The Middle Ages is often referred to as the Dark Ages
Some kings and nobles lived in relative splendor, but for most people, everyday life was quite dirty, boring, and could be treacherous.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD, things only really started getting better for the normal people some thousand years later, with the start of the Renaissance and the dawn of the Age of Discovery.
Looking back to life in those dark times.
Living conditions for average citizens
Life though wasn’t all that bad, people were close with nature and they stayed close to their loved ones. Houses were small, causing the family to be close.
Family values were strongly embraced, and the everyday drudgery was often eased with the occasional party and sometimes a festival.
As we well know there weren’t anywhere near close to the medical facilities we have now. Whatever affliction to the body came their way, they dealt with it.
Our great first President George Washington after he left the Presidency, one time got very sick, his doctors decided to draw blood, and they took too much and he died. That practice stopped after that, which was in 1799.
Few people lived to a good age, which was probably considered something of a blessing given how hard they had to work.
On an everyday basis, peasants and farmers faced stresses and dangers.
In the Middle Ages, many people never left their home villages.
Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly hard on the average person, counting hardships the average man or woman had to put up with.
When we think of the Medieval times, often think of knights on their horses traveling off on adventures to lands afar, the life of the average person didn’t involve much travel at all.
Written records from the time show that a sizeable proportion of people not only didn’t travel, but they never even left their region or even the village they were born in!
Even if you did travel, being on the move you had to contend with dangers, the average traveler would have to often sleep out in the open air as other forms of accommodation were few and far between and usually too expensive for the typical Medieval person to afford.
The very real risk of traveling was fought with danger, you might be robbed or attacked on the road.
Many people, , chose to travel in groups, yet then, you weren’t entirely safe as there are countless tales of people being attacked or even killed by their traveling companions.
Bridges were quite rare for the time, especially outside of big cities, so you might have to cross rivers, if there were no boats, what then.
Drownings were all too commonplace, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in the year 1190 died while attempting to cross a river.
Medieval marriages were often a problem too.
The happiness of the two was often not a consideration at all.
In the Middle Ages, if you and a loved one wanted to get hitched, all you needed to do was declare yourselves married, there was no need for a ceremony or even a priest.
to avoid A scoundrel that wanted sex by a woman would say to the woman I’ll marry you, but wouldn’t then. Most women, then, did try their best to ensure that their comings together were witnessed, even if only by members of their own family.
In the middle ages, peasants and farmers were often sent to war ill-trained and ill-equipped.
You could be made to go off to war, with just your farming tools to fight with.
Nobles ruled over the peasants working their land with strict rules.
Not only could he levy taxes on the peasants living there, but he could also require all males over the age of 18 to report for military service.
It didn’t matter if it was a justified war against a viable external threat or just a petty fight against a local rival, if you were called up for duty, you had to report.
And, once pressed into service, you’d probably be wishing you were back toiling the fields for minimal recompense.
According to histories of the time, around 1 in 5 peasant men would be in military service at any one time.
However, this number would have fallen significantly during the summer months.
Then, if you weren’t fighting your Lord’s war, you would be toiling in his field, hard work, but unlikely to get you killed.
But then, fighting rarely got you killed either. In most battles, the two sides just showed up, sized each other up and then a deal was made.
The actual fighting was very expensive and so remained a last resort.
That’s the good news.
The bad news? Well into the mid-1800s, being sent away on extended military service was still a very risky business.
Military camps were very primitive. You were exposed to the rain and the cold.
Food and clean water were in short supply, and disease was rife. Indeed, some historians reckon two-thirds of all conscripted men who died were killed by the unsanitary conditions of their own camps rather than by enemy action.
But what really sucked about military service in medieval times is how little was in it for you.
These days, joining the army can be a way of learning a trade or generally improving your lot in life.
Not so back then.
Feudal lords were fearful of their peasants getting too powerful. That’s why, in most cases, peasants were required to bring their own weapons.
Moreover, they would rarely receive anything more than rudimentary training, so they were sent to war unprepared and ill-equipped.
If a peasant soldier did get too skillful on the field of battle, then there were several cases of them ending up mysteriously dead.
Weather in some areas of the Middle Ages like Europe
In some years, it rained for 150 days straight, causing crops to fail.
The weather was terrible.
Over recent years, extreme weather events have become more commonplace the world over.
But all this is nothing compared to what some people had to endure in Medieval Europe.
The 12th century was particularly brutal.
From 1522 onwards, a so-called Little Ice Age swept through the continent.
Temperatures plummeted and many people simply froze to death.
It’s estimated that around 15 percent of all the people living in England died during this short, brutal period, and, of course, it was the poor, living in their shabbily-constructed houses, who made up the majority of unfortunate casualties.
But cold temperatures weren’t the end of it. The records show that, between the years 1315 and 1322, England received huge levels of rain.
Sometimes it rained for 150 days non-stop.
This wasn’t just miserable, it was fatal.
Farmers’ fields were almost constantly flooded.
They struggled to grow crops. And what could be grown was often covered in mildew.
This shortage of supply meant that prices soared, keeping even basic food staples out of the reach of the poorest in society.
People starved in huge numbers simply because of this freakish run of bad weather.
According to anthropologist Professor Brian Fagan of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the weather played a huge role in shaping society in Medieval Europe.
In his book The Little Ice Age, he explains how freezing temperatures led to bread riots among the peasantry.
More interestingly, it may also have led to landowners getting even tougher, leading to the rise of despotic leaders and tyrants.
The widespread famines caused by the cold and the rain may even have led to witch-hunting.
All across Europe, people looked for explanations for the harsh conditions, often pointing the finger of blame at supernatural causes, with innocent women killed as a result.
Medieval cities were good places to earn a trade, but dangerous places to live in Europe
City life was a real killer.
Living in the countryside was tough during the Middle Ages.
The Little Ice Age’ meant that crops routinely failed, and people literally starved to death.
Understandably, people began heading to towns or cities.
From the 14th century onwards, Europe’s cities began to boom.
Most were founded where people tended to meet naturally, either at a crossroads or by a river or lake.
Alternatively, cities started to spring up around cathedrals. But life here was not much easier, especially for everyday folk.
Indeed, as many historians of the period have noted, town or city life for a poor person in the Medieval era was “nasty, brutal and short”.
It goes without saying that cities were amazingly unsanitary.
Rivers and streams were used for both sewage and for drinking water.
Disease was rife and, since houses and makeshift dwellings were packed together inside the city limits, spread rapidly.
Moreover, since few people knew about matters relating to health and hygiene, little was done to keep rivers clean.
And, as if dysentery and typhoid weren’t bad enough, these cramped conditions meant that the Black Death, or plague, spread rapidly through Europe’s cities, decimating their populations.
But still, people stayed, preferring city life to the brutal existence of living and starving in the countryside.
Certainly, they didn’t stay for the nightlife. Yes, there were taverns, dens of drunkenness, with prostitutes ready to take any spare coins you might have.
But going out to the local pub was a huge risk.
Almost all cities in the Middle Ages imposed nightly curfews, a time when people were expected to be in their homes.
If you went out after that, then you ran the risk of being robbed or murdered, with no police out on the streets to protect you.
That said, there were some upsides.
Many cities had private bathhouses for their citizens. And there were opportunities to make a living, including for women. In fact, it was in the cities where women started moving away from domestic work into trades.
Often, if a man died, his wife would carry on his trade. Or some just started out on their own, becoming hatmakers, weavers, or even brewing beer.
It wasn’t quite living the American Dream, but, at a time when peasants in the countryside were starving or living with the very real threat of rape or violence, cities offered safety in numbers and perhaps even the chance to earn a bit of money.
Sex could be far from frivolous fun for men in the Middle Ages
Men were under pressure to perform.
In this time of counseling, understanding doctors, and little blue pills, men who might be struggling to perform in the bedchamber have a number of ways to seek help.
Not so their counterparts in the Middle Ages.
They couldn’t even expect any real sympathy, not from their wives or their communities.
This was a time when so-called conjugal duties were taken very seriously indeed.
And it wasn’t just the men who had the right to ask their partners to perform.
Wives could also demand intimacy, and a failure to provide this could be very real grounds for divorce.
Indeed, there are many recorded cases of women being granted divorce due to their husbands, impotency.
What’s more, many such cases were carried out in public.
In Medieval France, men were even subjected to “Impotence Trails”, where they were expected to ahem perform in front of a jury.
To be granted a divorce, the woman had to prove that her man was unable to perform.
Strangely, a chap could save himself the shame of annulment due to impotency by calling on special witnesses prostitutes, or other women who could attest to his manly prowess.
Any Medieval lady capable of putting her husband through such a humiliating ritual was almost always from a wealthy family.
Those lawyers and expert physicians didn’t come cheap. But impotency was also a serious issue for everyday folk.
Married couples were expected to produce children, and a failure to start a family was blamed firmly on the male.
An apprenticeship could be the way to a brighter future if you didn’t die of exhaustion first.
Apprenticeships could be a living hell.
If you think today’s internships are akin to slave labor, think again! They nothing on the Medieval apprenticeship schemes.
The system of a young apprentice learning their trade under an experienced master actually originated in this period.
From the mid-point of the Middle Ages onwards, master craftsmen were permitted to employ youngsters for free, so long as they provided them with food, a place to sleep, and, above all, formal training in their specific craft. Sure, the end result was worth it, having a craft would undoubtedly elevate your status in Medieval society, but getting to the end of an apprenticeship took guts, fortitude, and even bravery.
In many cases, apprenticeships were a way for parents to get troublesome teens out of the house and learn some discipline.
Unsurprisingly, then, their masters were often very cruel to their young charges.
The hours were long and the pay non-existent, much like today’s internships.
But, unlike the present day, the masters might give out meager rations, effectively starving their apprentices.
What’s more, beatings were commonplace, and even to be expected.
And, of course, an apprentice’s parents might specifically request that a craftsman beat their son, again with the aim of toughening him up and instilling in him a bit of discipline.
To add insult to injury, apprentices were stuck between childhood and adulthood.
So, on the one hand, a teen in Medieval times would have been treated as an adult, with the tough working conditions this entailed.
On the other hand, however, the privileges of adulthood, for example, the right to inherit money or take ownership of land, often didn’t come into play until the age of 21.
Small wonder, then, that tales of apprentices behaving badly are a staple of written accounts from the Middle Ages.
Rather than dedicating themselves to their professional development, apprentices would often be found in pubs or in brothels.
And sometimes disgruntled apprentices caused real trouble, joining up with their peers to make gangs, like in London in 1517, when different guilds ransacked the city.
Clothes were simple, but the rules about stripes had to be followed.
The fashion police were for real.
As crazy as it may seem, in Medieval Europe, the simple act of wearing stripes could lead to your imprisonment or even your death.
Why? Quite simply, for some reason, striped clothes were seen as the garments of the devil.
Thus, anyone caught wearing them would, at best, get an evil eye from people in the street or, at worst, get a hangman’s noose around their neck.
Indeed, there are countless examples of people being persecuted simply for choosing to wear the wrong thing.
The fashion police were very real and they were very harsh and extremely unforgiving.
Quite when and where this extreme prejudice against stripes started, nobody can say for certain.
However, historians of the period have found ample evidence to show that, far from being a brief and localized phenomenon, it was actually quite commonplace right across Europe for many decades, if not centuries.
In the year 1310 in the French town of Rouen, for example, a local cobbler was condemned to death simply because he “had been caught in striped clothes”.
Even members of the clergy weren’t exempt, in fact, they were judged even more harshly.
So much so that in 1295, Pope Boniface VIII issued a Papal Decree banning religious orders from wearing any type of striped clothing.
From the year 1250 onwards, then, the only people who would be caught wearing stripes were the lowest of the low in society.
Prostitutes, lepers, and cripples would don striped outfits, highlighting their status as outsiders.
Similarly, those born out of wedlock would routinely be required to wear striped clothes.
And, if you were judged to be a really serious offender, then you hangman would most likely be wearing a striped uniform.
Crazily, even animals weren’t exempt.
The records show that zebras were called the beasts of the devil, even though people in Europe had only ever heard reports of them and not seen one with their own eyes.
With the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe, the hatred of stripes eased and eventually disappeared.
Many looked on the phenomenon with confusion, and understandably so.
More recently, however, scholars have sought to explain quite why this was such an issue in the Middle Ages.
One theory is that stripes can act as a form of camouflage and so simple fear drove the prejudice.
Others think it stemmed from a much-too-literal interpretation of the Old Testament verse forbidding the wearing of garments made from two types of material.
Taxation was confusing and often unfair during the Middle Ages.
Taxation was far from progressive.
If you think tax is complicated today, it’s a cakewalk compared to what it was like in Medieval times.
To call it complex is an understatement.
Taxes went up and down all the time.
Sometimes they were low, other times they were frighteningly high.
And it often depended on where you were living, too.
Levels of taxation did, of course, vary between the different states of Medieval Europe, so, a peasant in Sweden would pay much more than a peasant in England, but it also varied markedly within countries too.
Quite simply, peasants were often relying upon the generosity of their local Lord and hoping that he would fix taxation at a low rate, or best, of all, be extremely slack in collecting what was due to him.
Right across Medieval Europe, there was no income tax, simply because nobody had a regular income.
Sure, lords, nobles, and aristocrats would have had a pretty regular income from their land, but then they were exempt from taxation anyway.
Peasants and tradesmen, meanwhile, had irregular income, often going up and down according to the seasons.
As a result, they were taxed by the local lords either once or twice a year.
Farmers would be made to either pay a portion of what they made for their crops or, more commonly in countries like Sweden and Denmark, they would simply be required to hand over a certain number of pigs or cows.
The stressful thing was that the lord could increase the tax or rarely decrease how much he demanded without any prior notice.
It was up to him to judge how much individual farmers or households owed him, and failure to pay, could result in the confiscation of property or even imprisonment.
Taxes were most likely to go up in times of war, especially in cities.
This was especially common in modern-day Italy, where city-states would regularly raise armies to fight their neighbors, with the citizens footing the bill.
At several points in history, taxes became simply too high for the people to tolerate.
In Sweden, the peasants revolted in 1434, burning their land after their lords demanded too much of them.
So-called peasant revolts’ caused by taxation issues, were also relatively commonplace in Medieval England.
And sometimes they were successful, forcing the nobility to lower their demands if they wanted to hold onto their power.
Dead bodies were often disturbed, often by people fearful of restless spirits.
There was no peace even after death.
So, as we’ve seen, life was pretty grim for the average person in Medieval times.
Perhaps it was a blessing that, for most people, life was as short as it was brutal.
Anyone over the age of 50 in the Dark Ages was considered to be elderly.
But that didn’t mean you got to retire.
The over 50’s were expected to pay their way and keep working until they simply couldn’t physically do it anymore.
After that, they were seen more as a burden than anything else.
So, for many, death was the only real chance to escape from the everyday hardships or working the fields and trying to get enough money and food to survive.
But even in death, many people didn’t get peace.
According to some research, in Europe during the Middle Ages, a massive 40% of graves were disturbed.
Now, this wasn’t like grave-robbing during the Enlightenment.
There were no university medical schools paying good money for fresh corpses to study.
Rather, most cases of grave disturbances were run-of-the-mill theft.
Often, people would be buried with a small selection of their possessions, perhaps a favorite cup or other such trinkets.
In tough times, even such objects might be enough to tempt a thief to dig up a grave.
However, this wasn’t always the case. Archaeologists in England have found many examples of Medieval graves being disturbed.
More specifically, they have found evidence to suggest that, rather than looking for objects, those responsible bound and gagged the dead bodies.
It seems that they were fearful of restless souls, or perhaps even of the undead rising again.
Freak weather events such as the Little Ice Age led people confused and often make outlandish assumptions.
For many, things could only get better if the dead were dug up and then tied up.
Grim times indeed, small wonder that many people simply chose to bury their relatives in unmarked graves so that they could, at last, enjoy some genuine peace and rest.