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During much of the early Medieval period, foreign invasions were very common. Kings began to lose their power because they could no longer protect their people from the Vikings who destroyed everything in their path.
This led to many economical and social problems which were firstly addressed in Normandy when the first settlers arrived during the X century. Their fear was enormous and so was their courage for they devised a way to effectively diminish Vikings and other invaders which seemed to be possessing most of Europe. This received the name of "Feudalism" in which the king appointed a lord to take care of his land. The lord then appointed many knights or nobles to possess the land he firstly acquired from his king by distributing it equally among them. They in turn used serfs to work the land. This is all better illustrated in the following picture:
As it can be noted, it was kings who received most of the pay whilst the serfs (bottom) worked almost all day long and were subject to heavy taxes which were later deposited in the royal treasury.
Serfs were very numerous and constituted a strong percentage of the medieval population. Knights were much more rare to find and lords were much more important and far between. Of course there was only one king who was supreme in the feudalism.
Feudalism began to decline after the XIII century when foreign invasions were not as frequent and economy began to change. Merchants became much more important and most lords who would previously work land, began to trade goods which rendered feudalism obsolete. Nevertheless, this didn't occur completely in England until the midst of the XVI century and in France it lasted until the late XVIII century.
-1 Day of Being a Peasant (serf)
-Brief Insigh into Medieval Life
It was common to devise new ways to fish as much as possible in the lowest amount of time. Many discoveries were henceforth done during the Medieval Times including the rod, which had existed previously in China, but was not as advanced as during the Middle Ages.
Obviously, the most common way to fish was simply with a hook and line because of its simplicity. As time passed, nets grew in popularity until a very important percentage of fish was caught with nets. They consisted of a very simple principle in which a net was placed in a river and many men had to lift it up with as many fish as possible.
Sicily had the best fish which were widely caught. It was there where most fishing progress happened and where the use of fishing spears to catch bigger fish was more common.
Medieval castles were frequently built near a lake or river to make fishing easier for the castle's inhabitants.
Fishing as a hobby was though rare, existent. There are many records of kings sailing in a ship with the sole purpose to fish big and exotic creatures.
Medieval people were skeptical (and sometimes even scared) when fishing in the sea because it was said that enormous and deadly creatures inhabited it.
6:00 AM - Roosters would wake most villagers up. At this time, most peasants started they daily activities normally by dressing and eating breakfast. A peasant's breakfast consisted of mostly vegetables, water, fruits and bread.
7:00 AM - The castle's bells would ring (if any) and serfs were required to start work at this time.In winter, peasants were most likely to wake up until 8 AM.
8:00 AM - Work continued, There were not many interludes for serfs; in the other hand, free peasants; could have many breaks.
9:00 AM - Work for serfs continued; they were not allowed to drink or eat anything in the farms, but nevertheless; most of them managed to contraband goods such as water. Peasants would farm a lot as well, but serfs were the true workers.
10:00 AM - The first interlude for serfs. When a noble was generous, he'd let the serfs rest for up to half an hour at this time. Draconian nobles would impose rules against resting.
11:00 AM - Labor was at its peak. Peasants were required to work and work at this time. In the interim, nobles were usually riding their horses or taking care of business. Most nobles would live out of the work of their serfs.
12:00 AM - Serfs continued working.
1:00 PM - Serfs would be normally given a time-off at this time since the sun would burn them otherwise. Farms were very hot places in which the sun was strong enough to make very painful burns. Serfs usually died at an early age--we can deduce that cancer had a lot to do with that (but we can't be sure).
2:00 PM - Work at farms continued. Children were usually playing in the gardens or farming as well. Their mothers spent a great amount of time at home--preparing food, teaching their kids new knowledge and doing house-work. Nevertheless, a women could also be a serf; thus some of them worked many hours at the farms.
3:00 PM - Work continued.
4:00 PM - This was the official resting time. Nobles would normally have glorious feasts with more food than a serf would see in a month. Serfs usually ate bread, vegetables and water. Under good circumstances, they had meat (usually in holidays).
5:00 PM - Serfs were required to return to work.
6:00 PM - Work continued.
7:00 PM - Work for serfs continued.
8:00 PM - Labor usually finished for the day. Serfs were paid a very small amount of money; from which, they were required to pay a lot of taxes.
9:00 PM - Serf's dinner.
10:00 PM - Serfs would often go to sleep at this time. In the meantime, at the castle, nobles would be having another feast. Dinner was their favorite meal and castles were full of servants to provide nobles with whatever they wanted.
The Middle Ages was a period of glory for some--and misery for others.
Castles were cold. There was a very dim room in which children could run or in which adults could do their daily activities. Everything was based on hope. Churches were a main component for castles since what everyone needed was faith in a greater being. The intermittent happiness was just another promise of God. Everything happened because God wanted it to. Science wasn't allowed and henceforth, scientists were killed and tortured and most people were very skeptical about their fate.
Those were the Middle Ages. A period of fear and coldness in which only the upper classes could be happy, wars were fought by ambitious leaders who sought glory and caused improvements to be halted. Being a knight was the highest rank available that a regular person could hope for. Fighting for God in a Christian army was the best thing that could happen to a person.
The crusades were a period in which normal life was changed. Castles were virtually left full of women and children only because most men went to the Holy Land. At home, children dreamt of going to war as well; hence the children's crusade.
Castles had loneliness in them. Only a small portion of heat ever reached the inhabitants in the afternoon, who could only live and wait. There was not much to do because of the continuous threats of invasions. Everyone had to stay close to the castle--or death could strike at any given time.
Normally small rooms were assigned to castle inhabitants. They were very small, but they had everything that one needed in order to survive.
Entertainment was reserved mostly for the nobles who enjoyed hunting, playing chess and celebrating.
During times of war, the castle turnead from bad to worse for food supplies were scarce and plague was very frequent because of the continuous rotting projectiles sent at the defending army.
At last, life during the Middle Ages was very hard but it was sometimes pleasant as well. For peasants it was very hard for they could hardly hope to achieve a better ranking at any time during their lifetime.
Education was very poor inside a castle; nevertheless, it gradually improved and eventually universities and other educational facilities began appearing throughout Europe.
The Castle's Surroundings had an enormous importance because farms were normally there. Additionally, during the day, the gatehouse was open so kids were to play outside if they wanted to.
Women had a very important role in medieval society because they took care of the children and prepared food for men who frequently trained in order to defend his family.
In the Medieval Times, there wasn't much knowledge regarding ways of preserving food. Salt was the most common preservative used since it could easily make meat and fish last much longer. Other techniques, such as curing meat, were employed as well. Nevertheless, having too much food could mean spoilage; not having enough, meant almost invariantly, death,
Even though larger castles counted with a well and farming land in the inside, the smaller ones were much more affected by a siege; when the defenders drank all their water, they would often drink each other's urine. When their urine was over and the situation was very bad, they would drink their horse's blood; lasting a few more days.
When the food supplies were scarce, daily rations were severely decreased consisting of bread and water. Hunting mice and birds was a common practice during a siege since they were numerous and an ideal way to supplement their shortage in food.
Even though salt was very effective for meat, vegetables and fruits would spoil very fast. Many castles considered this and planted hundreds of trees inside their very own walls.
The attackers frequently sent a spy towards the inner castle, giving him a very strong venom to poison the food; if successful, the battle would come to an abrupt end.
Health was a major concern during the Dark Ages as it was not good at all. Many babies died because of the lack of knowledge and proper equipment. This was the case for both the rich and the poor - which both suffered because of the improper knowledge given at the time.
It shall be noted that there were many different social classes. In the Medieval Times, nobles were a minority, they were very few but they possessed almost all the land. They had many vassals who defended their lords in exchange for fief.
Serfs were a majority of people. They were quasi-free peasants who had to work a designed land for his or her patron. This illustrates the hierarchy of those times:
This system of protection came to be known as "Feudalism." It played an enormous role in the life--and death--of medieval people. In times of peace, serfs would work the land. The goods produced would be given to his or her patron (the vassals). A small tax would then be paid to the lords, who would in turn pay another tax to their king.
This helped everyone. Lords gave land to their vassals, who protected everyone else. Feudalism was the most common way of living in the Dark Ages. Serfs were normally subject to very hard labor; including more than 12 hours of work each day.
Inside a castle, life and work was very different. It is a popular belief that during the Dark Ages, there wasn't art nor science. This is a conspicuous misconception. During times of peace; writers, painters, artisans, alchemists, bowyers; worked very hard inside their workshops. Alchemists in especial, dramatically improved our modern conception of Chemistry.
Since feudalism was very efficient at providing food at a massive level inside a castle; life was much different than on the outside. Women were supposed to be housekeepers; they normally taught their children all they needed to know in their earlier years; until they either found a tutor, or joined the army (normally at the age of 16).
Men had a very big array of job options at their disposal. Chefs, guards, farmers, soldiers were some of the most common jobs. A member of the middle class, was paid a wage which paid for his neccessities and more.
However, not everything was nice in the Medieval Times. Torture devises, plague, deaths, invading armies; were some of the most common causes of medieval discomfort. The church had an immense power over the citizens. The clergy controlled a vast percentage of the lands and people. Torture was a very common way to punish blasphemers and other religious offenders.
Plague was another major concern. Approximately every 100 years, there was a plague that would devastate whole towns and castles. Minor plagues were also frequent; killing thousands. Many laws were passed to improve a castle's sanity, building reservoirs and a good clean-up of specific areas such as a castle's kitchen.
Undoubtedly, what peasants feared the most was the threat of an invasion. The whole purpose of a castle was to stop this from happening, but when it happened; peasants would be stuck inside a castle for months. Serfs were brought inside the castle, making it very uncomfortable for the upper classes. When a castle was defeated, there were two possible outcomes:
1) The invaders took prisoners and later released them.
2) The interlopers killed everyone inside the castle, abusing women and children.
This was a major concern; and the reason for a castle's enormous walls.
Everything was based on life and hope. Faith and religion were the most basic beliefs. Everyone was sure about God's omnipotence. Nobody ever doubted in God and that's what marked medieval life. A struggle between the unconscious of men to decide true happiness was ensued.
Not everything was bad, however. Medieval villagers sought ways to be entertained - most notably the elderly, who made many stories based on popular folklore.
A person was on average slightly shorter than today. During the XII century, taller people lived but this declined slowly in the following centuries until the XVIII century when the shortest people of the millennium existed. The reason is debated, though some believe that food and plague contributed to this phenomenon.
A recent study based on twins shows that 90% of a person's height is inherited whilst the 10% is based purely in environmental factors. While this difference might seem minor at a first glance, it is to be considered that a person who should have been 6' would be only 5'3. This makes evident that if medieval people had had a good nutrition, they would be as tall as we are today.
There are records of many dwarfs during the Middle Ages. This was surprisingly more common among nobles probably because of family members marrying each other. More notoriously is the case of a British king who was so short that his throne had to be shortened especially for him. Of course there is no evidence to support this and it may simply be a myth - but, the fact that many dwarfs existed is well documented.
However, height did play a major role among warriors who were chosen based mostly on their height. A short knight was very rare or almost unheard of since he, when young, was chosen based on many factors in which height was fundamental. To learn more about knights, read the medieval knighthood article.
Height is a very reliable way to determine a place's economy. Many historians today measure skeletons and based on the acquired data they know how life was in that given place. The shorter the people (compared to today's average), the poorer - the taller, the richer.
Britons were on average 5'8 in the XI century. Today they average 5'9 so even though there is a difference, it's minimal and one should note that our genes (height) are the same but nutrition is different.
Unfortunately for medieval students, universities were as violent in the inside as it was violent outside. The Oxford university itself had many rules which explicitly forbid students from bringing any "mortal weapons" into class - such weapons included swords and bows.
After the first universities were built, education boomed in most of Europe. This, of course, led to many scientific discoveries and better doctors. Health was severely improved as I discussed in my Medieval Health article.
Some jewelry had religious meaning and precious stones were looked religiously by some people.
Silver was mainly produced in medieval Europe. Its production continued steadily throughout the Middle Ages and silver was even used to make coins until gold was introduced in the XIII century in France, England and Italy.
Some gold was recycled from older coins and jewels, but the vast majority of the gold used by the goldsmiths came from trade or mining. Both Hungary and Bohemia did provide medieval Europe with a lot of gold which came from mining. Additionally, panning did also happen (looking for gold in a river by filtering other materials) which was mostly done in the Rhine area.
With the discovery of America, much more gold was brought to Europe. Nevertheless, this happened after the Dark Ages. However, in the early Middle Ages, most jewelry was imported from many countries.
Diamonds were imported from India and Central Africa which had a vast production of this metal. Nevertheless, diamonds were not given as much value as they are given today because they were somewhat ignored. What people were after the most was gold because finding it meant almost invariantly a lot of wealth (as coins were made of gold).
Egypt was also a major provider of jewelry and precious materials. Some old jewelry was also imported from Egypt which dated as back as the time of the pharaos. Infortunately, we will never know because most of this gold was melted by goldsmiths.
The Middle East also played a very important role in the exportation of jewelry. When medieval Europe was at piece with the Middle East, many trades were sure to take place. Additionally, during the Crusades, a lot of jewelry was stolen from Jerusalem and other towns. This was also brought to Europe.
Kings wore many jewels made of precious materials. For this reason, jewelry was looked up to the higher social classes and this tradition still remains today when having a diamond or gold makes one look wealthier and overal better.
Gold continued to be the major trade resource in the Middle Ages.
Goldsmithing was very important. So important that in Paris alone there were over 115 goldsmiths in the XII century according to a tax report dating from that same year.
The Black Death itself had a massive impact in the trade of gold. This was caused because of economical instability and the death itself of many goldsmithers and even more clients and traders. This however, changed by the Fifteenth century when gold was as powerful as it had been before the Black Death.
The church frequently hired artisans to make crosses or other religious figures out of gold or other precious materials. It was very common for an abbey or a church to have many of these adornment which turned out to be bad because of robbery. Nevertheless, the pope and the church itself was sure that having previous materials inside a church or even a house meant respect to God. The church did a great job at convincing people of this and thus; gold was even more wanted.
Some weapons were made of precious materials. These weapons were rare, but nevertheless; what was common was to have weapons with adornments showing to which family one belonged to.
For nobles, feasts were a major source of entertainment because food was abundant in them. Even when a castle was being besieged, it has been proved that nobles still had feasts! Of course this was much more frequent during times of peace but nevertheless it did happen.
A feast could be celebrated because of virtually anything. Birthdays, Chritmas, Victories, etc.
Unfortunately for the poor, this was a practice done by nobles mostly and for peasants, they would be lucky if they formed part of a feast once if their lifetime.
A feast could be very expensive depending on the food provided. Sometimes when a rich noble or the king was setting up the feast, foreign food from other countries would be imported to make it different and look better.
After a feast, dancing was very common. Kings would usually invite their guests to a feast and later on to the dancing hall in which countless hours could be spent dancing. This was specially the case with kings such as The Sun King who loved to dance.
The major celebration was marriage because it was formerly a religious ceremony in which it was not only permitted to throw a huge party, but also encouraged.
In the early Medieval Times, for the hunter who killed to survive, education had to be given first. Educating a hunter began when he was only seven years of age. He was then assigned a tutor who taught him basic skills for his trade including fletching, crafting and surviving in the wilderness. When the young hunter was seven, he was appointed to watch and learn from his master while taking care of tools and learning basic concepts. When he was about 16 years of age, he could go hunting alone and later on, if the family was wealthy or the kingdom willing, a ceremony would take place to congratulate him for becoming a new hunter. Before the celebration, he had to attend church for a full day to pray.
Hunting for the aristocracy was not viewed as a way to survive, but as pure entertainment and training. Weapons were different and even crossbows were frequently used. The most commonly used weapon, however was the bow (specially the short bow). Additionally, spears, swords and shields were all used when nobles hunted.
Hunting itself was not a main source of food. Farms brought vast quantities of bread, vegetables and fruits, but it was noted that those who complimented meat with that food would grow healthier. Nobles were those who ate the most meat and the poor hunters, instead of eating the meat for themselves, frequently sold it to the aristocracy in exchange for money to buy cheaper food.
Bows and archers - they are regular bows used for hunting. Sometimes bows varied, but most of the time the bows used for warfare were the bows used for hunting.
Read more about bows in the Archery Article.
Swords - Swords were also used for hunting. They were mainly used for training purposes and to kill animals when already hurt by a projectile.
Spears - Spears were common for hunting as well. They were not as common as swords and bows, but they were frequently employed by the poor since they could be improvised and easily fixed.
For more information about medieval weapons, visit the Medieval Weaponry Article.
Hunting of course was a major source of medieval entertainment. Additionally, hunting was a way of survival for many and during castle siege, hunting was almost always practiced inside a castle since mice and birds could be used as food for the defenders.
A good hunter, of course, was a good soldier as well. Hunting severely increased an archer's accuracy which was necessary for battle. For this reason, many archers were given different tasks by their masters which included the killing of birds with their bows, the hunting of deer and the capture of rare animals.
The implementation of crossbows into hunting changed the way it was done enormously. Even though crossbows were only introduced after the XII century during The First Crusade, they were widely employed afterward.
The church itself banned the use of crossbows at some point because of their effectiveness - hunting was not an exception. Crossbows were so effective at killing an animal that archers who hunted animals were no longer respected by their peers.
The same applies to long bows which were also outstandingly effective against deer. Unfortunately for the lower classes, acquiring a long bow or a crossbow was very expensive and they had to rely on their old bows which had been transmitted down from generation to generation.
The importance of hunting during the Middle Ages is conspicuous in the many paintings made to represent this practice. Of course, they did not view it like we view it today (as a sport). Instead, they thought of it as a way to train themselves and rarely; to survive by providing food to their table.
Hunting is a practice as old as men. Egyptians left many scrolls about correct ways to hunt and so did the Greeks - which were both a great influence for medieval hunting. Of course, a regular hunter could easily kill an animal without any prior knowledge. But nevertheless, the flavor of the meat was different depending on how the animal was killed. An skilled hunter knew this and would kill the animal peacefully in order to avoid a bad flavor.
Horses were a hunter's best friend. They always accompanied them to their hunting activities and when successful, they would also serve them to carry the dead animal hastily. Of course this was also mainly reserved for the upper classes because the poor could by no means afford a horse.
A castle's surroundings on the outside had to be as free of any obstacles as possible. This was made to prevent attackers to take shelter in trees or any other buildings outside of a castle as that could mean a castle's defeat due to the archers inneffectivity against hidden targets.
Additionally, many castles had rivers passing near for water replenishment purposes - a lake was much better, of course!
Inside, things were very different. Castle architects didn't pay much attention to the commodity of the lower classes. In terms of interior landscape, everything was as plain as possible. Of course, this was very difficult to achieve and many stairs passing through the castle were very common.
Castles would very frequently have farming land in the interior in case an invading army besieged it. Wells were also very frequent and so were parks and other social establishments.
Outside, farming was a rule. Farmers would live outside of the castle and during war, they would retreat inside of the castle's safety.
In order to become a doctor after the XV century, one had to study for up to six years in a school. For this reason, doctors began to improve and they were given more importance as medieval people realized that the power of God did exist - but not in everything. Doctors were not the best friends of the church as the church was still antiquate and they believed that everything happened for a reason and doctors were useless.
Of course this was wrong and as the centuries passed, it was proved to be the other way around which was a clear contradiction with what the church had previously said.
In the early Middle Ages, doctors were severely restricted. This was combined with the fact that there was not much information about medicine as the Greek manuscripts containing all that information were in Greek and nobody could understand it. It wasn't until a couple of centuries later when the Arabs translated it into Latin.
Of course this translation led to many mistakes and thus; health was still at stake because of this fact. Additionally, since the Library of Alexandria had been burnt, much information was lost there as well.
In the Dark Ages, medicine was, in a way, just beginning as everything was completely lost. Doctors themselves were very important and many people believed in them.
Doctors used ants to cure patients who cut their skin (instead of stitches). Additionally, a doctor would not have a definite cure for a patient, but the doctor would use whatever cure he thought would work for that specific case. This, of course, led to many deaths but it did help in a way.
Read the Medieval Health article for more information.
Farms back then were small. They normally surrounded a small town which depended in the food produced by these farms so if the farms failed, so the towns. Farms were never property of the peasants - they were property of the lord and he would exchange farming land if he got back taxes in return.
A lord would normally appoint a noble to look after the working peasants. This generally worked very well as a farmer was to work and give tribute to the noble and then the noble tribute to the lord who was the wealthiest of all.
During times of war, farming was halted outside. Fortunately for modern castles, some farming land was kept inside the castle to still produce food. These castles were normally concentric (consisting of many walls) and thus; they were only a minority.
Make sure to read the how were women treated article for additional information.
Famines were disastrous for farmers as they would lose their job and subsequently, there would be almost no food available for the kingdom. There were only a couple of famines - but when they happened, they were very deadly.
Poor peasants could only dream of ever having an ox or horse to help them in their daily tasks. Since an ox was very expensive, villagers would very often cooperate each other to buy one or two oxen for the whole village. They were then shared by everyone as help was needed.
Wine improved fairly as time passed. Firstly, wine was simply made with people jumping on grapes. This didn't change until many centuries later - but what did change was the quality of the wine per se.
Feasts were very common and wine was present in all of them. Besides ceremonies, wine was also used in festivals and special celebrations.
For the lower social classes, wine resulted almost as a prohibited drink because of its cost. Nevertheless, some kings managed to make peasants happy by giving them free wine. This made, of course, everybody happy.
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