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December 2002
Wintertime survival in a
medieval Sherwood Forest
Richard Rutherford-Moore, dressed as a Royal Forester (circa 1150-1200). Photo courtesy of Terry Butcher
Richard Rutherford-Moore gets into character
Surviving a typical medieval winter in Sherwood Forest might not have been much fun as an outlaw.

Historical consultant, Richard Rutherford-Moore, tells us how you might survive.
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- Basic rules
- Lifestyle
- Clothing
- Shelter
- Fire
- Food
- The in-laws
- Predators
- Conclusion

If a band of medieval outlaws in Sherwood Forest managed to survive the everyday threat of being captured or killed by the forces of law and order, their next biggest worry would be simply how to stay alive in terms of shelter and finding something to eat and drink as medieval temperatures dropped far below the winters we experience today.

In prolonged daytime temperatures of below freezing, living permanently outdoors is very risky unless you know what you are about; after dark in the same conditions, you sleep with the risk that you might never wake up again.

There are books you can read today and high street shops that stock all the relevant protective clothing for living in cold conditions - in the early medieval era there were no such luxuries.

The only thing that an outdoorsman could draw on was practical experience, either his own or someone else’s. To have an ‘old hand’ with you at this time would be priceless, as he would have the knowledge of his years to use in terms of survival.

Four basic rules of survival
There are four basic tangible rules for short-term survival in the extremes -
  • Obtain shelter
  • Obtain drink
  • Obtain food
  • Obtain warmth

You require all four in reasonable quantities not just to survive but to stay both alert, efficient and sane in the long-term.

Survival should be ensured through planning, not happen simply through luck. Knowing what the threats are and what to expect is halfway to solving the problem.

Military campaigns undertaken at the time simply went into ‘winter quarters’ some time prior to the wind, wet and extreme cold of bad weather (with a few period exceptions, notably King Stephen and King John during civil wars).

Prepared depots in castles or towns would provide the shelter and would have collected during summer and autumn harvests the fuel and stores to provide for the soldiers through the winter months.

An outlaws lifestyle
But no such military preparations as the above would be possible for an outlaw band; the outlaws would be by necessity nomadic, moving around within an established area unsettled in terms of any permanent storage capacity and so be unable to plant and nurture any crops or vegetables.

Staying in one place for too long risked detection by the authorities – in summertime a band of men could survive by eating as ‘hunter-gatherers’ like their prehistoric ancestors but with the approach of autumn and as the temperature began to drop other measures would clearly have to be adopted.

To physically exist a man requires food and drink - in cold weather he would also require a suitable shelter and a source of heat.

An outlaw band planning to stay in Sherwood Forest through the winter would have to have the means to provide themselves with all four.

The problem with not having made proper provision for winter is obvious – you will meet a cold, lonely and hungry death.

Sleeping in the open after a day spent in the open is risking hypothermia and exposure – simply freezing to death in your sleep.

Any shortages of drink and food would result in a quicker fall in energy in the short-term and in the long-term the body’s natural resistance to cold and sickness and in both the brain’s ability to reason; death could be measured in hours. But without sleep, the body cannot function naturally.

Many people are surprised when they hear that hypothermia can occur anywhere and anytime when the air temperature is below 60F /16C – the body needs to maintain a core of warmth and as the core temperature drops heat is taken from the head, resulting in a drop in circulation and energy being burned to provide heat rather than to feed the brain; the brain slows down, irrational behaviour gradually grows until the subject doesn’t know what they are doing.

The effect is so gradual the subject will not realise it is happening – without immediate help, they will die. A slight breeze can halve the time a man could expect to be in trouble through hypothermia; a cool wind can reduce it by four times that. Our outlaws would quickly have to learn two things; to stay dry and to keep out of the wind.

In the medieval era, clothes would be made of wool with a next-to-body material generally of linen. Both materials - worn in layers - are excellent to keep you warm. Perspiration reduces this effectiveness, so if you couldn’t avoid sweating for some reason and you became hot through physical exertion the correct thing to do would be to take a layer or two off until you cooled down, then put the layers back on again.

Medieval men wore a linen shirt and underclothes, a woollen coat with a hood over a coif - a tight fitting cap - on the head and also covering the shoulders and upper arms. Gloves were known - by comparison to our modern five-fingered gloves medieval winter gloves had two ‘fingers and a thumb’ only or more likely looked like mittens, made from wool or padded / lined leather.

Even soaking wet wool provides a modicum of warmth. Our medieval outlaws couldn’t wear anything else anyway, as fibres such as polyester, lycra and nylon weren’t invented and silk was both rare and too expensive for a common man when seen at market (Silk is a recommended next-to-body material for keeping warm, but rare in England for many years to come. Being an outlaw, if you couldn’t afford any silk you could always steal some).

Wool if clean and maintained is waterproof up to a point, but would not resist a downpour and shelter have to be sought. Wool can be waterproofed, but this affects the warmth it provides.

A far better and a more common waterproof for wintertime would be leather - a fatty skin taken from an animal such as a deer or a pig or a skin treated and tanned into leather and fashioned into a cloak, perhaps including a hood.

In the ballad Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne, Guy wears a capull bann for protection against the elements, the ideal period material against fierce wind and cold rain although heavy to move around in if worn. As a motorcyclist will already know, leather is still the best protection against high wind - modern fabrics only attempt to reduce the weight of the protective material and introduce ‘breathability’ to avoid damp through perspiration.

For a nomad, a shelter exists as one of two things:

  • A ready made item - small, light or convenient enough to carry around
  • A material ready to hand in such a plentiful quantity and easy to acquire from which a shelter can be reasonably quickly fabricated using an established design.

For protection as a shelter, Sahara Desert bedhouin carry tents but further south a bushman on a hunting trip away from his village would make a shelter from thorn bushes and tree branches.

Both are nomads and masters of their way of life and erect shelters for different reasons - the bedhou against the burning daytime sun and night-time cold and the bushman in addition to these for protection against predatory wild animals.

Our Sherwood outlaws have an advantage in that materials to create a shelter exist – a modern boy scout having had even the slightest outdoor training could create a reasonably comfortable and rainproof shelter in two to three hours using his sheath knife and the natural materials he could spot in a broad-leaved deciduous woodland environment. (What would prevent a modern boy scout demonstrating shelter-construction today is that most of these environments are protected against damage by statutes and by-laws and cutting down small trees or removing branches isn’t permitted).

There are natural shelters - rock overhangs, space under fallen large trees and also inside large standing trees; these are good for emergencies or overnights and avoid using up energy making a shelter.

There are still large caves in Sherwood Forest with a past of having been used as shelters on a regular basis - excavations reveal bones and the remains of fires. Some caves are so big and strong they could be used for defensive purposes or as a temporary hide-out; any outdoor traveller, above or beyond the law, would register where all forms of natural shelter might be found and of course having used a particularly good one, you would remember it as you might pass that way again in the future.

Possibly the best-known locally of these large caves is Robin Hood’s Cave at Cresswell Crags, used by people for shelter for over 35,000 years.

When you’ve found a shelter, the next thing to acquire is a fire. A wonderful morale-booster, fires give off warmth and light and you can then heat your water and cook your food using it, adding a civilised aspect to living rather than just simply surviving outdoors and is what makes most folk today remember as a comfortable camp under canvas or the stars from a past outdoor experience.

Fire can be made using natural materials and is not as hard to create this way as you think if you simply have a go and practice; an everyday task which would be as natural and easy to a medieval person as tying shoelaces or switching on an electric light would be to a modern city-dweller.

Medieval people often carried flint and steel but could also recognise the correct materials for ‘making fire by rubbing two sticks together’ at a glance. This method generally falls into two categories - the fire plough or the fire drill.

Food can be found growing in the forest – the ‘nuts, roots and berries’ aspect of military survival training through eating native plants.

However, these plants are seasonable and in winter largely cease to exist or require more energy to collect than they do by being eaten.

Eating wild plants - for sustenance rather than a requirement for medicinal aid - only provides a small part of a daily calorific requirement and eating in error a small portion of the wrong plant can be quite deadly; certain toadstools mistaken for edible mushrooms or hemlock for burnet saxifrage would quickly result in your death.

Crops and vegetables would have been planted and nurtured by local villages earlier in the year, to be harvested when ready and then stored for later use. These could be raided by an outlaw band and taken in small quantities to provide food for a number of days. There are the obvious disadvantages to this - Common people have little or nothing to spare and would resist as best they could as their lives literally depended on these stores.

An outlaw band sheltering in woodland would exist almost side-by-side with local villagers and as most medieval outlaws were captured through being betrayed, it would be best to either avoid villagers altogether or at least try and stay on reasonably good terms with them.

To make the local people fear you so much that they would both provide valuable foodstuffs and not betray you to the authorities has been demonstrated enough in the past to be seen as worthless for anything beyond a few days.

The Kings’ deer – the oft-quoted free lunch of Robin Hood and The Merry Men – are of course there to be taken if you have the skills or the necessary hunting gear.

However, in addition to meat, bread is also a necessity and does not grow on trees or roam the forest glades and by eating only venison you would become sick and grow weaker on a diet of pure protein.

If you could escape or avoid the Foresters and take deer, a local villager could probably be contacted or found who would readily exchange a piece of meat for a loaf of bread, a basket of vegetables or a jug of ale.

The penalties for both if caught poaching were extremely severe – in some cases amputation of fingers or hands, branding and blinding or a fine so heavy it would financially crush a man or his village for years.

Lurking outlaws themselves may have also once lived in the same village, and have relatives or friends there to help them survive and were not criminals or ‘bad’ men.

Living with the in-laws
The law forbad anyone to give succour, aid, help and food to outlaws, who could be taken dead or alive by anyone for a guaranteed cash reward.

For the ‘out-laws’ to move back in with the ‘in-laws’ in hard times or bad weather would make good sense ; travel and news became very hard in Sherwood Forest in winter and some places would at times be simply unreachable through snow or mud, with roads and tracks simply disappearing for weeks in the rain or under snow and ice (March was known in Sherwood Forest as ‘Mud-Month’ where roads and tracks became impassable for long periods ; a problem that remained in Sherwood Forest into the mid 18th Century).

If at these times you couldn’t get out of the village it meant that a threat in the form of officialdom couldn’t get in and for a time a resident outlaw amongst friends might have relative peace, a roof over his head, hot food and a welcome change of company in the form of fresh faces.

January in Sherwood Forest was known as ‘Wolf-Month’ for a very good reason; wolf packs driven by snow or cold to shelter in the woodlands in the same way as the outlaws would become a serious threat; the wolves natural food was scarce at that time and starving animals were known to overcome their natural fear of man and enter nearby villages in an attempt to carry off livestock and on more than a few occasions even small children - grown men and horses passing through Sherwood in the medieval period are recorded as having been attacked by wolves. A wintertime hazard that remained until the 14th Century.

In one medieval example, a wolf leapt out on a horse and rider, bit off a piece of horse-rump and fled into the forest with the reeking piece of flesh before the rider realised what had happened. A small child was carried off from Linby by a wolf in the early 12th Century.

Even an armed man on foot would become a hunted quarry and possibly have to face a desperate and terrifying foe suited to the environment and equipped with deadly weapons designed for face-to-face close-combat.

All outlaws were not necessarily bad men – many were victims of a corrupt law system, some honest rebels against the regal status quo, others simply ‘in the way’ or social outcasts.

Medieval people were all firm believers in God and The Virgin Mary and prayed to both for deliverance and support; this would provide a degree of comfort during periods of pain or lonely isolation.

In addition to the tangible requirements for survival stated earlier, there is the less tangible but most important requirement of sheer willpower – if you don’t think you can survive you probably won’t survive.

The psychological effect of living outdoors for a long time on a knife-edge would wear down an outlaw’s ability to think and plan; he would be unable to react rationally to an immediate or sudden threat and any ill-considered action - or sheer panic - would sink him deeper and deeper into trouble. He would become as wild as the environment, cease to be fully human and eventually succumb.

An old survival adage from the North American Fur Trade years 1750-1840 is ‘Where one man can survive, two men can fare well’ : certainly numbers would permit support and a delegation of tasks – but would also require more food from a selected catchment area.

In the medieval forest world there are no doctors, dentists, supermarkets, clothing outlets, friendly policemen, fast-food chains or charity shops.

To survive in the medieval forest to become like Robin Hood, one must take into account that it isn't just about survival - you must adapt, improvise but above all overcome; take precautions, make preparations and plan ahead.

Only then will it cease to be simple survival and become a way of life – but to endure the long term, you really must learn to stop ‘roughing it’, settle in, know your stuff, develop a routine, then learn to like it and want to be there. Only then do you become part of it all.

The author has served as a historical and technical adviser and armourer in successful television drama series and has contributed to several documentaries discussing Robin Hood. Most of the aspects in this article are featured in the author’s two books ‘The Legend of Robin Hood ‘and ‘Robin Hood : On the Outlaw Trail in Nottingham and Sherwood Forest’.

More about the author...
Richard Rutherford-Moore is an international historic tour guide, historical consultant for television drama and documentary and author. Since 1997, Richard has served as a guide and lecturer in exploring "Robin Hood Country". He has served as a historical and technical adviser and armourer in a successful television drama series and has contributed to several documentaries discussing Robin Hood. Most of the aspects in this article are featured in the author’s two books ‘The Legend of Robin Hood ‘and ‘Robin Hood : On the Outlaw Trail in Nottingham and Sherwood Forest’.
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