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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.
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.
  • These manors were isolated, with occasional visits from peddlers, pilgrims on their way to the Crusades, or soldiers from other fiefdoms.
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 magna carta
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.
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
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.
bound by law and custom
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 


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
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.
hunting fighting
Hunting & Fighting
  • However, they also hunted for food and fought in battles, learning to use weapons to defend their homes and castles.
other occupations
Other Occupations
  • Some medieval women held other occupations. There were women blacksmiths, merchants, and apothecaries.
midwives farmers artists
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
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
  • 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, who were often wealthy and came from noble families, ruled over groups of parishes called dioceses.
  • Many times, they were part of the feudal system and in exchange for a fief and peasants had to provide homage and military aid to a leige lord.
parish priests
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
  • 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 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.
  • 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
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 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.
  • 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 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
The Canterbury Tales
  • Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a series of stories told by 30 pilgrims as they traveled to Canterbury.
  • Most medieval homes were cold, damp, and dark. Sometimes it was warmer and lighter outside the home than within its walls.
  • 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
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
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.
fenestral windows
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.
the kitchens of peasant homes
The Kitchens of Peasant Homes
  • In simpler homes where there were no chimneys, the medieval kitchen consisted of a stone hearth in the center of the room. This was not only where the cooking took place, but also the source of central heating.
the peasant diet
The Peasant Diet
  • In peasant families, the wife did the cooking and baking. The peasant diet consisted of breads, vegetables from their own gardens, dairy products from their own sheep, goats, and cows, and pork from their own livestock.
herbs pottage
Herbs & Pottage
  • Often the true taste of their meat, salted and used throughout the year, was masked by the addition of herbs, leftover breads, and vegetables. Some vegetables, such as cabbages, leeks, and onions became known as "pot-herbs." This pottage was a staple of the peasant diet
the kitchens of manor houses
The Kitchens of Manor Houses
  • The kitchens of manor houses and castles had big fireplaces where meat, even large oxen, could be roasted on spits. These kitchens were usually in separate buildings, to minimize the threat of fire.
sources of meat
Sources of Meat
  • Pantries were hung with birds and beasts, including swans, blackbirds, ducks, pigeons, rabbits, mutton, venison, and wild boar. Many of these animals were caught on hunts.
woolen linen clothing
Woolen & Linen Clothing
  • Most people in the Middles Ages wore woolen clothing, with undergarments made of linen. Brighter colors, better materials, and a longer jacket length were usually signs of greater wealth.
clothing of the wealthy
Clothing of the Wealthy
  • The clothing of the aristocracy and wealthy merchants tended to be elaborate and changed according to the dictates of fashion. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, men of the wealthy classes sported hose and a jacket, often with pleating or skirting, or a tunic with a surcoat.
women s clothing
Women’s Clothing

Women wore flowing gowns and elaborate headwear, ranging from headdresses shaped like hearts or butterflies to tall steeple caps and Italian turbans.

monk s clothing
Monk’s Clothing
  • Most of the holy orders wore long woolen habits in emulation of Roman clothing. One could tell the order by the color of the habit: the Benedictines wore black; the Cistercians and Dominicans, undyed wool or white, and the Franciscans, brown. St. Benedict stated that a monk's clothes should be plain but comfortable and they were allowed to wear linen coifs to keep their heads warm.
nun s clothing
Nun’s Clothing
  • The Poor Clare Sisters, an order of Franciscan nuns, had to petition the Pope in order to be permitted to wear woolen socks.
peasant clothing
Peasant Clothing
  • Peasant men wore stockings and tunics, while women wore long gowns with sleeveless tunics and wimples to cover their hair. Sheepskin cloaks and woolen hats and mittens were worn in winter for protection from the cold and rain. Leather boots were covered with wooden patens to keep the feet dry.
outer and under garments
Outer and Under Garments
  • The outer clothes were almost never laundered, but the linen underwear was regularly washed. The smell of wood smoke that permeated the clothing seemed to act as a deodorant. Peasant women spun wool into the threads that were woven into the cloth for these garments.
fur and jewelry
Fur and Jewelry
  • Fur was often used to line the garments of the wealthy. Jewelry was lavish, much of it imported and often used as security against loans. Gem cutting was not invented until the fifteenth century, so most stones were not very lustrous. Ring brooches were the most popular item from the twelfth century on.
love conquers all
Love Conquers All
  • Chaucer's prioress in the Canterbury Tales wore a brooch with the inscription Amor vincit omnia (Love conquers all), not a particularly appropriate slogan for a nun.
laws governing jewelry
Laws Governing Jewelry
  • Diamonds became popular in Europe in the fourteenth century. By the mid-fourteenth century there were laws to control who wore what jewelry , and knights were not permitted to wear rings. Sometimes clothes were garnished with silver, but only the wealthy could wear such items.
health hygiene
Health & Hygiene
  • As the populations of medieval towns and cities increased, hygienic conditions worsened, leading to a vast array of health problems.
  • 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.
myths and superstitions
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.
four humors
Four Humors
  • The body was viewed as a part of the universe, a concept derived from the Greeks and Romans. Four humors, or body fliuds, were directly related to the four elements.
    • Fire: yellow bile or choler
    • Water: phlegm
    • Earth: black bile
    • Air: blood.
  • These four humors had to be balanced. Too much of one was thought to cause a change in personality--for example, too much black bile could create melancholy.
  • 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.
medical treatment
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.
  • Many medieval medical manuscripts contained recipes for remedies that called for hundreds of therapeutic substances--the notion that every substance in nature held some sort of power accounts for the enormous variety of substances.
lay medical judgments
Lay Medical Judgments
  • Many treatments were administered by people outside the medical tradition. Coroners' rolls from the time reveal how lay persons often made sophisticated medical judgments without the aid of medical experts. From these reports we also learn about some of the major causes of death.
  • Performed as a last resort, surgery was known to be successful in cases of breast cancer, fistula, hemorrhoids, gangrene, and cataracts, as well as tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the neck (scrofula). The most common form of surgery was bloodletting; it was meant to restore the balance of fluids in the body.
arts entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
  • Art and music were critical aspects of medieval religious life and, towards the end of the Middle Ages, secular life as well. Singing without instrumental accompaniment was an essential part of church services. Monks and priests chanted the divine offices and the mass daily.
musical instruments
Musical Instruments
  • Some churches had instruments such as organs and bells. The organistrum or symphony (later known as a hurdy gurdy) was also found in churches. Two people were required to play this stringed instrument--one to turn the crank and the other to play the keys.
  • Medieval drama grew out of the liturgy, beginning in about the eleventh century. Some of the topics were from the Old Testament (Noah and the flood, Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion's den) and others were stories about the birth and death of Christ.
  • These dramas were performed with costumes and musical instruments and at first took place directly outside the church. Later they were staged in marketplaces, where they were produced by local guilds.
town life
Town Life
  • After 1000, peace and order grew. As a result, peasants began to expand their farms and villages further into the countryside. The earliest merchants were peddlers who went from village to village selling their goods.
  • As the demand for goods increased--particularly for the gems, silks, and other luxuries from Genoa and Venice, the ports of Italy that traded with the East--the peddlers became more familiar with complex issues of trade, commerce, accounting, and contracts.
  • They became savvy businessmen and learned to deal with Italian moneylenders and bankers. The English, Belgians, Germans, and Dutch took their coal, timber, wood, iron, copper, and lead to the south and came back with luxury items such as wine and olive oil.
  • 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.
  • Arrangements were made for the townspeople to pay a fixed annual sum to the lord or king and gain independence for their town as a "borough" with the power to govern itself. The marketplace became the focus of many towns.
town governments
Town Governments
  • As the townspeople became "free" citizens, powerful families, particularly in Italy, struggled to gain control of the communes or boroughs. Town councils were formed.
  • Guilds were established to gain higher wages for their members and protect them from competitors. As the guilds grew rich and powerful, they built guildhalls and began taking an active role in civic affairs, setting up courts to settle disputes and punish wrongdoers.
the merchant class
The Merchant Class
  • The new merchant class included artisans, masons, armorers, bakers, shoemakers, ropemakers, dyers, and other skilled workers.
  • Of all the craftsmen, the masons were the highest paid and most respected. They were, after all, responsible for building the cathedrals, hospitals, universities, castles, and guildhalls.
  • Masons learned their craft as apprentices to a master mason, living at lodges for up to seven years. The master mason was essentially an architect, a general contractor, and a teacher.
the first companies
The First Companies
  • The population of cities swelled for the first time since before the Dark Ages. With the new merchant activity, companies were formed. Merchants hired bookkeepers, scribes, and clerks, creating new jobs.
the printing press
The Printing Press
  • Printing began in 1450 with the publication of the Bible by Johannes Gutenberg. This revolutionized the spread of learning. Other inventions of the time included mechanical clocks, tower mills, and guns.
the birth of the renaissance
The Birth of the Renaissance
  • The inventions of Leonardo da Vinci and the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth century contributed to the birth of the Renaissance.
urban life
Urban Life
  • Few serfs were left in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages, and the growing burgher class became very powerful. Hard work and enterprise led to economic prosperity and a new social order. Urban life brought with it a new freedom for individuals. 
  • Adapted from the Annenberg Media/ website “The Middle Ages”