Daily medieval life – what was it like?

What was the medieval life of a child, peasant, feudal lord, woman in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, as well as the features of their lives Daily medieval life - what was it like?Повседневная средневековая жизнь Средние века касл мэн Castle men

Everyday medieval life was very different from the life that our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers lived, and even more so, we ourselves live. This period is characterized by improved agricultural methods and the decline of the slave system along with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. At the same time, up to 90% of the European population remained rural peasants. Many of them did not settle in isolated hamlets, but gathered into small communities, usually known as estates or villages. These peasants were often subordinate to local feudal lords and had to pay them rent (tax) in kind or in cash. At the same time, throughout this entire period there remained few free peasants, and a larger percentage of free peasants was observed in the regions of southern Europe than in the East and North, which was caused by the peculiarities of agriculture.

Peasant medieval life

For peasants, daily medieval life revolved around the agricultural calendar, with most of their time spent working the land and trying to grow enough food to survive at least another year. Agricultural holidays, such as sowing and harvest days, as well as church holidays, are times when people could take a break from their labors.

The three main activities of medieval peasants were: growing food, keeping livestock and making textiles. 

The peasants who lived on the estate near the castle were allocated plots of land for planting and harvesting. In the Middle Ages, they usually sowed rye, oats, peas and barley, and harvested the crops with a scythe, sickle or reaper. Each peasant family had its own plots of land, while at the same time people often worked together on such difficult tasks as plowing and haymaking. In addition, it was often necessary to build roads, cut down forests, and perform other tasks determined by the lord (feudal lord).

The houses of medieval peasants were of rather poor quality, especially compared to modern ones. The floor was usually dirt, and there were very few light sources in the form of windows. In addition to people, the house also housed several pets, especially during the winter. However, towards the end of the medieval period conditions generally improved. Peasant houses became larger in size and increasingly began to have several rooms and a separate room for livestock.

Comfort was not always observed even in rich houses. Heating was a significant problem for buildings with stone floors, ceilings and walls. Little light came in from the small windows, and oil- and grease-based candles often emitted a strong aroma. The furniture consisted of wooden benches, long tables, cabinets and storage rooms. And the beds, although made of the softest materials, were often infested with bedbugs, lice and other biting insects.

Peasants usually ate warm porridges made from wheat, oats and barley. The peasant’s diet also included broths, stews, vegetables and bread. In those days, most people rarely ate meat. It is interesting to note that the peasants mostly drank wine and ale, rather than water.

Although peasant households were significantly smaller than aristocratic households, the richest peasants sometimes hired servants, especially in Southern Europe, where the climate was milder and crop yields were higher.

Medieval life of feudal lords

Feudal lords and simple knights, as a rule, exploited the estates and labor of peasants. However, they did not own the land directly, but received rights to the income from the estate or other lands by the overlord under the system of feudalism. During the 11th and 12th centuries, fiefs came to be considered hereditary, and in most areas they were no longer divided among all heirs, as they had been in the Early Middle Ages. Instead, most of the fiefs and lands went to the eldest son. The dominance of the nobility and feudal lords was based on factors such as control of land, castles and various benefits in paying taxes and other fees.

The nobles were stratified. Kings and high nobility controlled large numbers of commoners and large tracts of land, as well as other nobility. The lesser nobility had power over smaller areas of land and fewer people. Knights were generally the lowest level of nobility. They controlled the land, but did not own it, and were expected to serve other nobles.

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The court of a monarch or a nobleman of high status housed his family and all those who regularly served family members. These courtiers included the retinue of the monarch or nobleman, the household, the nobility, those appointed to the court, bodyguards and other people. Foreign princes and foreign nobles in exile could also seek refuge at court.

The daily life of the nobility included games such as chess, as well as hunting and playing music. Monophonic secular songs could often be heard singing, probably accompanied by instruments, performed by professional, sometimes itinerant, musicians.

Women in the Middle Ages

The medieval life of a woman was not easy. Women in the Middle Ages were officially expected to submit to some man, be it their father, husband, or other relative. However, widows were often allowed more control over their lives.

Women of high and low classes were engaged in different activities. Wealthy urban women could be merchants like their husbands, or even moneylenders, while middle-class women worked in the textile, inn, store and brewing industries. City women, like peasant women, ran households and could also engage in trade. Poor women often traded food and other goods in markets or worked for wealthier families as servants, temporary laborers, or laundresses.

There is evidence that women performed not only household duties such as cooking and cleaning, but also other activities such as brewing, butchering and spinning, grinding grain, brewing ale, making cheese, and producing textiles for sale. And of course, a significant part of the time was spent caring for children.

Noblewomen were responsible for running the household and could sometimes be expected to manage estates in the absence of male relatives, but they were usually prohibited from participating in military or government affairs. The only role available to women in the church was that of nun, as they could not become priests.

Изображение женщины, готовящей сыр Повседневная средневековая жизнь
Image of a medieval woman preparing cheese

Medieval children

For most medieval children, the first year of life was one of the most dangerous: up to 50% of children died from fatal diseases and lack of sanitation during the first year. Moreover, up to 20% of women died during childbirth. For this reason, during the first year of life, children were intensively cared for. They were fed either by their parents, if the family belonged to the peasant class, or by a wet nurse, if the family belonged to the nobility.

By the age of twelve, the child took on a more serious role in family responsibilities. Although according to canon law girls could be married at the age of twelve, this practice was quite rare unless the child was an heiress or belonged to a family of noble birth. Peasant children at this age stayed at home and continued to study and develop their skills. City children moved from their homes to those of their employer or master (depending on their future role as apprentices or servants). Noble boys learned weapons skills, and noble girls learned basic household skills. The end of childhood and the entry into adolescence was marked by marriage and building a house, moving into the home of an employer or master, entering university or entering church service.

Now you know what medieval life was like.

Additionally, through this link, you can find a wealth of fascinating information about the Middle Ages and medieval castles.