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The Middle Ages: Myth and Reality

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The Middle Ages: Myth and Reality. The Middle Ages: 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. .

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the middle ages the myth
The Middle Ages: 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 middle ages the reality
The Middle Ages: 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.
the lord of the manor
The Lord of the Manor
  • For safety and defense, people in the Middle Ages formed small communities around a central lord or master.
the manor
The Manor
  • Most people lived on a manor, which consisted of the castle (or manor house), the church, the village, and the surrounding farm land.
the feudal system
The Feudal System
  • 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.
nobles and vassals
Nobles and Vassals
  • Nobles divided their land among the lesser nobility, who became their vassals. Many of these vassals became so powerful that the kings had difficulty controlling them.
the peasants
The 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.
hard work high taxes
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.

Hard Work & High Taxes
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 Bound by law and custom…


Cooperation and Mutual Obligations


  • Agriculture the basis for wealth
  • Lands divided up into self-sufficient manors
  • Peasants (serfs) worked the land and paid rent In exchange for protection
  • Barter the usual form of exchange


  • Decentralized, local government
  • Dependent upon the relationship between members of the nobility
  • Lord and his vassals administered justice and were the highest authority in their land


Fief and Peasants

Fief and Peasants

Military Aid



Food Protection Shelter

Food Protection Shelter

Military Service



Food Protection Shelter

Pay Rent

Farm the Land


women household chores
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.

Women: Household Chores
hunting fighting
However, they also hunted for food and fought in battles, learning to use weapons to defend their homes and castles. Hunting & Fighting
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.Midwives, Farmers, & Artists
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. Witches & Nuns
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.

The Catholic Church
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. Pilgrimages
Most medieval homes were cold, damp, and dark. Sometimes it was warmer and lighter outside the home than within its walls.Homes
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.Windows
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.Peasants Homes
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. Homes of the Wealthy
fenestral windows
Fenestral windows, with lattice frames that were covered in a fabric soaked in resin and tallow, allowed in light, kept out drafts, and could be removed in good weather. Only the wealthy could afford panes of glass; sometimes only churches and royal residences had glass windows. Fenestral Windows
health hygiene
As the populations of medieval towns and cities increased, hygienic conditions worsened, leading to a vast array of health problems. Health & Hygiene
Medical knowledge was limited and, despite the efforts of medical practitioners and public and religious institutions to institute regulations, medieval Europe did not have an adequate health care system. Antibiotics weren't invented until the 1800s and it was almost impossible to cure diseases without them. Medicine
myths and superstitions
There were many myths and superstitions about health and hygiene as there still are today. People believed, for example, that disease was spread by bad odors. It was also assumed that diseases of the body resulted from sins of the soul. Many people sought relief from their ills through meditation, prayer, pilgrimages, and other nonmedical methods. Myths and Superstitions
Medicine was often a risky business. Bloodletting was a popular method of restoring a patient's health and "humors." Early surgery, often done by barbers without anesthesia, must have been excruciating. Bloodletting
medical treatment
Medical treatment was available mainly to the wealthy, and those living in villages rarely had the help of doctors, who practiced mostly in the cities and courts. Remedies were often herbal in nature, but also included ground earthworms, urine, and animal excrement. Medical Treatment
With the advent of trade and commerce, feudal life declined. As the tradesmen became wealthier, they resented having to give their profits to their lords. Tradesmen
the merchant class
The new merchant class included artisans, masons, armorers, bakers, shoemakers, ropemakers, dyers, and other skilled workers. The Merchant Class
the late middle ages


Black Death

The Late Middle Ages

Battle of Agincourt, 15th century

the hundred years war causes
The Hundred Years’ War: 1337–1453

Struggles between French and English royal families over who would rule either country

Conflicts over territory, trade

The Hundred Years’ War: Causes

English ruler Edward III

the hundred years war battles
England had early victories

The French eventually expelled the British from mainland Europe

English military innovation: the archer

The Hundred Years’ War: Battles

The Battle of Crecy, the first major battle of the Hundred Years’ War

joan of arc
Joan of Arc
  • Heroine of the war
  • Had visions that told her to free France
  • Fought with the army
  • Captured, burned at the stake

Joan of Arc being burned at the stake

spread of the plague
Spread of the Plague
  • Started in China
  • Reached Europe in 1347 via a merchant ship on the island of Sicily
  • 1347–48: southern Europe
  • 1349–50: central Europe and the British Isles
popular medical cures for the plague
Popular Medical “Cures”for the Plague
  • Doctors wore strange costumes
  • Bathing in human urine
  • Wearing excrement
  • Placing dead animals in homes
  • Wearing leeches
  • Drinking molten gold and powdered emeralds
  • Burning incense to get rid of the smell of the dead

A costume worn by doctors to ward off the Plague

effects of the plague
Effects of the Plague
  • Killed 25–30 million Europeans
  • Undermined faith in religion
  • Economy
  • Culture influenced
legacy of the medieval era
Transitional period

New kingdoms evolved

The Church became a dominant force

Modern institutions originated

Legacy of the Medieval Era