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Everyday Life in Medieval Times
How did people live in the Medieval world?
Most ordinary people were peasants, that meant people who lived in the country and worked on farms. They often had little freedom, and many obligations. Few were permitted to travel, while most peasants were obliged to stay on their lord's land. Ordinary people had small, thatched-roof homes, which were small, damp and dark with few windows. Most people had only one or two rooms in their houses, and they all slept in the same room. The floors were strewn with rushes or straw, no carpets!
People eat simple food, especially bread, vegetables, milk and cheese. Meat was occasionally eaten. Meat did not always taste good, because in order to preserve meat the peasants used a lot of salt. A common meal for people was the pottage, which was a kind of stew or thick soup of vegetables and pieces of meat
Wealthy people lived in more comfortable homes. The floors were paved, and the walls might have tapestries. Larger windows were possible, which meant that there was more light. However, these homes were often very drafty!
Their diet contained much more meat, sometimes too much which could lead to health problems. In their kitchens, they had big fireplaces where large animals could be roasted on a spit. Wild animals were favourites on the lord's table, where hare, swans and blackbirds were eaten.
What about children, women and people with different ways of life?
If most men had little freedom, women had less rights than men, and were often considered to be the property of a man. However, married women were accorded great respect as a foundation of medieval family and so as a foundation of medieval society. Single or abandoned women had a difficult time. They were feared as a social threat, and as a potential disturbance. The best alternative to marriage for a woman was to join the Church, to go to a convent and to become a nun where she would be safe. Otherwise women might be persecuted and accused of witchcraft.
People who had different ways of life had to be careful. Traditional religious beliefs which had pre-existed Christianity were tolerated so long as they did not interfere with Catholicism. Those who disagreed with the church could be accused of heresy, excommunicated, and condemned to prison or even death. Jewish people were given special treatment. In general Jewish people were tolerated, in return for a special tax. The were only permitted to enter certain professions, but they were free to travel. Later in the medieval period, the treatment of Jews worsened, and persecution became more serious.
Children were cherished, they were the future hope of families. They were given the best and only heated room in a house, with the best choice of food. They had toys, which were relatively simple by our standards. However, there was a high mortality rate due to illness and many children died in young age.
How did people enjoy themselves?
At home people organised their own entertainment, where they might sing local and traditional songs which were accompanied by improvised music. The songs varied from village to village, and related local tales and events. In the early medieval period songs were sung in a simple way (monophony), but later in the medieval period songs became more complicated with a double melody (polyphony). Travelling troubadours and minstrels brought songs and news from village to village, with their accompanying jongleurs and their musical instruments such as the recorder, the shawm and the cittern. These songs were often comic entertainment:
The songs often told of love and heroism, sometimes in comedy and sometimes in all seriousness. Each year there were many festivals such as Midsummer to celebrate the longest day in the year.
A typical song was Here we go a-wassailing among the leaves so green
William Shakespeare in the 16th Century left us with other interpretations of Medieval times. This extract comes from England 15thC and it describes the feelings of people at the end of a long War called War of the Roses The war is over, and soldiers are unemployed, people are trying to adapt to peace at the end of the Middle-Ages.
Often traditional festivals coincided with religious holy days. Great feasts were held, which could have as many as twelve courses in a noble's house!