How Bad was Life in Medieval Europe Really?
When we think about the life in medieval Europe, we tend to conjure up grim and dismal images of war, poverty, sickness, and the Dark Ages . But was it truly so dark? Is there more to it, or are we mistaken?
In our latest article we are going in depth to uncover all the little details that made up the lives of all classes of medieval society: from lords to peasants, soldiers to courtiers. It is time to finally approach this subject from a realistic point of view - no embellishment, no escaping the true facts. So now we go back in time to those illustrious Middle Ages and dig deep into the lives of those that came before us.
Understanding Life in Medieval Europe
It is widely agreed that the Middle Ages in Europe lasted roughly from the 5th century to the 15th century AD. In some places it declined sooner, others later, but in general it began giving way to the Renaissance period and the famed Age of Discovery around the 15th century, as lifestyle began to drastically advance all around Europe. But how was life for the denizens of medieval societies during this long period?
Some people say that it was not as bad as we think, but the full answer is not so simple. Europe is big - and different regions and societies lived in different ways. It can be agreed, however, that life in medieval European capitals and major towns was far from good - at least by some modern notion of comfort. But the lives of those who remained at their ancestral hearths, in far mountainous regions and remote villages were certainly very different.
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Archaic pastoral societies of the mountains, such as the ones found in the Alps, the Pyrenees, or the Carpathians, would rely on their age-old traditions and the way of life that they maintained for many generations. Such lives were undisturbed by the discomforts of life in the urban regions or castle villages. Sure, in time the hand of their sovereign did reach these villages, but it was still a better way of life than in the town.
To begin our story, we shall focus on the life in major urban centers of the medieval world. Constantinople, Paris, Venice, London, Dublin - for the time these were considered densely populated and major metropolitan centers of the Middle Ages. For example in the year 500 AD, Constantinople numbered between 400,000 and 500,000 inhabitants - unheard of for the time. In the years 1300 AD, Paris numbered around 150,000 citizens, while Venice had around 120,000. But urban life was never great for the common folk.
One excellent example of this is London through the Middle Ages. The number of its citizens steadily rose through the centuries, and around the year 1300, it numbered well over 100,000 people. London was notorious for its lack of hygiene and its dismal conditions. A combination of rapid urban growth and lack of suitable space led to overcrowding and the spread of sickness.
The imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans, in the Tower of London from a 15th-century manuscript. ( Public Domain ) Life in medieval Europe was especially unpleasant for people living in urban areas.
Archaic building methods made the districts prone to fires, and the lack of sewers meant that sewage ran through the streets. Many contemporary sources go into detail about the conditions of life in such a city - rats run in plain sight, and stray dogs are aplenty. Animal carcasses often remain in open sight - untouched. This lack of hygiene reflected on the citizens and was also one of the main reasons for the rapid spread of the Bubonic Plague in the mid-1300s.
A Castle and All it Entailed
But cities were few and far between. The main centers of habitation in the Middle Ages were castles. A castle required a lot of work and care. Castles varied in size and were almost always the seats of regional Lords . Lords held titles and lands and gathered taxes from the villages that were on those lands. In return, a Lord had to swear his obedience to a king, and provide military aid at any given time.
A castle was often built on a rocky promontory or a hill. This was clearly done for strategic reasons. Outside of a castle a village usually arose - most often filled with artisans whose skills where needed for the proper functioning of the castle. These were millers, bakers, blacksmiths and butchers, farmers, and cooks.
These sound like normal and acceptable jobs, and they most often were. But not all castle-related jobs were so pleasing. One of these notoriously unpleasant medieval jobs was that of a gong farmer.
Medieval castles often relied on gravity for waste disposal. A castle would have a chamber slightly jutting out from the wall which was known as the closet, privy, or toilet. This was a standard “seat” for doing your business, with only a slight catch - the excrement would fall all the way down the castle walls and into a hole in the ground.
The privy at Peveril Castle, Castleton, Derbyshire, England. ( Public Domain )
These holes were usually cesspits, where excrement would pile up from the privy way up high. Sometimes - in larger castles - the poop would fall into the water of a moat, a ditch that ringed the castle for defensive purposes. Over time the water became fetid and foul, which acted as another defensive method against invaders.
Either way, the cesspits had to be emptied in due time. And this was the job of a gong farmer. These men had to shovel all the feces out of the hole and dispose of it. Gong farmers had perhaps the worst jobs in history , as they often had to complete their job waist deep in feces. Many died from the overpowering fumes of human excrement that they dealt with.
But such was the reality of life in a medieval European castle. Class differences were huge - enormous even - and injustice was rampant . The Lords of the noble class enjoyed power and riches, and all those below them had few - if any - rights.
The lowest of the classes was that of a serf - a person who was allowed to live on the Lord’s land. For that privilege they had to supply goods, taxes, and military service. And besides all that, they had no rights whatsoever.
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Medieval illustration from 1310 of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks. ( Public Domain ) Life was especially hard for medieval serfs.
Poverty was rampant for these people and perhaps even the only thing they knew. With poverty came poor living conditions and with that a short life span. For centuries the people of medieval Europe would not live past 40 or 50, and old age was a rarity.
Children also experienced dreadful fates and high mortality rates. Without contraception, women would give birth to as many as 10, 12, 15 or even 20 children! But perhaps only two or three of these offspring would survive into adulthood. From this we can deduce that parents were most likely less moved by these happenings, as it was an expected condition of life.
But as we said, injustice ran rampant in the medieval world, mostly because of enormous class differences. While the peasants had meager diets, the nobility often indulged in all they wanted. Furthermore, the nobles, lords, and kings all vied for more power and more wealth – and to achieve their greedy goals they relied on the poor peasants that served them.
People at a medieval banquet. ( Archivist /Adobe Stock)
Military service was mandatory for all men - without question. So, when the lord called his banners, you had to answer. A peasant man would have little to gain from his military service - unless plundering was allowed. It was the noble who would increase his wealth. Of course, peasant soldiers were often used as a last measure or the rear line of support, while the actual skilled warfare was conducted by trained men - knights, cavalrymen, and foot soldiers .
When Religion Takes Hold
The medieval period was also a time of significant racial and religious discontent. Religion was by far the biggest driving force behind all major happenings in the era, and the source of all wars and suffering. From the earliest middle ages, Christianity spread like wildfire . It consumed the courts of Europe exclusively through political means - Kings accepted Christianity only to increase power and political influence. As the centuries progressed, pagan peoples were oppressed and forcefully converted. The last pagans of Europe were the tribes of Lithuania and the neighboring Finnic Seto tribe.
‘The Taking of Arkona in 1169, King Valdemar and Bishop Absalon’ (19th century) by Laurits Tuxen. ( Public Domain ) Bishop Absalon is depicted toppling the statue of god Svantevit.
Religious warfare was also rampant. Muslim invasions led to immense conflicts and created a rift between Christendom and Islam that lasts to this day. Catholicism wound its way into every court of Western Europe and violently purged anyone who dared to think and act differently. Needless to say - free speech was non-existent in medieval Europe.
And behind all of it was wealth. Wars, murders, massacres, and pogroms - all had the glint of gold behind them. Everyone vied for more and more wealth, and they did it by using the poor classes for their own gain. Gold was highly valued, and poisoned many a mind. The traditional way of life of the classical period was subdued by greed, wars, and riches.
The Jews of Europe established merchant banks in major urban centers and introduced the system of usury - charging interest - and they would loan large sums of money to major rulers in Europe. When they began exploiting the common folk they were often chased away. This system of loans lasts to this day - albeit on a bigger and more modern scale.
Miniature showing the expulsion of Jews following the Edict of Expulsion by Edward I of England (18 July 1290). ( Public Domain )
But life in medieval Europe wasn’t the same for everyone. Orthodox Christians, the Byzantines, influenced Eastern Europe in entirely different ways. Yes, the class differences were still there, and yes, greed and warfare was rampant, but lives were different.
The Eastern European regions largely retained their old pastoral ways of life and urban centers were next to none. Orthodoxy played an important role for the rulers, who raised many monasteries - which became a sort of currency. Clergy was given much more power and played an important role in political developments, but only by the grace of kings.
Still, the poor classes - the villagers and the simple folk - all suffered the same hardships that the rest of Europe did - poverty, mortality, constant war, and no rights.
Villagers were detached from the happenings in the court - a conscripted soldier often had no idea of the latest events of the kingdom. It could have a new name, a new territory, or a new overlord, but news traveled slow. Nonetheless, when a lord appeared the call had to be answered.
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Clueless and weary of life, these young and old men would travel far into some unimportant war, to stand in line and suffer a terrible death in a faraway land - all on the whim of a richly-clad Lord who only sought to gain more wealth. But blood money was never able to buy salvation.
Today we cannot fathom just how many European fields are littered with the bones of such poor souls that fell in the field of battle, buried by time and dust alongside their dreams and hopes. Where were their homes and who mourned their expected return that never happened? The answers to such questions are lost forever - inscribed on the ever-blowing Northern winds.
Just how many European fields are littered with the bones of such poor souls that fell in the field of battle? ( Lunstream /Adobe Stock)
So, How was Life in Medieval Europe?
And as we reach the end of our article, we at last have our answer: life in medieval Europe was nowhere near pleasant. Death lurked around every corner and it had many foul forms – all unexpected and cruel. Injustices had to be swallowed, yokes carried for entire lives. That age old saying certainly applies well to life in the Middle Ages - “ I have no mouth, and I have to scream.”
So the only thing that remains for all of us living in the comforts of the 21st century is to be thankful for all we have. For no matter how little it is that we possess - it is a thousand times more than what our ancestors had. A thousand times more.
Top Image: Representation of life in medieval Europe at a vineyard. Source: ruskpp /Adobe Stock
Carlin, M. and Crouch, D. 2013. Lost Letters of Medieval Life: English Society, 1200 - 1250. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gilchrist, R. 2012. Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course. The Boydell Press.
Singman, J. 1999. Daily Life in Medieval Europe. Greenwood Press.