Daily Living in the Middle Ages by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Sep 11, 2017 in Featured Book, Historical Tidbits, Medieval Great Britain | 1 comment

One of my readers asked me the other day about what daily life was like. My books are about the few days of adventure in between daily living—which is of course the point. When a character is time traveling back and forth to a medieval world, the bits in between, where life happens, are far less exciting.

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

Depicted are the three fates: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spin, draw out and cut the thread of Life, and in this tapestry represent Death as they triumph over the fallen body of Chastity.

Pretty gloomy, eh?

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

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

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

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

While a strong central government in England, led by Edward I in the 13th century, did have avert war within the nation, he led many wars against other nations, and in Wales in particular, the end result was a far less free and materially wealthy existence.

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

Medieval Life.net states: http://www.medieval-life.net/:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The taeogion (villeins) lived mostly in the fertile lowlands, supplying the needs of the princely court. They also had to do farm work for the prince each year.

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

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

My latest book, Shades of Time, still deals with kings and princes, modern people and time travelers, but it’s important to understand that medieval life still hinged upon an ordered society such as I’ve described. Even David, the great time traveling King of England, can’t change everything over night!

Sarah Woodbury, September 11, 2017


One Comment

  1. Thanks for this comparison between Medieval English and Welsh societies. Although I’m familiar with both, I hadn’t really compared and contrasted them. Interesting!