Medieval Culture FAQ

Medieval culture prevailed from the fall of Western Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance. It's divided into three periods.

In early medieval times, from about 475 to 1050 A.D., Europe lost population. The Magyars, Saracens and Vikings invaded. The structure imposed by Rome was in ruins.

The high middle ages, from about 1050 to 1300 A.D., saw cities begin to grow again. The feudal system structured society. The crusades spread knowledge, and universities were founded.

The late medieval period, from 1300 to 1453 A.D., brought the Black Plague, reducing Europe's population by a third. Famine spread as the weather cooled in the Little Ice Age. Peasants revolted, and the Hundred Years War raged.

How did news travel?

News traveled slowly, at the speed of a horseman, 100 miles a day. Merchants and rulers established networks to keep them informed.

Papal edicts, new laws and political changes were announced in church, but ordinary people were in the dark about politics, spreading epidemics and social change.

What was castle life like?

Castles were dark and drafty, built for defense rather than comfort and light. Plumbing was worse than primitive. Castle-dwellers relied on chamber pots and primitive latrines that drained into deep wall cavities or the moat.

What was village life like?

Peasants owed their lord service on his land. They paid taxes in produce, and they paid to grind their grain. They were not allowed to hunt or to kill game animals that damaged their crops. On the other hand, peasants celebrated many feasts and festivals and enjoyed the freedom of their fields and the communal life of their village.

How could people move up in society?

Ambitious people might enter a noble's service. He would protect them in return for their allegiance. The church was another option. Churchmen learned to read and write and had authority over a parish or a monastery. They gave up legitimate family life but were often not celibate.

Peasants might also leave the land, though that was sometimes illegal. According to a medieval saying, "The air of a city makes a man free." To rise in a city, he needed a trade, or a position in the service of a merchant or craftsman.

Women's options were limited. They might marry up, though in a world of arranged marriages, such alliances were rare. They could also enter religious life, though a role as the abbess of a nunnery might be as high as a young woman could hope to rise.

Did droit du seigneur really exist?

Many novels and films refer to the right of the local lord to spend the wedding night with peasant women. Conceivably, it was an accepted custom. More likely, a landowner had enormous power over the local people and sometimes abused it. He might even have told his subjects he had the right to do so. It is also possible that certain young girls saw an encounter with a noble as a route to advancement in a society that offered them a few opportunities.

What ended the medieval culture?

The medieval period ended when the Renaissance began. Learning flowered, and knowledge spread. Science began to rely on experiment instead of tradition.

Renaissance art may be the greatest painting and sculpture yet produced or merely a nostalgic reworking of the art of Greece and Rome. Either way, it was a radical departure from medieval art.

At the same time, voyages of exploitation began opening Europe to the world.

How were medieval men and women different from modern people?

They weren't very different. They were more isolated, less educated and generally untraveled. Medicine and public health were more primitive, so they didn't live as long. However, most worked as hard as modern people, loved their families, enjoyed their entertainment and were caught up in the ideas of the day just as we are.

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