Sunday, August 23, 2020


This is part 2 of my 3-part blog about the Middle Ages/Medieval times. Last week I presented 11 Bizarre Medieval Trends. This week it's 9 Surprising Facts.

1)  They weren't all knights or serfs or clergy

Although some medieval writers described their society as divided into three parts—those who prayed, those who fought, and those who labored. That became an increasingly inaccurate description after the beginning of the 12th century. The population of Europe increased considerably during the 12th and 13th centuries, with cities and towns becoming much bigger. In the cities, people had all kinds of jobs—merchants, salesmen, carpenters, butchers, weavers, food sellers, architects, painters, jugglers…

In the countryside, everyone was not an impoverished serf (someone not free who was tied to the land). Many peasants were free men and women who owned their own land, while others who were to some degree not free bought and sold land and goods, much like other free men. There certainly were poor, oppressed serfs, but it wasn't a universal condition.

 2)  People had the vote

Well, some people had the vote—not a vote for national, representative government. That was not a medieval thing. But they did have a vote in local politics. In France, in the 12th and 13th centuries and beyond, many towns and villages were run at a local level as a commune, and there were often annual elections where most of the male inhabitants could vote. Women could not usually stand as officials and could not vote, but some of them were noted in the agreed charters of liberties that French towns proudly possessed.

 3)  The church didn't conduct witch hunts

The large-scale witch hunts and collective paranoid response to the stereotype of the evil witch is not a medieval creation. It was an early modern phenomenon found mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries. There were some witch trials in the Middle Ages, and these became more widespread in German-speaking lands in the 15th century. But those doing the prosecuting were almost always civic authorities rather than the church.

 For much of the Middle Ages, the main message that churchmen gave in regard to magic was that it was foolish nonsense that didn't work. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum in the late 15th century was written to persuade people of the reality of witches. In fact, the book was initially condemned by the church, and even in the early 16th century, inquisitors were warned not to believe everything that it said.

4)  They had a Renaissance and invented experimental science

When people talk about the Renaissance, they usually mean literature, art, architecture, and learning found at the end of the Middle Ages. This is usually taken to be one of the ways in which we moved from medieval to early modern thinking. But medieval intellectuals also had a renaissance of classical learning and rhetoric. This was in the 12th century and depended particularly on the works by Aristotle and other classical authors. One of the outcomes was an inquiring approach to the physical world, and it led Roger Bacon and others to think about observing and experimenting with the physical world to learn more about it.

 5)  They traveled and traded over very long distances

The majority of medieval people, particularly those who lived in the countryside, rarely traveled very far from where they were born. That would be the case with lots of people in much later ages as well. It is not the case, however, that medieval people never traveled. Many went on pilgrimage, sometimes journeying thousands of miles to do so. And those involved in trade certainly traveled, linking parts of the world together with merchandise.

 6)  They had some great 'folk' customs

Much of the public culture of the Middle Ages was molded by Christianity. There were also some curious customs, usually tolerated by the church, but which may have had older roots. One was the practice of rolling burning barrels down a hill on Midsummer's Eve. Another was to throw wheat over the heads of a newly married couple. It was also common to raise money for charity by holding a 'help ale'—brewing up a batch of ale, having a big party to drink it, and collecting donations.

 7)  Most great medieval authors didn't write

We tend to think of literacy as one thing, but in fact it combines various different skills with the physical act of writing being only one. For much of the Middle Ages, working as a scribe was seen as a kind of labor and was not something that important people like theologians and intellectuals would bother doing themselves. Instead, a scribe would usually write down what the author dictated.

 8)  Some people weren't very religious

The Middle Ages famously features great examples of extreme religious devotion—mystics, saints, the flagellants, mass pilgrimage, etc.  But it would be wrong to assume that people were always very focused on God and religion and definitely wrong to think that medieval people were incapable of skeptical reflection.

 There is solid evidence of some ordinary people who looked suspiciously at particular beliefs—at the miracles performed by saints, or the nature of the Eucharist, or what was said to happen after death. There is also ample evidence of people just not bothering very much with religion, most of all not going to church on Sunday.

 9)  They didn't believe the world was flat

Columbus was not battling a society who believed the world was flat when trying to finance his voyage across the Atlantic to what he believed would be route to China and Japan. It was a generally accepted belief that the world was round. Most people probably know this already, along with the fact that Viking helmets did not have horns. Both are bits of Victorian myth about the period. What makes studying medieval history fascinating is that you have to grapple with both the puzzle of extracting information from difficult and often fragmented surviving records, and the challenge of constantly checking your own thinking for assumptions that you might be inadvertently inserting into the information as fact.

 Next week is part 3 of my 3-part blog series about the Middle Ages/Medieval times. In part 3, I'll be unraveling some of the wide spread commonly held myths about Medieval torture. 


GiniRifkin said...

HI: thank you for sharing such interesting facts. Always like learning more re: the Medieval period.

Samantha Gentry said...

Gini: It's definitely an interesting period of time in history, lots of changes happening worldwide.

Thanks for your comment.