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The Golden Gloss

The medieval glossary of English (old/middle/modern) words as used in the middle ages. Of highlight are words misunderstood or unknown to the general public (or newer participants.)

UPDATED 08/05/2022


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There are currently 74 terms in this directory
A
Acre
An area of land 43,560 ft2 (4046.86 m2 .) The modern use and size of an acre has been consistent since the 13th century when it was defined by law a 40 poles by 4 poles. In its oldest usage it was a general term for open areas. As agriculture progressed the word began to refer to the area a yoke of oxen could plow in a day, which is about four furlongs.

 
Advowson
The right to nominate someone to a vacant ecclesiastical position, such as the parish priest. This right was usually held by the lord of the local manor and the process (called presentation) was usually made to the Bishop of the dioecy, though as with many medieval rituals and practices actual location and time will effect the nuance of this concept.

 
Ailette


A component of armor coming into fashion around the late 1200s and disappears by the early 1300s; a piece of rigid material laced to the mail covering the tops of the shoulders and collar bone area, usually rectangular. Generally they lay flat on the body. As with the shape and size, some variation existed. They are the subject of debate as to their protective vs. heraldic/decorative purposes.

 
Aketon
A padded and quilted garment, usually of linen, worn under or instead of plate or mail.

 
Allure (also alure)
A walkway or passage behind a parapet, also refers at time to other walkways such as the galleries of clerestories, the aisles of churches, or just walkable areas along castle walls in general.

 
Alms
Penance imposed by a priest on a member of the nobility requiring payment of a sum of money to the benefit of the poor.

 
Amercement
A punishment in law taking the form of a fine.

 
Argent (heraldry)
The metallic color silver.

 
Ark
A wooden coffer or chest, frequently used in medieval households to store grain.

 
Armiger
A person who has been granted and is entitled to bear a coat of arms.

 
Ashlar
A flat, square stone typically used for paving, shingling, or wall facings, more similar to paving stones, stone shingles, or veneer stone than bricks or blocks.

 
Attainder
The formal and legal process of severing or revoking a person's rights, especially in regards to title or property (and the ability to pass said rights on) due to being sentenced of serious felonies, treason, and capital crimes. Also known as attinctura.

 
Azure (heraldry)
The color blue.

 
B
Bailey
An enclosed courtyard.

 
Baldaquin
A canopy over the highest place on the top table in dining.

 
Barbican
A projecting outwork designed to protect a gateway.

 
Battlements
A collective term referring to the defensive structure on walls, towers, and buildings of fortified structures such as castles, inclusive of whatever combination of parapets, crenellations, and/or machicolations existed.

 
Bevor
A piece of plate armor protecting the chin and neck designed to operate with a helmet and/or its visor.

 
Bill or Billhook
The former being an curved blade on a stick arboreal tool, when made larger or affixed to a longer pole it was commonly used by English commoners as military weapons. Eventually the billhook took on a life of its own as an iconic weapon and was made purpose built for war with additional hooks, spear points, and spikes.

 
Bodkin (arrowhead)
A type of arrowhead which is round or diamond shaped and sharply pointed with the intent of puncturing and penetrating plate and mail armor.

 
Book of Hours
A special book containing the prayers for each hour of the day.

 
Bordar
An English peasant who holds no land save for a cottage and messuage. Similar to Cottager and Cotter.

 
Breastplate (armor)
A piece of plate armor in one solid or sometimes three segments which covers the upper chest from collar bone to the diaphragm.

 
Buckler
A small shield, commonly made of metal or a combination of metal and leather, held in a center grip and typically used in conjunction with a short or arming sword.

 
Butt (archery)
[14th c.] An earthen berm style archery set up, a mound of earth on which a target was placed to work as a stop for the arrows.

 
Butt (container/measurement)
[14th c.] A barrel or cask for wine, ale, or liquor. Eventually developed into an official measurement of 108 - 140 gallons, roughly two hogsheads.

 
Butt (objects)
[14th c.] "The thick end" of something.

 
Butt (verb)
[14th c.] To strike something against something else.

 
Buttery
A storage space for, primarily liquor, and other liquid provisions. Developed from the Old French word boterie and the storage container barrel called a butt.

 
C
Cattle [after the 14th century]
y the early 14th century this word began to develop the modern reference to livestock, though still referred more generally to mobile capital to include cows, but also horses, sheep, pigs, etc. It did not start meaning exclusively bovine until the 16th century.

 
Cattle [before the 14th century]
A general term for property, money, lands, assets, etc.

 
Chattel
A general term for tangible property and goods such as possessions, wealth, and belongings of value.

 
Clerestory
A section set high into a wall which includes regular windows, not intended to look through specifically, but set above head height to allow light and/or air into the building Also known as clear storey, clearstory, clearstorey, overstorey. Can also refer to more specific architectural features of a Roman basilica or gothic church.

 
Cotlander
An English peasant holding about a dozen acres of land, though the numbers are not so exact and it refers more to the middle ground between holding less than a half-virgate, but more than a quarter-virgate of land.

 
Cottager
An English peasant who holds no land save for a cottage and messuage. Similar to Cotter and Bordar.

 
Cotter
An English peasant who holds no land save for a cottage and messuage. Similar to Cottager and Bordar.

 
Crenels (crenellated, crenellations)
Gaps or indentations, usually rectangular and set at regular intervals, in the parapets of a castle's walls, roofs, and towers serving a similar function to machicolations by allowing space for defenders to launch missile weapons and other projectiles while also being able to retreat to the defense of the parapet itself. Also known as carnels and embrasures. Fun fact, to crenellate a structure in medieval England usually required a license issued by the crown.

 
Cuirass (armor)
A general term referencing the assemblage of armor which covers the torso and hips, generally consisting of a front and back piece and a fauld or tassets.

 
Cuisse (armor)
A piece of armor which covers the upper leg.

 
D
Demesne
Land in and around the manor owned directly by and which was cultivated for the lord and his immediate household. It was worked by the serfs as part of their obligations and rents.

 
E
Ewer
A pottery or pewter jug for pouring water over the hands when washing before and after a meal.

 
F
Fief
In the feudal system, the lands and estates held by a vassal by homage and service to a lord.

 

 
Fletching
The feathers on the back end of an arrow.

 
Freehold
An estate held without any feudal obligation

 
Furlong
Developed from the term "a furrow long" it is the approximate length a yoke of oxen can plow without needing to take a break, more narrowly defined as 40 poles. Equivalent to 660 feet or 201.16 meters.

 
G
Gallons
[late 13th c.] and its preceding Old French roots of the galon and jalon has referred to a liquid measure which has always roughly corresponded with the modern measure.

 
Gambeson (armor)
A jacket like piece of armor, made from gamboised fabric (quilted from many layers or stuffed between layers) and designed to be worn as armor alone, or as a substrate to mail armor. Frequently was used in conjunction with plate armor as well as foundation garment from which to point (tie on) pieces of armor.

 
H
Hide
An area of land consisting of 4 virgates, or about 120 - 160 acres of land, and is the unit of measure knights and gentry would account for their land in.

 
Hogshead
A liquid measure, fixed by law in 1423 to 63 wine gallons. For other liquids it could reference anything from 100 to 140 gallons.

 
J
Jupon
A sleeved garment made and intended to be worn over the top of mail and plate armor, predominant use in the 14th century.

 
K
Kettle Hat (armor)
A form of open faced helmet consisting of a conical crown and a wide brim.

 
L
Liripipe
The elongated point of a hood, sometimes made at extremely long lengths and tucked into the belt or draped around the head or shoulders like a scarf.

 
M
Machicolations
When the battlements are build so they overhand the structure they are atop, such as a wall or the edge of a tower, and frequently including gaps or slits along the base which serve a similar purpose to crenellations, allowing the defenders a protected place from which to attack the enemy by dropping objects or with projectile weapons.

 
Mail (armor)
Often erroneously referred to as "chainmail," a form of armor consisting of interlocking metal rings which were riveted closed and woven into garments similar in shame to many garments made from fabric, such as shirts and skirts. The name is derived from the French maille, which mean net.

 
Messuage [13th/14th c.]
In the feudal context it is a measure of land adjacent to a residence for agricultural and outbuilding purposes and is referenced in legal records when accounting for the land holdings of freemen and tenants (such as "Joe Serf, one half virgate and messuage.") It is unclear as to whether the size of a messuage was regulated in any way, but as records are specific to the acre in places, it is believes the messuage was an area less than an acre. The messuage was for personal use, such as a garden, small husbandry like chickens, and outbuildings. A modern equivalent would be the curtilage of a small single family home on a .5 - 1 acre city lot. The messuage would sometimes be enclosed with a fence, hedge, or small wall.

 
Messuage [post 15th c.]
Over time, and as feudalism declined, the term began to associate more strongly with the dwelling itself than with the land adjacent to it (see above.) Later uses of the word are more accurately akin to a small "farmstead" than a unit of land measure.

 
O
Or (heraldry)
The metallic color of gold.

 
Ox (plural oxen)
Castrated bovines trained to do pulling work such as carts or plows in addition to use as food.

 
P
Pantry
A storage area for dry goods, such as bread or spices.

 
Parapet
Refers to the wall along the edge of a roof, balcony, allure, etc. Often doing both the work of a guardrail and as part of the defense of the structure they are often crenellated in heavily fortified applications.

 
Perch (measurement)
Defined as 5.5 yards, also called a pole or rod. Equivalent to 16.5 feet or 5.03 meters.

 
Pole (measurement)
Defined as 5.5 yards, also called a perch or rod. Equivalent to 16.5 feet or 5.03 meters.

 
Q
Quarrel
The short arrow like projectile used in crossbows.

 
R
Reeve
The chief magistrate in a village or town and was the supervisor of an estate.

 
Rod (Measurement)
Defined as 5.5 yards, also called a perch or pole. Equivalent to 16.5 feet or 5.03 meters.

 
S
Sable (heraldry)
The color black.

 
Serf
An unfree peasant bound to the lord and owing substantial land or personal service. Alternative term for villein.

 
Smallholder
A loose term for peasants who hold a small number of acres, but not as many as a quarter-virgater.
T
Tasset (armor)
A piece of armor which was attached to the bottom of a cuirass so it overlapped the cuisse and provided additional protection for the thigh.

 
V
Vassal
In the feudal system someone in service to someone above them in the social hierarchy and holds lands from them.

 
Villein
An unfree peasant bound to the lord and owing substantial land or personal service. Alternative term for serf.

 
Virgate
A feudal unit of land measurement roughly equating to thirty acres, sometimes as many as forty acres, and capable of supporting a single peasant household (assuming a household of five to seven people.) Also measured in halves and sometimes quarters (half-virgate, quarter-virgate.)

 
Virgater
A peasant, free or villein, who held a virgate or more of land. A half-virgater would hold a half-virgate, a quarter-virgater would hold a quarter-virgate.

 
W
Wardship
Controlling an estate by an adult while the rightful heir and owner is still too young.

 


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