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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.
Medieval 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 during the Middle Ages
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.
Medieval Games and Recreation
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.
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 during the Middle Ages
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.
Medieval 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
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
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.
Medieval Food
Medieval foods and diets depended much on the class of the individual. For those living in the
manor house, there was a wide range of foods available. Fowl such as capons, geese, larks,
and chickens were usually available to the lord and his family. They would also dine on other
meats; beef, bacon, lamb, and those living close to water may have regularly dined on salmon,
herring, eels ands other fresh water fish. Fish would either be sold fresh or smoked and salted.
Wealthy society could afford large quantities of milled flour and other meals made from
grain. Dairy products such as cheese and butter could be seen on the manor table.
Medieval peasants, on the other hand, had a much simpler diet available to them. Most of the
wheat they harvested went exclusively to the market, and peasant breads were made from
barley and rye, baked into dark heavy loaves. Ales made from barley would quaff the thirst, as
would water drawn from the well, sweetened with honey. Peasant society got what little
proteins they could from peas and beans that would be added to bread and pottage.
Pottage was often favored over bread, because it did not require the grains that the miller
guarded closely. Onions, cabbage, garlic, nuts, berries, leeks, spinach, parsley were some of
the foods that would combined to make thick soup. Raw vegetables were considered
unhealthy and rarely eaten, but anything that could grown, with the exception of known
poisonous plants, were added to the mix. Lucky families may have added salt pork or fatty
bacon for flavor and protein. Poorer society depended on these simple foods for survival. It
was ironic that after the Black Death ravaged societies, even the poor could find wheat
Medieval diets lacked vitamins A, C and D and were not high in calories, making the regular
drinking of ale a necessity for most. The only positive part of these diets, were that they were
somewhat "heart-smart;" low in fat and high in fiber. But the medieval world was usually a
very hungry one.
Famines during the Middle Ages
Medieval societies always feared having a lack of food. Crop surpluses were rarely enough to
create viable storage systems and even the greatest lord could not keep enough grain to outlast
a famine. By the beginning of the 1300s the population had grown to such an extent that
adequate amounts of food could only be grown under the best of conditions. There was no
margin of failure for crops. The problem this century saw was a changing climate, with cooler
and wetter summers and earlier autumn storms.
Malnutrition had always been present, but few actually died. But the cold and wet springs and
summers of 1315-17 decimated crops and all classes of society suffered. People resorted to
killing their draft animals and eating seed grain for food. Dogs and cats disappeared there
were even rumors of cannibalism in some villages. Oddly enough, it was the Black Death that
alleviated some concerns over famine, as the survivors found they had more food available.
Rumors of a famine usually preceded the actual crisis. Hoarding would begin and black
markets for food would find plenty of customers. Bakers may try and fill bread loaves with
fillers other than grain to match required weights and shapes. The elderly often voluntarily
stopped eating so younger members of the family could survive, and there were numerous
reports of cannibalism.
Medieval stories like Hansel and Gretel, like most of Grimm's Fairy Tales, has a basis in
reality and illustrated the harsh possibilities of famine.
Medieval Health
Superstition and ignorance reigned during the Middle Ages, a time when characters we now
consider to be simply from fairy tales; pixies, trolls, hobgoblins and so on, were thought to
truly exist. Health was controlled by the stars, and affliction was a sign of impurity of the
soul-a curse from God.
Disease was a constant concern, as was infection from injuries. Hygiene was not always a
priority and medieval diets were lacking in vital nutrition. Barbers doubled as surgeons, and a
good bleeding was often the cure prescribed.
Medieval science progressed slowly, and treatments for the sick were quite often out of reach,
especially for the poor. But little by little, doctors were learning information that led to better
cures, and understandings of how diseases were transmitted.
Hospitals began to be constructed, and schools established for those wishing to practice
medicine. Superstition remained, and medieval science certainly did not have all the answers.
Information lost from the burning of the library at Alexandria by Christian zealots was slowly
being rediscovered.
Black Death
A medieval nightmare-a time of horror. Imagine walking down the street, and every fourth
person you saw would die within three years. The Black Death, ravaging medieval Europe
from late 1347 through early 1351 wiped out nearly one-fourth of the continent's inhabitants.
Medieval cities fared much worse. With their narrow streets making transmission of the
disease much easier, nearly half of the populations of some larger cities perished from this
The Black Death's origins were from Asia, where it decimated the population there as well,
and was brought to Western Europe along trading routes, first arriving in Sicily in 1347. This
disease was spread primarily through rats and fleas.
The disease attacked lymph, respiratory and/or circulatory systems and there was nearly a
100% mortality rate for those infected. The Church's stranglehold on society left many feeling
that this was a plague from God, and that doctors would be of little use. A chilling rhyme
would evolve from the symptoms of the dying and sentiments of the living…
"Ring around the rosie,
A pocketful of posie,
Ashes, Ashes,
All fall down."
Attempts to avoid the disease ranged from constant supplication to God, to eating fine meats,
drinking fine wines, and filling the mind with thought of anything, other than death. Doctors
tried to treat victims with everything from valerian root and moonwort, to arsenic and
The Black Death had a steamroller effect throughout all society. Multitudes of houses and
barns infested with rats were left vacant, making it impossible to collect rents. Unused mills
fell into disrepair, making it impossible to grind wheat for flour in some areas. There was a
resurgence of the disease later in the century, but not as many people were infected.
Medieval Literature
The Middle Ages saw the beginnings of a rebirth in literature. Early medieval books were
painstakingly hand-copied and illustrated by monks. Paper was a rarity, with vellum, made
from calf's skin, and parchment, made from lamb's skin, were the media of choice for writing.
Students learning to write used wooden tablets covered in green or black wax. The greatest
number of books during this era were bound with plain wooden boards, or with simple tooled
leather for more expensive volumes.
Wandering scholars and poets traveling to the Crusades learned of new writing styles. Courtly
Love spawned a new interest in romantic prose. Troubadours sang in medieval courtyards
about epic battles involving Roland, Arthur, and Charlemagne. Literature exploded from the
universities as scholars began to question convention and write social commentary, as well as
poetic fiction.
Language saw further development during the Middle Ages. Capital and lowercase letters
were developed with rules for each. Books were treasures, rarely shown openly in a library,
but rather, kept safely under lock and key. Finding someone who might loan you a book was a
true friend. Some might rent out their books, while others, desperate for cash, might turn to
the book as a valuable item to be pawned.
Medieval Chivalry
Chivalry is the generic term for the knightly system of the Middle Ages and for virtues and
qualities it inspired in its followers. The word evolved from terms such as chevalier (French),
caballero (Spanish), and cavaliere (Italian), all meaning a warrior who fought on horseback.
The term came to mean so much more during medieval times.
Chivalric orders first appeared with military activities against non-Christian states. During the
Middle Ages, Western Europe aggressively sought to expand its area of control. The first
orders of chivalry were very similar to the monastic orders of the era. Both sought the
sanctification of their members through combat against "infidels" and protection of religious
pilgrims, and both had commitments that involved the taking of vows and submitting to a
regulation of activities.
13th Century conventions of chivalry directed that men should honor, serve, and do nothing to
displease ladies and maidens. Knights were members of the noble class socially as bearers of
arms, economically as owners of horse and armor, and officially through religious-oriented
ceremony. While some were knighted on the battlefield, most spent long years as a squire,
practicing the art of war while serving his master. People during the Middle Ages heard of the
exploits of knights both mythical and real in epics like La Chanson de Roland and Le Morte
After the Crusades, knights continued to show their prowess and skills in medieval