Myths about the Middle Ages: What You Know about Medieval History May Be Wrong

When "Common Knowledge" isn't True

I am an amateur historian, and I have visited many hundreds of medieval sites, read thousands of pages of original documents including household account books, shipping and packing inventory lists and more documents, studied and put into practice dozens of historical techniques for working with fabric, chemicals, and much more, and yet I'm amazed at the amount of misinformation there is out there about this important time period. Once people find out that I love medieval history, they will gleefully assail me with all sorts of misinformation about the Middle Ages and refuse to be convinced otherwise, no matter what proof I provide. So I thought I would take a few minutes of everyone's time to correct many of the myths about the Middle Ages, and show something of how people of that historical era really did live.

The Middle Ages was a period of time from roughly the Fall of Rome in 476 A.D. to the Fall of Byzantium in 1453 A.D., almost a one-thousand year period. The Middle Ages is not the same as the "Dark Ages." And, in fact, recent scholarship has discovered that even the "Dark Ages" were not that dark--that era of history was merely called "dark" because historians had so little information about the time period that they were unable to shed light on it. Few documents survive from the so-called "Dark Ages," and many of the documents that survive from the Middle Ages are buried in private collections, or not otherwise readily available even to established scholars. In addition, there is no directory or catalogue of what manuscripts and documents actually exist, and where they are--so that most scholars must simply go to a region and start hunting for likely (and often unlikely) places where such documents might be stored.

As manuscripts and collections in libraries and private holdings are beginning to become digitized, we are discovering many documents that were formerly assumed to be lost. With many digitized collections now available to the general public online, researchers are finding out much more about the medieval period than we knew even a few years ago.

Where Many of the Myths Begin

Each generation of humans considers themselves much more advanced than the previous generation. With this common assumption, it surely logically follows that each generation we trace back must be less advanced than the one following it, which means that by the time we get back to the Middle Ages, surely those people must have been poor, uneducated, and nearly savage.

However, it turns out that nothing could be further from the truth. Earlier generations than ours did things differently, not necessarily worse. Medieval people were clever and inventive, keen observers of scientific phenomena, and just as desirous of improving their lives as we are of improving ours. Their technology may have been different, but researchers are learning that the ways of doing things in the Middle Ages may have been just as effective, if not more so, than the way we do things now!

With that in mind, here are some of the myths that are common, even in history books, and the actual truth about those myths.

Medieval Costumes

Medieval Costume and How to Recreate It (Dover Fashion and Costumes)
Medieval Costume and How to Recreate It (Dover Fashion and Costumes)

Intended primarily for theatrical costumers, not for historical accuracy. Check against other sources.

 
Clothing in the Middle Ages (Medieval World (Crabtree Paperback))
Clothing in the Middle Ages (Medieval World (Crabtree Paperback))

A children's book with fairly accurate assumptions about how people lived in the Middle Ages.

 
Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns
Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns

For true historical accuracy, needs to be bought with "Woven into the Earth," but provides accurate patterns and instructions on exactly reproducing the garments.

 
Medieval Tailor's Assistant: Making Common Garments 1200-1500
Medieval Tailor's Assistant: Making Common Garments 1200-1500

Clear, concisely researched and accurate for the beginning or intermediate sewer.

 
Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-1450 (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London)
Textiles and Clothing, c.1150-1450 (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London)

One of the books that does not rely on pictures but on actual archaeological finds for reconstructing historical clothing.

 
Medieval Clothing and Textiles 1
Medieval Clothing and Textiles 1

An annually-published journal with research papers from various sources focusing on research into medieval dress.

 
Medieval Clothing and Textiles 2 (v. 2)
Medieval Clothing and Textiles 2 (v. 2)

The second volume of an annually-published journal.

 
Medieval Costume and Fashion
Medieval Costume and Fashion

A heavy Victorian bias, and mostly undocumented.

 
Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries (Dover Fashion and Costumes)
Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries (Dover Fashion and Costumes)

A fairly accurate representation of historical dress for the time and geographical constraints.

 
Medieval Dress and Fashion
Medieval Dress and Fashion

Based not only on archaeological research, but on sumptuary laws and other primary sources, this book is accurate and interesting, although not comprehensive.

 

Medieval Clothing

Myths about the clothing of the Middle Ages abound, as you can see at any Renaissance faire or collection of Hallowe'en costumes, as well as on just about any "historical" movie or television show that has a segment on the medieval era. Here are some of the most common myths about medieval clothing and the truth which has been established by research.

Myth: Medieval people (except the nobility) wore brown-coloured, rough clothing.

Fact: Every housewife worth her salt in the Middle Ages knew all about plant dyes, and could dye fabric almost every colour of the rainbow, and then some, using local plants. In fact, laws were passed to forbid the wearing of some colours to any but the noble classes; this would have been completely unnecessary had there been no plant dyes available to the lower classes, or a desire to wear bright colors (some medieval illustrations show clearly what can only be referred to as "international orange"). Spinning and weaving were prized skills for any household, and many ordinary people were quite deft spinners and weavers. Linen (made from flax) and wool were cheap and readily available, as most people were easily capable of growing flax and raising sheep, and were often mixed together to form fabrics such as "linsey-woolsey." (In fact, prohibitions against mixed fabrics go back to Biblical days, which would have been unnecessary if the technology to mix fabrics had not existed.) Cotton was expensive initially, but available after the Crusades, as was silk. Pile fabrics such as velveteen and corduroy were well-established during the Middle Ages. Knitting and crocheting were popular occupations for women. (Yes, they wore socks.) Clothing was decorated with embroidery, strips of leather, fur, or other fabric; woven ribbon; and metal or shells.

In addition, there were other social classes besides the royalty, the nobility, and the peasantry. The Middle Ages saw the formation and rise of the middle class, and like many middle-class people today, middle-class people of that historical era were anxious to appear wealthy and important, so their clothes would imitate those of the classes above them, but with less-expensive materials. Sumptuary laws were eventually established to prevent the middle classes from "passing" for nobility, and the lower classes from "passing" for the middle class.

Myth: Medieval clothes were poorly-fashioned.

Fact: The clothing of the Middle Ages was extremely well-fitted. Surviving medieval clothing shows extensive alterations to fit people as they grew, gained or lost weight, and the use of gussets and other fitting techniques to custom-fit clothing to the individual. Surviving iconographic evidence shows medieval tailors fitting garments with precision. Clothing for cold weather was often lined with fur, even for the poorer classes.

Part of this myth may be because women's dresses often laced up the front. This was not for reasons of fit, but to enable women to breast-feed their infants.

Myth: Medieval clothing did not have buttons.

Fact: Surviving iconographic evidence suggests that buttons were well-known, and shows functional button closings on clothing as far back as 800 A.D. Buttons exist from well before that time (there may even be evidence of late Stone-Age button fastenings). What did not exist was the modern buttonhole: instead, buttons were used to fasten clothing by means of a loop through which the button fits, which is still used today on fashionable and expensive clothing.

Myth: Medieval clothing had no pockets.

Fact: Clothing from all periods of the Middle Ages shows considerable evidence of both patch and inline seam pockets, where an unsewn portion in the seam of a partially surviving garment suggests that a pocket was fashioned into the seam.

Myth: The color ________ didn't exist in clothing.

Fact: Iconographic evidence from the medieval period shows just about every color of clothing imaginable. Pink (a popular color for this assertion) clothing existed because it is shown in the same painting along with red clothing.

Myth: Medieval people didn't wash their clothing. They slept in their clothing.

Fact: The very existence of medieval laundries disproves this. While the clothing may not have been washed every time it is worn (it is still a common practice in many parts of the world, and has been shown to make the clothing last longer), clothing was generally washed when dirty. Examples of medieval nightdress do exist, but it's likely people slept in their undertunics (similar to a modern woman's slip).

Medieval Recipes

The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy
The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy

Contains not only 160 recipes adapted for the modern cook, but many pages of general essays, and thorough scholarship and citations, including the original recipes.

 
The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today
The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today

Another scholarly book containing 70 original recipes and their modern interpretations (but without non-period substitutions).

 
Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks
Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks

A scholarly book with recipes adapted for the modern cook, but with a confusing method of citations.

 
The Book of Sent Sovi: Medieval recipes from Catalonia (Textos B)
The Book of Sent Sovi: Medieval recipes from Catalonia (Textos B)

Published both in the English translation and the original version, a must for anyone interested in medieval Catalan cooking.

 
Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes (California Studies in Food and Culture)
Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A Concise History with 174 Recipes (California Studies in Food and Culture)

Despite numerous mistranslations and misunderstandings about Islamic cuisine, still an informative and enlightening book.

 
Cooking and Dining in Medieval England
Cooking and Dining in Medieval England

A book of astounding scholarship and practicality; completely contradicts everything you have ever seen in films about the way medieval people ate!

 
How To Cook A Peacock: Le Viandier: Medieval Recipes From The French Court
How To Cook A Peacock: Le Viandier: Medieval Recipes From The French Court

A translation into English of one of the earliest versions of this famous cookbook.

 
Food in Medieval Times (Food through History)
Food in Medieval Times (Food through History)

Not a cookbook, but a resource about medieval food in general, including ingredients and cooking techniques.

 
Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy
Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy

Covering ancient through medieval gastronomy, this book provides detailed recipes for the covered time periods and insights on ancient and medieval life as well.

 

Medieval Food

Like every other aspect of medieval life, myths about medieval food abound. Rest assured, you would find many dishes you would like in the food of the Middle Ages, and many of our modern dishes are based on medieval (or even older) recipes!

Myth: Food was plain and not cooked well, and had few ingredients.

Fact: Recipe books exist from even the age of antiquity, preceding the fall of Rome. These cookbooks (primarily used as reminders, since most cooks were assumed to know the basics of the dish already) were filled with quite elaborate meals, and by the Middle Ages, cooks were becoming much more sophisticated, as well as having access to more kinds of food than the Romans. Medieval recipes are full of exotic spices, subtle flavourings, and presented in elaborate fashion--and not just in the recipes for courts of the nobility and royalty, but also for ordinary households. Even "simple" meals contained a variety of ingredients; some dishes, consisting of ingredients primarily eaten by ordinary people, list more than thirty ingredients in the recipes. Common spices in recipes of the Middle Ages include galangal, which is native to Thailand, suggesting that trade with other countries was not only well-established, but in reach of most people. In fact, a single medieval recipe sometimes has more ingredients than the average family eats in a week, including many ingredients that have now fallen into disuse, such as lovage, amaranth, lemon balm, sorrel, and borage. It's also clear that medieval cooks were conversant with not only the sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste sensations, but also with the recently-identified fifth taste, umami.

Myth: Sugar was not available in the Middle Ages.

Fact: Sugar was brought to Europe at the end of the 11th century, after the First Crusade. Refined white sugar is a somewhat different story.

Myth: Medieval peasants starved (or did not eat meat, or did not eat fresh fruit or fresh vegetables).

Fact: Even the poorest people in the Middle Ages were fed far more than merely subsistence food. Most of the people of all classes had a varied and healthful diet, including meat, fruits, vegetables, honey, and some spices, as well as fresh herbs. The true peasants were fed at the monasteries, and ate at least as well as the monks did. In addition, many of the nobility gave away their leftovers to the poor, which would mean that the really poor ate exactly the same food that the nobility did. Almost everyone grew at least some, if not all, of their own food, and since all farming in the Middle Ages was organic farming, and European soil was quite rich in nutrients, the food was very nutritious, the more so for its freshness. Kitchen gardens were staple in even the most poverty-stricken households.

In fact, as is human nature, people of every class aspire to imitate the lifestyle of the class above them. Because medieval society depended on a strict stratification of class, sumptuary laws came into existence to make sure that no pretenders could imitate another class. Of course, clever people soon found a way around these laws by fashioning one food to resemble another. So almonds would be ground up, colored, and placed into blown-out eggshells to resemble eggs; fish would be smoked and colored to resemble ham or game, and so on. It was an elaborate game played by all classes of society.

It is true that because most people living in medieval Europe practiced either Catholic or Orthodox Christianity, fasting periods comprising in total about a third of the year were enforced. These fasting periods typically forbade the consumption of meat, of dairy and eggs, of fish, or of oil and wine on certain days of the year. The richer classes tended to invent ways around the fast by declaring that certain foods were not "really" meat.

Myth: There was no fruit or vegetables available in the wintertime.

Fact: With the establishment of trade routes, as well as the mild climate in the south of Europe, (the "Mediterranean climate"), fruit and vegetables grew lavishly from the end of March through the end of November. Most people preserved fresh fruits by drying them or storing them in cool conditions ("root cellars") and therefore fruits and vegetables were still available, even in the coldest months. Lemons, limes, and oranges were preserved in olive oil, and many other fruits were preserved in vinegar or alcohol. Fruits could also be stored in honey.

Myth: Food was not stored properly and people ate spoiled food.

Fact: Medieval people stored their food in exactly the same way that people all over the world stored their food until the invention of home refrigeration in the middle of the twentieth century, including the use of iceboxes or ice cellars. Spices cannot disguise bad food, although spices can prevent food from going bad as quickly as it would otherwise. Medieval recipes which address bad food start by telling the cook to cut away and dispose of any spoiled parts of the ingredients.

Medieval Housing

Myth: Poor people lived in shacks. Rich people lived in castles.

Fact: Towns were a well-established feature of the Middle Ages, and city planning and building codes were known and enforced. In the countryside, a lord might live in a castle; his serfs and vassals might live either inside or outside the castle complex. Almost everyone had a well-built, sturdy house (many medieval houses in modern cities which grew up around towns established in the Middle Ages are still inhabited today).

Myth: Thatched roofts let in rain and insects.

Fact: Thatched roofs made in the seventeenth century are still prized today for their warmth and excellent construction. How much better shape would a new roof have been in, rather than one four hundred years old?

Myth: The animals lived in the house with the people.

Fact: While some animals may have been taken in at night on the coldest nights of the year, both for the added warmth they provided to the occupants (whence the phrase "Three dog night") and to protect the valuable animals from frost, even rural residences had stables and barns.

Myth: Medieval furniture was crudely fashioned.

Fact: A visit to any historical museum will quickly disprove this myth. Medieval people loved decoration and beauty, and every possible household item, from a comb or a waffle iron to a "puzzle chest" was intricately decorated. (A puzzle chest is one that can be opened only with one or more secret latches.) Even the poorest households had time in the winter for embroidery, carving, marquetry, painting, and the like.

Myth: Medieval houses had openings for windows instead of glass.

Fact: Glassblowers were thriving in the Middle Ages, and all but the most rustic shelters had glass windows. The fact that few medieval windows survive does not mean that they did not exist; little boys with stones probably account for most of the disappearances. A few houses seem to have had only wooden shutters across an opening, but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Papermaking was a Lucrative Occupation in the Middle Ages

Medieval papermaking
Medieval papermaking | Source

Medieval Books and Education

Myth: Most medieval people did not know how to read or write.

Fact: While it is true that for many segments of society, reading was not a useful skill, in fact the monasteries routinely taught reading and writing, even to orphans. Not everyone who grew up in a monastery stayed on to become a monk--many students were educated in monasteries and decided not to take vows, left, and went on to other careers. Thousands of letters from the Middle Ages, written by ordinary people, citing ordinary concerns, survive today, proving that literacy was within the grasp of the average person. In fact, most medieval people had basic reading, writing and mathematical skills, even women, who had to be able to keep household accounts accurately.

Myth: Education was rare and not very good.

Fact: The first universities were recognized in the Middle Ages, although they had been teaching for hundreds of years before they were recognized. Medieval universities granted bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. Some universities required tuition; many universities were free. The first law schools and medical schools were formally established in the Middle Ages and maintain their sterling reputations today. In fact, today's educational system is based largely upon the standards set by education in the Middle Ages.

Myth: All books were hand-copied.

Fact: Although many books were hand-copied, many printed books also exist. In most cases, people confuse the invention of printing with the invention of movable type. Printing existed long before movable type was invented, but because each printed page had to be carved by hand out of wood, page by page, books, whether hand-copied or printed, were rare and expensive.

Myth: Medieval books were all done on skin; paper was unknown.

Fact: Paper was known previously; books were rare and expensive, because they either had to be written by hand, or a block of wood carved out by hand for printing multiple times, and therefore books tended to be printed on more durable materials than paper. Paper was made out of bark and other plant materials, but it was not until the invention of movable type that paper was considered suitable for the cost of producing a book. Rather, paper was used for disposable records, flyers, personal letters, and the like.

Medieval Music

Myth: All medieval music was religious.

Fact: Although the Church has the best record of preserving musical works, and therefore a large part of surviving music manuscripts from the Middle Ages are sacred, thousands of secular musical works are preserved in manuscript form, and cover everything from political satire, to military or historical ballads, to love songs, and many other subjects. Medieval people were interested in the same kinds of things modern-day people are interested in!

Medieval people also loved to dance, and we have surviving dance manuals from the Middle Ages--and yes, they had music to dance to!

Myth: All music of that era was written only for instruments (or only for singers).

Fact: Medieval music was written for every possible combination of instruments, or voices, or both. The period of the Middle Ages was a time for innovation, in many different forms, and musical instruments were no exception!

Medieval Music

Medieval Music (The Norton Introduction to Music History)
Medieval Music (The Norton Introduction to Music History)

The standard graduate-school text on medieval music.

 
Music of the Crusades
Music of the Crusades

A collection of music from 1100-1300.

 
The Music of the Troubadours (Music: Scholarship and Performance)
The Music of the Troubadours (Music: Scholarship and Performance)

The troubadours and trouvères were some of the most notable influences on medieval music.

 
Medieval Dance Music
Medieval Dance Music

Yes, medieval people loved to dance!

 
From Byzantium & Andalusia
From Byzantium & Andalusia

A well-edited and broad selection of medieval music.

 
Between March and April: Music of Medieval England
Between March and April: Music of Medieval England

Features the famous medieval round, "Sumer is icumen in" among other excellent choices.

 
Von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy
Von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy

Hildegard von Bingen was one of the celebrated musical composers of her day and her genius is still evident.

 

Medieval Cleanliness

Soapwort--a plant medieval people used for making soap, washing clothing, and washing their hair
Soapwort--a plant medieval people used for making soap, washing clothing, and washing their hair

Medieval Hygiene

Myth: Medieval people smelled bad because they didn't take baths. (Some sources stated that people got married in June because they had just had their yearly bath.)

Fact: Household account books that survive from the Middle Ages show that medieval people from every country loved to take baths. They may have washed once a week, or once every ten days, but most bathed daily. Many medieval towns had common bathhouses, and according to their account books, they did a lively business throughout the year. Medieval bathhouses were often built on surviving Roman designs, and had both heated and cool baths as part of an elaborate bathing ritual. (And yes, they washed their hair and combed it, too! Medieval combs were carved by hand out of wood, and were taken care of as any prized appliance would be. In fact, medieval combs were often decorated with marquetry, ivory, mirrors, and gems--just a hint of how valuable medieval people thought a comb was to them!) In addition, archaeological expeditions have brought to light nail cleaners and ear cleaners from the Middle Ages, so it is clear that medieval people cared about being clean.

Myth: Medieval people didn't take care of their teeth.

Fact: Even people in the earliest civilizations chewed sticks to clean their teeth and keep their breath sweet. Medieval people lacked the kinds of processed food available to most people today, and so their teeth were not exposed to some of the cavity-causing foods that are widely eaten today. Many medieval people not only cleaned their teeth, but took care to make sure that their breath was sweet-smelling by chewing such herbs as parsley and mint.

Part of this myth may be attributed to the fact that medieval people tended to grind up their food quite finely to aid digestion. The theory of digestibility was an important part of medieval cooking, but this has nothing to do with the lack of teeth.

Myth: Medieval people did not use soap.

Fact: Soapmakers' guilds existed before 600 A.D. Soapwort grew freely and makes an excellent cleaner, which is still used today by museum conservators for cleaning of even the most delicate fabrics.

Medieval Sheet Metal Factory

Medieval workers rolling out sheet metal.
Medieval workers rolling out sheet metal. | Source

Medieval Work

Myth: Medieval peasants lived horrible lives, were slaves, and worked all day every day without a break. The nobility abused their vassals, serfs, and slaves.

Fact: Even the peasants in the Middle Ages could count on anywhere from eighty to a hundred and fifty holidays a year--all religious festivals. Most were celebrated with hearty feasts and a lot of drinking. Medieval people loved games and most of their games, such as chess and draughts (checkers). are still played today. In addition, they loved music and dancing, and we have music from their dances notated in surviving manuscripts. In addition, except for the very poorest classes, most medieval people worked an average of only six hours per day.

The Medieval era saw the beginning of guilds (similar to unions) which specified prices to be charged and wages to be paid. In addition, in every class of society, from the wealthiest to the poorest households, children were often sent to be servants in other, similar households to learn domestic duties that would be needed when they grew up. Their neighbors and friends would no more abuse those children than modern people would in a similar situation.

Rosemary--a herb loved by medieval people and now known to be essential for health
Rosemary--a herb loved by medieval people and now known to be essential for health

Medieval Health

Myth: Most people in the Middle Ages did not live past 35.

Fact: The statistic is that the average life expectancy at birth was 35. This means that if you have 100 people, you add up all their ages at death, and divide by 100, and the average is 35. Many people died of childhood diseases, many died at birth, and many died from farm accidents or military skirmishes. However, if you managed to survive until your twelfth birthday, you had a fairly good chance of living to a ripe old age. That is because your chances of living to a certain age change at every age attained. (This is called the actuarial life expectancy, instead of the average life expectancy.)

Myth: There was little or no medicine in the Middle Ages.

Fact: Schools of medicine were established in the medieval era. Training was given to barbers to become surgeons and to remove diseased organs (just because you wouldn't trust your barber today to do it doesn't mean these medieval barbers were not highly skilled). Herbs that medieval people used to treat diseases have, in fact, been shown to have healthful and curative properties, and medieval scientists were highly trained in observation, and they invented the modern scientific method. The Roman Catholic Church did not prevent or condemn human dissection, and there are many medieval treatises on medicine. Some of the theories are outdated, but the facts stated in the treatises remain as valid today as they were a thousand years ago.

Medieval Society

Medieval Society (Medieval World (Crabtree Paperback))
Medieval Society (Medieval World (Crabtree Paperback))

Unfortunately this book is a mish-mash of outdated beliefs espousing the very myths we are trying to debunk!

 
Medieval Culture and Society
Medieval Culture and Society

Presents primary source documents, a plus. Some of the conclusions drawn are not altogether accurate.

 
Medieval Society (The Development of Western Civilization)
Medieval Society (The Development of Western Civilization)

Here is a book that begins to paint a more accurate picture of the complexity of medieval society.

 
Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power
Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power

An analysis of power structure through the reading of Icelandic medieval literature. Some of the references about continental Europe are not entirely accurate.

 
Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 15)
Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 15)

Through the memoirs of one person, a fascinating look into the medieval mind: its prejudices and assumptions, as well as an account of historical events. Not for children!

 
Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc
Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc

An account of the Inquisition and resistance to the Inquisition in Languedoc, which gives some insights into medieval society. Not suitable for children.

 
Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society
Fast and Feast: Food in Medieval Society

Attitudes towards food in medieval society. Scholarly.

 
The World of the Troubadours: Medieval Occitan Society, c.1100-c.1300 (Medieval Occitan Society, C. 1100-1300)
The World of the Troubadours: Medieval Occitan Society, c.1100-c.1300 (Medieval Occitan Society, C. 1100-1300)

Not about the troubadours themselves, but the society in which they lived and worked.

 
The Early Slavs : Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe
The Early Slavs : Culture and Society in Early Medieval Eastern Europe

A scholarly account in English of medieval Slavic society.

 
Fifteenth-Century Attitudes: Perceptions of Society in Late Medieval England
Fifteenth-Century Attitudes: Perceptions of Society in Late Medieval England

A collection of essays on medieval people, how they perceived themselves, society, and their place in it.

 

Medieval Society

Myth: Medieval people did not care about manners (or threw bones on the floor, or something).

Fact: The first surviving printed etiquette manual dates from the Middle Ages.

Seriously? They had to live there, and rubbish smells, regardless of what century you live in. Medieval people took baths to prevent themselves from smelling; why would they live in a house that smelled? In fact, medieval people put fresh herbs on the floor to keep their houses smelling sweet.

Myth: Medieval society was organized under a feudal system.

Fact: This is based on an interpretation of one book, by a group of sixteenth-century French lawyers, who evaluated the book solely in terms of whether law had ever existed to cover certain conditions. In fact, increasingly well-organized governmental records refute the whole notion pretty solidly. At best, the current notion of a feudal system is an idealized form, and was implemented sporadically and not in an organized fashion.

Myth: There were only a few classes of people: slaves, peasants, serfs and landowners.

Fact: There were also speculators, investors, tradesmen, artists, performers, merchants, and many more classes. In fact, the Middle Ages saw the rise of the middle class, and unions (trade guilds). The burghers' houses that survive are showpieces of consumption and comfort. Medieval entrepreneurs established the first factories. The sumptuary laws (dictating what people could legally wear) recognized a minimum of seven different social classes.

Free towns existed throughout Europe: if a slave could live there a year and a day without assistance, she or he was automatically freed.

Households of every class tended to send their children out to work as a servant at another household; therefore, at one time in their lives, almost every medieval person worked as a servant.

Myth: Medieval people did not progress very much until the Renaissance.

Fact: Medieval people knew about the basic principles of engineering, and were keen observers of the world around them. Medieval inventors improved all kinds of engines, from waterwheels to wells, and medieval scientists carefully noted the properties of plants and animals, improved agricultural methods to provide better crop yields, and built buildings which were not surpassed in height until the invention of reinforced concrete in the nineteenth century.

Part of the reason for this is that medieval people were paid in a local currency, which tended to lose value over time. Therefore, medieval entrepreneurs tended to invest in capital improvements in their businesses, and to hire scientists and engineers to do research, because the entrepreneurs wanted to get the most value for their money.

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Read More about the Middle Ages

The Book of the Knight of the Tower: Manners for Young Medieval Women (Arthurian and Courtly Cultures)
The Book of the Knight of the Tower: Manners for Young Medieval Women (Arthurian and Courtly Cultures)

A fascinating look into expectations for women's behaviour in the Middle Ages.

 
Dress Accessories, c. 1150- c. 1450 (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London)
Dress Accessories, c. 1150- c. 1450 (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London)

Interested in medieval dress? An archaeological excavation reveals belt buckles, buttons, and some really surprising finds!

 
Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy
Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy

Medieval romance as propaganda, and the roles of gender, race and class in medieval society.

 
The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, with selected documents (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, 21)
The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300, with selected documents (Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching, 21)

An excellent book on the tug-of-war between Church and State, with numerous references to primary documents.

 
The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150  1625 (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion)
The Idea of Natural Rights: Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law, and Church Law 1150 1625 (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion)

A thorough and scholarly look into what rights medieval people had, and how they acquired those rights.

 
Race, Class, and Gender in "Medieval" Cinema (The New Middle Ages)
Race, Class, and Gender in "Medieval" Cinema (The New Middle Ages)

Rethink what you have "learned" about the Middle Ages in movies and understand why directors push their modern agendas in so-called "historical" film.

 
Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520
Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520

A look into every class of English medieval society, from peasants and serfs, through tradesmen, merchants, and on up to the aristocracy. A thorough examination of medieval work.

 

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What Did You Learn about the Middle Ages? 16 comments

peacenhim 6 years ago

Fascinating data!! Enjoyed the read, and will continue to read more on this time period! Thanks!


Kendall H. profile image

Kendall H. 6 years ago from Northern CA

Very interesting! It is always enjoyable to listen to people who think they know what life was like back in any age. Great hub!


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I'm not sure how much of the myths you cite were taught to me in school, classicalgeek, but I certainly had the impression that their lives were far less comfortable than ours. My daughter did a paper at the University of Chicago on "bastard feudalism," which I also found interesting and informative. Thanks for another great hub.


shona 6 years ago

i found out a lot on this site but one of my smartest teachers told me some of these things that you have as myths so something sttill leaves me thinking that this site is lying but from your introduction it sounds like you are really smart.


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 6 years ago Author

Dear Shona,

That is exactly my point. Many teachers continue to teach these myths. However, my research was "on the ground" in Europe. If you will ask your teacher the source of the myths you were taught, I think you will find that many of these myths are still considered "common knowledge." I will gleefully provide my sources to your teacher, if desired. In any case, to tell me I am lying is a little strong.


galaxy1000 profile image

galaxy1000 6 years ago from Spokane, WA

Great hub! I am fascinated by the middle ages and you provided a lot of food for thought.


MedievalCostumes profile image

MedievalCostumes 6 years ago from San Diego, CA

Very interesting read! Thanks for sharing!


DTR0005 profile image

DTR0005 5 years ago from Midwest

Well written and quite informative...


kmcmichael profile image

kmcmichael 5 years ago from Athens, Georgia

Really interesting. I was taught many of these myths.


Anthea Carson profile image

Anthea Carson 5 years ago from Colorado Springs

Very useful, Im glad I read this. I wish I had read this before.


Goso profile image

Goso 5 years ago from Seattle, Washington

Very interesting hub! It really sparks the imagination :)


saif113sb profile image

saif113sb 5 years ago

Very useful and informative hub. thanks


Nils Visser profile image

Nils Visser 5 years ago from The Low Countries

Great, I'm going to bash a few pedantic re-enactors about the head with this.


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 5 years ago Author

Please do! Those are some of the worst offenders! :) I went through a late Renaissance re-enaction and butted heads with the organizers at every single step, from geographical facts such as that Avignon was its own Papal legate, and not a part of France until the beginning of the twentieth century, and that a re-enactor can not claim to be "from Italy" because Italy did not exist in the Renaissance, to the date of the introduction of printed cotton (forbidden in the Renaissance in France, but my character was from Avignon, not a part of France in the 1580s). The misconceptions seemingly never end!


kewaynes 3 years ago

Could you please supply some of your sources. They would be fascinating to read


classicalgeek profile image

classicalgeek 3 years ago Author

Unfortunately, the sources I have are not published, and are not normally considered fascinating. My sources are mostly household account books, detailing what money was spent and where, and are usually archived in tiny local historical societies. I have also used shipping inventory lists and letters in private collections.

If you are planning a trip to Europe, you can write ahead to historical societies and find out the requirements for accessing their collections. You may also try writing researchers based in Europe, by finding their names in historical journals, and seeing if you can network with them. Another way is to actually accompany people such as thatchers on their jobs. Of course, it all depends on your interests, but I will just say that many libraries and museums have items that are not on display, and with a certain amount of politeness and persistence, you may be able to persuade someone to let you have a look at the materials in the back rooms.

Some places require new white cotton gloves, or latex or neoprene gloves. Ask before you go.

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