Some collective nouns from the Middle Ages

Source: BBC History Extra

A tabernacle of bakers

Strict laws about the distribution of bread stated that no baker was allowed to sell their bread from beside their own oven. They had to sell their produce from a stall at one of the king’s approved markets. These small, portable ‘pop-up’ shops were known in Middle English as ‘tabernacula’—‘little shops made of boards’.

A stalk of foresters

Foresters in medieval society were respectable and well paid. Their  duties included protecting the forest’s stock of game birds, deer and other animals from poachers. From time to time they also stalked criminals, who took to the forests to evade capture.

A melody of harpers

The medieval period – the age of troubadours and minstrels – was an era defined by its emphasis on knightly tradition. The harp was used to accompany songs about brave deeds and courtly love. Travelling harpists moved from town to town performing instrumental accompaniment at banquets and recitals of madrigal singing.

A sentence of judges

In 1166, Henry II sought to shift power away from individual landowners and bring it more directly under his own control. He crated the courts of assizes, where a national bench of judges travelled around the country for quarterly court sessions. These judges based their decisions on a new set of national laws that were common to all people—hence the term ‘common law’.

A faith of merchants

Merchants formed guilds of fellow traders, which eventually bought charters directly from the king, allowing towns to become independent of the lord of the manor. ‘Faith’ was a reference to the trustworthiness of a person, and in this use was meant ironically, for merchants were rarely trusted. Offences were officially punishable by a stint in the pillory, but because the guilds were self-regulated most perpetrators got off with only a fine.

An abominable sight of monks

Monks were not popular in the 15th century; resentment of the trampling of pagan traditions had been exacerbated by a perception that monks were well fed and comfortable while the general population starved. ‘Abominable’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “causing moral revulsion”, hence this usage.

A superfluity of nuns

There were some 140 nunneries in England between 1270 and 1536. Many  were severely overcrowded. This noun appeared in print in The Book of St Albans .

A stud of horses

Horses were at the centre of life in the Middle Ages. Medieval horses were classified by the role they played in society. During the Middle Ages, monasteries ran breeding centres called stud farms – ‘stud’ has its roots in the German word ‘stute’, meaning mare.

A cry of hounds

Hunting dogs were important members of the medieval household. Every noble family kept kennels for their dogs, and these were looked after by a team of dedicated servants.‘A cry of hounds’ is thought to derive from the hunting cry that instructs the hounds in their pursuit.

A richesse of martens

The European pine marten was a top prize for hunters in the Middle Ages, because of its valuable pelt. Tudor ‘statutes of apparel’ – strict laws governing the amount of money the people could spend on clothing – dictated the colours, cuts and materials that could be worn by each level of society, and stated which furs could be worn by which tier of the aristocracy. Only those of or above the rank of duke, marquise and earl were allowed to wear sable fur, while ermine, the white winter coat of the stoat, which could only be obtained for a few months of the year, was reserved for royalty.

 

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

2 thoughts on “Some collective nouns from the Middle Ages”

  1. These are wonderful. I took a graduate course in Chaucer, and do not recall seeing any of these. Thanks, Anthony. To this point, my favourite collective has been “an exaltation of larks.” I may alter my opinion!

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