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Everyday Life in Medieval Times

How did people live in the Medieval world?

Cluny Museum, Paris (photo by John Hembury) 

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!

Cluny Museum, Paris (photo by John Hembury) 

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?

Cluny Museum, Paris (photo by John Hembury) 

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.

Cluny Museum, Paris (photo by John Hembury) 

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.

Cluny Museum, Paris (photo by John Hembury) 

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:

Some Are Gaming.
Some are gaming, some are drinking,
Some are living without thinking;
And of those who make the racket,
Some are stripped of coat and jacket;
Some get clothes of finer feather,
Some are cleaned out altogether;
No one there dreads death's invasion,
But all drink in emulation.

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

"Here we go a-wandering so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you
And to our wassail too."

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.

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our dreadful marches to delightful mesures, (...)

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!

Course 1: Fruytes melior, or a mixture of plums, quince, apples, and pears with added rosemary, basil, and rue, served in a pastry tart.

Course 2: St. John's Urcheon, an interesting carob pastry, shaped like a hedgehog, filled with chopped meat.

Course 3: Almoundyn Eyroun, or an omlet made with almonds, currants, honey and saffron.

Course 4: Roasted Salmon in onion and wine sauce.

Course 5: Fruytes Royal Rice which are artichokes filled with blueberry rice.

Course 6: Aigredouncy, a delicious honey-glazed sliced chicken rolled with mustard, rosemary, and pine nuts.

Course 7: Astrological Temperament Herb Cake. (Medieval astrological signs were based on the four humors, or temperaments, sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. Food was thought to help the humors stay in balance. This cake especially was thought to be important to good health.)

Course 8: Astrological Temperament Cheese. (See above.)

Course 9: Dukess Wynes, or roasted chicken or pheasant wings.

Course 10: Elderberry Divination Cakes which are small pastries of unusual shapes.

Course 11: Circletes and Roundels, or small almond-spice cake on platters with words or poems written on them that the guest must sing.

Course 12: Parade of Subtleties, which is the ceremonious carving and eating of the dessert sculptures from the tables.


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Shirley Burchill, Chris Green, Mathew Hill, Nigel Hughes and Antony McDermott 2016