Daily Living in the Middle Ages - Sarah Woodbury

Daily Living in the Middle Ages

The tapestry to the right is The Triumph of Death, or The 3 Fates, a Flemish tapestry (probably Brussels, ca. 1510-1520), located now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Depicted are the three fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of Life, represent Death in this tapestry, as they triumph over the fallen body of Chastity. This is the third subject in Petrarch’s poem The Triumphs. First, Love triumphs; then Love is overcome by Chastity, Chastity by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity.

Pretty gloomy, eh?

From a modern perspective, life in the Middle Ages appears not to have a lot to recommend it.  For example, for the majority of women, their lives consisted of unceasing labor, hand-to-mouth existence, a total lack of political representation (although that was not much different than for the majority of men, if they were landless), restrictions of the Catholic Church, societal acceptance of physical abuse, and the very real possibility in dying in childbirth at a young age.

For men, it wasn’t much different, substituting dying in battle for childbirth and you aren’t far off.  Both men and women died of illness and infection, such that the median lifespan during this time was in the middle forties.

But people did live then.  They raised their children, they cared for one another, and it does seem from what has been passed down to us, that they found beauty and pleasure in their lives.

Digging deeper into history, there is far more going on there than simply than the Hobbesian  “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.  (This quote, by the way, has been taken out of context for most of its life.  Hobbes wasn’t describing life in the Middle Ages; he was explaining what life would be life without a strong monarchy.  In his opinion, absolute monarchy was a way to avoid the war of ‘man against man’.)

While a strong central government in England, led by Edward I in the 13th century, did have some affect on averting war within the nation, it led to more wars against other nations, and in Wales in particular, a far less free and materially wealthy existence.

In fact, if you look at the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, the lives of average people, in terms of nutrition, longevity, cleanliness, etc. were on the whole far, far worse, than their lives would have been as peasants in the Middle Ages.

http://www.medieval-life.net/ has a good series of descriptions about different aspects of life in the Middle Ages. For example:

“Medieval villages consisted of a population comprised of mostly of farmers. Houses, barns sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village, which was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures. Medieval society depended on the village for protection and a majority of people during these centuries called a village home. Most were born, toiled, married, had children and later died within the village, rarely venturing beyond its boundaries.

Common enterprise was the key to a village’s survival. Some villages were temporary, and the society would move on if the land proved infertile or weather made life too difficult. Other villages continued to exist for centuries. Every village had a lord, even if he didn’t make it his permanent residence, and after the 1100’s castles often dominated the village landscape. Medieval Europeans may have been unclear of their country’s boundaries, but they knew every stone, tree, road and stream of their village. Neighboring villages would parley to set boundaries that would be set out in village charters.

Medieval peasants were either classified as free men or as “villeins,” those who owed heavy labor service to a lord, were bound to the land, and subject to feudal dues. Village life was busy for both classes, and for women as well as men. Much of this harsh life was lived outdoors, wearing simple dress and subsisting on a meager diet.

Village life would change from outside influences with market pressures and new landlords. As the centuries passed, more and more found themselves drawn to larger cities. Yet modern Europe owes much to these early medieval villages.”

http://www.learner.org/interactives/middleages/feudal.html is another good site. Much of this is oversimplified and specifically related to the Feudal system, which was not uniform across Europe. The differences between what went on in France verses Wales, for example, are very great.

Welsh people were not farmers but herders, had fewer villages, and land ownership was more egalitarian:

“Wales in the Age of the Princes was not a primitive society.

There were three main social groups: the uchelwyr – the upper class, thebonheddwyr – the freemen and the taeogion – the unfree peasants. Each group had its role in society.

The taeogion (villeins) lived in compact villages in the fertile lowlands. Organised by the maer y biswail (the mayor of the dunghill), they supplied the needs of the princely court. They also had to do farm work for the prince each year. Tied to the land, they could not leave their own village. Their arable crops were vital for Wales. Edward I realised this and, in his 1277 invasion, his forces quickly took Anglesey and seized the grain harvest.

The lowlands were linked to the hills economically. Farming communities moved from the hendref, their main settlement in the lowlands, to the hafodwith its upland pastures each summer. The upland farmers were generally bonheddwyr (freemen) who lived in kinship groups, each looking after its owngwely (clan land). They performed military service for the prince, but did not do menial tasks like the taeogion. The upland farms were also vital to Wales. They enabled the Welsh to keep their economic and political independence when the Marcher lords occupied the fertile lowlands.

While the traditional view is that the Welsh were not an urban people, over 80 towns were established in the period 1100-1300. Towns did develop more in the Marcher lordships because these areas were richer, but the Welsh princes also encouraged the development of towns, often near their castles. Trade increased in tandem with these new towns and Wales exported primary goods like cattle, skins, fleeces and cheese. Imports included necessities like salt, wheat and iron, but reliance on these imports would be a weakness against an aggressive King of England.”  http://www.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/medieval_exhibition/life_in_wales.htm


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