The Middle Ages were a thousand-year period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance in which the foundations of modern European culture were laid. Many consider them a “dark age” of ignorance, but the educational, legal, religious, and social institutions that still influence much of Western culture were created in this period.
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Middle Ages: Feudalism and the Feudal System
The feudal system of the Middle Ages was introduced to England following the invasion and conquest of the country by William I, The Conqueror.
The feudal system had been used in France by the Normans from the time they first settled there in about 900AD. It was a simple, but effective system, where all land was owned by the King. One quarter was kept by the King as his personal property, some was given to the church and the rest was leased out under strict controls.
“Common Knowledge About The Middle Ages That Is Incorrect, Part 1: Why the Middle Ages, Not the Renaissance, Created the Modern World”
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A simple plan showing how the Feudal System works
Middle Ages – The King: Leader of the Feudal System
The King was in complete control under the feudal system (at least nominally). He owned all the land in the country and decided to whom he would lease land. He therefore typically allowed tenants he could trust to lease land from him. However, before they were given any land they had to swear an oath of fealty to the King at all times. The men who leased land from the King were known as Barons, they were wealthy, powerful and had complete control of the land they leased from the King.
Middle Ages – Barons: Executors of the Feudal System
Barons leased land from the King that was known as a manor. They were known as the Lord of the Manor and were in complete control of this land. They established their own system of justice, minted their own money and set their own taxes. In return for the land they had been given by the King, the Barons had to serve on the royal council, pay rent and provide the King with Knights for military service when he demanded it. They also had to provide lodging and food for the King and his court when they travelled around his realm. The Barons kept as much of their land as they wished for their own use, then divided the rest among their Knights. Barons were very rich.
Knights were given land by a Baron in return for military service when demanded by the King. They also had to protect the Baron and his family, as well as the Manor, from attack. The Knights kept as much of the land as they wished for their own personal use and distributed the rest to villeins (serfs). Although not as rich as the Barons, Knights were quite wealthy.
Villeins, sometimes known as serfs, were given land by Knights. They had to provide the Knight with free labour, food and service whenever it was demanded. Villeins had no rights. They were not allowed to leave the Manor and had to ask their Lord’s permission before they could marry. Villeins were poor.
Middle Ages – Crime and Medieval Punishment
Throughout the Middle Ages, it was believed that the only way to keep order was to make sure that the people were scared of the punishments given for crimes committed. For this reason all crimes from stealing to burglary of houses to murder had harsh punishments.
Although there were gaols, they were generally used to hold a prisoner awaiting trial rather than as a means of punishment. Fines, shaming (being placed in stocks), mutilation (cutting off a part of the body) or death were the most common forms of medieval punishment.
There was no police force in the Middle Ages so law-enforcement was in the hands of the community.
Middle Ages – The Manorial Court (Trial by Jury)
The manorial court dealt with all but the most serious crimes. It was held at various intervals during the year, and all villagers had to attend or pay a fine. All men were placed in groups of ten called a tithing. Each tithing had to make sure that no member of their group broke the law. If a member of a tithing broke a law then the other members had to make sure that he went to court.
The Lord’s steward was in charge of the court. A jury of twelve men was chosen by the villagers. The jury had to collect evidence and decide whether the accused was guilty or not guilty and, if found guilty, what the medieval punishment should be.
Middle Ages – The King’s Court (Trial by Ordeal)
Serious crimes were heard by the King’s court. The accused had to face trial by ordeal to decide whether they were guilty or not guilty.
Middle Ages – Ordeal by Fire
The accused had to pick up a red hot iron bar and hold it while they walked three or four paces. Their hand was then bandaged. After three days they had to return to the court where the bandages were removed. If the wound was beginning to heal they were innocent but if the wound showed no sign of healing then they were pronounced Guilty.
Ordeal by Water
The accused had their hands and feet tied together. They were then thrown into water. If they floated they were guilty but if they sank they were innocent.
Ordeal by Combat
Noblemen would fight (usually to the death) in combat with their accuser. The winner of the battle would be considered to be in the right. After 1215 Trial by Ordeal was replaced by Trial by Jury
The only type of medieval house that survive today are those of the wealthy. They have survived because they were made out of stone.
Middle Ages – The Medieval House in the Early Middle Ages – Noblemen and Women
This medieval cottage from the thirteenth century, has been reconstructed by the Weald and Downland Museum, Sussex, England. It was inhabited by the Lord of the Manor, his family and servants.
It has two rooms, one containing the hearth that would have been the main living area. The other room contains a stone oven.
The house would have been very dark and smoky inside as there is no chimney and only a small window.
The animals would have been housed in a separate building, probably a wooden barn, and another building would have been used to store crops which were grown on the land around the house.
The Medieval House in the Later Middle Ages – Noblemen and Women
In the later medieval period the houses of the rich were made out of brick. However, brick was very expensive so many chose to make the half-timbered houses that are now commonly referred to as Tudor houses.
Tiles were used on the roofs and some had chimneys and glass in the windows.
These houses had two or more floors and the servants slept upstairs.
The Medieval House in the Early Middle Ages – Peasants
Peasants’ houses from this period have not survived because they were made out of sticks, straw and mud.
They were one-roomed houses which the family shared with the animals.
They made their houses themselves because they could not afford to pay someone to build them.
The simplest houses were made out of sticks and straw.
Picture MacDonald Educational 1977
Later Middle Ages – Peasants
The Black Death of 1348 killed a large number of the peasant population. This meant that there were not enough peasants to work in the fields. Landowners desperate for workers to harvest their crops began offering wages to anyone who would work on their land. Peasants were, for the first time, able to offer their services to the landowner that would pay the highest wage.
With more money, peasants were able to afford better housing and many now lived in wattle and daub houses.
Wattle and Daub houses were taller and wider than the simple stick and straw houses. They also offered better protection from the weather.
They were made by first constructing a framework of timber, then filling in the spaces with wattle (woven twigs). Finally, the twigs were daubed with mud which, when dried, made a hard wall.
Picture MacDonald Educational 1977
Medieval Castle Defense and Assault
The feudal system depended on protecting farms and the countryside, and the key to a kingdom’s defense was its castle. Likewise, taking over a kingdom meant conquering its castles, and doing so was the most challenging aspect of medieval warfare.
The main methods of attacking a Medieval Castle were:
- Battering Rams
Fire was the best way to attack the early Motte and Bailey castles since they were made entirely of wood. The fire might be started by building a bonfire against the outer wooden fence (palisade) or, more usually, by archers shooting fire-arrows into the castle. As the fire spread through the castle those living inside would be forced to leave allowing the attackers to take them prisoner or kill them. This was one of the reasons why Motte and Bailey castles were soon replaced by Stone Keep castles. Fire has little effect on a stone castle.
The thick stone walls of the Stone Keep castles were difficult for men to knock down. Although pickaxes could be used against castles with thinner walls, it would take a very long time to knock a hole through a castle with very thick walls. The battering ram was particularly useful since the weight of several men would be put behind it. This would make it a considerable force that could seriously weaken and possibly destroy doors or walls.
Ladders were used by those attacking a castle to climb over the walls and fight the castle inhabitants within the castle walls. However, ladders had the disadvantage of leaving the man climbing the ladder subject to attack by arrow, boiling water or oil, or by being thrown to the ground if the ladder was pushed away from the wall. To prevent this type of attack the Belfry or Siege Tower was developed.
The Belfry was a large structure on wheels that could be pushed up to the castle walls. Ladders inside the Belfry allowed attackers to climb to the top under cover and get into the castle. Castle owners prevented this type of attack by piling earth up against the castle walls so that the Belfry, which was on wheels, could not be pushed near to the castle.
A variety of catapults or siege engines were developed during the Middle Ages to fire stones, fireballs or other objects such as dead sheep, cattle, or plague victims, at the castle walls or into the castle itself. This type of catapult works by twisting rope as tightly as possible so that it acts like elastic when the arm is released.
A good way of attacking a stone castle was through mining. Attackers would dig a tunnel underground up to the castle walls, under the gatehouse if possible. They would then set a charge and make an explosion which would make the walls crumble and collapse. The advantage of mining was that the attack could not be seen by those living in the castle. However, if those inside the castle were aware that attackers were mining underground, they would often mine from the castle to meet the attackers underground and there would be a sword battle.
Another good way of attacking a stone castle was by placing it under siege. Attackers would surround a castle with both men and catapults so that no one could enter or leave the castle. Sieges could last for months, usually until the inhabitants of the castle ran out of food and were starving. One of the castle owner’s main line of defence against siege was to send all women, children, old, weak and sick people out of the castle. This meant that only those strong enough to fight off attackers remained in the castle and that the food supply would last much longer.
Middle Ages – Medieval Clothing: Making a Statement in the Middle Ages
What you wore depended on who you were in the Middle Ages and your rank in the feudal system.
If you were rich you would probably own a variety of clothes in the latest styles and colors. If you were a poor peasant, you may only own one tunic. Although it was possible to obtain silks and other luxurious materials from abroad, they were very expensive. Most clothing therefore was made out of wool. This meant that clothing in the Middle Ages was itchy, difficult to wash and dry and very hot in the summer.
Medieval Clothing of Noblemen and Women
Early Middle Ages
These pictures (above) show the costume worn in the early Middle Ages by the rich.
The man is wearing a woollen tunic, belted at the waist that has been embroidered around the hem and sleeves. Over this he has a woollen cloak fastened with a brooch.
The man’s wife is wearing a woollen dress, tied at the waist over a white linen underskirt. Over this she has a woollen cloak. Her headdress is made out of linen and is held in place with a headband.
Later Middle Ages
This famous portrait was painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1435 (towards the end of the Middle Ages). It shows a rich nobleman and his wife dressed in the typical fashion of the day.
The man is wearing a fur-trimmed velvet gown over a black padded long shirt that has gold embroidery around the edges. He has black stockings to cover his legs. The large hat is a sign of his wealth.
The man’s wife is wearing a green woollen dress trimmed with cream coloured fur that is belted very high. Underneath the dress she has another dress made out of blue material. Her headdress is made out of fine expensive linen.
Middle Ages – Medieval Clothing of Peasants
Early Middle Ages
The clothing of peasants was basic, practical and not decorated. The man is wearing a short woollen tunic belted at the waist over short woollen trousers. He is wearing a small hat over a woollen cowl and boots on his feet.
The man’s wife is wearing a woollen dress over a woollen underskirt. She has a woollen cowl to protect her head and shoulders and boots on her feet.
Later Middle Ages
This picture, from a painting by Bruegel, shows late medieval peasants enjoying a wedding. They are, therefore, wearing their best clothes, including shoes and hats.
The man is wearing a short woolen jacket over a woolen tunic. He is wearing stockings and shoes on his feet and has a small cap on his head. The man’s partner is wearing a woolen dress over a woolen underskirt. She is also wearing a linen headdress.
Middle Ages – The Medieval Castle: Four Different Types
The medieval castle was the foundation of military defense for nearly a millennium. Kingdoms were caught up in an arms race to build wood and stone structures that were most effective in halting armies on campaign.
After their successful invasion and conquest of England, the Normans began a period of castle building that was to last right through the Middle Ages. Although castles had been built in England since the time of the Romans, they had never been built with such speed or across such a wide area.
This map shows the number of Norman castles built during the reign of William the Conqueror (1066-1087)
Middle Ages – Within an Existing Roman Fortress
The earliest medieval castles built by the Normans were either constructed within an existing Roman Fort or were Motte and Bailey castles. These were soon replaced by Stone Keep castles as they offered better protection from attack. Concentric castles developed during the 12th and 13th Centuries and were virtually impossible to conquer.
Pevensey castle in East Sussex is an example of a Norman Castle built inside an existing Roman Fort.
Middle Ages – Motte and Bailey Castles
Motte and Bailiey castles were the earliest form of medieval castles built completely from scratch by the Normans. As their name suggests they had two parts the Motte and the Bailey.
The Motte was a large hill made of earth on which was built a wooden keep or lookout. The outer edge was then surrounded with a large wooden fence called a palisade.
The Bailey was separated from the Motte by a wooden bridge that could be removed if the Bailey was occupied by enemies. The Bailey was the part of the castle where people lived and animals were kept. A large castle might have more than one Bailey.
To give added protection to the castle, both the Motte and Bailey would be surrounded by a ditch, sometimes filled with water. A drawbridge was used for access to the castle.
Middle Ages – Stone Keep Castle
This type of medieval castle soon replaced the Motte and Bailey castles as it offered a better form of defence. A stone keep was the central feature, with thick walls and few windows. Entrance to the keep was by stone steps leading to the first floor. The kitchens were situated on the ground floor while living quarters were on the upper floors.
The first keeps were rectangular in shape but later ones were often circular. The Stone Keep would be surrounded by a thick stone wall containing turrets for lookouts.
The Bailey was now the area outside the keep but within the outer walls and shelter for animals or craft workshops might be built against the walls. The entire castle might be surrounded by a ditch or moat and entrance to the castle was by drawbridge.
Middle Ages – Concentric Castles
The Concentric castle was developed in the 12th and 13th Centuries and offered the best protection against attack.
The main feature of the concentric medieval castle is its walls. An inner wall built of thick stone with turrets positioned at intervals is then surrounded by an equally thick but lower stone wall. The walls are built at different levels so that archers on the inner walls can fire over the archers on the outer walls.
The space between the two walls was known as the ‘death hole’ for being trapped within the walls would almost certainly result in death for the attacker. The entire castle was then often surrounded with a moat and entry would be across a drawbridge.
Middle Ages – Medieval Farming and the Farming Year
Medieval farming could be summarized as endless work. For a serf on an estate, there was always something that needed doing. Sloth was not tolerated because if the harvest failed, the whole village could face starvation in the winter.
That is not to say that the tasks were monotonous. Medieval farming followed a cycle throughout the year.
Middle Ages – Repairing
Peasants had to make their own houses during the Middle Ages. They used mud and sticks for the floor and walls and the roof was thatched with straw.
Bad weather and high winds would easily damage the houses and it was essential that repairs were carried out as soon as possible. However, because of the vast number of jobs that needed to be done throughout the year, it was often only in the Winter months that the peasants would have time to do proper repairs, the rest of the year they would just patch their houses up.y good it would be difficult to find straw needed.
Wood and twigs were used to make repairs to the walls of the peasant’s houses. They were woven together to make them as strong as possible. The roofs were thatched with straw so if the harvest was not very good it would be difficult to find straw needed.
Middle Ages – Planting
During the late winter and early spring, vegetables were planted in the peasants’ gardens. Later in the year, in April and May, new fruit trees might be planted in the orchard.
Peas, beans and onions were grown in the peasants’ gardens (tofts). These vegetables were used to make a thick type of stew called pottage.
Apple and pear trees were planted in the orchard or in the peasants’ own gardens to provide fruit.
Berry bushes were sometimes also planted to ensure a supply of berries.
Middle Ages – Weaving
Weaving was one of the main Medieval ways of making things. Twigs were woven together to make fences and house walls or baskets and thread was woven into material.
Baskets were often woven out of willow. Willow rods know as ‘withies’ were harvested during the winter months when the leaves had dropped.
The first stage is to weave the base of the basket. Next the upright withies are put in place. Finally withies are woven in and out of the uprights to make the basket.
The willow can also be dyed using natural products such as berries or vegetables.
The wool taken from sheep during shearing was used to make clothes. The first stage was to card the wool to remove any tangles. After that it had to be spun to make it into thread.
Before the invention of the spinning wheel in the 15th Century, wool had to be spun using a drop spindle.
Wool fibres are twisted into thread with one hand and fed onto the spindle where it is wound into one long thread ready to use for weaving cloth.
When the wool had been spun it was then ready to be woven into cloth. A loom was used to hold the threads in place.
Middle Ages – Ploughing
Before the seeds could be planted, land had to be ploughed. Ploughs were shared by the villagers and were pulled by teams of oxen.
The fields were ploughed in the early spring and also in the Autumn after the harvest had been gathered in. The village plough or ploughs were often kept in the church.
As the plough is pulled across the field, the two metal projections dig into the soil and break it up ready for planting.
Middle Ages – Fertilizing
In order to ensure a good harvest and a good crop of vegetables, it was necessary to fertilise the soil before the seeds were sown.
Horse, oxen and pig droppings were collected throughout the year so that there was enough to dig into the fields before the seeds were sown and vegetables planted.
Sometimes, human droppings would also be used.
Middle Ages – Sowing
The sowing of seeds was another important job that had to be done during the Medieval farming year.
Once the fields had been ploughed, seeds had to be scattered into the earth. It was important to spread the seeds evenly so that there was a good crop.
There were no machines to do this job so it had to be done by hand.
Middle Ages – Weeding
As soon as the new seedlings started to grow, weeding was a full-time job. Children, men and women all helped with the weeding.
It was very important to remove weeds from the soil as soon as possible.
Weeds take moisture and goodness from the soil that is needed for the crops if they are to grow into a good harvest.
If the weeds are allowed to grow taller than the crops they will prevent light from getting to the seedlings.
Middle Ages – Pruning
The apple and pear trees that were grown in the orchard had to be pruned each year.
Pruning a fruit tree means cutting away some of the tree’s branches to encourage it to grow more quickly and produce more fruit.
However, pruning needs to be done carefully because cutting too much, or not enough, away can result in either a poor crop or no fruit at all.
Young trees are pruned in April or May, but large, well established trees can be pruned in the winter time when the tree is dormant (not growing).
Middle Ages – Scaring the Birds
Once the seeds had been sown it was very important to make sure that birds did not eat all the seeds. Children as young as three or four would be sent out into the fields. Their job was to run, shout and clap their hands to scare the birds away.
Drums, bells and sticks would also be used to make a noise that would scare the birds.
Middle Ages – Shearing
In June, the sheep that were kept on the common land, were shorn for their wool. There were many more sheep than people in England in the Middle Ages and wool was the most commonly used material for clothing.
Wool was sold at market to merchants who would send English woollen cloth to other European countries.
Because sheep were so important for their wool, it was important to make sure that they were protected from predators such as wolves and dogs.
The job of shepherd would be given to someone who was unable to do hard physical labour.
Middle Ages – Harvesting
There were two harvests during the Medieval farming year. The first was the hay harvest during June. However the main, and busiest, event of the farming calendar was the wheat harvest that took place at the end of the summer during August and September. The Lord of the Manor would often provide food and drink for the peasants to have a festival once the harvest was gathered in.
Harvest Festival, also known as ‘Harvest Home’ is still celebrated today. Everyone had to work long hours during harvest time – from the time that the sun rose in the morning until dark. Men, women and children all worked together to make sure that the harvest was gathered in.
If the harvest was not finished on time then the wheat would be destroyed by the cold and rain and the village was likely to fact starvation.
There were no machines in the Middle Ages and harvesting had to be done by hand using a scythe. It was back breaking work as the peasants were bent double from morning to night, often with only a very short break for lunch.
Middle Ages – Collecting and Gathering
Collecting was an all-year activity. Baskets woven during the Autumn and Winter months were used to collect fresh eggs from the peasants own chickens.
The baskets were also used during the late Summer and Autumn to collect berries from the hedgerows and fruit from the trees planted in the orchard.
Wood for fires had to be collected throughout the year to make sure that a good stock was built up before the cold winter months. The children would be sent to the woods to collect twigs and branches, while the men would use axes to chop down trees for wood.
Some of the wood might be used to repair their houses.
Middle Ages – Tying
As the wheat was harvested it had to be tied into sheaves to dry. This job was often done by women. The sheaves of wheat would then be transported, by horse drawn cart, to a barn for storage.
During harvest time the fields would be full of sheaves of wheat waiting to be transported to the barn for storage.
The carts of wheat were pulled by horses or oxen. This could be a dangerous activity for the driver of the cart because carts were piled high with sheaves of wheat and often toppled over.
Middle Ages – Winnowing
Winnowing is the name given to the process of separating the grain from the chaff (outer casing). However, before winnowing could take place the wheat had to be threshed (beaten) to separate the grain from the stalk.
A sieve was often used to separate the grain from the chaff. The wheat heads were put into the sieve and were then either shaken from side to side or tossed into the air. The chaff would then be blown away by the breeze or, if there was no wind, by another person wafting a sheet.
Once the grain had been separated it could then be milled into flour which was used to make bread.
Middle Ages – Milling
Milling is the name given to the process where grain is turned into flour. In the earliest times this had to be done by hand using a mortar and pestle to grind the grain into flour. However, by the Middle Ages, most towns and villages had a mill.
The cogs that turned the grindstones were initially powered by animals, but during the Middle Ages, animal power was replaced by either wind or water power.
The first record of a windmill in England is a mill in Yorkshire that dated from 1185.
The mill was owned by the lord of the manor and it was his responsibility to make sure that there were enough mills to grind sufficient grain for all his people. The lord also had a say in who used the mill and when and it was forbidden to use any other mill. The lord also charged a fee for the use of his mill.
In the twelfth century, Pope Celestine III stated that the air used by windmills was owned by the church and so a tax must be paid to the church for their use.
Watermills were more reliable than windmills because they did not depend on the weather. However, watermills had to built next to a stream with running water if they were to operate.
Middle Ages – Butchering
In November and December some of the animals had to be butchered to provide meat to eat through the winter. It was also necessary to salt or smoke some of the meat to make sure that it lasted through the winter.
Peasants had to kill their own animals.
Some of the meat would be roasted over a spit and some of it would be preserved for use during the winter months by salting or smoking it.
It was essential that there was a good supply of meat for the winter as there were no vegetables or fruits available.
Middle Ages – Salting and Smoking
It was necessary to salt or smoke some of the meat that was butchered during November and December to make sure that it lasted through the winter.
Some of the meat would be salted to preserve it through the winter. However, salt was very expensive and it was unlikely that the peasants would have had access to much of it.
In Roman times salt had been used as money and the English word salary comes from the latin word for salt.
It was more usual that the peasants would smoke meat to preserve it through the winter.
Peasants lived in one roomed houses and the fire was in the middle of the room. Consequently the room became smoky when the fire was lit. Meat could therefore be smoked by hanging it from the rafters in the roof.
Middle Ages – Digging
There were a variety of digging activities that had to be carried out during the Middle Ages:
Drainage ditches had to be dug to prevent damage to crops by flooding.
Peasants also had to dig their own gardens (tofts) before they could plant vegetables, and if they were not able to hire or borrow a plough they would also have to dig their fields (crofts).
All tools made during the Middle Ages would be made by the blacksmith. Garden and farming tools would be made from wood and iron.
Middle Ages – Medieval Food: From Peasant Porridge to King’s Mutton
Medieval food was often plain due to scarcity of resources and limited trade, but on celebratory occasions among the nobility the food could become decadent. The picture above shows a Norman lord dining in the great hall of his castle or manor house.
His table is set at one end of the great hall and he sits in a high-backed chair. His guests, the priest, two noblemen and his wife, sit on his table while less important people eat sitting on stools or benches at trestle tables lower down the hall.
A knight stands at either end of the table ready to protect his lord from attack. A serving boy offers the lord first choice of the plate of meat. The lord’s guests will be served next and the less important people will get whatever meat remains.
Above the lord’s head, part of the shields bearing his coat of arms can be seen, while at the bottom right corner a flying knife and ball offer evidence that the lord is being entertained by a juggler. The plates used by the Normans were made out of wood. Sometimes they used large slices of day-old bread as plates for the meat and sometimes they ate out of bowls.
Although they had knives and spoons, there were no forks, so people used their fingers a great deal. The lord always ate well, even during winter. Unlike most of the people who lived on his manor, he could afford to buy salt to preserve his meat all the year round. He could also afford pepper to spice tasteless food or food which was beginning to go bad.
Medieval Food for Peasants
The consumables of a peasant was often limited to what came from his farm, since opportunities for trade were extremely limited except if he lived near a large town or city.
The peasants’ main food was a dark bread made out of rye grain. They ate a kind of stew called pottage made from the peas, beans and onions that they grew in their gardens. Their only sweet food was the berries, nuts and honey that they collected from the woods.
Peasants did not eat much meat. Many kept a pig or two but could not often afford to kill one. They could hunt rabbits or hares but might be punished for this by their lord.
The difference in medieval food consumed between peasants and lords can even be seen in the food vocabulary of English today. The lowered status of the defeated English after the French Norman Conquest of 1066 can be seen clearly in the vocabulary of meat. An Anglophone farmer used plain Saxon words for his livestock: cow, pig, sheep, chicken. Any animal eaten by a peasant had the same word used for whether the animal was alive or cooked.
But when these animals were butchered and found their way onto his Norman master’s plate, they acquired French-derived names: beef, pork, mutton.
Middle Ages – The Medieval Manor
The parcel of land leased to a Baron by the King was known as a manor. Under the feudal system, the Baron had complete control of the running of the medieval manor provided he met certain obligations set by the King.
Most of the Barons who were given land by William the Conqueror, following his invasion and conquest of England in 1066, were French. They knew that many Saxons would be hostile to them and so they had to make sure that they could defend themselves. Many chose to build castles on their land and fill them with knights who, under the Feudal System, were bound to protect the Baron and his family. Others established large manor houses.
The church was another central feature of the medieval manor. The religion of the whole of Europe was Roman Catholic and it was law that people went to church on a Sunday. The leading churchmen of the land, Bishops and Archbishops were very wealthy and helped to govern the country. The local priests, however, were much poorer and were often uneducated. It was the priest’s job to look after the sick of the village as well as preaching in the church
The medieval manor house was the home of the Baron. Manor houses were large, reflecting the wealth and status of the Lord. They often comprised several buildings and were mainly self-sufficient, growing their own food and keeping animals in the grounds surrounding the house.
Villeins (serfs, peasants)
The largest amount of land on the medieval manor would be used by the villeins. Their house would be surrounded by a yard called a ‘toft’ and a garden called a ‘croft’. This land would be used for growing crops and vegetables, a percentage of which would be given to a knight as ‘payment’ for their land. Villein’s houses were one-roomed and the family shared the space with the animals.
Middle Ages – Medieval Towns and Villages
The best site for medieval towns or villages
At the time the Domesday Book was compiled in 1087, there were only 18 towns in England with a population of over 2000. Many of these medieval towns were originally Roman towns. But what if you want to establish a new town or village. What things do you have to consider when choosing a site?
It might be a good idea to position your new town or village near an existing castle. Castles are built for defence and contain knights and soldiers trained in weapons. This would give you good protection against raiders and invaders. Merchants also trade goods with castles and you might be able to trade with them as well. This will help to make your town richer and will attract more people to live there.
If there is not a castle nearby then it might be a good idea to position part of your new town or village on some high ground. You would then have a good view of the surrounding area and be able to spot possible attackers in plenty of time to prepare your own defence.
You think you have found the perfect spot for medieval towns, but is there a water supply nearby? Remember, there is no running water. Water has to be fetched each day from a river or stream and your people do not want to have to walk miles for it. A wide stream or river will also help to defend your town as attackers will have to find some way to cross it.
You have found a site with high ground that is near a stream. Your people will want to build themselves somewhere to live. Stone is the best building material for medieval towns as it offers the best protection against both attack and the weather. Having a good supply of stone will also allow you to build a wall around your town for added protection. Stone is also useful for throwing at your attackers and for making weapons.
Much of Britain in the Middle Ages was covered with forest so it should not be too difficult to find a site with a good supply of wood nearby. If there is not a lot of stone your people can make themselves houses from wood. You also need wood to make handles for axes and spears. But the most important thing about wood is that it is needed for making fires. A fire is essential for cooking, heating and for scaring off wild animals.
You have positioned your new town or village near a stream so there should be a good supply of fish. However, your people will not want to eat fish all the time and it is against the religion to eat fish at certain times of the year. You can send hunters out into the forest to catch meat, but you need to grow crops and vegetables as well. It is therefore important that there is some land that can be used for farming.
Planning and designing medieval towns, as we have seen, is a laborious effort.
The 5 Most Painful Medical Treatments of the Middle Ages
Medical treatment in the Middle Ages was quite painful due to the lack of anesthetic and proper medical knowledge of the surgeon. The Middle Ages was a time full of interesting history, rich art, revolutionizing philosophy, epic heroes, and even a bit of magic. However, it was not a very pleasant period to be a medical patient. The common way to relieve pain amongst sick people was to inflict more pain upon them, and then hope to the stars for a bit of luck. Monks with little to no experience, aside from castrating animals and having access to a few medical books, performed surgery on human beings. The medicine was basic, and the terrible illness that plagued those times was complex. Ultimately, this led to the creation of some very excruciating medical treatments.
1. Eye Surgery
During the early days of the Middle Ages, surgeons used a painful process called “Needling” to perform cataract surgery. It involved a thick flat needle, which a doctor would push directly into the edge of a person’s cornea, with no anesthetics, except for maybe a cup of bitter red wine.
The idea behind this technique was to push the opaque lens back into the lowest part of the eye, which would result in a clear pupil. However, the ailing patient was typically left with an unfocused eye, sort of like a camera with no lens. The amount of vision would only allow a person to read the huge letters found in modern eye tests. Not enough to read the Bible, but enough to plow a field.
2. Metallic Catheters
Catheters were used in the Middle Ages to relieve painful urinary diseases. Back in those days, there was a lack of antibiotics and a surplus of venereal viruses such as syphilis, so many people suffered from the woes of blocked bladders. The medieval catheter consisted of a metal tube, which was painfully inserted through the urethra, and then into the bladder. When a tube could not enter the bladder of a person, doctors used other equally painful tactics.
Common kidney stone treatment consisted of a physician’s assistant sitting on top of you, while you had your legs strapped to your neck. As the assistant held you tightly, the physician would then insert two fingers up your rectum, and press a fist against your pubes until he found a hard pellet that would signal a stone. The stone was then extracted through a person’s bladder using a sharp instrument.
If you visited a doctor during the Middle Ages, regardless of your illness, he would have probably prescribed you with the classic bloodletting treatment. Bloodletting was as common back then as cold medicine is today. If a patient went in with a mild headache and a sore throat, it was common practice for a physician to open a vein with a lancet, and then let the blood flow freely into a container. Bloodletting was so common, that even barbers of the era began to offer the service, along with stylish trims and shaves. Some people would have the treatment several times a year, as a way of staying healthy.
4. Saint Fiacre’s Illness
St. Fiacre is known as the “patron of hemorrhoids.” The tale says that St. Fiacre, a seventh century Irish monk who suffered from the disease, sat on a hard rock and was miraculously cured of his illness. After that, the rock became known as St. Fiacre’s Rock. Some medieval doctors who believed in the tale would send their patients to sit on the famous rock for a few hours to cure themselves of the disease.
As a useless treatment, however, it was not nearly as painful as what other less superstitious doctors prescribed their patients. The more scientific monks would insert a red-hot iron tube up the person’s rectum and then call it a day.
Trepanning is a surgical procedure that involves the drilling or boring of a hole into the human skull. This painful hole exposes the dura mater, an outer membrane of the brain, which physicians use to treat an array of different health problems.
Doctors used this practice in the Middle Ages to treat illnesses like epilepsy, migraines, and a variety of mental disorders. If you were suffering from depression, a little hole to the head was in order. Unfortunately, the hole to the head commonly exposed the brain to airborne germs, and it often proved fatal for patients.
Middle Ages – The Bubonic Plague
The Black Death, also often called the “bubonic plague” was an epidemic of disastrous proportions that is said to have killed up to 50% of the European population in the 1300’s and around 12 million people in China in the 1800s.. According to historians, the Black Death came from the East (Either China or Mongolia) and reach Italy in 1348, during the spring. So many centuries later, it is hard to determine the exact cause of death, which is why several theories exist. The most widely adapted theory is that it was caused by rats, but other theories claim that it may have been a viral infection.
Middle Ages – Bubonic Plague
According to the “bubonic plague” theory, the disease was a bacterium, Yersina pestis spread by fleas that lived on infected black rats, which typically live in close proximity to humans. Once a colony of rats has been killed off due to the disease, starving fleas would jump over on humans. Symptoms are flu-like, with headache, fever, weakness and swollen lymph glands or “bubos,” hence the name “bubonic.” Humans would show their first symptoms three days after infection and 80% of those died within five days after onset. The Bubonic plague still exists in pockets today, but thanks to modern medicine, only 1 out of 7 of those that become infected die. The fact that the Black Death claimed larger portions in the population in the countryside than in urban areas supports the fact that it was spread by fleas.
Middle Ages – Pneumonic Plague
According to some scholars, the Black Death spread so quickly because the bacterium causing it has become airborne. In some cases, the infection would spread to the lungs, resulting in pneumonia. The victim would start coughing up blood, making transmission of the bacterium airborne, allowing it to spread much faster than fleas.
Middle Ages – Ebola or Other Deadly Virus
According to some scholars, the Black Death’s spread was way too fast to have been caused by fleas and that it could have been caused by an Ebola-like disease. It has a lot of symptoms in common with Ebola and the period between the first person infected person dying and the rest of the population becoming sick, shares similarities with the incubation period of the disease. The sores or “bubos” people got, could have been hemorrhagic fever and according to medical journals of the time, quarantining families that were infected for 40 days was very effective in stopping the disease from spreading. This would not have been the case if it was spread by rats and fleas.
Until science can effectively detect a certain virus or bacterium in the skeletons of people who have lived centuries ago, we may not know the exact cause of the Black Death. History howeve gives us a cautionary tale of how easily infectious illnesses can spread in large populations if care is not taken to eradicate them quickly and efficiently.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about The Normans. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to The Normans.
Medieval Guilds – Gloria Betcher
Medieval Life in the Hundred Years’ War – DENO Partnership
Medieval Life – Medieval Life Net
Medieval Studies– Online Reference Book
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