The Myth • We think of knights in shining armor, lavish banquets, wandering minstrels, kings, queens, bishops, monks, pilgrims, and glorious pageantry. • In film and in literature, medieval life seems heroic, entertaining, and romantic.
The Reality • In reality, life in the Middle Ages, a period that extended from approximately the 5th century to the 15th century in Western Europe, could also be harsh, uncertain, and dangerous.
Lord of the Manor • For safety and defense, people in the Middle Ages formed small communities around a central lord or master.
The Manor • Most people lived on a manor, which consisted of a castle (or manor house), a church, a village, and the surrounding farm land.
Self-Sufficiency • Each manor was largely self-sufficient, growing or producing all of the basic items needed for food, clothing, and shelter. • To meet these needs, the manor had buildings devoted to special purposes, such as: • The mill for grinding grain • The bake house for making bread • The blacksmith shop for creating metal goods.
Isolation • These manors were isolated, with occasional visits from peddlers, pilgrims on their way to the Crusades, or soldiers from other fiefdoms.
Fiefs • Under the feudal system, the king awarded land grants or fiefs to his most important nobles, barons, and bishops, in return for their contribution of soldiers for the king's armies.
Peasants • At the lowest level of society were the peasants, also called serfs or villeins. • The lord offered his peasants protection in exchange for living and working on his land.
Nobles and Vassals • Nobles divided their land among the lesser nobility, who became their servants or vassals. Many of these vassals became so powerful that the kings had difficulty controlling them.
The King’s Rivals • By 1100, certain barons had castles and courts that rivaled the king's; they could be serious threats if they were not pleased in their dealings with the crown.
The Magna Carta • In 1215, the English barons formed an alliance that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. It limited the king's powers of taxation and required trials by jury. It was the first time that an English monarch was subject to the law.
Peasant Life • Peasants worked hard to cultivate the land and produce the goods that the lord and his manor needed. • They were heavily taxed and were required to relinquish much of what they harvested.
Low Status • The peasants did not even "belong to" themselves, according to medieval law. The lords, in close association with the church, assumed the roles of judges in carrying out the laws of the manor.
Bound by law and custom… • It is the custom in England, as with other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who are serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind.-- Jean Froissart, 1395
The Role of Women • Whether they were nobles or peasants, women held a difficult position in society. • They were largely confined to household tasks such as cooking, baking bread, sewing, weaving, and spinning.
Hunting & Fighting • However, they also hunted for food and fought in battles, learning to use weapons to defend their homes and castles.
Other Occupations • Some medieval women held other occupations. There were women blacksmiths, merchants, and apothecaries.
Midwives, Farmers, & Artists • Others were midwives, worked in the fields, or were engaged in creative endeavors such as writing, playing musical instruments, dancing, and painting.
Witches & Nuns • Some women were known as witches, capable of sorcery and healing. Others became nuns and devoted their lives to God and spiritual matters.
The Catholic Church • The Catholic Church was the only church in Europe during the Middle Ages, and it had its own laws and large income. • Church leaders such as bishops and archbishops sat on the king's council and played leading roles in government.
Bishops • Bishops, who were often wealthy and came from noble families, ruled over groups of parishes called dioceses.
Parish Priests • Parish priests, on the other hand, came from humbler backgrounds and often had little education. • The village priest tended to the sick and indigent and, if he was able, taught Latin and the Bible to the youth of the village
Gothic Cathedrals • As the population of Europe expanded in the twelfth century, the churches that had been built in the Roman style with round-arched roofs became too small. • Some of the grand cathedrals, strained to their structural limits by their creators' drive to build higher and larger, collapsed within a century or less of their construction.
Monasteries • Monasteries in the Middle Ages were based on the rules set down by St. Benedict in the sixth century. The monks became known as Benedictines and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their leaders.
Monks • Monks were required to perform manual labor and were forbidden to own property, leave the monastery, or become entangled in the concerns of society. • Daily tasks were often carried out in silence.
Nuns • Monks and their female counterparts, nuns, who lived in convents, provided for the less-fortunate members of the community. Monasteries and nunneries were safe havens for pilgrims and other travelers.
Monastic Life • Monks and nuns went to the monastery church eight times a day in a routine of worship that involved singing, chanting, and reciting prayers from the divine offices and from the service for Mass.
The Divine Office • The first office, “Matins,” began at 2 AM and the next seven followed at regular intervals, culminating in “Vespers” in the evening and “Compline” before the monks and nuns retired at night.
Education • Between prayers, the monks read or copied religious texts and music. Monks were often well educated and devoted their lives to writing and learning.
Pilgrimages • Pilgrimages were an important part of religious life in the Middle Ages. Many people took journeys to visit holy shrines such the Canterbury Cathedral in England and sites in Jerusalem and Rome.
The Canterbury Tales • Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a series of stories told by 30 pilgrims as they traveled to Canterbury.
Cold, Damp, and Dark • Most medieval homes were cold, damp, and dark. Sometimes it was warmer and lighter outside the home than within its walls.
Windows • For security purposes, windows, when they were present, were very small openings with wooden shutters that were closed at night or in bad weather. The small size of the windows allowed those inside to see out, but kept outsiders from looking in.
Peasants Homes • Many peasant families ate, slept, and spent time together in very small quarters, rarely more than one or two rooms. The houses had thatched roofs and were easily destroyed.
Homes of the Wealthy • The homes of the rich were more elaborate than the peasants' homes. Their floors were paved, as opposed to being strewn with rushes and herbs, and sometimes decorated with tiles. Tapestries were hung on the walls, providing not only decoration but also an extra layer of warmth.