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.
Intended primarily for theatrical costumers, not for historical accuracy. Check against other sources.
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
The standard graduate-school text on medieval music.
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
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.
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.
Unfortunately this book is a mish-mash of outdated beliefs espousing the very myths we are trying to debunk!
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.
How Much Did You "Think" You Knew?
I was taught one or more of these myths in school:
Read More about the Middle Ages
A fascinating look into expectations for women's behaviour in the Middle Ages.