Life in the Middle Ages

By Tim Lambert

Society In The Middle Ages

Under the feudal system, introduced by the Normans 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 ‘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 labor 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 labor 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 from rising but this was impossible to enforce. By the 15th century, the system of serfdom or villeinage had broken down in England.

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.

Homes In The Middle Ages

Medieval 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. Peasant huts were either whitewashed or painted in bright colors.

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 rushlights (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.

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 center 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 drafts. 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 their 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.

Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton

In the Middle Ages, furniture was very basic. Even in a rich home, chairs were rare. Most people sat on stools or benches. Rich people also had tables and large chests, which doubled up as beds. Rich people’s homes were hung with wool tapestries or painted linen. They were not just for decoration. They also helped keep out drafts. In a castle, the toilet or garderobe was a chute built into the thickness of the wall.

Clothes In The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, men wore tunics with trousers. Some men wore shorts as underwear. Women 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. Medieval women normally did not wear knickers.

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 from dressing ‘above themselves’. (Poor people could not afford to wear expensive fabrics 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. However poor people wore practical clothes. If it was wet and muddy they wore wooden clogs.

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, and pigeons. However, the church decreed that Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday were fast days when people were not allowed to eat meat. Rich people usually had fish ponds so they could eat pike and carp. They also ate fish caught in rivers or the sea.

On special occasions, the rich 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. Afterward, they were given to the poor.

Poor people ate a simple and monotonous diet. For them, meat was a luxury. If they were lucky they had a 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.

Pastimes 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 organize 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.

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. In upper-class families, young men and women did not normally choose their own marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriage 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 Peasant’s Life in The Middle Ages

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 plow. After plowing 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 throughout 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.

Warfare in the Middle Ages

The ‘backbone of Medieval armies was the armored knight mounted on a horse. Norman knights wore chain mail, armor made of iron rings joined together. In the 14th century chain mail was replaced by plate armor. 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 center 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.

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 the 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 a 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 a 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.

A trebuchet

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. Longbows were not new (archaeologists 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 to protect the archers and allowing the enemy to charge. The enemy cavalry was decimated by volleys of arrows. The longbow was used to win decisive 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 accurately up to 200 meters. An arrow could penetrate armor at 90 meters. The one disadvantage of the longbow was that it took years to learn to use one properly.

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 kilometers a day. Some goods were carried by packhorses (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 traveling 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 favor 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 went to Canterbury to visit the burial place of Thomas Becket. They tell each other tales to pass the time.

Towns in The Middle Ages

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 towns. 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, and Southampton.

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.

A town gate in Winchester

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), fullers (who cleaned and thickened wool before it was dyed), dyers, potters, coopers, turners (who turned wooden bowls on lathes and barber-surgeons who both cut hair, pulled teeth and performed operations.

Often craftsmen of the same kind lived in the same street. 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 the 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 of it, 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 organized into guilds. They fixed hours of work and the wages paid to apprentices. They also inspected members’ 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 from 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.

The Church in The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, religion was an important part of everyday life for most people. All children were baptized (unless they were Jewish) and most people 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 travelers (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, the 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.

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 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 souls 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.

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 doctor’s fees. Instead, they saw ‘wise men’ or ‘wise women’ with folk remedies.

In the Middle Ages medicine was dominated by the ideas of Galen and the theory of the four humors.

Medieval doctors were great believers in bloodletting. 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 bloodletting sessions. Medieval doctors also prescribed laxatives for purging. Enemas were given with a greased tube attached to a pig’s 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 from escaping from the affected part of the body and they believed that ointments would do that. In the Middle Ages, doctors also examined a patient’s urine. The color, 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 zodiac signs were more susceptible to certain ailments.

In the 13th century, a new type of craftsmen emerged in towns, the barber-surgeon. They cut hair, they pulled teeth and they performed simple operations such as amputations and setting broken bones.

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 monasteries had streams that provided clean water. Dirty water was used to clean toilets, which were in a separate room. Monks also had a room called a laver where they washed their hands before meals.

However, 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 bathhouses where 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 in the Middle Ages.

Last revised 2024