The Medieval Era of history is generally defined as being from 1066 to the early 1500s, from the Norman Conquest of England to the end of the Wars of the Roses in the 1480s. They’re also known as the “Middle Ages”. Middle of what? Between the Dark Ages and the Modern Era, of course! When people think of the Medieval era, they think of the Black Death, tunics, the church, knights in shining armour, good kings, good queens, evil kings and evil queens. Good-looking princes and glamorous princesses. We imagine quaint villages with thatched rooves and farms and fields and exciting village life.
But what was life like in the Middle Ages? It was certainly nowhere near as glamorous as many people might think from reading comic-books, watching movies or Monty Python. For many people, life was a daily struggle just to survive. Days were long, nights were cold, food was hard to come by and pleasures were few and far between.
Hatches, Matches and Despatches
Hatches…matches and despatches…births, marriages and deaths. The three basic stages of human life.
In the Middle Ages, the infant mortality rate was naturally high. The far-from-clean homes of the peasantry, the lack of modern medical care for the wealthy who could afford any kind of medical care, and a general lack of food meant that many children were lucky to survive their first few years on earth.
In an age before there were very many doctors around, births were usually aided with the help of this essential of Medieval society: The Midwife, whose job it was to help birth babies and bring them into the world. Of course, this wasn’t always easy. Any manner of complications could cause death: From deformities and birth-defects, later infections or the mother dying from postnatal complications.
Once born, however, a child was brought into the world as best as they could be. The children of wealthy families could expect to be raised by servants or a wet-nurse, to be pampered and babied to the point of spoilage. Children from poorer families had to rely on their parents or grandparents (if they were lucky enough to have any) to raise them. In a day and age where commoners worked from day to day to survive, children were seen, probably, as less of a joy, but more of a way to make more money. The moment they could, children were set to work in the fields or elsewhere, to earn money and food for the family. Children of all ages, from kids who had just learned how to walk, to teenagers, were expected to pull their weight and split firewood, plough fields, sow crops, harvest crops, store the grain, store firewood and help around the house. With so much work to do, you can imagine childhood obesity wasn’t a problem back then! One important aspect of birth in the Middle Ages was getting the child christened at the local church. Christening usually took place within a week of the child’s birth, where its name and date of birth might be recorded.
Once a child reached his or her teenage years, then the next stage of life came along: Marriage.
In the Medieval era, it could be fair to say that the main purpose of marriage was to advance one’s social-status, for advancing one’s social status was the only way to stave off the looming threat of death from starvation. Parents often got together to arrange marriages for their respective children, whether their children liked it or not. If the child managed to find a man or a woman who he or she actually loved, who also advanced the family’s social-status, then so much the better. But this was considered a secondary concern. In the Middle Ages, women were expected to be quiet, obedient, caring, good cooks, seamstresses, life-partners and above all, the property of men.
Due to the general filth of the Middle Ages, combined with a lack of understanding about hygeine, medical science and other factors which we today take for granted, the fear of death was never far away. Few diseases were curable in the Middle Ages and while broken limbs might be treated, if infection set in due to open wounds, there was no way to heal them. Medical aid was usually provided by monks in monastries, by the church, barber-surgeons or wise women: Something like a witch-doctor who knew all kinds of natural, herbal remedies.
Deaths were recorded by Seekers of the Dead, old women or pensioners who viewed corpses to determine cause of death. They would be paid a few pennies to examine the body and arrange for its removal from the household. It would not be until the 1500s, after the Middle Ages, that the Bills of Mortality, which were official records of deaths, were established in London and surrounding villages.
Upon death, the funeral had to be arranged. Often, simple coffins were used and the bodies buried in the local churchyards, marked by simple gravestones, enscribed with the person’s date of birth, death and his name. Some, more expensive gravestones might have had fanciful, death-themed carvings on them. Wealthier families, such as the local landowner, might have a family crypt. In small villages, a death was something that could affect the whole community and often, several people would show up for the funeral. The sandglass, symbolising life, was a common engraving on gravestones. A sandglass with sand drained through meant that life had ended. A sandglass on its side with sand in each of the two bulbs, indicated a life ended before its proper time.
Who was Who?
The Medieval social structure was defined by the Feudal System. The Feudal System was the belief that each person had his own special place in society and that in this place they would (unless something special happened) remain. At the top of the Feudal System was the King. Below him were the noblemen. Barons and Earls and Dukes and so-forth. Below them came the knights. Below knights came the various classes of the peasantry. Although divided into various classes (from freemen to villeins and serfs), there were few differences that actually set them apart, since life was generally a big struggle for all.
The king, as supreme head of his country, granted lands to his noblemen, who, as his representatives, were expected to carry the king’s law and the king’s word to parts of the kingdom where the king himself could not visit regularly. The noblemen swore an oath of alliegence to the king, and knights, further down, swore an oath to their local landlords. The peasantry, however, the lowest and poorest class of people in the Medieval world, were the most numerous in number. They fell under the direct rule of their landlord, who could tax them and use them as he wished. Far from the king’s eyes, some noblemen became greedy, corrupt and lawless, taxing their peasantry to exhaustion. Taxes were given in the form of harvest and grain. Crops such as wheat, rye, barley and whatever else the peasants could grow, were taxed, and a certain percentage of this food had to be delivered to the local lord. Food which the peasants kept for themselves which had to be ground from wheat to flour to make bread, had to be ground up and crushed in the only mill available in the village…the lord’s mill, for which the lord would charge another fee for the peasantry to use.
Medieval Food and Drink
Medieval food was pretty basic for the peasantry. Most of their food came from grains; the most common of which were barley, oats and rye, which they turned into porridge, gruel or bread. They also ate fruit, vegetables and whatever fish they could catch in nearby streams, rivers or lakes. Wealthier people such as noblemen, could afford to feast on game birds such as ducks and pheasants and anything else which the landlord could afford to flush out of the woods around his estate and shoot with a bow and arrow. Hunting on the lord’s estate only permitted at his lordship’s personal invitation, so peasants could not expect to get their hands on such delicacies as fresh meat.
Fresh meat was in fact, very hard to come by, and was eaten mostly by the upper classes, who could afford to eat, not only game birds, but also chicken, pork, bacon, ham and if they were lucky…beef. Due to the high costs of transportation and mediocre food-preservation methods available in the Middle Ages, exotic foods which were not locally available were often so expensive that commoners could not hope to ever eat them.
In the days before refrigeration, however, Medieval people did find ways to preserve food. Foodstuffs such as meat and fish were either dried, salted or smoked. This killed off bacteria, gave the food a nice (if salty) taste and allowed it to keep for longer periods of time. Fruit was either dried, sugared or preserved in honey. Where possible, some foods were kept in cold-houses, where snow or ice was used to lower the room-temperature and ensure that the food remained fresh.
While they were able to preserve food to a certain extent, Medieval people did not possess the technology or understanding to purify water. Drinking water was often dangerous due to the impurities and pollution that was to be found in local streams and rivers (in the days before sewers and toilets, rivers often served as drains!). Because of this, the most commonly consumed beverages were wine, beer and ale. Due to the general absence or lack of water in these beverages, they were considerably safer to drink than plain water. And everyone drank it…even children! In fact, there was even a special children’s ale brewed specifically for younger people to drink!
Ale and beer were often sold in alehouses, inns and public houses (‘pubs’) and a single village could have several of these institutions all over the place! Public houses lasted and continue to last for a long time. Some of the oldest pubs in the United Kingdom have survived from the Middle Ages, including Ye Olde Man & Scythe (est. 1251), Ye Olde Salutation (est. ca. 1240) and finally, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which claims to have been established in 1189!
Men of Letters
Education was a rare treat for people in the Middle Ages. A very rare treat. Most people could not read or write at all. The most learned places were churches, monastries, castles, palaces, universities, colleges and schools. If this sounds like a whole heap of educational institutions, think again. To be able to attend one of these places, you had to be rich. Really rich. Books and scrolls were worth their weight in gold in Medieval times. Before the days of the printing press in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the main way of copying out texts was to do it by hand with a quill pen and an inkwell of ink. This took weeks, even months of daily writing in a special room known as a scriptorium (latin; a place for writing).
A Medieval monastry’s scriptorium with a scribe at work
Because so few people could do it, writing was considered a real artform in the Middle Ages, and bold, decorative hands were created, characterised by the gothic German ‘Blackletter’ script, of bold vertical lines and thin horizontal lines, which was achieved by writing with a flexible-point quill-pen. Other characteristics of Medieval texts included colourful borders and pictures, illuminated (coloured) letters at the tops of pages and paragraphs which were deliberately larger than other letters, so that people would know where to start reading each text. Scribes, learned persons and men of letters were so rare that only the wealthiest of people could afford to have an education. A king or queen would employ a tutor or a schoolmaster to educate their princes and princesses in reading and writing, skills as rare in the Middle Ages, as finding a competent watchmaker today.
A page of illuminated gothic Blackletter script from a Medieval manuscript
The main writing implements of the Middle Ages was another reason why many people were illiterate. The pen was a goose-feather quill, a tool which took considerable time to clean, dry, temper, slit and cut correctly. Paper, parchment and vellum were expensive, handmade commodities, far out of the reach of the peasantry, who were more interested in staying alive, rather than reading about how to do it!
Another huge barrier to education in the Middle Ages was that, as members of the Church were the only ones who could generally read, most documents were written in the language of the Church, and not the language of the People. The language of the people was…English! (Or German, French, Italian, Polish and so-on). However, the language of the Church was…LATIN! This rather significant language-barrier meant that, even if the peasantry were able to read and write, it would’ve been largely useless, because all the church-documents were written in a totally different language!
For those who could read and write, however, they enjoyed the rare ability of being able to send letters and record thoughts and ideas. In the days before organised postal services, messages were delivered by private messenger. Forget Private Messaging services on internet forums or MSN Live Messenger; this form of messenger-service was a rider on horseback! To protect the contents of their documents and letters, writers often signed and sealed their documents with sealing-wax, marking the hot wax with a sealing stamp or signet-ring, partially to ID them as the sender, and also to act as an anti-tampering device. Traditional sealing-wax dries fast and it dries hard and brittle. If a seal was broken by anyone other than the intended receipient, then it would be immediately obvious that the privacy of the document had been breeched. You can read about the history of seals, sealing-stamps and signet-rings here.
A signet-ring used to seal documents with wax. The coat of arms, monogram or family-name was deliberately engraved into the ring in mirror-fashion so that the imprint would turn out the right way around when the ring was pressed into the hot wax
Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble
As Harry Potter learns in one of his History of Magic books, “Muggles were particularly afraid of witchcraft in Medieval times, but not very good in spotting it”.
These days, the idea of actual witches and wizards seems ludicrous: the stuff of fairytales, legends and novels by an acclaimed English childrens’ author. But in Medieval times, there were real and very intense beliefs and fears in witches. And not all witches were women, either!
In Medieval Europe, under the Feudal System, peasants lived and worked on the land owned by their landlord. They were not generally allowed to leave this land without their lord’s permission. Because of this, families grew, died, intermarried, mingled and gave birth to sucessive generations all in the one little village or town year after year, decade after decade, century after century. Small, close-knit communities in hamlets and villages, in a day where few people travelled beyond the village boundaries, were quick to spot any and all persons who were either new to the area, or who acted in a strange manner.
Anyone who did act in a strange manner, or who was new to the district, was always the first suspect in anything that went wrong. Witch-trials were popular and bloody spectacles throughout Europe and punishments for witches varied. In European countries, the common penalty for witchcraft was death by burning, whereupon the ‘witch’ was strapped to a post and had faggots (clear your minds out, perverts…a ‘faggot’ is a bundle of kindling!) tossed at her feet. The faggots were then lit and the victim died from either burns or smoke inhalation and suffocation. In England, however, hanging witches was the more common form of execution.
A lot of our modern stereotypes about witches (that they have black pointed hats, that they have warts, that they have flying broomsticks and black cats and all the rest of it) all have their origins in the Middle Ages. It was believed that witches kept demons (called ‘Familiars’) near them, in the shape of animals. It is from this belief that we get the stereotype of witches always having a black cat with them and where we also get the superstition that it’s bad luck to have a black cat cross your path. The presence of bodily blemishes (such as pimples or warts) was also seen as the mark of a witch. Such an evil person was sure to have marks of evil (characterised by warts!) all over them!
Law and Order
In Medieval times, with knights and crusades and wars and witches and the Black Death and fat, warty toads bouncing around all over the place, it’s probably little wonder that Medieval law and order was especially harsh and barbaric (gotta keep those toads in order, don’t we?).
Medieval laws were set by the King (or queen), or by the king and/or queen’s top subjects: Their noblemen. Laws covered everything from how many loaves of bread a baker needed to bake, what constituted proper ale and even what side of the road you were allowed to drive on. Local city or village laws also related to keeping what was known as the King’s Peace: The peace and tranquility which the monarch promised all his subjects. Keeping the peace was done by instituting such laws as providing each village and town with a ducking-stool (into which, chattery women could be strapped and ducked…dumped…into the nearest pool or pond) and the enforcement of curfews after dark. Noblemen were allowed to pass their own laws on their peasantry as they saw fit…and some noblemen saw fit to tax their peasantry very harshly indeed.
Medieval punishments were even worse than the laws for which the punishments were seen fit. Various medieval punishments included…
– The Rack – Being stretched on the rack until your arms and legs ripped out of their sockets.
– The Gallows – Being hanged by the neck until dead.
– Hanging, drawing and quartering – A particularly gruesome method of execution awarded to persons found guilty of High Treason (crimes against king and country).
– Impalement – Being impaled by a long, blunt wooden pike. A favourite of the Medieval king Vlad Tepeche, Vlad the Impaler.
– Sawing – Being strung upside down on a frame and having your body sawed in half lengthwise, starting between the legs, with a massive saw.
– Breaking on the Wheel – Being strapped to a wagon-wheel and having your limbs smashed and broken by a sledgehammer.
– Being boiled in oil – Another Medieval favourite! King Henry VIII of England (AKA Old Greedy Guts) sentenced a cook to be executed by being boiled alive in a pot of oil, for trying to poison his master’s gruel!
Other, lesser punishments included…
– The Whipping Post – Being strapped or tied to a post and flogged.
– The Stocks or Pillory – Being confined to a set of stocks (head & arms locked in a wooden frame) or pillory (feet, as well) and being left there for a pre-determined period of time. In rare instances, people actually died in the stocks or pillory, from abuse from passers-by.
Of course, if laws existed and punishments existed, someone had to uphold the law and someone had to deal out punishment. Who did what?
The job of upholding the law was given to various persons. Ordinary citizens were expected to keep law and order, of course, but there were persons whose job it was, to specifically keep the peace. Some might have been knights, or they might have been reeves of the shire. The local reeve of the shire, or the Shire Reeve, was the local custodian of the peace. Does the word ‘shire reeve’ sound kind of familiar? It should. The shire reeve still exists today…but probably not in a manner which medieval peasants would recognise. In Modern English, the job-title is spelt…Sheriff.
It was the local lord or if he was available…the king, who was generally in charge of meting out punishment. That was until naughty King John was given a small piece of paper to sign. The title of this piece of paper?
Magna Carta Libertatum.
That’s its name in Latin. Translated to English, it means “The Great Charter of Liberties”.
The Magna Carta, created in 1215AD, was a document that restricted the power of the king and held him legally accountable if he was a naughty little boy…like King John. One of the main rules of the Magna Carta was that it forbade the King from pronouncing judgement on criminals.
A copy of the Magna Carta
Sickenesse and Healthe
Medieval understanding of the human body was rudimentary at the very, very, very best. People did not understand how the body digested food, how it got sick, how it healed itself, how blood circulated, and dozens of other ‘how’s. Without highly scientific TV shows like “House” to teach them, Medieval physicians were often medicating their patients purely through superstition and guesswork.
Medieval medicine was based on the theory of the Four Humours, a very old system of medical belief that dated back to Ancient Greece! Humourism, as it was called, centered on bodily imbalances…but not in the way we might think. To find out more about the history of medicine, read the link above.
Medical practicioners were few and far between in Medieval Europe. Physicians were expensive and generally ineffective. Most people had to rely on the local priest, the local wise woman or the local barber-surgeon, who gets his title because he was just as likely to give you a mullet as he was to slit open your gullet. Medieval medicine was a mixture of practicality, tried-and-tested methods, myth, legend, old wives’ tales, natural remedies and superstition. There are various stories of surgeons and doctors in Medieval times performing truly amazing operations and having their patients survive. Amongst these include removing stones (such as kidney-stones) from the body and removing arrows shot into various places on the body…such as a direct hit to the face!
Of course, the biggest scare to the Medieval world came in the 1340s, with the Black Death (also called the Great Plague, the Plague, the Black Plague, the Bubonic Plague and The Sickenesse). It wiped out literally millions of people through the years of the late 1340s and came back almost every generation since then. There are still instances of the Black Death today, although the number of these instances are greatly reduced from the horrifying figures of the Middle Ages.
Victims of the Black Death
Medieval Jobs and Occupations
There were all kinds of jobs in the Medieval world. Blacksmiths, coiners, sadle-makers, roofers, farmers, goldsmiths and printers. Many English surnames come from the classified employment advertisements of the Middle Ages.
– Sadler (saddle-maker).
– Sandler (sandle-maker).
– Chandler (…eh…chandler. That is…a candle-maker).
– Fuller (A fuller, someone who removed impurities from cloth).
– Tyler or Tiler (A roof-tiler).
– Slater (someone who provided slate for roofing!).
Many jobs were unskilled, but some occupations required great skill, such as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, jewellers, coiners, printers, watchmakers and swordsmiths and armourers. Persons engaged in such occupations usually formed guilds with other such persons, in order to protect their skill-sets and also to advance the quality of their craft. Guilds were kind of like labour-unions/exclusive clubs where persons of the same craft or occupation could gather and protect their ideas and skills from others. This was usually done in structures called guildhalls (like a clubhouse). Guilds, as formal institutions, however, had to have some sort of legal status. A guild could not be formed without the permission of a person of authority. In England, this authority was usually the reigning monarch who would give various craftsmen the right to form a guild through the issuing of Letters Patent; a legal instrument allowing for the formation of various offices, organisations and institutions.
Other Aspects of Daily Life
What about all the other aspects of daily life, apart from food, reading, writing, laws, order, education (yawn!) and all that rot? What else happened? Didn’t anyone ever have a bath?
Actually, bathing was not that common in the Medieval era. It was not seen as being necessary, it was seen as too much hard work (and after a day ploughing the fields, the last thing you wanted was more work!) and it was seen as pointless, because once you were clean, you would only get dirty again the next day!
But, in the rare instances that people actually bathed in the Medieval world, it was either done in a ready source of water (a stream, lake or river) or it was done in the bathtub. Bathing in a bathtub was such a hassle that most people just didn’t bother! You had to light a fire, boil the water, fill the bathtub, wait for the water to be juuuust right, then you had to strip, get in, scrub, scrub, scrub, get out, dry down, put your clothes back on and then tip out the water.
Oh, but only…and ONLY…after every other person in the household had used that exact same bathwater to have their baths, too! Hot water was too scarce a commodity to waste on just one person!
What about clothes and bedsheets? Weren’t they washed?
Yes. But again, very rarely. It wasn’t generally seen as being necessary, and men and women could wear the same clothes for days or weeks on end before having them changed. In mose cases for the peasantry, they didn’t have very many other clothes to change into, so there was no point in washing them!
Entertainment in the Medieval world came in various forms. Without books to read or xBoxes to play on, movies to see or late night peepshows, entertainment was found in sports such as skittles, darts, bear-baiting, puppet-shows and that favourite of all childrens’ pastimes!…
Fairytales were born out of the Middle Ages as stories to distract peasants from their miserable lives. Stories like Rapunzel fed the dreams of peasant girls that they would be whisked off by their Prince Charming. Hansel and Gretel probably made little peasant boys forget their own hunger for a while, while also teaching children not to wander from home, lest they find ugly witches with houses made from gingerbread. More stories, such as Cinderella and The Magic Flounder were more famous fairytales, told to children (and probably to adults as well) to entertain them when there was nothing on the local stage to watch.