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The Middle Ages:
Myth and Reality
The Middle Ages: The Myth
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We think of knights in
shining armor, lavish
banquets, wandering
minstrels, kings, queens,
bishops, monks, pilgrims,
and glorious pageantry.
In film and in literature,
medieval life seems
heroic, entertaining, and
romantic.
The Middle Ages: The Reality
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In reality, life in the
Middle Ages, a period
that extended from
approximately the 5th
century to the 15th
century in Western
Europe, could also be
harsh, uncertain, and
dangerous.
The Lord of the Manor
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For safety and
defense, people in the
Middle Ages formed
small communities
around a central lord
or master.
The Manor
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Most people lived
on a manor, which
consisted of the
castle (or manor
house), the church,
the village, and the
surrounding farm
land.
Self-Sufficiency
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Each manor was largely selfsufficient, growing or producing
all of the basic items needed for
food, clothing, and shelter.
To meet these needs, the manor
had buildings devoted to special
purposes, such as:
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The mill for grinding grain
The bake house for making bread
The blacksmith shop for creating
metal goods.
Isolation
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These manors were
isolated, with
occasional visits
from peddlers,
pilgrims on their way
to the Crusades, or
soldiers from other
fiefdoms.
The Feudal System
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Under the feudal
system, the king
awarded land grants or
fiefs to his most
important nobles,
barons, and bishops, in
return for their
contribution of soldiers
for the king's armies.
Nobles and Vassals
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Nobles divided their
land among the lesser
nobility, who became
their vassals. Many of
these vassals became
so powerful that the
kings had difficulty
controlling them.
The Magna Carta
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In 1215, the English
barons formed an
alliance that forced
King John to sign the
Magna Carta. It limited
the king's powers of
taxation and required
trials by jury. It was the
first time that an
English monarch was
subject to the law.
The Peasants
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At the lowest level of
society were the
peasants, also called
serfs or villeins.
The lord offered his
peasants protection in
exchange for living and
working on his land.
Hard Work & High Taxes
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Peasants worked hard to
cultivate the land and
produce the goods that
the lord and his manor
needed.
They were heavily taxed
and were required to
relinquish much of what
they harvested.
Bound by law and custom…
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It is the custom in England, as with other
countries, for the nobility to have great power
over the common people, who are serfs. This
means that they are bound by law and custom
to plough the field of their masters, harvest
the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and
winnow the grain; they must also mow and
carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and
perform all manner of tasks of this kind.
-- Jean Froissart, 1395
MEDIEVAL LIFE
Cooperation and Mutual
Obligations
KING
MANORIALISM:
ECONOMIC SYSTEM
FEUDALISM:
POLITICAL SYSTEM
Fief and Peasants
 Decentralized, local
government
 Dependent upon the
relationship between
members of the nobility
 Lord and his vassals
administered justice
and were the highest
authority in their land
 Agriculture the basis for
wealth
 Lands divided up into
self-sufficient manors
 Peasants (serfs) worked
the land and paid rent In
exchange for protection
 Barter the usual form of
exchange
Military Aid
Loyalty
LORDS (VASSALS TO KING)
Food
Protection
Shelter
Military Service
Homage
KNIGHTS (VASSALS TO LORDS)
Food
Protection
Farm the
Land
PEASANTS (SERFS)
Shelter
Pay
Rent
Women: Household Chores
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Whether they were
nobles or peasants,
women held a difficult
position in society.
They were largely
confined to household
tasks such as cooking,
baking bread, sewing,
weaving, and spinning.
Hunting & Fighting
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However, they also
hunted for food and
fought in battles,
learning to use
weapons to defend
their homes and
castles.
Other Occupations
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Some medieval women
held other occupations.
There were women
blacksmiths,
merchants, and
apothecaries.
Midwives, Farmers, & Artists
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Others were
midwives, worked in
the fields, or were
engaged in creative
endeavors such as
writing, playing
musical instruments,
dancing, and painting.
Witches & Nuns
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Some women were
known as witches,
capable of sorcery
and healing. Others
became nuns and
devoted their lives
to God and spiritual
matters.
The Catholic Church
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The Catholic Church was
the only church in Europe
during the Middle Ages,
and it had its own laws and
large income.
Church leaders such as
bishops and archbishops
sat on the king's council
and played leading roles in
government.
Bishops
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Bishops, who were often
wealthy and came from
noble families, ruled
over groups of parishes
called dioceses.
Many times, they were
part of the feudal system
and in exchange for a
fief and peasants had to
provide homage and
military aid to a leige
lord.
Parish Priests
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Parish priests, on the other
hand, came from humbler
backgrounds and often had
little education.
The village priest tended to
the sick and indigent and,
if he was able, taught Latin
and the Bible to the youth
of the village
Monasteries
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Monasteries in the Middle
Ages were based on the
rules set down by St.
Benedict in the sixth
century. The monks
became known as
Benedictines and took
vows of poverty, chastity,
and obedience to their
leaders.
Monks
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Monks were required to
perform manual labor
and were forbidden to
own property, leave the
monastery, or become
entangled in the concerns
of society.
Daily tasks were often
carried out in silence.
Nuns
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Monks and their female
counterparts, nuns, who
lived in convents,
provided for the lessfortunate members of
the community.
Monasteries and
nunneries were safe
havens for pilgrims and
other travelers.
Monastic Life
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Monks and nuns went
to the monastery
church eight times a
day in a routine of
worship that involved
singing, chanting, and
reciting prayers from
the divine offices and
from the service for
Mass.
The Divine Office
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The first office,
“Matins,” began at 2 AM
and the next seven
followed at regular
intervals, culminating in
“Vespers” in the evening
and “Compline” before
the monks and nuns
retired at night.
Education
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Between prayers, the
monks read or copied
religious texts and
music. Monks were
often well educated
and devoted their
lives to writing and
learning.
Pilgrimages
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Pilgrimages were an
important part of religious
life in the Middle Ages.
Many people took
journeys to visit holy
shrines such the
Canterbury Cathedral in
England and sites in
Jerusalem and Rome.
The Canterbury Tales
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Chaucer's Canterbury
Tales is a series of
stories told by 30
pilgrims as they
traveled to Canterbury.
Homes
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Most medieval homes
were cold, damp, and
dark. Sometimes it
was warmer and
lighter outside the
home than within its
walls.
Windows
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For security purposes,
windows, when they were
present, were very small
openings with wooden
shutters that were closed at
night or in bad weather. The
small size of the windows
allowed those inside to see
out, but kept outsiders from
looking in.
Peasants Homes
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Many peasant
families ate, slept,
and spent time
together in very small
quarters, rarely more
than one or two
rooms. The houses
had thatched roofs
and were easily
destroyed.
House Construction
Medieval Village
Homes of the Wealthy
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The homes of the rich were
more elaborate than the
peasants' homes. Their
floors were paved, as
opposed to being strewn
with rushes and herbs, and
sometimes decorated with
tiles. Tapestries were hung
on the walls, providing not
only decoration but also an
extra layer of warmth.
Fenestral Windows
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Fenestral windows, with
lattice frames that were
covered in a fabric soaked
in resin and tallow,
allowed in light, kept out
drafts, and could be
removed in good weather.
Only the wealthy could
afford panes of glass;
sometimes only churches
and royal residences had
glass windows.
The Kitchens of Peasant Homes
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In simpler homes where
there were no chimneys,
the medieval kitchen
consisted of a stone
hearth in the center of
the room. This was not
only where the cooking
took place, but also the
source of central heating.
The Peasant Diet
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In peasant families, the
wife did the cooking and
baking. The peasant diet
consisted of breads,
vegetables from their own
gardens, dairy products
from their own sheep,
goats, and cows, and pork
from their own livestock.
Herbs & Pottage
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Often the true taste of their
meat, salted and used
throughout the year, was
masked by the addition of
herbs, leftover breads, and
vegetables. Some vegetables,
such as cabbages, leeks, and
onions became known as
"pot-herbs." This pottage was
a staple of the peasant diet
The Kitchens of Manor Houses
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The kitchens of manor
houses and castles had
big fireplaces where
meat, even large oxen,
could be roasted on
spits. These kitchens
were usually in
separate buildings, to
minimize the threat of
fire.
Sources of Meat
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Pantries were hung
with birds and beasts,
including swans,
blackbirds, ducks,
pigeons, rabbits,
mutton, venison, and
wild boar. Many of
these animals were
caught on hunts.
Woolen & Linen Clothing
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Most people in the
Middles Ages wore
woolen clothing, with
undergarments made
of linen. Brighter
colors, better
materials, and a
longer jacket length
were usually signs of
greater wealth.
Clothing of the Wealthy
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The clothing of the
aristocracy and wealthy
merchants tended to be
elaborate and changed
according to the dictates of
fashion. Towards the end of
the Middle Ages, men of
the wealthy classes sported
hose and a jacket, often
with pleating or skirting, or
a tunic with a surcoat.
Women’s Clothing
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Women wore flowing
gowns and elaborate
headwear, ranging from
headdresses shaped like
hearts or butterflies to tall
steeple caps and Italian
turbans.
Monk’s Clothing
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Most of the holy orders wore long
woolen habits in emulation of
Roman clothing. One could tell
the order by the color of the habit:
the Benedictines wore black; the
Cistercians and Dominicans,
undyed wool or white, and the
Franciscans, brown. St. Benedict
stated that a monk's clothes should
be plain but comfortable and they
were allowed to wear linen coifs
to keep their heads warm.
Nun’s Clothing
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The Poor Clare Sisters, an
order of Franciscan nuns, had
to petition the Pope in order to
be permitted to wear woolen
socks.
Peasant Clothing
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Peasant men wore
stockings and tunics, while
women wore long gowns
with sleeveless tunics and
wimples to cover their hair.
Sheepskin cloaks and
woolen hats and mittens
were worn in winter for
protection from the cold
and rain. Leather boots
were covered with wooden
patens to keep the feet dry.
Outer and Under Garments
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The outer clothes were
almost never laundered,
but the linen underwear
was regularly washed.
The smell of wood
smoke that permeated the
clothing seemed to act as
a deodorant. Peasant
women spun wool into
the threads that were
woven into the cloth for
these garments.
Fur and Jewelry
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Fur was often used to line the
garments of the wealthy.
Jewelry was lavish, much of
it imported and often used as
security against loans. Gem
cutting was not invented until
the fifteenth century, so most
stones were not very lustrous.
Ring brooches were the most
popular item from the twelfth
century on.
Love Conquers All
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Chaucer's prioress in
the Canterbury Tales
wore a brooch with
the inscription Amor
vincit omnia (Love
conquers all), not a
particularly
appropriate slogan for
a nun.
Laws Governing Jewelry
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Diamonds became
popular in Europe in the
fourteenth century. By the
mid-fourteenth century
there were laws to control
who wore what jewelry ,
and knights were not
permitted to wear rings.
Sometimes clothes were
garnished with silver, but
only the wealthy could
wear such items.
Health & Hygiene
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As the populations of
medieval towns and
cities increased,
hygienic conditions
worsened, leading to a
vast array of health
problems.
Medicine
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Medical knowledge was
limited and, despite the efforts
of medical practitioners and
public and religious
institutions to institute
regulations, medieval Europe
did not have an adequate
health care system. Antibiotics
weren't invented until the
1800s and it was almost
impossible to cure diseases
without them.
Myths and Superstitions
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There were many myths and
superstitions about health and
hygiene as there still are today.
People believed, for example,
that disease was spread by bad
odors. It was also assumed that
diseases of the body resulted
from sins of the soul. Many
people sought relief from their
ills through meditation, prayer,
pilgrimages, and other
nonmedical methods.
Four Humors
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The body was viewed as a part of
the universe, a concept derived from
the Greeks and Romans. Four
humors, or body fliuds, were
directly related to the four elements.
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Fire: yellow bile or choler
Water: phlegm
Earth: black bile
Air: blood.
These four humors had to be
balanced. Too much of one was
thought to cause a change in
personality--for example, too much
black bile could create melancholy.
Bloodletting
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Medicine was often a risky
business. Bloodletting was
a popular method of
restoring a patient's health
and "humors." Early
surgery, often done by
barbers without anesthesia,
must have been
excruciating.
Medical Treatment
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Medical treatment was
available mainly to the
wealthy, and those
living in villages rarely
had the help of doctors,
who practiced mostly in
the cities and courts.
Remedies were often
herbal in nature, but
also included ground
earthworms, urine, and
animal excrement.
Remedies
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Many medieval medical
manuscripts contained
recipes for remedies
that called for hundreds
of therapeutic
substances--the notion
that every substance in
nature held some sort of
power accounts for the
enormous variety of
substances.
Lay Medical Judgments
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Many treatments were
administered by people
outside the medical tradition.
Coroners' rolls from the time
reveal how lay persons often
made sophisticated medical
judgments without the aid of
medical experts. From these
reports we also learn about
some of the major causes of
death.
Surgery
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Performed as a last resort,
surgery was known to be
successful in cases of
breast cancer, fistula,
hemorrhoids, gangrene,
and cataracts, as well as
tuberculosis of the lymph
glands in the neck
(scrofula). The most
common form of surgery
was bloodletting; it was
meant to restore the
balance of fluids in the
body.
Arts & Entertainment
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Art and music were critical
aspects of medieval
religious life and, towards
the end of the Middle Ages,
secular life as well. Singing
without instrumental
accompaniment was an
essential part of church
services. Monks and priests
chanted the divine offices
and the mass daily.
Musical Instruments
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Some churches had
instruments such as organs
and bells. The organistrum
or symphony (later known
as a hurdy gurdy) was also
found in churches. Two
people were required to play
this stringed instrument-one to turn the crank and the
other to play the keys.
Drama
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Medieval drama grew out
of the liturgy, beginning
in about the eleventh
century. Some of the
topics were from the Old
Testament (Noah and the
flood, Jonah and the
whale, Daniel in the lion's
den) and others were
stories about the birth and
death of Christ.
Costumes
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These dramas were
performed with costumes
and musical instruments
and at first took place
directly outside the
church. Later they were
staged in marketplaces,
where they were
produced by local guilds.
Town Life
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After 1000, peace and
order grew. As a result,
peasants began to
expand their farms and
villages further into the
countryside. The earliest
merchants were peddlers
who went from village
to village selling their
goods.
Peddlers
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As the demand for goods
increased--particularly for the
gems, silks, and other
luxuries from Genoa and
Venice, the ports of Italy that
traded with the East--the
peddlers became more
familiar with complex issues
of trade, commerce,
accounting, and contracts.
Businessmen
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They became savvy businessmen
and learned to deal with Italian
moneylenders and bankers. The
English, Belgians, Germans, and
Dutch took their coal, timber,
wood, iron, copper, and lead to the
south and came back with luxury
items such as wine and olive oil.
Tradesmen
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With the advent of
trade and
commerce, feudal
life declined. As
the tradesmen
became wealthier,
they resented
having to give their
profits to their
lords.
Boroughs
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Arrangements were made
for the townspeople to pay
a fixed annual sum to the
lord or king and gain
independence for their
town as a "borough" with
the power to govern itself.
The marketplace became
the focus of many towns.
Town Governments
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As the townspeople
became "free" citizens,
powerful families,
particularly in Italy,
struggled to gain control
of the communes or
boroughs. Town councils
were formed.
Guilds
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Guilds were established to
gain higher wages for
their members and protect
them from competitors.
As the guilds grew rich
and powerful, they built
guildhalls and began
taking an active role in
civic affairs, setting up
courts to settle disputes
and punish wrongdoers.
The Merchant Class
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The new merchant class
included artisans,
masons, armorers,
bakers, shoemakers,
ropemakers, dyers, and
other skilled workers.
Masons
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Of all the craftsmen,
the masons were the
highest paid and most
respected. They were,
after all, responsible
for building the
cathedrals, hospitals,
universities, castles,
and guildhalls.
Apprentices
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Masons learned their
craft as apprentices
to a master mason,
living at lodges for
up to seven years.
The master mason
was essentially an
architect, a general
contractor, and a
teacher.
The First Companies
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The population of cities
swelled for the first time
since before the Dark
Ages. With the new
merchant activity,
companies were formed.
Merchants hired
bookkeepers, scribes,
and clerks, creating new
jobs.
The Printing Press
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Printing began in 1450
with the publication of
the Bible by Johannes
Gutenberg. This
revolutionized the spread
of learning. Other
inventions of the time
included mechanical
clocks, tower mills, and
guns.
The Birth of the Renaissance
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The inventions of
Leonardo da Vinci and
the voyages of
discovery in the
fifteenth century
contributed to the birth
of the Renaissance.
Urban Life
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Few serfs were left in Europe by
the end of the Middle Ages, and
the growing burgher class became
very powerful. Hard work and
enterprise led to economic
prosperity and a new social order.
Urban life brought with it a new
freedom for individuals.
References
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Adapted from the Annenberg Media/Learner.org website “The Middle Ages”
http://www.learner.org/exhibits/middleages/
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