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By the time our ancestors, "The Old" Wagner, Andreas Reiss, and Hans Cuntz, appeared on the scene, around 1400 A.D., the feudal system had changed considerably from its original form. One of the main reasons for the change was the growing power of the trades or guilds. These included such things as weavers, tailors, tanneries and leather crafts, millers, bakers, metal smiths, blacksmiths, and many others. By the year 1400 there were many villages with freemen (as opposed to indentured peasants) working their professions. The villages had their own governmental structures of mayor and councilmen. Villagers enjoyed varying levels of prosperity with some having a degree of wealth.
The class system persisted, however, with the royalty owning most of the land and still living in castles or fine mansions. Peasants still rented land and paid taxes. Overlords still ruled over counties, states and nations. Villages were frequently owned by the overlords or were part of larger jurisdictions such as counties who were governed and owned by the overlord.
As today, people occupied every step of the economic ladder. We will see some of this spectrum of wealth and position among our own ancestors who ranged from relatively well-off tradesmen who occupied positions of power such as mayor of their villages to lowly milkers and herders. However, because of the burden of the government and church systems, the unceasing wars, the human and economic rights distorted in favor of the ruling classes, and most importantly, the lack of technical progress of the time, the economic ladder was severely tilted to favor the rich and powerful which tended to keep the peasant and working classes poor.
By the 15th century, when our Wagner, Reiss, and Cuntz ancestors, came along, the use of money for transacting business had become common adding flexibility for doing business. No longer were all transactions based on barter. Food, property, taxes and such were, bought, sold and paid for with money. Money transactions became the primary method of doing business and gave rise to the villages and towns and the specialization of labor into trades.
If you were not a farmer but were a technician with a trade such as blacksmith, weaver, cook, baker, miller, etc. you probably lived in a small village or town such as Rumbach, a village of about 500 people. One of the main reasons that people moved to towns was to get away from feudalism. The Germans had a proverb: "Town air makes (you) free." This was because people in the free towns owed their loyalty and obedience not to a lord but to the mayor, councillors and guilds, all of whom jealously guarded the privileges of their town against outsiders. The mayor and councillors were usually chosen from among the most wealthy merchants and craftsmen. These officials were not only responsible for the local governing of village life, but were in turn the interface with the overlords for purposes of taxes and the policies and laws of the rulers.
People lived in the villages and towns primarily because of their work. Within each village, specialized industries such as weaving, leather working, blacksmith, barrel making, and other vocations provided jobs. They all needed food and clothing, so butchers, bakers, tailors and shoemakers set up shops.
All commercial work was controlled by craft 'guilds' which controlled the price, quantity and quality of their products or
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services. There were weaver guilds, leather worker's guilds, blacksmith guilds and guilds for almost every trade and work skill. The guilds were much like the unions of today. They made sure that their members produced high quality goods and trained young men in the skills needed for each craft. They also controlled the number of craft members in their guild thereby protecting their own jobs. A man who worked hard and became respected within a guild could rise in the organization and had a chance of taking part in the government of his village or town.
There was a high price to be paid for living in the village, in terms of individual freedom. A village or town was not a very comfortable place. People lived crowded together in narrow houses, built above businesses and workshops. For ordinary people, these living conditions were dirtier and more unhealthful than those in the countryside. Streets were narrow, crowded, dirty, noisy and the open sewers that ran through the streets were a never ending source of stench and pollution. Sanitary conditions were poor, at best. Since the streets also served as an open sewer, it was a vast feeding ground for the thousands of rats that lived among the inhabitants. The conditions were ideal for diseases such as the bubonic plague which periodically devastated the land.
Our Ancestors Homes
Our very early ancestors who were subjugated by the foreign invaders and Christian church (about 700 - 1000 A.D.) still lived in rudimentary houses similar to those of our nomadic tribal ancestors. These were one room wooden houses with dirt floors and a place for a fire in the center of the room. They had no chimneys or windows. There must have been a great contrast between the one room wooden houses of these early peasants and the stone castles of the overlords.
In the centuries leading up to the time of our Wagner, Reiss, and Cuntz families (1000 - 1400 A.D.), the construction of homes improved. Open windows that could be closed with crude shutters were added. As villages
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and towns developed, multiple-rooms began to be used. These became necessities to store raw material, shop equipment and products of the trades. These builders borrowed some of the more practical ideas used in the castles and took advantage of the close proximity of town buildings to enclose spaces between buildings and build upper stories. By the time our Wagner, Reese, and Cuntz families arrived on the scene in the early 15th century, multi-room structures were common in the villages and towns.
Our ancestors' homes reflected their prosperity. Those who lived in a village and were less subject to the control and taxation of the overlords had a better chance of becoming more prosperous. In fact, a wealthy family's town house could be just as luxurious as a lord's castle. With the expanded use of money, families could save some of their earnings and have greater flexibility in what they purchased. Ancestors such as Peter Wagner and his son Martin Wagner, both of whom were mayors of Rumbach, were probably prosperous businessmen and likely enjoyed some of the finer accommodations in the village.
As previously noted, now that an economic ladder had developed within the peasant and tradesmen classes, people occupied every step of the ladder. Peasants who lived on farms usually had fewer opportunities than their town cousins. For one thing, they were still more directly subject to the overlords and were directly taxed for a share of the products of their labor. Many, if not most of the farmers still lived in one room wooden houses with, perhaps, a second adjoining room for the farm animals. With the exception of some of the modern conveniences of the time, such as chimneys, improved windows and fireplaces. their houses were not all that much different from their ancestors.
Not all who lived in the villages and towns were prosperous. Many of the lesser talented villagers which included the laborers and people without a specific trade, lived in small one room houses, not unlike those of their country cousins. Because of the over crowding, poor sanitation, dirt and filth that accompanied living in the village, these one room houses were much less healthful and less desirable than those of their country cousins.
So, housing at the time of our earliest ancestors such as the Wagner, Cuntz, and Reiss families, was a range that ran from the one room, dirt floor, wooden house similar but somewhat improved from their nomadic ancestors; to multi-room, multi-story town houses that incorporated all the modern conveniences of the day.
What Our Ancestors Wore
Long before our Wagner, Cuntz, and Reiss families came on the scene linen, hemp and wool cloth had been in use for clothing in Europe. The spinning of yarn, the production of cloth and the construction of clothing were all done by hand. It
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was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that machinery was invented to help with this labor intensive work. Several of our ancestors worked in each of these vocations.
Animal hides remained quite important as raw materials for clothing and leather for shoes, harnesses, and such.
By the time the "The Old" Wagner, Andreas Reiss, and Hans Cuntz were born, sheep had become an important source of wool as a raw material for making clothing. Although it never fully replaced linen, it became a major raw material for cloth. Sheep in the days of our early ancestors were not as productive of wool as they are today. The wool was also a poorer quality with that from German sheep being much lower quality than wool from countries such as Spain and England.
The wool industry was also plagued by the problems of jurisdictional quarrels between the related guilds. Specialization within the industry included wool production, spinning, production of cloth and dyeing. Clearly, the more functions done by a single guild, the greater the value added and the greater the profit. Peasants who raised and tended the sheep and harvested the wool were also in a good position to clean and card the wool. This work usually could be done by the women of the peasant household. But, it also took work away from guild members who lived in the villages. Jurisdictional fights developed that sometimes turned into open conflicts between the farmers and villagers. The spinning and weaving processes were a similar source of conflict.
Country folks, in particular, usually processed their own clothing from the point of harvesting the flax or wool through the spinning and weaving into cloth. They even did much of the tailoring of the cloth into clothes.
As with their houses, it is important to recognize that people on different rungs of the economic ladder approached the issue of clothing differently. We are not able to address these distinctions in detail here. But in general and particularly among the poor, clothing was treated more as a necessity than as an emblem of distinction. By our standards, people in the Middle Ages owned very few clothes. This was because clothes were expensive since they had to be sewn entirely by hand. Clothing was seldom changed or renewed except when absolutely necessary. Cloths were seldom removed or washed and extra clothing was not all that necessary.
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German peasants and tradesmen wore simple practical outfits of usually cheap material. They would consist of a shirt covered by a vest. The vest was frequently made of leather. Trousers which might be more leggings were protected by more durable outer shorts which were frequently made of leather. Long stockings provided warmth for the lower legs and shoes were of leather. Hats were popular and were made of a fabric cloth or of leather.
Women's clothing consisted of long dresses of considerable bulk. Multiple layers were frequently worn for warmth. Long sleeved blouses were worn under a pinafore over-garment. A bonnet that might tie under the chin or a shawl-type headdress was almost always worn.
Our Ancestors Food
It was customary that people ate only two meals a day. The first and most substantial meal was eaten around noon. A second and smaller meal was eaten at the end of the day. Since people got up with the rising of the sun and their day lasted until dark, it was a long time, especially in the summer, between rising and the first meal at noon. To bridge this period, people began to take a bit of food, such as bread, shortly after rising. This was to break the period of morning fasting and keep them going until noon. This breaking of the morning fast became known as 'breakfast,' our current name for the first meal of the day.
Even our relatively well-off Wagner and Reiss families would have eaten their meals from wooden plates. They had no forks. While forks had been invented, they would not be used as eating utensils for another 100 years (about 1518), and then only by the very rich. Meals were eaten with only wooden spoons and knives. The knives were not table ware as we know them. They served all of the other purposes that required a knife. Bread and fingers served extensively as tableware.
The villagers bought their bread from the village baker who worked all night baking for the entire village. Villagers bought fresh vegetables, fruits and milk products from the vendors in the local market. These vendors were largely local farmers selling in the early versions of the "farmers' market." Our ancestors ate roast meats only on special occasions. This was because wood for fuel was scarce and expensive so the large fires needed for roasting meat were used sparingly. The usual fare included dishes that could be made in the large cooking pot that was usually kept simmering over an open fire or on the stove. In this way, food was always available and the problem of spoilage was minimized by continual pasteurization. Because of their relatively high position and prosperity, our Wagner ancestors ate and drank much better than our poorer peasant relatives.
Many of the dishes of our 15th century ancestors were remarkably similar to what we eat today. The differences in foods of the day were more between members of different classes (peasant to nobility). Wild game was eaten to a much greater extent than today and the variety of wild game eaten was much larger. It included deer, hare, rabbit, partridge, pheasant, small birds, dove, crane, heron, and a wide variety of fish. Domestic animals eaten were sheep, pig, piglets, chicken, ox and cow. The primary markets were in the towns and villages. One modern day study of the slaughterhouse records of the 15th century showed that the kind of domestic animal eaten was seasonal: lamb in March; mutton in June - July; and oxen and cow in September - January This pattern of seasonal consumption of meat was consistent over several years. During
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lent, the sale of meat dropped off to near zero. Some animals may have been slaughtered during lent, however, and the meat preserved for use at a later date.
Vegetables mentioned in records from this period include cabbage, turnips, stewed chard, turnip greens, leeks, shallots, peas, split beans, mashed beans, sieved beans or beans in their shell. Potatoes, which are native to South America, were not known in Europe as a food during the 15th through 17th century period. It would be around the middle of the 18th century before potatoes would become a major European food. It is likely that a wide assortment of wild greens were also gathered and eaten, particularly by the peasants. Though these are not mentioned in receipts of the time, the extensive use of such vegetables by immigrants to America suggests that these were known as a food source before coming to this country.
A full range of fruits were used including apples, pears, quince, peaches, plums, cherries, dates, figs, grapes, raisins, as well as a variety of nuts. A wide range of herbs and spices were also raised and used.
One of the main staples on every table was bread. Only the quality differed between the bread on the tables of peasants and the rich. A large number of grains were used to make bread which included, barley, millet, sorghum, oats, rye, buckwheat, spelt, rice and ordinary wheat. Rice flour was frequently used as a thickener. Flour from different grains were frequently mixed to improve their properties. For example, oats were usually mixed with another grain since by itself it makes a very dense hard bread which is hard to eat. The flour of all of the grains were used as the total grain; whole grain as we know it today.
Milk from cows, oxen, sheep and even mares was used as whole fresh milk or as clabbered milk, butter, and milk solids in the form of cottage cheese and aged cheese.
All these foods were the products of the farm and therefore available to the farmers. Heavy taxes and the need to sell produce for income forced most of the farming peasants to forego consuming much of their own produce and to accept the poorest of living standards. But, it seems almost certain that they would have enjoyed some of their harvest.
Peasant families ate very little meat. Their cooking pot contained mostly grain and vegetables. On occasions wild game, chicken or a piece of pork would be added to the pot for flavor and a small ration of meat. They had home made cheese and bread. Some drank beer or wine that they had made.
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More prosperous families such as the Wagner family ate more meat. Their cooking pot would more nearly approximate our stews or goulashes. Their selection of cheeses, breads and drink were also greater.
Vegetables were not as popular with our ancestors so if you could afford better, the vegetables were not used. For this reason, royalty rarely ate vegetables but ate large quantities of meat. As you might expect, their choices of cheeses, bread and drink were large and the very best.
Personal Hygiene and Health
of our Ancestors
Our ancestors had little understanding about personal hygiene and health. The Christian religion taught that all things were controlled by God so in matters of sickness, life and death, everything that happened was viewed as being the "will of God" or the malice of the devil. Sanitation, particularly in the villages and towns was abominable. Rats coexisted with humans as an accepted condition. Concern for water purity was largely a matter of smell and taste. Bad water could make food taste bad and was more difficult to drink.
One of the common scourges of the day was the bubonic plague. A disease spread in a cycle that involved the rat, the flea and higher animals. An epidemic occurred on a local scales about once every generation. Of course the rat-flea-mammal cycle was not known and the poor sanitary conditions of the time made the reoccurrence all but mandatory. History records three unusually devastating occurrence of the bubonic plague that wiped out major percentages of the human and large mammal populations. One of these occurred just 55 years before the birth of "The Old" Wagner and Andreas Reiss. It killed about 30% of the population of Europe.
In those days, no one washed their body. The clothes that people wore were usually the only clothes they owned. Clothes were washed only rarely. Perhaps the smoky environment inside of houses served to mask the fragrance of their bodies. Hygiene was poor. Tooth brushes were not in use in Europe. Although records indicate that some people washed their teeth with a cloth and salt or powders. This did little good and people lost their teeth at a young age.
Life Styles of our Early Ancestors
Most houses in the villages had no gardens and the residents did not produce their own food. People bought their food
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from farmers who came to the village market each day with baskets of fresh produce. Their meat would have been bought from the local butcher shops who in turn bought live or freshly butchered animals from the farmers. The Wagner family probably ate and otherwise fared quite well.
But even with their relative prosperity, the Wagner's life style would be quite different from our own. Being mayor of Rumbach, they may have been able to read and write but it was an ability that was probably not used much. There was not much to read in those days. The movable type printing press would not be invented for another 40 years (1440 A.D.) and would not begin to be used for the mass production of books until around 1500 A.D. The books that existed were mostly in the hands of the church whose clergy had written or copied them. Some were in the hands of the overlords and the wealthy but none were available to the peasants or tradesmen who, for the most part, could not read anyway. There were no newspapers. Almost all the public reading material was in the form of handbills or notices from the church or the civil authorities. But even this material was usually disseminated from the pulpit of the church at public readings.
In the Wagner home there were no clocks or watches. It would be another 100 years before clocks would be invented. While the Wagner family may have been rich enough to have multiple rooms in their town house, these rooms served multiple purposes. At most two or three would be used for living space for the family; one may serve as storage and possibly one for animals, if they kept any animals. Their furniture such as the table, for example, could be easily dismantled and stored so that the room could be used for other purposes including sleeping. There was probably a loft that was most likely used by the children for sleeping. They probably had their own primitive lavatory (out-house/toilet) if the lot their house was built on included sufficient outside space. Rooms were dark because the windows were small and few and in the winter would have been sealed with shutters against the cold.
Our ancestors who were not so well off, as perhaps our Wagner family was, had even poorer living accommodations. These would have included our ancestors who lived on the farm and those of modest means who lived in the villages. One room in which the whole family lived and which served all functions including kitchen, living space and bedroom, was typical. If they were farmers with animals, a second room attached to the house would be the barn for the animals. The floor of the family living room would be hard-packed dirt. Furniture would be sparse and would include benches, but no chairs. The table would be wooden boards resting on wooden legs resembling saw-horses that could be disassembled after each meal and put away. The fire would be an open fire built on the floor in the center of the room. There was probably no chimney so the room was smoky. Above the fire a chain or wooden pole would hang from the rafter with a hook on the lower end on which a metal cooking pot could be hung over the fire. The family owned a few cooking pots, some wooden bowls and mugs. Eating utensils were carved wooden plates and wooden spoons. Sacks containing grain, beans, flour, salt preserved meat, if any, dried vegetables, etc. would be hung from rafters in the smoky room so that rodents could not reach them.
People went to bed at dark. Wax for candles or oil for lamps were too expensive for night lights. Sometimes the family would sit around the fire for a while and talk. There was enough light from the fire to socialize or worship but not enough to see to work. At bedtime a large cloth bag stuffed with straw that had been stored in the rafters during the day was spread on the floor on which the whole family slept.
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