LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES
By Tim Lambert
Society in The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages society was like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. Below him were the barons or tenants-in-chief. The king granted them land and in return they had to provide so many soldiers to fight for so many days a year. They also had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king and they became his vassals. The barons granted land to knights. In return they had to fight for so many days a year.
However this system proved awkward. If a knight had to fight, say, 40 days a year when the 40 days were up he would return home even if the king were in the middle of a campaign. Kings began to allow the barons to pay scutage or shield money. They used the money to pay soldiers when they needed them.
At the bottom of society were peasants. Most were serfs or villeins. They were not free and could not leave their land without the lord's permission. Furthermore, as well as working on their own land they had to farm the lord's land for 2 or 3 days a week. They also had to work extra days for him at busy times like harvest. (Although in time more and more lords allowed them to pay money rents instead of doing labour service).
Villeins also had other burdens. For instance when a villein died his son had to give the lord the best animal before taking over his father's land. Usually peasants had to grind their grain to flour in the lord's mill (and give him a portion of their grain). In some places they also had to bake their bread in the lord's oven.
However if you could escape from your village to a town for a year and a day you then officially became free. Moreover the Black Death severely weakened the villeinage system. At the time of the Domesday Book the population of England was around 2 million. By the end of the 13th century it had probably risen to about 6 million.
However in the early 14th century the climate of the world cooled and there were a series of famines. The population began to fall. The Black Death of 1348-49 killed about one third of the population of England. So many people died there was a serious shortage of labour and lords were willing to 'poach' workers from other lords by offering them higher wages. Parliament tried to fix wages by law to prevent them rising but this was impossible to enforce. By the 15th century the system of serfdom or villeinage had broken down in England.
The Church also owned vast amounts of land and livestock. Furthermore the peasants had to give a tithe or one tenth of everything they produced (crops, eggs, animals) to the church. Many bishops and abbots were rich and powerful.
In the Middle Ages the king ruled by divine right. In other words people believed that God had chosen him to be king and rebellion against him was a sin. However that did not stop rebellions! Kings had limited power in the Middle Ages and rebellion was easy. A great deal depended on the personality of the king. If he was a strong character he could control the barons. If he were weak or indecisive the barons would often rebel. Warrior kings who fought successful wars were the most powerful as they were popular with the nobility.
A Peasant's Hut in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages peasants homes were simple wooden huts. They had wooden frames filled in with wattle and daub (strips of wood woven together and covered in a 'plaster' of animal hair and clay). However in some parts of the country huts were made of stone. Peasants huts were either whitewashed or painted in bright colours.
The poorest people lived in one-room huts. Slightly better off peasants lived in huts with one or two rooms. There were no panes of glass in the windows only wooden shutters, which were closed at night. The floors were of hard earth sometimes covered in straw for warmth.
In the middle of a peasant's hut was a fire used for cooking and heating. There was no chimney. Any furniture was very basic. Chairs were very expensive and no peasant could afford one. Instead they sat on benches or stools. They would have a simple wooden table and chests for storing clothes and other valuables. Tools and pottery vessels were hung on hooks. The peasants slept on straw and they did not have pillows. Instead they rested their heads on wooden logs.
The peasant's wife cooked on a cauldron suspended over the fire and the family ate from wooden bowls. Candles were expensive so peasants usually used rush lights (rushes dipped in animal fat).
At night in summer and all day in winter the peasants shared their huts with their animals. Parts of it were screened off for the livestock. Their body heat helped to keep the hut warm.
Rich People's Houses in The Middle Ages
The Normans, at first, built castles of wood. In the early 12th century stone replaced them. In the towns wealthy merchants began living in stone houses. (The first ordinary people to live in stone houses were Jews. They had to live in stone houses for safety).
In Saxon times a rich man and his entire household lived together in one great hall. In the Middle Ages the great hall was still the centre of a castle but the lord had his own room above it. This room was called the solar. In it the lord slept in a bed, which was surrounded by curtains, both for privacy and to keep out draughts. The other members of the lord's household, such as his servants, slept on the floor of the great hall.
At one or both ends of the great hall there was a fireplace and chimney. In the Middle Ages chimneys were a luxury. As time passed they became more common but only a small minority could afford them. Certainly no peasant could afford one.
About 1180 for the first time since the Romans rich people had panes of glass in the windows. At first glass was very expensive and only rich people could afford it but by the late 13th and early 14th centuries the middle classes began to have glass in some of their windows. Those people who could not afford glass could use thin strips of horn or pieces of linen soaked in tallow or resin which were translucent.
In the Middle Ages furniture was very basic. Even in a rich household chairs were rare. Often only the lord sat on one so he was the 'chairman'. Most people sat on stools or benches. Rich people also had tables and large chests, which doubled up as beds. Rich peoples homes were hung with wool tapestries or painted linen. They were not just for decoration. They also helped keep out draughts.
In a castle the toilet or garderobe was a chute built into the thickness of the wall. The seat was made of stone. Sometimes the garderobe emptied straight into the moat!
Toilets in Portchester Castle (chutes leading to the sea)
A knight's home was a smaller version of a castle. They lived in fortified manor houses often with moats around them. A manor house was usually divided into a great hall with a kitchen at one and a solar above it. A rich merchant's house was similar but without fortifications.
Medieval Merchant's House in Southampton
A history of homes in England
Clothes in The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages men wore tunics. Some men wore shorts and all wore 'hose' (tights or stockings).
In the Middle Ages women wore a nightie-like linen garment. However they did not wear knickers. They wore a long tunic (to their ankles) and over it another garment, a gown. Women held their dresses with a belt tied around their waists.
In the Middle Ages both sexes wore wool but it varied in quality. It could be fine and expensive or coarse and cheap. From the mid-14th century laws lay down which materials the different classes could wear, to stop the middle classes dressing 'above themselves'. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive cloth anyway!). However most people ignored the law and wore what they wished.
In the late 14th and 15th centuries clothes became much more elaborate. Fashion in the modern sense began. For the wealthy styles changed rapidly. Women wore elaborate hats and men wore long pointed shoes called crakows.
Poor people wore practical clothes. If it was wet and muddy they wore wooden clogs.
A history of clothes
Food in The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages the rich ate well. They ate beef, mutton, pork and venison. They also ate a great variety of birds, swans, herons, ducks, blackbirds, pigeons and greenfinches. However the church decreed that Wednesday, Friday and Saturday were fast days when people were not allowed to eat meat. Rich people usually had fishponds so they could eat pike and carp. They also ate fish caught in rivers or the sea.
The rich ate breakfast in private but they ate dinner at mid-morning and supper at 5 or 6 in the great hall. On special occasions they had huge feasts. The Lord and his lady sat at a table on a raised wooden platform so they could look down on the rest of the household. Often musicians entertained them while they ate. Rich people ate their food from slices of stale bread called trenchers. Afterwards they were given to the poor.
Butcher Row in Salisbury where meat was sold
Poor people ate a simple and monotonous diet. For them meat was a luxury. If they were lucky they had rabbit or pork. They also ate lots of coarse, dark bread and cheese. They only had one cooked meal a day. In the evening the mother mixed grain with hot water. She added vegetables and, if available, meat or fish to make a kind of stew called pottage. In the autumn peasants gathered fruit and nuts. In normal years the peasants had an adequate diet but if there was a famine they might starve.
A history of food
A history of drinks
Rich People in The Middle Ages
The main pastime of the upper class was hunting. Lords hunted deer with packs of dogs and killed them with arrows. They also hunted wild boar with spears. Both men and women went hawking. In the evenings they feasted, danced and played board games such as chess and backgammon. In the mid-15th century playing cards arrived in England.
When he was not hunting the noble or knight was fighting. Their wives were also kept busy. They had to organise the servants and generally run the household.
Knights also took part in tournaments. These events drew large crowds of spectators. At them knights fought with wooden lances, swords or maces. This was called jousting. There were also tourneys (fights between teams). Tournaments often lasted four days. Two days were for jousting, one was for tourneys and one was for archery competitions.
A history of rich people
Children in The Middle Ages
Children from noble families saw little of their parents. When they were very young nurses looked after them. When they were about 7 they were sent to live with another noble household. Boys became pages and had to wait on lords and ladies. They also learned to fight. At 14 a boy became a squire and at 21 a knight. Girls learned the skills they needed to run a household.
Childhood ended early for children in the Middle Ages. In upper class families girls married as young as 12 and boys as young as 14. They did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriages for them. Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8 they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool. Children were expected to help the family earn a living as soon as they were able.
A history of children
A Peasant's Life in The Middle Ages
For peasants in the Middle Ages life was one of toil. Most people in the Middle Ages lived in small villages of 20 or 30 families. The land was divided into 3 huge fields. Each year 2 were sown with crops while one was left fallow (unused) to allow it to recover. Each peasant had some strips of land in each field. Most peasants owned only one ox so they had to join with other families to obtain the team of oxen needed to pull a plough. After ploughing the land was sown. Men sowed grain and women planted peas and beans.
Most peasants also owned a few cows, goats and sheep. Cows and goats gave milk and cheese. Most peasants also kept chickens for eggs. They also kept pigs. Peasants were allowed to graze their livestock on common land. In the autumn they let their pigs roam in the woods to eat acorns and beechnuts. However they did not have enough food to keep many animals through the winter. Most of the livestock was slaughtered in autumn and the meat was salted to preserve it.
However life in the Middle Ages was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy days (from which we get our word holiday). During them poor people danced and wrestled. They also played a very rough form of football. The men from 2 villages played on a 'pitch' which might include woods and streams! There were no rules so broken limbs and other injuries were common. People also enjoyed cruel 'sports' like cockfighting and bear baiting. (A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). Gambling was also common.
A history of games
Warfare in The Middle Ages
The 'backbone' of armies in the Middle Ages was the armoured knight mounted on a horse. Norman knights wore chain mail, armour made of iron rings joined together. In the 14th century chain mail was replaced by plate armour. Metal plates were attached to each part of the body.
Norman knights carried kite shaped shields. Later in the middle Ages shields became smaller.
The Normans built wooden forts called motte and bailey castles. An artificial mound of earth was created, called a motte and the living quarters were built on top. Below was a walled yard called a bailey where food and animals were stored. The whole thing was sometimes protected by a moat.
However these early wooden forts were vulnerable to fire and later castles were built of stone. In the centre was a stone tower called a keep where the inhabitants lived. Surrounding it was a curtain wall. However even if attackers breached the curtain wall the defenders could retreat into the keep and continue to hold out.
A Medieval keep
The weakest part of a castle was its gate but there were ways of strengthening it. A building called a gatehouse was built. Often it was approached by a drawbridge over a moat. Gatehouses usually had an iron grid called a portcullis that could be raised or lowered vertically. Behind the portcullis was a covered passageway running through the gatehouse. Sometimes there was a second portcullis at the other end of the passageway.
If you got past the drawbridge and the first portcullis you would have to fight your way to the second portcullis and the defenders would not make it easy for you.
In the roof were holes through which the defenders could drop stones or pour boiling liquids.
Around the curtain wall were arrow slits called embrasures. Furthermore the tops of castle walls often had overhangs. In them were openings through which boiling liquids could be poured or stones could be dropped. They were called machicolations.
However attackers could use a variety of siege weapons. The simplest was a battering ram. The users were protected by a wooden shed but the defenders might set it on fire. They could also use a crane with giant 'tongs' to try and grab the ram.
To climb the walls you could use ladders but that was dangerous as the defenders could push them over. Attackers might use a wooden siege tower on wheels. Inside it were ladders for soldiers to climb. At the top was a drawbridge. When it was lowered the attackers could swarm over the castle walls.
Attackers could also use a kind of crane called a tenelon to get over the wall. On the end of a long wooden arm was a basket containing soldiers. The basket could be swung over the castle walls.
The attackers could also hurl missiles. A Medieval catapult was powered by twisted rope. The rope was twisted tighter and tighter then released, firing a stone.
Another siege weapon in the Middle Ages was called a trebuchet. It worked by counterweight. It was a kind of see saw with a huge weight at one end and a sling containing a missile at the other. The sling was tied down and when it was released the great weight at the other end of the 'see saw' caused it to swing upwards and hurl its missile.
Attackers could also tunnel under the castle walls. The tunnels were supported by wooden props. When ready they were covered in animal fat and burned. The tunnels would collapse and hopefully so would the walls.
However in the 14th century warfare was changed by the longbow. Logbows were not new (archeologists have found examples thousands of years old). However in the 14th century the English learned to use the longbow in a new way. In the early Middle Ages archers were used to 'soften up' the enemy before knights charged. (They were used that way at Hastings). However in the 14th century the English devised a new tactic of having dismounted knights protect the archers and allowing the enemy to charge. The enemy cavalry was decimated by volleys of arrows.
The longbow was used to win great victories at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). An archer could shoot an arrow every 5 or 6 seconds. He could shoot an arrow up to 225 metres. An arrow could penetrate armour at 90 metres. The one disadvantage of the longbow was that it took years to learn to use one properly.
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Transport in The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages roads were no more than dirt tracks that turned to mud in winter. Men travelled on horseback (if they could afford a horse!). Ladies travelled in wagons covered in painted cloth. They looked pretty but they must have been very uncomfortable on bumpy roads as they had no springs. Worse, travel in the Middle Ages was very slow. A horseman could only travel 50 or 60 kilometres a day.
Some goods were carried by pack horses (horses with bags loaded on their sides) and peasants pulled along two-wheeled carts full of hay and straw.
However, whenever they could people travelled by water. It was faster and more comfortable than travelling by land. It was also much cheaper to send goods by water than by land. Some goods were taken by ship from one part of the English coast to another. This was known as the coastal trade.
The main type of ship in the Middle Ages was called a cog. It had only one sail. Furthermore in the early Middle Ages ships did not have rudders. The rudder was invented at the end of the 13th century.
In the Middle Ages people believed they would gain favour with God if they went on long journeys called pilgrimages to visit shrines. Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) wrote the Canterbury Tales about a group of pilgrims who go to Canterbury to visit the burial place of Thomas Becket. They tell each other tales to pass the time.
A history of transport
Towns in The Middle Ages
A city gate in Winchester
In the Middle Ages most people lived in the countryside and made a living from farming. However at the time of the Domesday Book (1086) about 10% of the population of England lived in town. Moreover trade boomed in the following two centuries and many new towns were founded. Examples of towns founded in the 12th and 13th centuries include Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Doncaster and Preston.
The first thing that would surprise us about Medieval towns would be their small size. At the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 London had a population of about 18,000. By the 14th century it rose to about 45,000. Other towns were much smaller. York may have had a population of about 13,000 by 1400 but it then fell to about 10,000 by 1500. Most towns had between 2,000 and 5,000 inhabitants.
The larger towns had stone walls. Small towns often only had stone gates. They also had ditches and earth ramparts with wooden stockades on top. Most of the buildings in Medieval towns were of wood and fire was a constant danger. Many English towns were devastated by fire in the Middle Ages.
In towns in the Middle Ages there were a host of craftsmen such as carpenters, bakers, butchers, blacksmiths, bronze smiths, fletchers (arrow makers), bowyers (bow makers), stringfellows (who made the strings for bows), fullers (who cleaned and thickened wool before it was dyed), dyers, potters, coppers, turners (who turned wooden bowls on lathes), horners (who made things from horn) and barber-surgeons who both cut hair, pulled teeth and performed operations such as setting broken bones. Often craftsmen of the same kind lived in the same street.
Tanner Street in Winchester
Most craftsmen had a workshop at the bottom of their house which doubled up as a shop. Behind they had a storeroom. The craftsman and his family lived in rooms above. Many people in towns kept animals as well.
Craftsmen took in apprentices for money. The apprentice lived with the craftsman and his family and his apprenticeship might last 7 or 8 years. At the end the apprentice had to make a masterpiece to prove his skill. If it was good enough he was admitted to the guild.
In the Middle Ages craftsmen were organised into guilds. They fixed hours of work and the wages paid to apprentices. They also inspected member's work to make sure it was up to standard. The guilds also prevented craftsmen from other towns or anyone who wasn't part of the local guild working in their town. Moreover guilds looked after their members in times of trouble like sickness. Merchants had their own guilds.
Guilds also put on plays called mystery plays. (The word mystery is a corruption of the French word metier meaning job or trade). The plays were based on Bible stories and were meant to instruct the people. However there was nothing solemn about these plays. They contained lots of jokes.
Medieval Merchant's Hall in Southampton
A history of English Towns
The Church in The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages religion was a vital part of everyday life. All children were baptised (unless they were Jewish) and everyone attended mass on Sunday. Mass was in Latin, a language that ordinary people did not understand.
Bishops ruled over groups of parishes called dioceses. They usually came from rich families. Bishops lived in palaces and often took part in government. Things were very different for parish priests. They were poor and often had little education. Parish priests had their own land called the glebe where they grew their own food. They lived and worked alongside their parishioners.
In the Middle Ages monks and nuns gave food to the poor. They also ran the only hospitals where they tried to help the sick as best they could. They also provided hospitality for pilgrims and other travellers (although as time went by there were an increasing number of inns where you could pay to stay the night). In a Medieval monastery there was an almonry where food or money was given to the poor, the refectory where the monks ate, the dormitory, infirmary and the cloisters where the monks could take exercise. An almoner looked after the poor, an infirmarian looked after the sick and a hospitaller looked after visitors.
In the Middle Ages the Church ran the only hospitals.
The site of a Medieval hospital in Chichester
To read more about monasteries click here.
As well as the monks from the 13th century there were also friars. They took vows like but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. Franciscan friars were called grey friars because of their grey costumes. Dominican friars were called black friars.
Education in The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages most people were illiterate but not all. Upper class children were educated when they were pages. Among the poor the better educated priests might teach some children to read and write - a little. In many towns there were grammar schools where middle class boys were educated. (They got their name because they taught Latin grammar). Boys worked long hours in the grammar schools and discipline was severe. Boys were beaten with rods or birch twigs.
There were also chantry schools. Some men left money in their wills to pay for a priest to chant prayers for their soul after their death. When he was not praying the priest would educate local children.
During the Middle Ages literacy and learning gradually increased. By the 15th century perhaps a third of the population could read and write.
From the early 13th century England had two universities at Oxford and Cambridge. At them students learned seven subjects, grammar, rhetoric (the art of public speaking), logic, astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry.
A history of education
Medicine in The Middle Ages
In the late 11th century a school of medicine was founded in Salerno in Italy. In the 12th century another was founded at Montpellier. In the 13th century more were founded at Bologna, Padua and Paris. Furthermore many students studied medicine in European universities. Medicine became a profession again.
However ordinary people could not afford doctors fees. Instead they saw 'wise men' or 'wise women', whose folk remedies were probably, at least sometimes, better than medicine!
In the Middle Ages medicine was dominated by the ideas of Galen and the theory of the four humours. Medieval doctors were great believers in blood letting. Ill people were cut and allowed to bleed into a bowl. People believed that regular bleeding would keep you healthy. So monks were given regular blood letting sessions.
In the Middle Ages doctors also prescribed laxatives for purging. Enemas were given with a greased tube attached to a pigs bladder.
Doctors also prescribed baths in scented water. They also used salves and ointments and not just for skin complaints. Doctors believed it was important when treating many illnesses to prevent heat or moisture escaping from the effected part of the body and they believed that ointments would do that.
In the Middle Ages doctors also examined a patient's urine. The colour, smell and even taste of urine were important.
Astrology was also an important part of medicine in the Middle Ages. Doctors believed that people born under certain zodiacal signs were more susceptible to certain ailments.
In the 13th century a new type of craftsmen emerged in towns. He (or she because not all were male) was the barber-surgeon. They cut hair, they pulled teeth and they performed simple operations such as amputations and setting broken bones.
However doctors looked down on barber-surgeons because they did manual work. They were therefore regarded as inferior to doctors who did not.
Traditionally barbers have a white and red striped pole outside their shop. In the Middle Ages, when many people were illiterate, barber-surgeons hung out a white and red pole to represent blood and bandages. This shop sign told potential customers what their trade was.
In the Middle Ages the church ran the only hospitals. (Although often the only thing they could do was offer food and shelter). In many towns monks and nuns cared for the sick as best they could.
Furthermore outside many towns were leper 'hospitals' (really just hostels as nothing could be done for the patients). Leprosy was a dreadful skin disease. Anyone who caught it was an outcast. They had to wear clothes that covered their whole body. They also had to ring a bell or a wooden clacker to warn people they were coming. Fortunately leprosy grew less common in the 15th century and it died out in Britain in the 16th century.
In the Middle Ages only monasteries had sanitation. Streams provided clean water. Dirty water was used to clear toilets, which were in a separate room. Monks also had a room called a laver where they washed their hands before meals.
However for most people sanitation was non-existent. In castles the toilet was simply a long passage built into the thickness of the walls. Often it emptied into the castle moat. Despite the lack of public health many towns had public bath-houses were you could pay to have a bath.
From the mid-14th century the church allowed some dissections of human bodies at medical schools. However Galen's ideas continued to dominate medicine and surgery.
A timeline of the Middle Ages
Women in the Middle Ages
Life in the 16th Century
Life in Saxon England
Life in the 18th century
Last revised 2012