Work and Play in Medieval Coventry

Medieval artefacts from the collection of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry

Coins (1442/1509) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Medieval Coventry

Medieval Coventry was a large and important city due to its thriving industries. The cloth industry was particularly important and many Coventry inhabitants worked as drapers, tailors, dyers, fullers and weavers. There were also numerous other craftsmen, such as metalworkers and leather workers.

Ancient Passage leading to the Hall (1819) by William Henry BrookeThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

St Mary's Guildhall

Merchants in Coventry formed guilds to look after their various trades, and many guilds met at St Mary’s Guildhall.

Angel, coin (1480/1483) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum has a large collection of medieval artefacts found in Coventry.

Comb (1100/1600) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Each object gives us a glimpse into what life was like for ordinary people going about their work and play.

Cloth (1100/1509) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The Cloth Industry

During the medieval period, Coventry's most important industry was cloth weaving. Cloth was bought and sold in the Drapery, a building next to St Mary's Guildhall. Coventry textiles were traded across Europe from this building.

Very little cloth has survived from the medieval period in Coventry. This scrap of wool cloth was found in the city, and may have been made there.

Thimbles (1350/1550) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Thimbles are used to help push needles through cloth when sewing. These thimbles were cast from copper alloy.

These dimples would have been drilled by hand, and they stopped the needle from slipping off the thimble.

Shears (1100/1600) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Shears

A third of all Coventry workers were employed in the cloth industry. Most worked in their own homes, although there were also professional cloth-making establishments. Highly skilled craftspeople spun wool into yarn, before weaving it into cloth. Children were also expected to help from the age of seven or eight. After weaving and fulling, the resulting cloth would be sheared to make clothing.

The design of shears had remained unchanged since Roman times, and simply consisted of two sharp blades and a spring at the back, which doubled as a handle.

Wool weight (1340/1406) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Wool Weight

This wool weight was used to weigh bales of wool or cloth before selling. It is made of lead and bears the royal coat of arms to show it is official. These were essential tools for wool and cloth merchants. Both cloth and raw wool were traded within England and sold abroad. 

Selling wool for manufacture

Raw wool could be exported to be manufactured into cloth. The most renowned weavers were from Flanders. Larger merchants developed trading links with manufacturers abroad, while less wealthy traders dealt with travelling wool merchants within England.

A leather strap would be threaded through the hole in the top of this weight. The strap was slung over a beam to be counter-balanced with the equivalent weight of wool.

Crucifix (1420/1430) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Religious Life

Religion was a vital part of everyday life. Monks and friars served various roles, and they all swore an oath of chastity, poverty and obedience. They provided charity for the less fortunate, and the Church also ran the only hospitals. Monks were reclusive, whereas friars went out into the local population to preach and conduct charitable work.

Communion plate (1400/1600) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Monasteries

The Benedictine monastery, St Mary's Priory, was consecrated in 1043. Other monastic houses followed, including the Franciscans in the 1230s and Carmelites in 1342. The friars were named after the colours of their robes and mantles: Greyfriars and Whitefriars.

Misericord seat (1342/1538) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Misericord

Monks worshipped eight times a day at long services which involved singing, chanting and reciting prayers. They were expected to stand throughout the services but many cheated by resting against ledges on fold up seats called misericords. 

Misericord seat (1342/1538) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Misericord comes from the Latin word for relief. This misericord comes from Whitefriars monastery in Coventry.

Misericord designs varied greatly. Most depicted animals or characters from medieval folklore. The owl was a popular choice. Owls were meant to represent wisdom, but seeing one was bad luck!

Helmet (1460/1490) by Martin RondelleThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Medieval Warfare

There were several major medieval conflicts, and men from all social classes could be called on to fight in wars. Knights were usually mounted on horseback. The infantry, or soldiers on foot, were the most numerous portion of armies. Archery was an integral part of medieval warfare. Since it was so effective, it was compulsory in medieval England for all men to practise archery.

Archer's bracer (1100/1600) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The longbow

By the 1300s, the longbow was used widely, as it was much faster to use than the crossbow. At around two metres long, longbows were very powerful. They could even pierce plate armour at a range of over 200 metres. In Coventry training took place at the Butts, which were to the south of Spon Street in the fields near the river Sherbourne. Butts is an archery term for targets.

An archer’s bracer and tab protected their arm and fingers from the bowstring when shooting.

Mask (1300/1500) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Coventry Mystery Plays

Guilds put on mystery plays to teach people about the life of Christ, but they were often full of silly jokes. The term mystery comes from a corruption of the French word metier, meaning job or trade. Mystery plays were held once a year on a public holiday. The story of St George was often performed alongside mystery plays.

Actors wore masks like this one during plays. This is thought to be the only surviving object from the Coventry mystery plays. It has eyebrows scored on it and may have been brightly decorated.

George and the Dragon (1470/1490) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

This carving was originally located in St George’s chapel above Gosford gate on the city walls.

The story of St George slaying the dragon represents good triumphing over evil. St George’s Day was an important feast day, celebrated with a procession and a play.

Ice skate (1400/1550) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Medieval Ice Skating

This bone is from the lower limb of a cow. Animal bones were ideal because their oily surface acted as a natural wax. Poles were often used with ice skates, to help push the skater along. Such poles may have also been used for a dangerous game of ice-jousting! 

Shoe (1100/1509) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

The bone ice skates would have been tied to shoes using leather straps and the bottom of the bone was smoothed for use.

Ice skate (1400/1550) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

It is likely that ice skating began as a practical way of getting around in icy conditions, but it also became a pastime. This medieval ice skate was found in the mill pond of St Mary’s Priory in Coventry.

Chess piece (1350/1490) by UnknownThe Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

Chess Piece

In medieval England the game of chess was the pursuit of the wealthy educated classes who had the leisure time to indulge in board games. The term checkmate comes from the Persian shāh māt, which means ‘the king is finished’.This chess piece
was found during excavations on Bayley Lane in the centre of Coventry.

The inverted 'V' shaped motif is a stylised representation of a throne, which indicates that this piece is a king or queen.

The circle and dot design is an Islamic style and there was probably originally a top which is now missing.

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The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

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