Education Reference Desk’s Guide to Medieval Life

Centuries of Roman rule in Western Europe came crashing to an end in 476 when the emperor was driven from his throne by barbarian invaders from the north. Soon after, hundreds of tiny kingdoms began to form in once Roman lands. Subsequent invasions by Vikings, Goths, Moors, and infighting between neighboring kingdoms began to change the nature of European life.

Medieval Times-Middle Ages-Dark Ages, many terms have been used to describe this period spanning more than a thousand years. The Church was very much in control of the gamut of medieval life. Civilization progressed slowly; science was looked upon with distrust and often, as heresy. Communication between and within countries was tedious and primarily sent word-of-mouth. Books were a rarity, and writing was the province of the powerful. Art and literature were on the decline, as the former marvels of Rome were swept away by time.

Medieval Europe was very much divided, yet societies during this time were remarkable similar. What was it like to live during this time?


Chapters

  1. 1. Life
  2. 2. Education
  3. 3. Clothing
  4. 4. Bathing
  5. 5. Games
  6. 6. Music
  7. 7. Commerce
  8. 8. Festivals
  9. 9. Village Life
  10. 10. City Life

Life During the Middle Ages

Daily life during the Middle Ages is sometimes hard to fathom. Pop culture loves to focus on exciting medieval moments-heroic knights charging into battle; romantic liaisons between royalty and commoner; breakthroughs and discoveries made. But life for your average person during the Dark Ages was very routine, and activities revolved around an agrarian calendar.

Most of the time was spent working the land, and trying to grow enough food to survive another year. Church feasts marked sowing and reaping days, and occasions when peasant and lord could rest from their labors.

Social activities were important, and every citizen in a medieval town would be expected to attend. Fairs with troubadours and acrobats performing in the streets…merchants selling goods in the town square…games of chance held at the local tavern…tournaments featuring knights from near and abroad…these were just some of the ways medieval peasants spent their leisure time. Medieval weddings were cause for the entire town to celebrate.

Medieval superstitions held sway over science, but traveling merchants and returning crusaders told of cultures in Asia, the Middle East and Africa that had advanced learning of the earth and the human body. Middle Age food found new flavor courtesy of rare spices that were imported from the East. Schools and universities were forming across Western Europe that would help medieval society evolve from the Dark Ages on its way to a Renaissance of art and learning.

Education

Medieval education was often conducted under the auspices of the Church. During the 800s, French ruler Charlemagne realized his empire needed educated people if it was to survive, and he turned to the Catholic Church as the source of such education. His decree commanded that every cathedral and monastery was to establish a school to provide a free education to every boy who had the intelligence and the perseverance to follow a demanding course of study.

Grammar, rhetoric, logic, Latin, astronomy, philosophy and mathematics formed the core of most curriculums. During the Dark Ages, the only natural science learned came from popular encyclopedias based on ancient writings of Pliny and other Roman sources. The medieval student might learn that hyenas can change their sex at will and that an elephant’s only fear is of dragons. Students learned more when they ventured out into the countryside to talk with trappers, hunters, furriers and poachers, who spent their time observing wildlife.

Medieval students often sat together on the floor, scrawling notes from lessons using a bone or ivory stylus on wooden tablets coated with green or black wax. Knights were also educated and looked down upon if they could not read and write. Girls were virtually ignored when it came to education. Only daughters of the very rich and powerful were allowed to attend select courses.

At 14 or 15, some scholars would continue education at a university. These were a creation of the Middle Ages and could be found in larger European cities. Wars and invasions often halted studies, but these universities would reemerge during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The cap and gown that college graduates wear today have their roots in medieval academic garments.

Clothing

From the 11th through the 13th centuries, medieval clothing varied according to the social standing of the people. The clothing worn by nobility and upper classes was clearly different than that of the lower class.

The clothing of peasants during the Middle Ages was very simple, while the clothing of nobility was fitted with a distinct emphasis on the sleeves of the garments. Knights adorned themselves with sleeveless “surcoats” covered with a coat of arms. Barbarian nomads wore clothing made of fur, wool, and leather. They wore long trousers, some of which had attached feet. Fine leather shoes were also worn. Imports such as turbans and silks from the East were common for the more fortunate of society.

As with today, clothing styles of medieval men changed periodically. At the end of the 13th century, the once loose and flowing tunics became tighter fitting. Besides tunics, the men also wore undershirts and briefs covered by a sleeveless jacket and an additional tunic. Stockings completed the ensemble. Men’s medieval clothing also consisted of cloaks with a round opening that was slipped over the man’s head. Such cloaks were worn over other clothing as a type of “jacket”.

Early medieval women’s clothing consisted of “kirtles”, which were tunics worn to their ankles. These tunics were often worn over a shirt. When the women were in public, they often topped the tunics with an even shorter “kirtle.” Of course the more affluent women wore more luxurious clothing than those of the less affluent lifestyle. Women, especially those who were married, wore tight-fitting caps and nets over their hair, which was wound in a “bun” on their heads. Other women wore veils over their hair, which was left either hanging loosely, or braided tightly.

Bathing

Medieval society may have liked to bathe more than one might expect, however, this was not always an easy process. Medieval castle residents used wooden tubs with water heated from the fire in the great hall. In good weather, the tub might be placed out in the garden. Lords often employed a person whose sole responsibility was preparing baths for the family. This person would often travel with the family.

Hot baths were very popular and most towns, as late as the mid-1200s had public bathhouses. Wood fires heated the water, but this posed two problems. First, out of control fires could consume several blocks of buildings. And as the forests were depleted, firewood became expensive and the rising costs of heating the water forced most of the bathhouses to close. Some tried burning coal to heat water, but the fumes proved to be unhealthy.

By the mid-1300s, only the very wealthy could afford firewood for hot water in the winter. The rest of the population was forced to be dirty most of the time. Barrels were often used as baths, with entire families sharing the same water. 

Games

Medieval society indulged in a number of games and recreation, when the often harsh daily life permitted a break. Chess was widely popular and often a source of gambling entertainment; both in the traditional format and in a simpler version played with dice. Dice were easy to carry and were played in all ranks of society, even among the clergy.

Some games played during the Middle Ages, including bowling, prisoner’s base, blind man’s bluff (also called hoodman’s blind), and simple “horseplay” are still played today. Checkers were a popular pastime, as was backgammon. Children wrestled, swam, fished and played a game that was a cross between tennis and handball. Medieval knights would incorporate training in recreation, performing gymnastics and running foot races.

Spectators in the Middle Ages were often drawn to cockfights and bullbaiting. The preferred recreation for most adults was drinking in the local tavern. At harvest time, villagers would bob for apples and go on hunts in the surrounding forests, if the castle lord permitted. Hawks were trained to hunt game birds and every medieval castle had a falconer, assigned to train young birds for this sport.

Medieval Christmas games included “King of the Bean,” where a small bean would be baked inside bread or cake, and the one who found it in their portion would be crowned king of the holiday feast.

Music

Medieval music was an integral part of everyday life for the people of that time period. Music of the Middle Ages was especially popular during times of celebration and festivities.

Music was often played during holidays and special parties. During weddings and birthdays, the music was especially uplifting. For weddings and on Valentine’s Day, lovers’ music was played that was sure to evoke a romantic atmosphere. This type of music was called “chivaree.” The musicians would play buoyant and cheery music with crescendos. Many a different Medieval music instrument was played, including, recorders, horns, trumpets, whistles, bells, and drums.

On Mayday, dancers would dance to specially-prepared, high-pitched music. It was believed that by doing so, the hibernating spirits would be awakened and forewarned that spring had arrived.

During Christmas, the sound of bells brought the good news of Jesus’ birth to the listeners.

People during the Middle Ages also ate to the sound of traditional music during and between meal courses. They would also, at times play from a specially-built platform or stage at the end of the Great Hall. It was believed in those days that medieval music was not only delightful to the ears, but it also helped in the digestion of food, hence the reason for music at mealtimes.

The music of Medieval times was very important to the listeners of that era, whether it be for special celebrations, holidays, or for something as simple as eating a meal.

Commerce

Stone roads, buildings, churches and marketplaces left little room for orchards, fields, and grazing, and these new cities soon lost rural roots and became more and more urbanized. Animal traffic made congested roads filthy, and water supplies were limited. Some women spent the entire day drawing water from wells.

Merchants began trading with those of other cities and treaties were formed to protect those carrying goods from one city to another, with these caravans often protected by government troops. Within a city, merchants often swore association to protect each other within the walls.

Medieval towns held markets at least once a week in the square, where stalls were set up and local merchants would sell their wares. Nearby towns may have also sent any surplus goods they could to be sold.

Fairs might be held once or twice a year that attracted foreign merchants from distant lands brining fine woolens, silks, carpets and other items not available from local shops. These fairs would attract strolling minstrels, performing tumblers and acrobats, and animal acts with trained bears and horses. Medieval fairs could last for several days.

The medieval business world became dominated by the Guilds. When merchants found they could accomplish more as a group rather than through individual effort, they banded together to form guilds. Guilds formed for bakers, butchers, grocers, millers, smiths, carpenters, weavers, mason, shoemakers, in fact, nearly every trade had its own guild. Standards such as just weights and measures evolved from the guilds, and searchers would inspect shops to ensure rules were being followed. Guilds would help members that were sick, or in trouble, and would sometimes take care of families after the member died.

Apprenticeship was how most started in a particular trade, which they would follow the rest of their lives. Apprentices were often also the master’s domestic servant and helper, and his workday was long indeed. After completing an apprenticeship, the appropriate guild would examine his work and see if he could be elevated to journeyman status. This was taken quite literally, as the worker would journey from town to town to learn more about the trade. Journeymen were required to create a “masterpiece” in the presence of judges to be elevated to master status. At this point, the journeyman would place his hand on a Bible and swear allegiance to the guild and his craft.

Festivals

Medieval celebrations revolved around feast days that had pagan origins and were based on ancient agricultural celebrations that marked when certain crops should be planted or harvested.

Wheat and rye were sown from Michaelmas (September 29) to Christmas. Spring crops would be planted from the end of Christmas through Easter. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost (or Whitsunday) would be celebrated with a feast of the Church, and would be followed by a week of vacation. Lesser celebrations such as:
Candlemas (February 2),
Hocktide (end of the Easter week),
Mayday, the Rogation Days, Ascension (all in May),
Midsummer, or St. John’s Day (June 24),
and the Lammas, or Feast of St. Peter,
-would all be marked with feasts. Michaelmas marked the beginning of winter and the start of the fiscal year for tradesmen.

By November, feed was often too scarce to keep animals through the winter, and became known as the “blood month” when meat was smoked, salted and cured for consumption during the long winter ahead. The month began with All Hallows (later, All Saints) Day, followed by St. Martin’s Day (November 11).

Medieval society celebrated the grandest feast during the dreariest time of year. The two-week period from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day (January 6) transformed into the longest vacation for workers. The Lord of the manor or castle often gave bonuses of food, clothing, drink and firewood to servants. Houses were decked with holly and ivy, and giant Yule logs were brought in and burned throughout the two-week celebration. New Year’s took place during this time and added to the festivities, and “First Gifts” were often exchanged on this day.

“Plow Monday” took place the day after Epiphany, and freemen of the village would participate in a plow race, to begin cultivation of the town’s common plot of land. Each man would try and furrow as many lines as possible, as he would be able to sow those lines during the coming year. Children would play the role of “Fool Plow” and go from house to house asking for pennies. Those who refuse would find the ground in front of their door plowed up.

Easter, as Christmas, was a day for exchanging gifts. The castle lord would receive eggs from the villagers and in return, provide servants with dinner. May saw celebrations of love, especially on the 1st. Villagers would venture into the woods to cut wildflowers and other greenery for their homes to usher in May and hope for a fertile season.

Village Life

Medieval villages consisted of a population comprised of mostly of farmers. Houses, barns sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village, which was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures. Medieval society depended on the village for protection and a majority of people during these centuries called a village home. Most were born, toiled, married, had children and later died within the village, rarely venturing beyond its boundaries.

Common enterprise was the key to a village’s survival. Some villages were temporary, and the society would move on if the land proved infertile or weather made life too difficult. Other villages continued to exist for centuries. Every village had a lord, even if he didn’t make it his permanent residence, and after the 1100’s castles often dominated the village landscape. Medieval Europeans may have been unclear of their country’s boundaries, but they knew every stone, tree, road and stream of their village. Neighboring villages would parley to set boundaries that would be set out in village charters.

Medieval peasants were either classified as free men or as “villeins,” those who owed heavy labor service to a lord, were bound to the land, and subject to feudal dues. Village life was busy for both classes, and for women as well as men. Much of this harsh life was lived outdoors, wearing simple dress and subsisting on a meager diet.

Village life would change from outside influences with market pressures and new landlords. As the centuries passed, more and more found themselves drawn to larger cities. Yet modern Europe owes much to these early medieval villages.

City Life

Medieval roots can be found in all of today’s major European cities. When Julius Caesar set to conquer Western Europe, there were few places that could have been called cities. Lutetia, which would become Paris, was probably the largest of the early cities. By the 13th century, however, cities were flourishing from the Mediterranean to northwest Europe.

Viking invasions were a major factor in the development of cities during the early Middle Ages. These invaders often plundered more than they could carry, sold surplus goods to surrounding villages and created base camps to be used for trading. Dublin, Ireland’s roots began as a Viking base camp. To protect themselves, villages began erecting walls and fortifying their positions. This lead to the great medieval walled cities that can still be seen in modern Europe.

These walled cities became known as “bourgs,” “burghs,” and later, bouroughs. Inhabitants were known as bourgeois. By the mid-900s, these fortified towns dotted the European landscape from the Mediterranean as far north as Hamburg, Germany.

Homes

Medieval city homes between the rich and poor differed little form the outside, each being made of the same stone brought in from nearby quarries. But the inside accommodations were far more telling. A poor family might be cramped into one room, faring little better than peasants in the country, while rich “burger” families might occupy four floors, from cellar to attic, complete with servant quarters.

Comfort was not always easy to find, even in the wealthiest of households. Heating was always a problem with stone floors, ceiling and walls. Little light came in from narrow windows, and oil and fat-based candles often produced a pungent aroma. Furniture consisted of wooden benches, long tables, cupboards and pantries. Linen, when afforded, might be glued or nailed to benches to provide some comfort. Beds, though made of the softest materials, were often rife with bedbugs, lice and other biting insects. Some tried to counter this by tucking in sheets at nighttime in hopes of smothering the pests, while others rubbed oily liniments on their skin before retiring.