10 Facts You Didn’t Know About Medieval Life

Medieval Life

Published on May 24th, 2019

Do you know what Medieval life was like? You’ll probably be surprised about the truth! Here are 10 surprising facts about the Medieval period.

You might think of knights in shining armor when you think of the medieval period. Or you might think of Tudor kings and pageants.

Historians disagree about the timing of the medieval period. But it largely begins in 476 and lasts to 1485. Also known as the Middle Ages, the period ends when the Renaissance starts.

Interested in medieval life? Read on to learn 10 new facts about it!

1. You Could Be More Than A Peasant Or A Knight

  • Many people assume you were either a serf or a knight. That was true – until about 1100.
  • Across Europe, towns and cities grew during the 12th century. They often had the kind of job distribution we might recognize.
  • Think of bakers, butchers, booksellers, popular artists, etc.
  • Meanwhile, lots of peasants owned their own land. This meant they couldn’t be serfs.
  • True, there were still men tied to the land they worked on. But they often had the same opportunities as free men.


2. People Held Elections

  • We often think of voting as a modern phenomenon. But people in the Middle Ages loved elections.
  • Bishops and mayors were among those they could vote into office.
  • In some cases, people even voted for kings. We often think of succession being a simple father to son process.
  • That only happened smoothly in England in 1087 and 1189. Normally, rivals disputed the throne.
  • Where disputes happened, elections made it easier to solve the problem of who would rule.
  • Only the nobles could vote. And people usually only voted on a local level.


3. Travel Was A Big Part Of Medieval Life

  • It’s easy to think people were born, grew up, and died in the same village. In some cases, that’s true. But not always.
  • Many people did travel. Some went on a pilgrimage.
  • Others had to travel as part of their trade. Europe imported silk, spices, and other luxury goods from Asia and the Middle East.
  • One volume, Journey to the Eastern Parts of the World, dates to a 1253 journey. William of Rubruck traveled across Russia and Ukraine across three years.


4. Plague Was A Big Killer (But People Didn’t Help)

  • The Black Death, or plague, was one of the biggest killers in the Middle Ages. It killed around 60 percent of the population of Europe.
  • People didn’t know what spread the disease. They didn’t realize fleas that lived on rodents carried the plague.
  • Many people killed stray cats and dogs, thinking it would stop the spread. Both animals could have helped keep the rodents under control.


5. A Medieval Document Forms A National Constitution

  • Unlike many countries, the United Kingdom has no formal written constitution. Instead, it has a collection of laws and the Magna Carta.
  • Signed by King John I in 1215, the Magna Carta was originally a peace treaty. It was drawn up to heal divisions between the king and his barons.
  • But it now forms the spiritual core of the English legal system. The right to trial by jury comes from the 39th clause of the Magna Carta.


6. They Enjoyed An Early Form Of Flushing Toilet

  • We sometimes think of medieval life as being dirty. And it’s true they didn’t enjoy the same level of cleanliness or hygiene as us.
  • They certainly weren’t as clean as the Romans, with their baths and underfloor heating. Pay a visit to the Roman Forum to see some of their fantastic engineering. Click here to learn more about tours.
  • But some monasteries did build their toilets (known as garderobes) above streams. If a stream didn’t exist, sometimes they built a special watercourse for flowing water.
  • This water would carry away the ‘deposits’ they made above!


7. Wool Was Worth A Small Fortune

  • We might think of wool as being a fluffy but otherwise unremarkable material. In medieval England, wool formed the backbone of the country’s prosperity.
  • Wool merchants could grow very rich, exporting both wool and later, woolen cloth. They created trade routes to get wool from the countryside to the ports.
  • New inventions, like better looms and mills, meant England could make woolen cloth on a huge scale.
  • This made English wool the most fashionable material to wear in the Middle Ages.
  • When Richard the Lionheart was captured, the country’s nobles paid part of the ransom in wool.


8. Books Weren’t Made Of Paper

  • Between newspapers, magazines, books, and the internet, we have plenty to read. Those in the Middle Ages didn’t have so much choice.
  • For much of the medieval period, monks wrote books by hand. They weren’t made of paper as ours are. Instead, they scraped animal skins to create a material called vellum.
  • They wrote on vellum pages and ‘illuminated’ these manuscripts with beautiful illustrations. The fact they used vellum instead of paper is one of the reasons why these books survived.
  • The printing press was invented in Germany in the early 15th century. William Caxton brought it to England in 1476 and started a printing revolution.


9. People Didn’t Have Weddings To Get Married

  • Banish the image of big white weddings from your mind. Medieval marriages were much more straightforward.
  • All a couple needed to do was declare they wanted to marry. They also needed witnesses to make sure neither changed their mind later.
  • The church liked couples to get married in church. If couples wanted an ‘official’ marriage, they’d be blessed at the churchyard gate. But in reality, the process was much easier.


10. Spectacles Even Existed

  • Nowadays, people with poor sight can choose contact lenses or glasses to help them see. Surprisingly, medieval people could even access spectacles!
  • A friar in Pisa began making spectacles from ground quartz in 1300. The lenses were more like magnifying glasses.
  • Bone frames held the lenses in place. You had to balance the frames on your nose because they didn’t have arms.


Last Thoughts

  • Which of those facts about medieval life was your favorite? The flushing toilet or the fancy spectacles?
  • Or how about the early voting and the prospects for travel?
  • Life in the Middle Ages was more surprising than we often imagine. Why not learn more surprising facts with our other history articles?