Dimitri always had a love for jewelry and now runs a jewelry firm bearing his name. Before this, he was the senior vice president of the jewelry department of Sotheby’s.

Sigh. The life that could have been… I could have been a jet-setting, bigwig who designed sparkly things.

Still, I can’t ignore the bright side of my own ancestry. If Francis of Savoy hadn’t been sent to Canada in the seventeenth century, he wouldn’t have met my 9th great-grandmother, and I wouldn’t have been born. When putting it that way, the somewhat tragic trail of my ancestry seems a little less tragic. A million tiny things happened over the course of history so that I could be here, typing this blog post. Surely designing jewelry is a tad more lucrative, but they say money can’t buy you happiness. I may not be rich, but I’m pretty darn happy.


“Affaire Karachi : Une Fille Gaubert Accuse Sa Mère De Chercher à Se Venger.” Le N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
“Henry II, Duke of Brunswick-Grubenhagen.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 July 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
“Janus of Cyprus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 July 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
“Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Parma.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Mar. 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.
Remos, Ana B. “Dimitri of Yugoslavia: A Prince of the 21st Century.” AzureAzure: A Privaieged Life., n.d. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.
“Thomas Francis, Prince of Carignano.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 07 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 Aug. 2014.

A Week With Emperor Frederick II

Andrea CefaloAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.


My mother Nancy researching our ancestry.

My mother Nancy researching our ancestry.

In last week’s article, Frederick II’s 21st Great Granddaughter, I announced a serendipitous discovery made by my genealogist mother, Nancy Cefalo.  To make a long story short, even though it seemed that I had no German ancestry–which was quite disappointing since I write Medieval fiction set in Germany– it turns out that I do.

I am a descendent of the man who was emperor at the time of The Great Interregnum.  Frederick II–the man who reigned over the place I have researched for the last five years–is my 21st great grandfather.

In honor of this discovery, I am dedicating a week of posts to Emperor Frederick II.

Today I am posting a short documentary, Frederick II a bridge between East and West, which focuses on Frederick’s desire to reach beyond cultural barriers to broker peace and increase learning during a time when religious and cultural tolerance was discouraged.

Frederick II’s 21st Great-Granddaughter

meAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. Her second book in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive—debuted earlier this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.

20140520_205112After retiring in 2009, my mom became an Her hobby/compulsive disorder has taught me four things.

  1. The Irish didn’t keep good records.
  2. Welsh people have funny names.
  3. My great, great, great grandfather was hanged for trying to murder his wife.
  4. I have absolutely no German in me.

That last one was a bit of a disappointment. I’ve spent the last five years researching the Holy Roman Empire, especially the region that would later become Germany. Our lineage is a sprawling list of Western European nationalities, most of them ending in –sh. Not one of them German. Not one.

We writer people are a strange bunch.  Many of us believe in muses. We sit around at Starbucks sipping our lattes hoping our characters talk to us so the writing will be a little faster and more poignant today than it was yesterday. I guess a part of me thought I was a distant relation to some semi-important person who lived during The Great Interregnum, and, in some way, that person was bringing me this story. Well, poo-pooed all over that. Or so I thought.

Three days ago when my video, The Great Interregnum: A Thirteenth Century Game of Thrones, went live, I pulled it up for mom. We’re both dorks for European history, so I knew she’d appreciate it. After spending forty hours working on a five-minute video, I was in desperate need of mom-praise, which she gladly gave.

Tangelshe name Hohenstaufen sounded familiar to her. Later that day, she told me she found a Hohenstaufen in our line: Margaret Hohenstaufen. Born in 1241. Daughter of Emperor Frederick II.

The sky opened and angels sang.

No, not really, but I did get a case of goose bumps.

So not only am I part German, I am a descendent of the man who was emperor at the time of The Great Interregnum, the setting of my medieval fiction series. The man who ran the place that I have researched for the last five years is my 21st great grandfather.

I’m no mathematician. Maybe this isn’t so odd. I’m certainly only one of thousands of people who are Hohenstaufen descendants—but a part of me hopes that wherever and whatever Frederick II is now, he’s proud of his 21st great granddaughter who strives to tell the story of his reign. In honor of this discovery, I’d like to dedicate a week of posts to a man few know now, but who was a Renaissance man to the Middle Ages: Frederick II.

Using History to Guess Who Will Win The Game of Thrones

meAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.  She regularly posts about Medieval history on Facebook and Twitter.



George R. R. Martin says A Song of Fire and Ice is loosely based on The War of the Roses.  I believe the series more closely resembles The Great Interregnum: a twenty year Game of Thrones taking place in the 13th century Holy Roman Empire.  My five minute documentary, which compares The Great Interregnum to the Game of Thrones, posits who will end up on the iron throne.  (Take a guess who it is before you watch it.)


The Six-Month Siege of Aachen

meAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and Medieval history blogger. Her debut novel, The Fairytale Keeper,  was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The next three books in The Fairytale Keeper series –The Countess’s Captive, The Baseborn Lady, and The Traitor’s Target—will debut later this year.
Follow her on Facebook and Twitter



Frederick II Excommunicated by Innocent IV

Emperor Frederick II Excommunicated by Pope Innocent IV

Medieval history is rife with clashes between popes and kings—and the thirteenth century was no exception.  Disagreements between Emperor Frederick II and Pope Innocent IV—over Frederick’s attempts to extend his power in Italy and his reluctance to go on crusade—led to the excommunication and attempted ousting of the Hohenstaufen emperor. With the help of his allies, Pope Innocent selected men to take Frederick’s place. The first of these antikings, Henry Raspe, died only two years after his selection. William of Holland was elected king ten months later.

Since the time of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperors and kings were traditionally crowned in Aachen. In Spring of 1248, William’s men rode ahead of their new king to the Medieval city for the coronation, but the gates were barred. The people of Aachen remained loyal to the emperor and refused William’s entry. A skirmish ensued, and sixteen of William’s men were killed.

Because there was an emperor and king already on the thrown, William needed an official coronation so Europe would see him as more than a Church-sponsored pretender. William arrived with his armies approximately a week later, and the siege began.

Siege of Mortagne near Bordeaux in 1377.

Painting of 14th cent. Siege of Mortagne

According to the book The Medieval City Under Siege, siege warfare, though common, was ineffective during the thirteenth century for two reasons. First, a lack of gains in military technology meant that city walls and defenses were often stronger than the weapons used to destroy them. Second, most nobles had difficulty rallying an army large enough to  surround a city’s walls. Even if they could, they usually couldn’t feed and supply a large army for months at a time. Luckily for William, he had a strong ally in the pope who had strong allies of his own.

By summer, troops from Picardy, Flanders, and Brabant came to William’s aid. They damned the river flowing through Aachen, causing a third of the city to flood. After the addition of Frisia’s troops in the fall, William’s army finally had enough men to surround the city. Though the people of Aachen lay starving in a flooded city under constant bombardment, they remained loyal to the emperor. It wasn’t until a rumor of Frederick’s death circulated the city that Aachen waved the white flag.

Cologne’s Archbishop, Konrad von Hochstaden, aided in arbitration. The city nobles and the imperial bailiff pledged fealty to the Church and to William of Holland, gaining their freedom and the end of the siege in exchange. William entered the city on October 19th, nearly six months after the battle began. He was crowned on November first.



Corfis, Ivy A.., and Michael Wolfe. The Medieval City under Siege. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1995. Print.

Rogers, Clifford J., William Caferro, and Shelley Reid. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Telling Time in the Middle Ages: 5 Things You Didn’t Know.

As I am typing these words, my clock reads 9:34 p.m.  Like most modern humans, when I want to know the time, I can check my laptop, cell phone, or (God forbid) one of those archaic orbs on the wall with an hour and a minute hand.  It wasn’t until I began penning medieval fiction that I realized how little I knew about the history of time measurement and what inventions have made it so precise today.  Days of research followed. But for my readers, I narrowed down my fascination with the evolution of time to five facts.   I hope you find them as fascinating as I do.


  1. The minute, as a measurement of time, didn’t exist. 

Portrait of Jost Burgi, inventor of the minute handDuring the Middle Ages, people used a combination of water clocks, sun dials, and candle clocks to tell time though none of those could tell time to the minute.  While the best water clocks told time to the quarter hour, it wasn’t until the wide use and improvement of mechanical clocks that people could tell time to the minute.

Even though the minute hand may have existed as early as the late 15th century, Jost Burgieven (pictured left)  is credited with inventing it in 1577.  Still, it took over a century for the technology to spread as the minute hand wasn’t widely added to clocks until the 1680s.


2.       For most of the Middle Ages, clocks rang seven or eight times in a day, not twenty-four.

Since most Christian monks adhered to a tight schedule of work and prayer, they were some of the first timekeepers in Medieval Europe.  For most of the Medieval period, a 24 hour day was divided into eight liturgical designations: Vigils (currently called Matins and was also referred to as Nocturns), Matins (currently called Lauds), Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.*

Strangely, the only mention of the bells ringing for Vigils that I have found comes from David Ewing Duncan. In his book, Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year, Duncan suggests that medieval cities weren’t always consistent in recognizing the first hour of the day and a medieval traveler “might end up at his destination at midnight to hear the…first hour rung.” Considering most historians accept the theory that medieval people participated in segmented sleep, this seems odd.** How did people wake up without the sound of a bell? Did people rise naturally on their own? Or, since the term Matins replaced the term Nocturns, is there some confusion about when the bells actually rang? I’d love to know.


Historian Robert Ekirch considers this engraving from 1595 to be evidence of segmented sleep during the Renaissance.

By the end of the Middle Ages, wide use and improvements in mechanical clocks changed the way people kept time. I’ll discuss that in another section.

*It’s worth noting that most cities’ bells rang for other events, announcing the opening of markets, beginning of curfews, and start of special holidays.

**Whether Medieval laymen slept through the entire night is a hot topic. In his book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, historian Roger Ekirch references over five hundred documents that suggest laymen went to bed around 9 p.m., slept for 3 to 4 hours, got up for 1 to 2 hours for prayer and possibly sex, and then went back to sleep until Prime. But even Ekirch recognizes that not all people followed the same sleeping pattern as does historian Jean Verdon. Historians refer to this sleep pattern as segmented sleep.

3.       The length of an hour depended on the time of year and where you lived.


This sculpture on the side of Chartres Cathedral shows an angel carrying a sundial, a device used to tell time during the Middle Ages.

For most of the Middle Ages, the time between sunrise and sunset was divided into twelve equal portions just like it was in ancient Rome. The time from sunset to sunrise was also divided into twelve equal segments. This worked well on the equinoxes when the length of a daytime hour equaled a nighttime hour, but by the 2nd century b.c.e., people recognized how confusing this could be to travelers during the winter and summer months.

Imagine living in Oslo, Norway during the Middle Ages. With only approximately 6 hours of sunlight on Christmas that would make a daylight hour for them only 30 minutes long.   Now travel to Naples, Italy where they have over nine hours of sunlight. A daylight hour for them on Christmas would last about 50 minutes.

Ian Mortimer sheds light on how the medieval hours related to modern time-telling in his book The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. Mortimer says most people rose for the Prime bells, which rang at dawn. They struck for the 3rd hour of the day at Terce (mid-morning), the 6th hour at Sext (noon), again for the 9th hour at None (mid-afternoon) and once more for the 12th hour at Compline (a little after sunset). The chart below shows how bells of London would ring at different times depending on the season.

Table 1: Canonical bells in  12th Century  London

 Equinox  Midwinter  Midsummer
Matins    5:00 a.m.    6:40 a.m.    2:30 a.m.
Prime    6:00 a.m.    8:00 a.m.    3:40 a.m.
Terce    8:30 a.m.    9:40 a.m.    7:00 a.m.
Sext  12:30 p.m.  12:20 p.m.  12:20 p.m.
None    2:30 p.m.    1:40 p.m.    3:00 p.m.
Vespers    5:00 p.m.    3:00 p.m.    7:00 p.m.
(Sunset)   (6:00 p.m.)   (3:50 p.m.)   (8:20 p.m.)
Compline 7-8:00 p.m. 5-6:00 p.m.    9:30 p.m.

Medieval coins 4.       You Couldn’t Waste Time, and Time Couldn’t Cost You Money.

People living in the Middle Ages believed time belonged to God.  Therefore, it wasn’t theirs to waste. The question arose in the 13th century on whether merchants and craftsman could charge fees for unsettled debts (i.e. late fees). The Franciscans, who were asked to settle one particular case, decided no.  Why?  Because only God owns time and charging for it seemed unethical. Some likened late fees to usury (the sinful charging of interest) which was condemned for much of the Middle Ages.

5.        Dante Alighieri made the first literary reference to clocks that struck the hours.

Dante AlighieriIn 1320, Dante Alighieri (pictured left) referred to a clock that struck the hours in his work, The Divine Comedy.  It is considered the first literary reference to that type of clock. We know that by the 1350s this technology spread to England since King Edward III used them in his palaces. By the end of the 14th century, mechanical clocks could be found in several cathedrals and palaces throughout England. The clocks didn’t show time with an hour hand but struck a bell to signify the time. Since mechanical clocks relied on mechanisms rather than sunlight to tell time, the hours became the same length year round. The reliance on clock time was not immediate and people referred to time in two ways: solar time and time of the clock. The latter of which was later shortened to the phrase o’ clock, which we still use today.

profile picAndrea Cefalo is a Medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel The Fairytale Keeper, was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier this year.  She is currently working on the third book in her series.

Did you enjoy this article? Well, there’s more where that came from! Check out the archives or peruse the sidebar for a list of trending posts.  To make sure you don’t miss out on my latest articles, follow this blog or sign up for the newsletter.

Further Reading and Sources: