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The Golden Gloss

A medieval glossary of English (old/middle/modern) words as they were used in their various definitions through the middle ages, especially ones commonly misunderstood or unknown to the general public (or newer participants.) Words in italics are also defined in the Glossary. As this develops, I would like to start including pictures so the glossary is both visually and verbally explained.

Here in the planning stages I am developing the style for this page, including elements such as annotating references and including pictures. As of now it’s a proof of concept, and when I dig my teeth into it, will become far more detailed and comprehensive. Things slated for inclusion include finding and defining (many now defunct) medieval legal terms as well as trade and guild specific vocabulary.

UPDATED 01/31/2021

Acre[1][2]: 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.

Joe Metz in crusader era armor displaying ailettes.

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.

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.

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

Cattle [after the 14th century]: By 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.

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

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.

Cotter: An English peasant who holds no land save for a cottage and messuage.

Furlong (measurement): 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.    

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

See a term missing? Submit it below with your definition, sources, and how you want to be attributed in the entry.