Life in the Middle Ages

canstockphoto12009830The Middle Ages, or medieval period, as it is also known, stretches from around 500 AD to 1500 AD, and is divided into the Early, High and Late Middle Ages. The Dragon Archives are set in the High Middle Ages, or in the time period of around 1000 AD to 1300 AD. Although I have tried to keep the book historically accurate, there are some inaccuracies in order to accommodate the story! In typical medieval society, a village such as the one Keira lived in would belong to a feudal lord, and typically only a feudal lord would live in a castle or manor house. Clearly, Aaron Drake is not a typical feudal lord, although he does hold lordship over dragon society.

Society in the Middle Ages was very structured. At the very top of the pile was the monarchy, followed by the nobility. In England, the nobility consisted of dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons. The next class of people were the gentry, landlords who were wealthy enough to not have to do their own work, but who did not have titles. This class also included knights. Knighthood was conferred on someone who had served the realm in some way, and it was not hereditary.Yeoman were the next class, and were typically working landlords who worked their own land, possibly with the help of a few peasant tenants. In the towns and cities, merchants and craftsmen held similar class status to yeomen.

Below all of these were the peasants, who could be free or unfree. Free peasants had access to the law, and were able to move, buy and sell land, and manage their own affairs. Unfree peasants, known as villeins or serfs, performed compulsory labor services in exchange for housing. They were bound to the manor where they were born and needed their lord’s permission to marry and educate their children. They also had no legal rights, and disputes had to be settled by the lord.

The other group of people in medieval society were churchmen. The church too had a social system, with bishops and archbishops filling the upper levels and parish priests and monks closer to the bottom. Men who entered the church, however, had more opportunity to rise within the ranks, and had access to education otherwise denied to them. Often, their housing and food was better than many peasant households. The church also offered opportunities to women that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and many widows and single women found a measure of comfort and security within the church walls that they might not otherwise have known.

The majority of people in the middle ages lived in very simple houses, either one single, large room, where people cooked, ate and slept, or two storeys, with a single room at the bottom where people cooked and ate, and a room above for sleeping, accessed by a ladder or an external staircase. Houses were usually made of wood, with the walls filled with mud, called wattle and daub construction, while the roofs were made of thatch. The windows were small, with only a wooden shutter to keep out the elements – glass windows being completely unattainable. Stone would have been used in the construction of manor houses and castles. Wooden and stone buildings were often whitewashed.

The floors were usually compacted earth, covered with rushes and herbs to keep away bugs and help with the smell. The rushes may have been loose or woven into mats.

Because of the small windows, there wasn’t a lot of natural lighting. Instead, houses were lit by fires, candles and oil lamps. Beeswax candles were expensive, so these were usually only used by the more wealthy. More affordable were tallow candles, made from animal fat, which were smokier, and also had a strong smell. Oil lamps were often small, clay jars or a metal pot with a spout where the wick was placed. Animal fat was the most easily available oil, but olive oil and whale oil were also used, and these burned cleaner and brighter.

Furnishings were sparse, often no more than a trestle table, a few benches or stools and wooden bowls, cups and spoons. Wealthier families may have also had a chest and cupboards. Most people slept on the floor on straw pallets, while those who could afford a bit more luxury would have slept on a straw mattress laid on a simple, wooden bedframe.

The nobility would have far grander accommodations, and lived in a manor house or a fortified castle. Medieval manor houses and castles were built around one large central room called the hall, or great hall. This was typically a long, rectangular room, with high ceilings, windows along the length, and a raised dais at one end for the lord and his family. The hall may be on the ground floor or one storey up, accessed by either an internal or external staircase. Where the great hall was one storey up, there was usually a smaller, low or lesser hall below. The hall was a multi-purpose room where guests were received, business was attended to, petitions were herd, meals were eaten, and where the servants may sleep. The entire household would eat together, with the lord and his family seated on the raised dais, while the servants sat on benches at trestle tables. In the early middle ages, the family would sleep in rooms beyond the hall, separated by a screen or curtain, but by the high – late middle ages, rooms were being built above the great hall to accommodate the family.

The private quarters of the lord and his lady was known as the solar, called such because of its ‘sole’ use (nothing to do with the sun!) Later, the solar would refer to a private sitting chamber, with a separate bed chambers. The solar allowed the head of the household a chance for more privacy. The solar and bedchambers would have had tapestries hung on the walls to help keep in the warmth, and large canopied beds to protect the sleepers from drafts.

The lord of the household had his own personal study, known as a cabinet, where he could conduct small private meetings, or attend to other business. In some countries, the executive government is called the cabinet, which takes its name from the room government officials met with the British monarch.

A boudoir or bower was a private sitting room, exclusively for the use of the lady of the house.

Other rooms found in manor house or castle were the garderobe – basically a small room with a latrine; a pantry, where food was stored; a larder, a cool food storage area; and a buttery, names for the butts of beer stored there. Basically, a buttery was a domestic office, also used for storage of beer butts. Beyond the walls of the main building, but still within the castle grounds, were gatehouses, chapels, storerooms, and cellars.

The Noble Household
The typical noble household included a whole army of servants. Without the modern conveniences that we enjoy today, everything needed to made or done by hand, a slow, labor intensive process. The most senior member of staff was the Steward (or Seneschal), who had the overall responsibility for the management of the household. The Chamberlain looked after the noble family, and had responsibility for the private chambers, while the Master of the Wardrobe had responsibility for clothing and other domestic items. InBound by a Dragon, I have omitted most of these functions for the sake of simplicity. Another senior member of the household was the Marshal who had responsibility for the stables and horses, as well as discipline on the estate. (Maintaining the stable and horses was of vital importance since a lord could be called upon to serve his king in war at a moments notice!) Every noble house also had a chaplain or priest who was responsible for the spiritual welfare of the household.

The pantry, larder, buttery and kitchen each had their own staff, including dispensers, cupbearers, fruiterers, a slaughterer, baker, brewer, candle maker, sauce cook, poulterer, as well helpers. A cofferer was employed by the chamberlain to look after the silver plate, while the keeper of the wardrobe employed tailors and laundresses.

Stable staff included grooms, smiths, carters and clerks. And of course, there were also personal attendants such as chambermaids, squires, pages and lady’s maids who attended to the personal needs of the noble family.

All classes of people in the middle ages primarily wore clothes made of wool and linen, with varying grades of cloth between the rich and the poor. Fabric was dyed using plant and animal dyes, and although bright, bold dyes were obtainable, they were often brought in from foreign places and tended to be more expensive. Silks and most furs were also expensive (although the peasants made do with rabbit, badger and other local furs), and were worn by the wealthy, although they were usually reserved for special occasions with the more durable wool and linen clothing being used for everyday wear. The most expensive and luxurious fabric was gold cloth, woven from very fine gold wire interwoven with silk.

Of course, in those days, there were no sewing machines and factories, so all clothes were made by hand, either by the wearer, another family member, or by a seamstress or tailor. Clothes were constantly repaired, and were worn until they fell apart. While undergarments were washed regularly, outer layers were washed less frequently, ensuring that the garment would last longer. In wealthy households, clothes would be handed down through the ranks of servants.  Clothing was also passed down in wills.

Women’s Clothing
In the Early Middle Ages, men and women’s clothing did not differ a great deal. It was only in the High Middle Ages that women’s fashions started to adapt to flatter their figures. Throughout the middle ages and beyond, all women wore a linen chemise. This was a loose, wide fitting garment, which laced around the neck. It reached down below the knee, but not as far as the ankle, and could be long sleeved or short sleeved

A kirtle was a gown worn over the chemise. It could vary from the simple to the elaborate. It could be done up with laces, in the front, side or back, or with buttons. A laced kirtle was often worn with an outer surcoat. In Bound by a Dragon, I have used the term kirtle to signify a simpler gown, and gown for a more elaborate dress. The kirtle was form-fitting, with a wider, flaring skirt. The flaring sleeves were a style of the later medieval period. A decorative belt, worn low on the hips, was often worn around the waist. In the Late Middle Ages, it became fashionable to wear a sleeveless kirtle, with a long sleeve chemise beneath, but this was only worn by the more daring as it was condemned in many quarters for displaying the undergarments.

Woolen cloaks and capes were worn over the kirtle in inclement weather. Another form of outer wear was the surcoat, a close fitting, sleeveless garment worn over a gown.

Knee high stockings were worn under the gown, with laces or garters holding them in place. Shoes were made of leather, pointed at the toe, while slippers were worn indoors. Wooden pattens, which strapped to the underside of the shoe, were used for walking through muddy streets.

Head covering were commonly worn by both the rich and poor. In Bound by a Dragon, Keira is seen to wear her hair and loose and uncovered, however, as a married woman, this would not have been considered acceptable. In fact, it was a punishable offence for a man to knock a woman’s headdress off in public. Veils were a common form of headdress, and later the barbette, which was a band of cloth that wrapped around the top of the head, over the ears and under the chin. When worn with the the wimple and veil, only the face was exposed, with the head, throat and neck completely covered. Later headdresses became more and more elaborate.

Men’s Clothing
The tunic was the most item of clothing for men during the Middle Ages. This was basically a T-shaped garment that was pulled over the head, and worn with a belt. Beneath the tunic, a man would wear an undertunic or shirt, which stretched down as far as the knees, but becoming shorter as the middle ages progressed. Beneath the tunic a man would wear stockings or hose which reached mid thigh. A man might wear linen breeches or undershorts under his tunic.

A doublet was first worn in the High to Late Middle Ages. This was a tight fitting jacket, fastened down the front with buttons. (The skirted doublet only made an appearance during the Renaissance.)

Cloaks were made of thick wool and were fastened under the chin with laces if you were poorer, or a broach. A cloak protected the wearer from the cold and damp.

Similar to women, men wore shoes of leather with pointed toes. High leather boots were not common, and were worn primarily by the nobility and soldiers.

Although people in the Middle Ages did not have easy access to refrigeration and freezing like we do today, there are many ways of preserving food, including salting, both wet and dry, smoking and drying. (And no, sauces were not used to disguise the taste of rotting meat!) Salt was naturally very important throughout history, as it was used for far more than just flavoring the food. (Roman soldiers received part of their pay in salt, from which we get the word ‘salary’). Cane sugar was not available in medieval Europe, instead honey and syrup made from fruits was used to sweeten foods.

During the Early and High Middle Ages, the entire household typically ate meals together. There were only two meals a day, although the working classes would usually eat something small, such as a piece of bread, when they first arose and before they started working. The first meal, called dinner, was served at around 11 a.m. and was the larger meal, with numerous courses. A second meal was served in the late afternoon, called supper.

Most people cultivated their own food as much as possible and bartered when necessary to obtain other items. Chickens and geese were kept for eggs, and where possible, a family would have a cow or goats for milk. Pigs were kept for their meat, and were allowed to forage through forests. Hunting was limited to the nobility, but a feast in a nobleman’s house would include various types of game. For the lower classes, many meals, such as stew, were made in a single pot, conserving fuel and saving time in preparing multiple dishes.

Milk, beer, wine and mead were the usual drinks of the day, and were far safer to drink than water. Milk was usually reserved for children or the infirm, while beer and wine were widely consumed, sometimes watered down. Mead is a drink made by fermenting honey with water, and adding spices. Coffee and tea were not commonly drunk in the middle ages, as these were expensive, imported items.

Social Customs and Entertainment
People in the Middle Ages enjoyed many of the same entertainments we enjoy today – sports, music, dancing, live shows. Examples of sports that would have been enjoyed include football, tennis, swimming, bowling, archery, wrestling, jousting, fishing and hunting. Playing cards first made an appearance in the late middle ages, but was a game initially limited to the nobility, due to the high cost of the hand painted cards. Chess was a very popular game amongst the nobility.

Live entertainments were very popular, and many noble households retained permanent entertainers as part of their household staff. Live entertainment could include story telling – very important in an age when there were few books, and many people, especially amongst the peasantry, were illiterate; troubadours who recited or sang poems, minstrels and musicians, acrobats and actors. Groups of entertainers would travel around the country, where they were welcomed at fairs and festivals or included in other festivities, like weddings.

Dancing was also popular, and the most common dance form was the carol – called this because it was danced to chorale music. Carols were ring dances where dancers held hands and danced in a circle. Another form was when dancers formed a line, winding around the dance floor (think of Loco-Motion!)

Feasting was an important part of medieval life, and with many special days throughout the year – some prescribed by the church, others by social custom – which gave many opportunities for feasting. These included Christmas and Easter, New Year’s Day, Epiphany, May Day, Midsummer’s Day, Harvest, Michaelmas, All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day, along with quite a few others.

A note on marriages. During the Middle Ages, the wedding ceremony was conducted outside the church, on the front porch, followed by a nuptial mass inside the church for the bridal couple. Blue was the traditional color for the wedding gown, not white.

Women in the Middle Ages
Women in the Middle Ages were regarded with far more equality than we often recognize, although there were definitely areas where women were not welcome. There are many examples of powerful women during this time, some of them within the church, others within the ruling classes. It was only the late Middle Ages that the view of women started to change, and restrictions started being placed on the roles women could play within society and the land they could own. Women often carried a large administrative role, especially amongst the nobility and gentry, running large households, and when their husbands were away, managing the estates. Running a large household could probably equate to hotel management and more today – supervising workers, supervising meals, making and administering medicines, arranging marriages, keeping discipline of the staff, making arrangements for visitors, etc. Managing the estates included supervising estate workers, keeping the tenants houses in repair, listening to complaints and administering justice, supervising the renting of lands, overseeing estate discipline.

Within the middle classes, women not only maintained their households, but frequently assisted their husbands in business. In London, during the Middle Ages, no trade was closed to women by law, and women could operate their own businesses. Women could also enter guilds, although they were seldom able to run them. Guild records show that woman were involved in many trades.

Amongst the peasantry, life was hard, especially for women. Women would have run their small households where they cooked for the family, milked the cows, fed the chickens, spun and wove fabric, made clothes, made cheese, and also helped in the fields. Women who didn’t marry could work for their father or brother in return for food and shelter, or hire themselves out as servants, dairy maids, shepherdesses or field workers.

The church was an important part of life during the Middle Ages, being involved in birth, marriages and death, and everything in between. Our modern view of the Roman Catholic church in Europe in the Middle Ages is one of repression and corruption, and within the institution of the church there were certainly examples of this, however, for people living in small towns and villages, church and the belief in God were a part of day to day life. Thanks was given for a new birth, for healing, for spring rains and for the harvest. The church also cared for the sick and helpless, offering shelter and food to those who needed it. In a time when there were no government programs offering social assistance, it was the church that performed this role.

The church was also a place where women who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) get married could find refuge. It provided a place for female intellectuals who could use their abilities within the church, rising with the church hierarchy; as well as the devout.

Ackroyd, Peter, The History of England, Volume 1, Foundation, Macmillan, 2011
Gies, Joseph and Frances, Life in a Medieval Castle, Harper and Row, 1974
Knapp, Pat and von Zell, Monika, Women and Work in the Middle Ages,
Lehmberg, Stanford E. and Meigs, Samantha A., The Peoples of the British Isles: A New History, Lyceum Books, 2009
Newman, Paul B., Daily Life in the Middle Ages, McFarland & Company, 2001