Medieval Society and Culture

Medieval society was different, but not so different as to be totally alien to what we experience in the 20th century. In the 14th century, people were born, grew up, fell in love, married, had children, and died. People ate, got sick, took baths, dressed up for special occasions, went to church, attended wedding receptions, gossiped, got drunk, went to work with hangovers, committed adultery, beat their spouses, looked after their elderly parents, grieved for their dead, went off to war, engaged in unprotected sex as adolescents., celebrated Christmas, went skinnydipping, kept dogs as pets, and consulted horoscopes.

Yes, there was a lot about the 14th century that we would find familiar. The language spoken by the common people of England would be barely comprehensible to the 20th century American ear, as can be seen by this bit from Chaucer .

         I have of sorrow so great won

         That joye get I never none,

         Now that I see my lady bright,

         Which I have loved with all my might,

         Is fro me deed and is agoon.

         Allas, Death, what aileth thee,

         That thou n'oldest have taken me,

         Whan thou took my lady sweete,

         That was so faire, so fresh, so free,

         So good, that men may well see

         Of all goodness she had no meete.

Despite a lot of odd spelling ("get" = great, "agoon" = a gone; "n'oldest"=wouldn't) and a couple of strange words ("won" = plenty, "meete" = equal), a little straining will make the piece comprehensible to the eye, albeit that in Chaucer's day things like "might" were probably pronounced more like "mikt." But after a few weeks of exposure, an American would pick up on what is now called Middle English. It's an acknowledged dialect of English, still studied, and spoken, in college literature departments. You can go into a library and find copies of Chaucers Canterbury Tales if you want to try this out.(parental discretion is advised, as Chaucer, and most other non-clerical Medieval writers, catered to a very "adult" audience).

But Medieval society was unquestionably different from what we experience in late 20th century America (or Europe or Japan or any other part of the developed world). You can still find Medieval living conditions and sensibilities in Third World nations. Well, except for the portable radios, generator powered televisions and their satellite dishes, and the ubiqitous buses. The one thing that was most distinct about Medieval Europe was the isolation everyone felt. No telephone, telegraph, or radio. Nothing moved faster than a fast horse or swift ship. Even then, the travellers, and the news they carried, rarely made more than a hundred miles a day. Only kings, prelates , magnates, and the great merchants could afford a network of couriers to bring the news hither and yon. The Medieval Jet Set was only a few percent of the population. For the vast majority of people, life was lived, from birth to death, without ever travelling more than twenty or thirty miles. In effect, you would go to the local market town from time to time, and that was it.

There wasn't much social mobility, but really ambitious commoners could make their way in the world, and perhaps a fortune as well, by entering the service of a noble family. Many commoners joined the clergy, another way of "entering service." While this prevented them from marrying, an intelligent and hard working peasant could still make his mark as a cleric. And many did, in the process helping their non-clerical kinfolk get a boost up the social ladder. The universities and royal government were full of these folks. The nobility liked the well educated clerics in positions of power, because these commoners were not likely to start a competing dynasty. The able commoner was beholden to his noble lord, and the arrangement was well liked by the aristocrats.

An increasingly popular route to social mobility was to go to a city. As the Medieval saying went, "City air makes one free." Legally, if a serf could live in a city for a year and a day he was a free man. Then, as now, cities were large places where there was always a lot going on, and usually a need for cheap labor, or the opportunity for some sharp dealing. An able lad could more easily find a new life in the city. Many fortunes were made this way, such as Dick Whittington, a peasant boy who was "thrice Lord Mayor of London towne," and out of this commercial activity grew the economic power that eventually defeated the feudal nobility. Even in the 14th century, wealthy cities, led by their talented merchants, were negotiating new relationships with their feudal lords. In Germany, some cities formed their own political organization and fought a series of 14th century wars with the feudal nobility. The cities lost, after a fashion, but the nobles knew they could no get by without the cities. So this "war of the cities" was something of a draw. In Italy, the cities had won, even defeating the Holy Roman Emperors, which was one reason for the great ecnomic power of the Italian city-states.

Only a small part of the population lived in the cities and towns, most of which were quite small. Nearly ninety percent of the population were farmers. Some of these owned their land, but most were either serfs or rented from landlords. Living conditions for these farmers (or "peasants," if you wish) varied considerably. Many, but not all, lived from hand to mouth in wood hovels. This marginal lifestyle was not by choice. The common people knew that life could be better. But several centuries of uncharacteristically mild weather had caused a population explosion in Europe. More land was brought under cultivation and increasingly this new land was marginal as far as farming went. The excess population (and a lot more besides) was taken care of when the Bubonic Plague paid a visit to Europe in the 1340s.

For many peasant farmers, life was good, or as good as any of them could conceive it to be. There was no television to show a much better, but unobtainable, living standard. The nobility was a small percentage of the population that did not display all aspects of the more luxurious lifestyle to the commoners. In most countries the noble upper class comprised from less than one percent of the people (in England) to nearly two percent (in France), although in a few it was higher (such as Hungary, where about ten percent of the population was noble, mostly poor noble). The comoner upper and middle class was slightly larger than the noble class, and in some cases richer: Many of the petty nobility had little besides their title and some land, and some of the lower nobility had to do farm work or starve.

The Medieval period, despite its reputation, was one of relative peace and progress in Europe. More efficient farming methods had been developed. Many of the nobles, who owned most of the land, encouraged more efficient farming. They did this not so much out of Christian Charity (although some did) but because feudal landlords were paid with a portion of the peasants produce, as well as cash rents. The landlords had a vested interest in seeing more food, fodder, and animals produced from their farmers holdings. Wool from the peasants' sheep was sold to the weavers of Flanders and Tuscany, a trade which generated great fortunes. Vinyards produced surpluses of wine that could be shipped to distant ports at a handsome profit. Hides could be turned into clothing and other goods for shipment to eager markets. Commerce was a thriving part of Medieval life and any peasant with a surplus could sell it and buy other goods. Artisans produced furniture, metal tools, and luxury goods. Peasant households often made their own clothing, and most villages had a blacksmith and flour mill nearby. While most peasant trade was barter, there was a lot of money (in the form of coins) in circulation. Those who survived childhood diseases, could look forward to twenty or thirty good years before the infirmaties of "old age" (one's 40s and 50s) closed in. Some sturdy, and lucky, individuals lived into their 60s, 70s, and even 80s, marvels to their neighbors and an example of how far God's blessings could extend a person's life.

One aspect of Medieval life that is hard for 20th century people to comprehend is the lack of individualism and privacy. Both of these characteristics can be accounted for largely by a relative poverty and the fact that most people lived close to the edge of survival, and, most important of all, this was the way it had been for time immemorial.. Privacy and individualism are relatively recent developments. In the Medieval period there was little room, literally, for privacy. The cramped living quarters, even for most nobles, and the lack of central heating did much to foster togetherness. It was not uncommon for nobles to have huge beds (12 feet wide) that allowed a noble, his wife, their children, some servants, and key members of the lord's "fellowship" (his knights) to sleep together in the dead of Winter. A noble household usually dined together in the Great Hall of their keep. This was an old German tradition, a useful method to get everyone fed at once, to pay off one's help (in the form of food), and to foster loyalty and good will. It was also practical. There was no refrigeration. If an animal was slaughtered it had to be eaten promptly lest it spoil. The same was true of any cooked food, and Medieval diners knew well the dangers of eating spoiled food.

There was some segregation of the sexes, but not nearly as much as in the East . Hoseholds wealthy enough to afford several female servants, would often find it prudent to have the adolescent, unmarried girls sleep in the bedroom of the lady of the house. A noble lady, particularly after she had had a few children (and her husband had found a girlfriend) would usually sleep in a separate room. She would have the unmarried female servants sleep with her, along with her female children and young male children (the older boys would hang out with the men of the household). During the cold weather, all would often sleep in the same bed.

While female modesty was respected, it was not a fetish. The old German custom of women and men bathing naked together in lakes and rivers was still common during the period. Communal baths in most cities, towns, and even villages, allowed for mixed, and separate gender bathing, although the former was often an excuse to run a bordello and was constantly preached against by the church.

People lived in close quarters and thought nothing of privacy as we know it. Those who sought to go off by themselves were thought especially pious, or mad (or perhaps a little of both).

Collective responsibility was another carryover from ancient times. For example, if someone from a village committed a crime, was caught and judged guilty, a fine would be levied against the culperts entire village. And the village as a whole was responsible for paying the fine. There were no prisons in the modern sense. If a capital crime was committed, the felon was promptly executed. Lesser crimes were punished with beatings, or limb loppings, but the most common judgement was to make restitution. This was an old German custom, that of weregeld (literally "man-gold") and was even applied to cases of murder. In the feudal period, weregeld and tribal custom was replaced by written laws administered by the king's judges or the local lords. But the concept of collective responsibility remained. The only consistant exception to this, after a fashion, was among the nobility. Although an aristocrat's life was constrained by even more customs and rules than a commoner's, a noble, and his male family members, had the resources to be their own man. Sons would rebel against their fathers, or would simply go off to seek their fortunes. Commoners also did this, but at much greater risk. It was the beginning of individualism, a trend that was to find full flower (or wretched excess) in the 20th century.


The Military Aspect of Medieval Europe



Related Topics:


Fertility, Life Expectancy, and Survivability

The Language Codes

Medieval Orgins (words and phrases that evolved during the HYW period)

Money, Income, and Expenses.

Royal Budget, England, 1307-1337.

The Aristocracy

High Officers of State

Pay Rates for Royal Officials

Ecclesiastical Info

Kingly Nonsense


The Name Game

The Ever Popular Black Death


The Legacy of Rome

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