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The Arrival and Spread of the Black Plague in Europe

Plague doctor mask

Some of the earliest reports of the Black Plague, or bubonic plague, show up historical accounts of the 1320s in China, the 1330s in Central Asia, and the 1340s in Europe. Any of these sites may have been the catalyst for an outbreak that initiated the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed 30 percent to 60 percent of Europe’s population. Worldwide, the bubonic plague is estimated to have killed as many as 100 million people in the 14th century.

The spread of the plague is attributed to black rats that don’t have a fear the same fear of humans as other rats. Once the plague has killed off a colony of rats, fleas, searching for another host, find and infect humans with the disease which causes a painful swelling of the lymph node, typically in the groin, thigh, armpit, or neck.

Origins of the Plague

One location that may have initiated the spread of the Black Death is Lake Issyk-Kul in central Asia, where archaeological excavations have revealed an unusually high death rate for the years 1338 and 1339. Memorial stones attribute the deaths to plague, leading some scholars to conclude that the pestilence could have originated there and then spread east to China and south to India. Located along the trading routes of the Silk Road, Issyk-Kul was easily accessible from both China and the Caspian Sea, making it a likely spot to spearhead the mass spread of the disease.

However, other sources refer to the plague in China as early as the 1320s. Whether this strain infected the entire country before spreading westward to Issyk-Kul, or whether it was an isolated incident that had died out by the time a separate strain from Issyk-Kul reached the east is impossible to tell. But the disease took a devastating toll on China, killing millions.

The plague most reached India from China via common ship trading routes rather than moving south from the lake through the seldom-traveled mountains of Tibet. Millions of lives were lost in India as well.

How the disease made its way to Mecca is not clear, but both merchants and pilgrims traveled by sea from India to the holy city regularly. However, Mecca was not struck until 1349, more than a year after the disease was in full swing in Europe. Pilgrims or merchants from Europe may have brought it south with them.

Also, it isn’t known whether the disease moved directly to the Caspian Sea from Lake Issyk-Kul, or whether it first moved to China and back again along the Silk Road. It may have been the latter, since it took a full eight years to reach Astrakhan and the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai.

1347: The Black Death Comes to Europe

The first recorded appearance of the plague in Europe was at Messina, Sicily, in October of 1347. It arrived on trading ships that likely came from the Black Sea, past Constantinople and through the Mediterranean. This was a fairly standard trade route that brought to European customers such items as silks and porcelain, which were carried overland to the Black Sea from as far away as China.

As soon as the citizens of Messina realized the illness that had come aboard these ships, they expelled them from the port. But it was too late. Plague quickly raged through the city, and panicked victims fled, spreading it to the surrounding countryside. While Sicily was succumbing to the horrors of the disease, the expelled trading ships brought it to other areas around the Mediterranean, infecting the neighboring islands of Corsica and Sardinia by November.

Meanwhile, the plague had traveled from Sarai to the Genoese trading station of Tana, east of the Black Sea. Here Christian merchants were attacked by Tartars and chased to their fortress at Kaffa (sometimes spelled Caffa.) The Tartars besieged the city in November, but their siege was cut short when the Black Death struck. Before breaking off their attack, however, they catapulted dead plague victims into the city in the hopes of infecting its residents.

The defenders tried to divert the pestilence by throwing the bodies into the sea, but once a walled city had been struck by plague, its doom was sealed. As the inhabitants of Kaffa began to fall to the disease, the merchants boarded ships to sail home. But they could not escape the plague. When they arrived in Genoa and Venice in January of 1348, few passengers or sailors were alive to tell the tale.

It took only a few plague victims to bring the deadly illness to mainland Europe.

Plague Spreads Swiftly

In 1347, only a few parts of Greece and Italy had experienced the horrors of the plague, but by June of 1348, nearly half of Europe had met the Black Death in one form or another.

When the ill-fated ships from Kaffa arrived at Genoa, they were chased away as soon as the Genoese realized they carried plague. As with the episode at Messina, this measure failed to prevent the disease from coming ashore, and the repelled ships spread the illness to Marseilles, France, and along the coast of Spain to Barcelona and Valencia.

In mere months, the plague spread throughout all Italy, through half of Spain and France, down the coast of Dalmatia on the Adriatic, and north into Germany. Africa was also infected at Tunis via the Messina ships, and the Middle East was dealing with an eastward spread from Alexandria.

Black Death Spreads Through Italy

Once the plague moved from Genoa to Pisa, it spread with alarming speed through Tuscany to Florence, Siena, and Rome. The disease also came ashore from Messina to Southern Italy, but much of the province of Calabria was rural, and it proceeded more slowly northward.

When the pestilence reached Milan, the occupants of the first three houses it struck were walled up—sick or not—and left to die. This horrifyingly harsh measure, ordered by the archbishop, appeared to succeed to some degree, for Milan suffered less from the plague than any other major Italian city.

Florence, however—the thriving, prosperous center of trade and culture—was hit particularly hard, by some estimates losing as much as 65,000 residents. For descriptions of the tragedies in Florence, we have the eyewitness accounts of two of its most famous residents: Petrarch, who lost his beloved Laura to the disease in Avignon, France, and Boccaccio, whose most famous work, the Decameron, would center on a group of people fleeing Florence to avoid the plague.

In Siena, work on a cathedral that had been proceeding apace was interrupted by the plague. Workers died or grew too ill to continue and money for the project was diverted to deal with the health crisis. When the plague was over and the city had lost half its people, there were no more funds for church-building, and the partially-constructed transept was patched up and abandoned to become part of the landscape, where it can still be seen today.

Black Death Spreads Through France

The ships expelled from Genoa stopped briefly at Marseilles before moving on to the coast of Spain, and within a month, thousands died in the French port city. From Marseilles, the disease moved west to Montpelier and Narbonne and north to Avignon in less than 30 days.

The seat of the Papacy had been moved from Rome to Avignon in the early part of the 14th century, and now Pope Clement VI occupied the post. As the spiritual leader of all Christendom, Clement decided he would be no use to anyone if he died, so he made it his business to survive. His physicians helped matters along by insisting he remain isolated and keeping him toasty-warm between two roaring fires in the dead of summer.

Clement may have had the fortitude to withstand the heat, though the rats and their fleas didn’t, and the pope remained free of plague. Unfortunately, no one else had such resources, and one-quarter of Clement’s staff died in Avignon before the disease was done.

As the pestilence raged ever more fiercely, people died too swiftly to even receive last rites from the priests (who were dying, too.) As such, Clement issued a decree stating that anyone who died from the plague would automatically receive remission of sins, easing their spiritual concerns if not their physical pain.

Insidious Spread Through Europe

Once the disease had traveled along most of the trade routes in Europe, its exact course becomes more difficult—and in some areas nearly impossible—to plot. We know that it had penetrated into Bavaria by June, but its course across the rest of Germany is uncertain. And while the south of England was also infected by June of 1348, the worst of the epidemic didn’t strike the majority of Great Britain until 1349.

In Spain and Portugal, the plague crept inland from the port cities at a somewhat slower pace than in Italy and France. In the war at Granada, Muslim soldiers were the first to succumb to the illness, and some feared the horrific disease was Allah’s punishment and even contemplated converting to Christianity. Before any could take so drastic a step, however, their Christian enemies were also struck down by the hundreds, making it clear that the plague took no notice of religious affiliation.

It was in Spain that the only ruling monarch to die of the disease met his end. The advisors of King Alfonse XI of Castile begged him to isolate himself, but he refused to leave his troops. He fell ill and died on March 26, 1350, Good Friday.

1349: Infection Rate Slows

Having infected virtually all of western Europe and half of central Europe in about 13 months, the spread of the illness finally began to slow. Most of Europe and Britain were now keenly aware that a horrible plague was among them. The more affluent fled the heavily-populated areas and retreated to the countryside, but almost everyone else had nowhere to go and no way to run.

By 1349, many of the areas that had initially been afflicted were beginning to see the end of the first wave. However, in the more heavily-populated cities, it was only a temporary respite. Paris suffered several waves of plague, and even in the “off-season” people were still dying.

Once again utilizing trade routes, the plague appears to have made its way to Norway via ship from Britain. One story notes the first appearance was on a wool ship that sailed from London. One or more of the sailors had apparently been infected before the vessel’s departure; by the time it reached Norway, the entire crew was dead. The ship drifted until it ran aground near Bergen, where some unwitting residents went aboard to investigate its mysterious arrival and were thus infected themselves.

A few fortunate areas in Europe managed to escape the worst. Milan, as previously mentioned, saw little infection, possibly due to the drastic measures that were taken to prevent the spread of the illness. The lightly-populated and little-traveled region of southern France near the Pyrenees, between English-controlled Gascony and French-controlled Toulouse, saw very little plague mortality. And strangely enough, the port city of Bruges was spared the extremes that other cities on the trade routes suffered, possibly due to a recent drop-off in trade activity resulting from the early stages of the Hundred Years War.

History of Tourism in Middle Ages – Medieval Travel


What is Tourism in the Medieval Times?

Fall of the Roman Empire & Medieval Travel

History of Medieval Tourism – How did you travel in the Middle Ages?:The fall of the Roman Empire plunged the European continent into a period of great confusion and disorder. For a time there was also an almost permanent state of war between the barbarian chiefs, who had invaded the ancient Roman empire. This contributed to the weakening of all forms of centralized government power.

What is tourism in the medieval period?- codex calistinus

What is Tourism in the Medieval Times ? – Codex Calistinus

  • There was a distribution of the population very different from the previous one.
  • Until thefall of the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean Sea concentrated the life of the ancient world.
  • The seaway facilitated commerce and travel in general. Tourism also in Roman times
  • Early and medieval period of travel, traveling in the middle ages.

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Tourism in the Medieval P eriod, however:

  • Breaking of the communication between east and west
  • Civilization extended to northern Europe and the British Islands

The transition from ancient to medieval culture during the High Middle Ages, took place gradually and almost imperceptibly. Roman economy, social organization and art inevitably declined. One of its consequences was the transfer of the population to rural areas.

Prevalence of agriculture and large properties: that was the main characteristic during the high middle ages. Only land ownership conferred wealth and power..

Goodbye to Roman Tourism – Hello Tourism in the Medieval Times

The practice of tourism was abandoned. Most hedonistic customs too. There were transfers to hot springs that continued to explode. These were installed in abbeys or monasteries managed by religious orders that kept the facilities in good conditions of use.

One of the characteristics of the High Middle Ages was the sedentary nature of the population.

  • Feudal lords who locked themselves in their castles and only departed to neighboring fiefs on brief war excursions or pillage.
  • Servants, for whom all kinds of trips were impossible.
  • The Middle Aged man never left his place of residence. Vasallaj’s system, closed economies and even internal customs acted as a brake on displacement and trade.

There was no tourism in the Middle Ages as in Roman times. But, the Church had a transcendent role in all aspects of daily life. His action transcended the spiritual to also cover the social, the cultural and even public affairs.
The Greek ideal of leisure moved to the monasteries, for for many the essence of the early Christian religion was to live to get closer to God. It Was considered sin the accumulation of wealth or the same work to obtain them.

Leisure & Tourism in Medieval Era - What is tourism in the medieval period?

Leisure & Tourism in Medieval Times- What is tourism in Medieval Time?

What was Leisure & Tourism in Medieval Time like?

Medieval Travel: When the political and social situation consolidated, a powerful social group formed by Lords appeared. This was a higher level of society, which adopted an attitude of exhibitionist leisure. As in the middle ages there was no printing press, most people did not receive education. The few who had the opportunity and the desire to learn had to travel to have new knowledge.

Traveling in the Middle age. Leisure of the Lords

History of Tourism in Medieval Times: The leisure exhibition showed his release from the need to work. The leisure of the Lords was the expression of their opposition to servile work, and by putting it in evidence as many times as possible they reaffirmed their membership in the aristocratic class.

Popular leisure

Popular leisure, meanwhile, while present, was not free. It was the activity of the days of rest and celebration. Usually religious and related to the patron saint of the place or the great religious festivities. The leisure of the lower classes was organized and controlled by power, that is, the Lord and the Church.

Pilgrim - Religious Tourism

Tourism in the medieval period – Picture – Traveling in the middle ages

Pilgrimage in Medieval Times , Via Francigena

The Religious Tourism in Midlle Ages

Via Francigena – The Religious Tourism in Midlle Ages

Via Francigena – The Religious Tourism in Midlle Ages

Castle of the Magione on the Via Francigena

It is an old church and a pilgrim hospital on the Via Francigena, originally belonging to the Knights Templar. It served as accommodation and protection for the pilgrims.

The Castle of the Magione (Castello della Magione) located in Poggibonsi, Siena, Italy, is a monumental complex from the Middle Ages belonged to the Knights Templar. It has also been preserved to this day. The castle is also known by the name of magione di San Giovanni al Ponte, or spedale di san Giovanni in Jerusalem alla Magione.

The Castle is located on the right bank of the Staggia river, opposite the old Bonizio bridge, about 3 kilometers from the city center of Poggibonsi.

This set of buildings is from the early 12th century and originally belonged to the Knights Templar. When the order was suppressed in 1312, it passed to the Hospitaller Knights, until 1752.

History of tourism on the Via Francigena

History of tourism on the Via Francigena

Castello della Magione in the 19th century

At the end of the 18th century the hospital was given in usufruct to the Order of Malta. With the suppression of the Order of Malta (1799) the property remained in the hands of the Corsini family. In 1866 the Corsini family sold the church and other buildings, keeping the usufruct. The church was closed in 1822.

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In 1979 the complex was bought by Count Marcello Alberto Cristofani, who gave as patrimony and as Headquarters of the Magisterium, the Temple Militia – Order of the Poor Knights of Christ, which he founded. So you have to bring the restoration project, which brought the complex back to its original state.

What was the Pilgrimage to Rome like in Medieval Times?

One of the main medieval pilgrimage routes led to Rome. The ultimate goal of the pilgrims was to reach the basilica of St. Peter and visit the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul. Rome had numerous churches with more relics of saints and martyrs of antiquity. The pilgrims visited almost all of them. The main access route to Rome was the Via Francigena that started from Canterbury and crossed from northwest to southeast France and Switzerland, to penetrate Italy through the Alps. Part of this journey was made on Ancient Roman Roads still existing. Travel in the Middle Ages.

Pilgrimage to Rome - What was the Pilgrimage to Rome like in Medieval Times?

Pilgrimage to Rome – What was the Pilgrimage to Rome like in Medieval Times?

This route starts from the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigerico el Serio at the end of the 10th century. Many pilgrims read their writings with the description of the stages of this trip.

The pilgrimage to Rome will decline at the time of the crusades and It will be partly displaced by the pilgrimage to Compostela – Galicia – Spain. Santiago de Compostela shows himself as a saint very close to the faithful who visit him because of the many miracles he performs in his tomb in Galicia.

St Peter Rome Cathedral - history of Tourism in Middle Ages

St Peter Rome Cathedral – History of Tourism in Middle Ages

Only from the year 1300, with the institution of the jubilee for part of Boniface VIII, Rome will once again attract the attention of Pilgrims In the following centuries it will be the main destination and focus of attention of the faithful pilgrims, religious tourism and Medieval Travel.

Medieval Travel Way of St. James: Pilgrimage to Compostela (Spain)

The road to Santiago ( Way of St. James) is to this day a tourist circuit, one of the oldest and busiest in the world, maintains its essence and the feelings of those who come from all over the world to make a pilgrimage.

Compostela, in chronological order is the last of the great pilgrimage centers to emerge, from the ninth century. And it will become one of the most important pilgrimage centers of medieval Christianity, she was going to venerate the tomb (supposed) of the apostle Santiago.

The pilgrimage to Compostela will be motivated not because James came and preached to Spain, but because of the spread, throughout Christianity, of the news of the discovery of the apostle’s grave. It turns out that the West, if we except Rome, does not have any other apostolic tomb. It also adds what every sacred place needed to become popular.

Compostela Cathedral - Religious Tourism in the Middle Ages

Tourism in Medieval Times – Compostela Cathedral

History of Tourism in Middle Ages: The Holy Healer

The fame that the apostle Santiago acquires as a holy healer explodes religious tourism in the middle ages. Pilgrims are set in motion by stories about the priests of the Saint. Compostela Cathedral in Spain is a new destination in its own right. And compete with Rome.

The Codex Calixtinus, a work of the twelfth century, indicates four routes that cross France, become a single way on Spanish soil, to reach Compostela.This place is called Puente la Reina. This route is integrated to other different pilgrimage routes in the road that leads to Compostela and whose destination is Rome, Tours or Jerusalem.

Santiago de Compostela - Obradoiro Square - Spain - Tourism in the medieval period

Santiago de Compostela – Obradoiro Square – Spain – Posters on Amazon. – Tourism in the medieval period

Santiago de Compostela becomes the most famous sanctuaries in the west whose goal is to visit the tomb of the Apostol. This Saint surpasses all other saints for his healing properties, because Santiago, like several centuries before San Martin de Tours, heals everything.

It even surpasses it in the number of diseases it cures because Santiago is the one who returns the sight to the blind, the ear to the deaf, the voice to the mute, life to the dead. It also heals people of all diseases for the glory and praise of Christ.

How was the Pilgrimage to Tours – France in the Middle Ages?

In the early years of the Middle Ages the tomb of St. Martin in the Cathedral of Tours ( France) was within religious pilgrimage and tourism. Especially since the sixth century. He is a saint admired by the Frankish kings of the Merovingian dynasty, which makes him the center of the pilgrimage of the Frankish world. For the people of the early medieval times no other Saint had a power similar to Saint Martin. Is the friend of God and as collected by Codex Calixtinus, in the twelfth century, he has a reputation as a resuscitator, as a curator of leprosy, of the energum, lunatics and the demonized.

Tours Cathedral - Religious Tourism

Medieval Tourism – Tours Cathedral – France

In the city of Tours, the people set out to seek the cure of all kinds of diseases. In fact, in the devotion of the faithful, Saint Martin goes through being a holy healer, specialized in curing diseases such as blindness, paralysis, deafness, fever, plague and muteness.

It also causes the lame to walk rights, and by ridding the possessed by the devil, the snake venom is overcome and the elements of nature obey him. Around Tours the pilgrimage begins to make sense penitential. He goes to the tomb of St. Martin to fulfill a penance through which to obtain forgiveness of sins.

How was the Pilgrimage to Meca?

One of the pillars of Islam is the visit to this center of worship. He established himself with the writing of the Quran at the death of Muhammad (632). Any Muslim with sufficient physical and economic conditions must go on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his life.

The rituals to follow vary depending on where the individual comes from, the time of the year, the variant of Islam professed by the pilgrim, or the intentionality of the pilgrimage

The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Glouster EDWIN AUSTIN ABBEY - Travel in the Middle Ages

The Penance of Eleanor, Duchess of Glouster EDWIN AUSTIN ABBEY – Travel in the Middle Ages

What were the kinds of tourist pilgrimage in the middle ages?

Devotional Pilgrimage

This was the beginning. Devotional or curiosity: to know and venerate the holy places, the tombs of the martyrs. Without particular interest to travel, pray and know.

Utility Pilgrimage

It is about seeking the cure of any kind of illness or evil. The christian Europe of the High Middle Ages will be marked by the places, sanctuaries or cathedrals where the intervention of the holy healers was to be sought. all to get rid of some physical or spiritual evil

Penitential Pilgrimage

From the eleventh century, the pilgrimage also acquires a penitential sense. It is carried out by imposition to purge public or private sins, more or less scandalous, committed by the laity or clergy. This is a type of public penance

What is Tourism in the Medieval Times?

What is Tourism in the Medieval Times?

Judicial Pilgrimage

To exchange a penalty the civil or religious authority imposed this method. Among other sins that were punishable by judicial pilgrimage, there were the murder and theft of ecclesiastical goods. In the last medieval centuries, XIII-XIV centuries, the Church, due to the excesses of many penitents, begins to restrict its use. What were the excesses? in the next section we clarify

Proxy Pilgrimage

It is due to the influence of Germanic civil law in the penitential system. By paying money to a substitute person a penalty could be redeemed. It was called devotional or penitential redemption.

Proxy Pilgrimage - Medieval Tourism

Devil’s Bridge – Section of the Camino de Santiago in the 17th century – Lumbier – Spain

This practice was used by the rich and noble who through money bought the spiritual merits inherent in the pilgrimage without having to suffer the inconveniences of the road. This way you could pay the price of a murder or a robbery, with no consequences other than money

How did you travel during the Middle Ages?

By Land

Land travel followed the old network of Roman roads (at this time very deteriorated), which began to be rehabilitated towards the 12th century and locally. Road maps were seldom used, which began to be disseminated recently in the 14th century. Oral information was the most used and used to be the most valid and up-to-date.

It was common to travel in groups and with a lot of cargo: merchandise, food, feed, weapons, tools, shops, clothes, money, documents, etc. The pilgrims traveled lighter in luggage. Traveling was expensive: porters, adequate clothing, tolls, tips, accommodation, meals, doctors, etc.

How did you travel during the Middle Ages? By Land

How did you travel during the Middle Ages? By Land

Wine and beer were the most recommended drinks to consume during a trip. The water was not drinkable, especially in the cities. Vehicles were hardly used, since cars were useful for traveling short distances. In long distances due to the state of the roads they were not practical. And there was no post system or places for arrangements

Saddle animals were widely used: horse, mule or donkey. It avoided the fatigue of walking, allowed loading and was well adapted to rustic roads. He never galloped, not even trotted.

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Samsung Store: Galaxy Z Fold4 Series

Tourism in Medieval Times by Sea

For long journeys between coastal cities, the sea route was preferred to the land route as it was faster and more comfortable (for example between Marseille and Venice). In the Mediterranean, coastal navigation was widely practiced, that is, without losing sight of the mainland. This allowed them to take refuge in the ports in case of bad weather.

They used to sail especially in summer (preferably in June and July) when the sea is calmer. The most common methods of keeping the course were, during the day, the position of the sun and the release of embarked birds and, at night, the stars.

How did you travel during the Middle Ages? By Sea -The Religious Tourism in the Middle Ages Fall of the Roman Empire

How did you travel during the Middle Ages? By Sea

In the late Middle Ages, various scientific advances were disseminated among European navigators that facilitated navigation at height and with few scales. Most of them were introduced by Islamic sailors: the Latin triangular sail (12th century), the compass (around 1200), the stern rudder (13th century) and the first maritime charts (13th century). The astrolabe and the quadrant did not become widespread until the 15th century.

Genoese and Venetian merchants traded with the Far East, but did not do so directly, but through intermediaries in Asia Minor who bridged the ships and caravans of the Silk Road. In the late Middle Ages, the only regular passenger service in the entire Mediterranean was the galley that annually made the journey from Venice to the Holy Land loaded with pilgrims.

Across The Rivers

Some of the continental routes that we do today by road could be made by river (for example along the Rhone, the Ebro, and the Rhine). River navigation required the payment of tolls and was used above all for goods. River navigation complemented very well, both with maritime navigation and with land routes.

Medieval Europe

This article mainly concerns western Medieval Europe (“Medieval” means “Middle Ages”) – that is, that part of Europe which came within the influence of the western Catholic church. Medieval eastern Europe is dealt with elsewhere (especially the articles on the Byzantine empire and Russia).



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The period of European history which we call “Medieval” is usually regarded as consisting of the thousand years or so between the fall of the Roman Empire in the west (in the 5th century), through to the period of the Renaissance in the 15th century. In fact, the term was coined by later historians, and means “Middle Ages”, which might today be rendered as “in-between times” – that period which came after the high civilizations of the Greeks and Romans, and before the high civilization of the Renaissance: an age of barbarism, ignorance, illiteracy and violence.

We still get an echo of this in the ideas surrounding the term “Gothic” – dark, gloomy, foreboding. In fact, though, modern historians regard these centuries as the cradle of the modern age, a time when many elements of our society which we value – democracy, industrialization, science and so on, had their roots. It was one of the most fascinating and transformative eras in world history.

The thousand-year long period of western Medieval Europe can be divided into three main phases, of unequal length. The five-plus centuries after the fall of Rome (up to c.1000) have been called the Dark Ages, and witnessed a dramatic decline in the level of material civilization. Long distance trade shrank, the currency collapsed, the economy mostly reverted to barter, and the towns diminished in size. Literacy, and with it learning, all but vanished. Western European society was reshaped with the rise of self-sufficient estates (or manors), then of horse-soldiers (knights), and finally of feudalism. The Christian Church, already highly influential by the time of the western Roman empire’s fall, strengthened its hold on society.

The period of the High Middle Ages, from about 1000 to 1350, was the high water mark of medieval civilization, leaving a durable legacy in the soaring cathedrals and massive castles which sprang up all over Europe. From about 1350 to 1500 the period of the late Middle Ages was a time of transition, seeing the emergence of modern Europe. It opened with the Black Death, which swept through Europe, killing perhaps a third of its people and having a huge impact on society. It ended with such developments as the Italian Renaissance, the fall of Constantinople, the Age of Discovery, and the spread of printing.

Changing frontiers

By definition, the civilization of Medieval Europe lay in Europe. However, in terms of those features we associate with medieval society – feudalism, chivalry, Christendom and so on – the location changed over time, and never really covered all of Europe. Northern Italy and much of eastern Europe, for example, never became fully feudal societies; large tracts of Spain did not belong to Christendom for many centuries; the concept of chivalry only came to the fore comparatively late in medieval times, and so on.

The roots of many medieval elements of society had their geographical origins in the provinces of the late Roman empire, mainly Gaul (France), Spain and Italy. When the Roman empire collapsed and these provinces were overrun by barbarian tribes, the synthesis between Roman and German cultures eventually produced a recognizably “feudal” society – which is one of the defining feature of medieval European civilization (though the word “feudalism” needs some careful handling). This distinguishes the areas of the old western Roman empire from that of the eastern Roman empire. Here, Roman power survived for a thousand years longer than in the west, centered on Constantinople. Modern scholars describe this as the Byzantine empire, and it came to influence much of eastern Europe.

Timemap 8th Century Europe

Europe in 750 CE (c) TimeMaps

Western Europe, plus those parts of northern and central Europe which became part of the same cultural community, formed a very distinct society in medieval times: a civilization whose roots lay in the Christian, Latin-speaking provinces of the late Roman empire and the Germanic kingdoms which succeeded them. As time went by, the borders of this civilization changed. Peripheral areas were added: England in the 6th century, the Low Countries in the 7th, the German peoples in the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Scandinavians and western Slavic peoples in the 10th and 11th centuries. Meanwhile, much of Spain was lost when the Muslims seized it in the early 8th century, and only gradually regained.

Medieval European society grew out of the ruins of the Roman empire. From the 5th century onwards, barbarian invasions led to the disintegration of Roman power in the western provinces. These territories also experienced a sharp decline in material civilization. A literate, complex urban society gave way to an almost illiterate, much simpler and more rural one.

Much, however, continued from one era to the next. Most notably, the Christian Church survived the fall of the Roman empire to become the predominant cultural influence in medieval Europe. The Latin language continued in use as the language of the Church; and at a popular level vulgar Latin morphed into the Romance languages of modern Europe, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Much of the learning of Greece and Rome was preserved by the Church, and Roman law influenced the law codes of the barbarian kingdoms. Late Roman art and architecture continued in use for the few stone church buildings still being erected, and eventually would evolve into the medieval Romanesque and Gothic styles.

The Feudal System

The feudal system (as modern scholars call it) first emerged in France in the 10th century, and spread to other lands in the 11th century. The word feudal derives from the word fief, which usually denotes an area of land held on certain conditions. A person who granted a fief to someone was that person’s lord, and the person who received a fief became the lord’s vassal. The vassal usually had to provide the lord with military service, and also give him money from time to time, and advice. But the lord also had duties towards the vassal: he had to protect him and see that he received justice in court.

Kings granted out much of their kingdoms as large fiefs to their nobles, and these in turn granted smaller fiefs for lesser lords, and so on. In this way a pyramid of mutual support was built up, stretching from the king downwards, to the lord of a single village.

The building blocks of fiefs were manors. These usually covered quite small areas of land, for example that attached to a village. The vast majority of peasants who farmed the land in Medieval Europe were attached to manors, and had to provide their lords with labour or rent. They were known as serfs – peasants who were practically slaves, in that they were bound for life to the manors in which they were born. They were not allowed to leave this land, nor marry, nor pass on their particular plots to anyone, without their lords’ permission. On the other hand, they had the right to look to their lord for protection and justice.

The Church

The Church exerted a powerful influence on all aspects of life in medieval Europe. Indeed, such was the Church’s place in European society that medieval Europeans defined themselves as living in “Christendom” – the realm of the Christians.

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All the key moments of life – birth, marriage, death – were under the Church’s control. Education was dominated by churchmen, and most medieval scholars in Europe were members of the clergy. The vast majority of art and architecture was religious in nature, either commissioned by churches or abbeys themselves or by wealthy lords and merchants to beautify churches. The largest and most beautiful structures in any medieval town or city were religious buildings, and the towers and spires of cathedrals and churches soared above urban skylines. Churches were also to be found in every village.

The Romanesque Church of Maria Lach, Germany

The Romanesque Church of Maria Lach, Germany
Reproduced under creative commons 3.0

The Church was the wealthiest landowner in western Europe. It was a hugely powerful international organization, challenging and constraining the authority of emperors and kings. Senior churchmen were ministers and high officials to secular rulers, and the servants of the Church – priests, monks, nuns and other “clerks” – were tried in their own courts and by their own system of law.

The medieval Church in western Europe looked to the pope, the bishop of Rome, for leadership. For much of the high Middle Ages popes asserted their complete sovereignty over the Church. They also claimed authority over secular rulers. Although the latter eventually succeeded in resisting this claim, the struggle between the Papacy and monarchs had a profound impact on the history of western Europe.


One ubiquitous feature of medieval society was the presence of monks and nuns. Their monasteries came in different shapes and sizes, but typically formed a complex of buildings – cloisters, dormitories, kitchens, store rooms, libraries, workshops, a mill, and so on – all gathered around a church. Monasteries dotted both countryside and towns, and many owned extensive lands and property.

Monastic communities had arisen at the time of the Roman empire, but in the years after its fall monasticism was given a new lease of life by St Benedict of Nursa, in the late 5th and 6th centuries. He developed a code of guidelines to order the community and individual lives of monks and nuns. These were practical and moderate rules which aimed at allowing men and women to live communal lives of worship and study, separate from the rest of society whilst contributing to its welfare. Even today these rules are well regarded for their combination of moderation and spirituality.

Monasteries and nunneries spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, and monks and nuns provided much of the education, healthcare and practical charity for the population at large, as well as the preaching of the Christian Gospel. They preserved the learning of classical Greece and Rome from generation to generation by copying ancient writings (a major undertaking before the coming of printing). They also contributed their own study and learning, which helped to shape future Western thought. When universities appeared, the first teachers were monks.


For most of the Middle Ages, European society was almost entirely rural, with a very simple social structure: nobles at the top, peasants at the bottom, and very few people in between. During the later part of the period, however, trade expanded and towns becoming larger and more numerous. More people joined the “middle classes” between peasants and lords: such groups as merchants, craftsmen, shopkeepers and so on.

The numerically tiny fief-holding aristocracy of nobles and knights lived in castles, manor houses and, when in town, large mansions. They were supported economically by the labour of the peasants, who formed the great majority of the population. The peasants lived in small scattered villages and hamlets, working the land and doing a host of other jobs to provide for their everyday needs.

Medieval French manuscript illustration of the three classes of medieval society. Clergy, Knights and Peasantry

Medieval French manuscript illustration of the three classes of medieval society

A small but growing minority of the population (between 5 and 10%) lived in the few towns, which were tiny by modern standards. These townsmen worked as merchants, craftsmen and laborers.

Other groups in society were churchmen, and also some communities of people, such as Jews, who were not really fully accepted members of the wider society.

The Great Lords

The aristocracy throughout Medieval Europe consisted mostly of a graded hierarchy of fief-holders. At the very top were the magnates. These were titled nobles such as dukes, counts (or their equivalent, earls, in the British Isles) and barons. They stood just below kings and emperors in social rank, in wealth and in power; indeed, in many parts of Europe they were rulers in their own right, governing duchies and counties as semi-autonomous princes, owing only loose obedience to a distant monarch. Their families intermarried freely with the royal families of France, England, Germany and other kingdoms.

In the lower ranks of the aristocracy were knights and gentry who held only a small fief (a single manor of one knight’s fee). Indeed, many held no land at all, but belonged to a great lord’s retinue, fighting his battles and living as members of his household. They hoped for a small fief as a reward for faithful service, or perhaps as a result of marriage to the heiress of a fief-holder.

The great lords were surrounded by large retinues of followers. These were literally small (and not-so-small) armies of knights, domestic servants, retainers, and men-at-arms. The lords’ numerous manors were supervised by trusted servants called bailiffs or stewards, and their complex affairs were supervised by a staff of household officials and clerks.

These lords, along with their households and retinues, lived in strongly fortified castles. These first appeared in 9th century France to provide protection for lord and local people from the prevailing anarchy of the period. They were originally small fortified structures made of wood, sometimes standing on an artificial earth mound. They soon grew into large complexes centered on a massive fortified building made of stone (the keep).

The really great lords held several castles, and traveled frequently between them, along with their retinues. This was an economic necessity, as their retinues were so large that they would soon have exhausted the resources of any one locality. Moreover, in an age of slow communication it enabled these magnates to keep in touch with their scattered territories, and to give their dependents justice in person by presiding at the local courts under their control (see above: privatized power).

Knights and Gentlemen

Below them, different ranks of aristocrats lived in lesser splendor, down to the gentleman or knight holding just one manor. His concerns were mainly to do with the affairs of the local community in which he lived. Although far less powerful than the great lord of whom he was a vassal, he had great authority over the lives of the people of his manor. He administered justice to them in his manorial court, and supervised the work of his demesne, perhaps assisted by one or two clerks. Along with his family and a small staff of domestic servants he lived in a manor house, which was often fortified (some looked like small castles), especially in less ordered parts of Europe.

A Military Class

The medieval aristocracy were steeped in a military culture – they were, in fact, a warrior class, trained from childhood in warfare. Even their leisure activities involved mock-battles called tournaments.

Knights were originally the illiterate, thuggish retainers of kings and lords, forming their military retinues and living in their halls. As time went by, and military equipment became more expensive (larger horses, more sophisticated armor), the lords found it useful to provide many of them with their own small fiefs so that they could buy and maintain their own equipment.

From the 12th century, both lords and knights were Christianized by the Church, their warlike instincts channelled into a code of chivalry which emphasized protection of the weak and the poor, respect for women and courteous behavior to one another. A whole new idea of what it was to be a gentleman began to take shape. Aristocrats became literate and educated, better able to deal with matters of law and administration. This fitted them to serve their lords better as society became more ordered and complex. It also enabled them to look after their own estates more effectively, as written documents became more important in their management.

The Peasants

Peasants formed the vast majority of the population of Medieval Europe. They lived in small villages, where they farmed the land and did a host of related activities.

The serfs – those unfree peasants tied to a particular fief on an hereditary basis – had to provide the lord of the manor with various kinds of service. The most onerous of these involved working on the lord’s own land – his demesne – for a set number of days per week. Other obligations included giving gifts to the lord at certain times of the year, or at key moments in the peasant’s life – for example when his daughters were getting married (for which they had to ask the permission of the lord), or when a father died and the parcels of land he had farmed were being taken over by his son(s).

Many manors, especially in England and northern Europe, practiced the open-field system of farming, in which two or three huge fields were divided into strips, with each peasant family farming several strips scattered around the fields. These were distributed so that each would get a fair share of the good and bad land. Major activities such as sowing, ploughing and harvesting were carried out jointly by the entire community.

Medieval villages were small by modern standards, usually numbering fewer than a couple of hundred people. Each village would have had its own church, which by the 12th century would usually have been built of stone. Nearby would have been the priest’s house, and near that the “tithe barn”. This was where the villagers stored one tenth of all the grain they grew, as their tax to the church. In many villages a manor house would also have stood nearby.

A minority of peasants were not serfs, but free. Free peasants – or “yeomen”, as they were known in England – did not have the heavy feudal burdens of their unfree neighbors. They paid a rent in money or kind for the right to farm a piece of land, but otherwise they were at liberty to live their lives as and where they wished. They could move to another village if they wanted, or to a town; they could even buy and sell land. If they owned some fields outright (perhaps having bought them from the lord) they did not even have to pay rent for them.

Reconstruction of an early medieval peasant village

Reconstruction of an early medieval peasant village
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

The Towns

Compared to today, towns were scarce in Medieval Europe, and those that did exist were tiny. Medieval towns were usually smaller than those in classical antiquity. In 1100 or 1200 a town with 2000 inhabitants was considered large. Only a few towns and cities in Europe had more than 10,000, and those with more than 50,000 were very rare: even the city of Rome, the most important city on western Europe, only had around 30,000. London, by far the largest city in England, is estimated to have had 10,000 inhabitants in 1066, though four hundred years later it was probably nearer 75,000.

The biggest concentrations of large towns in Medieval Europe were in Flanders (modern-day Belgium and Holland), and (much more so) in north Italy. In these regions, and particularly in the latter, cities such as Milan, Florence, Genoa and Venice, or in the Low Countries Bruges and Ghent, dominated the territory around them in a way which was unknown in the rest of Europe.

As time went by, and the population of Europe increased, trade and industry expanded and new towns appeared. These often grew up where a powerful lord gave a village permission to have a market: the market attracted trade, trade attracted merchants, craftsmen and workers arrived, and soon a small town was emerging. Alternatively, the presence of a castle, and the demands its inhabitants had for food, cloth and many other goods, caused the nearby village to grow into a town. As these villages were often granted permission by the lord to hold markets, so that the goods he and his household required were more readily available, this would have acted as a boost to town growth.

To modern eyes, many medieval towns would not just have been small, they would also have seemed almost rural. Although many towns were surrounded by walls, much of the area within the walls was given over to grazing land and fields. Farm animals could be seen roaming here and there. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of towns regarded themselves as quite different from (and superior to) country folk. They had a much greater level of freedom than most peasants, and lived under the authority of their own leaders – magistrates and members of the town councils – rather than of feudal lords.


Institutions of great importance in medieval towns were the guild. This was an association of merchants or craftsmen in the same trade. They regulated admission to the guild by supervising apprenticeships and awarding licenses to practice the trade; they set standards for quality of work, and enforced these standards on their members; they acted as social clubs, organizing feasts and celebrations through the year; they fulfilled particular functions within the wider life of the town, for example taking responsibility for certain aspects of the town’s religious life; and many set up schools for the education of children of their members (and for a fee, other children). In many towns, membership of a guild conferred citizenship of the town upon a person.

Growing class divisions

As trade expanded in the middle and high medieval periods, the merchant classes grew in number, wealth and influence. From being humble traders in tiny towns in about 1000 CE, in status roughly on a par with craftsmen, they evolved into merchants living in grand town houses with many servants. Their business interests could span many countries, even beyond Europe. They took over the running of the towns’ affairs through their control of the guilds. Many were able to pass on their wealth to their sons, and came to form an hereditary patrician elite, able to deal with dukes and counts on equal terms.

Meanwhile, humbler craftsmen were unable to keep pace; they were still able to maintain themselves in economic independence, and had a respected place in urban society, but they were falling behind the merchants.

As for the lower orders in the towns, they found themselves increasingly frozen out of opportunities to better themselves. As merchants and even master craftsmen grew in wealth, more money was needed to join their ranks; and whereas in earlier times a poor townsmen could hope to rise to be a master of a workshop or trading enterprise, this became more and more difficult as the guilds came under the sway of small groups of wealthy masters. An urban proletariat began to appear in many towns, made up of poor laborers, as hereditary in their lowly status as the patricians were in their high estate. These divisions inevitably bore fruit in class tensions, often violent. These became more marked in towns and cities throughout Europe in the later Middle Ages.


Whatever one’s status, life in medieval towns was fraught with dangers. As towns grew in population, they became more and more crowded. Streets were very narrow, as well as being noisy and dirty. People threw their waste (including human waste) out of their windows to the street below. In many streets an open sewer flowed down the middle. Conditions were thus appallingly unhealthy. Disease was a constant threat. Houses were made of flimsy, flammable materials and danger of fire was never far away. Crime in medieval towns was far higher than in modern inner cities. All told, the death rate was frighteningly high.

Other elements in society

The Clergy

The clergy were a distinct and important element within medieval European society.

There were two kinds of clergy: secular and regular. Broadly speaking, the secular clergy were the priests who served in the churches and cathedrals in towns and villages; the regular clergy were the monks, nuns and lay brothers and sisters who lived in monasteries or belonged to religious orders of wandering friars.

Whether secular or regular, from the 11th century onwards all clergy were required to live celibate lives, taking no wives and having no children. It was believed that only in this way could they be free from the cares (and snares) of the world, and able to serve God most effectively.

The clergy were the most educated members of society – in the early Middle Ages, well-nigh the only educated members. They could be found in a wide range of roles: parish priests in towns and villages, wandering preachers, school teachers and university lecturers, doctors and nurses, government officials, politicians and courtiers, household chaplains to great men, and so on. Their status varied enormously, from the village priest, barely able to read and write and hardly better-off than his parishioners, to men who lived in palaces, were surrounded by large retinues, and enjoyed the wealth and status on a par with the greatest in the land. Indeed, one of their number, the pope, held an office at least as respected as that kings and emperors.

The Jews

Another group of people who could be seen in many towns (but seldom in the countryside) across Europe were Jews, who had spread around Europe since Roman times. They often became wealthy, but their position in society was always precarious.

The reason why they were mostly confined to towns and cities was that in most places they were not allowed to own or rent land. In the urban economy, however, the Jews played a key role. Lending money for profit was forbidden to Christians by the Church; however, Jews were allowed by their own religion to lend on interest to non-Jews. In the early part of the Middle Ages, therefore, moneylending became a near-monopoly for them.

Some Jews became very rich – and as such, of course, attracted widespread envy. In fact, Jews came to be seen as extortionate moneylenders, and this, added to the fact that they were a group of outsiders who had not integrated with the rest of society, led to their being the object of widespread fear and distrust. They were easy targets when things went wrong – in time of plague, for example, Jews were often accused of poisoning wells and other crimes, and anti-Jewish pogroms could all too easily occur. Also, when rulers found themselves in dire need of money (as medieval kings did frequently) one of their common expedients was to squeeze the Jewish community.

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The rest of society could mostly be relied on to stand by when this happened. On several occasions all Jews were expelled from various kingdoms – England in 1290, France in 1306 and Spain in 1492. Many of these Jews emigrated to Poland, Hungary, Holland, Italy and Turkey.

The Poor

Every medieval community had its paupers and beggars. These were often people unable to work through physical or mental disability, or widows and orphans left without any means of support. In villages, they were cared for by the other villagers, by the parish priest and the lord of the manor. In towns this responsibility fell to the monasteries, which not only functioned as places of prayer and worship but as sources of welfare and healthcare.

Everyday life

Family life

For all people, there was nothing like the same privacy that we have come to expect in our own lives. Poorer families would live and eat together in single-room cottages, at night all sleeping in the one bed. In wealthier families, the owners of a house would share their house with servants and workers. Even in aristocratic households, the family itself might only have a few rooms to itself, with the main sections of the house shared with a host of retainers and servants.

For the majority of people, including young children, working hours were long – all the hours of daylight were barely enough to get though the tasks needing doing to ensure survival. They did not have the labour-saving devices that we have today; almost everything had to be done by muscle power (human or animal).

Women were legally subject to men (though one would not necessarily have believed that from the work of medieval writers such as Boccaccio and Chaucer, who give pen portraits of assertive and powerful women). Women’s main role in society was to be as wives and mothers. In poorer families, they worked alongside their menfolk in field and workshop, as well as doing household chores – cooking, washing, cleaning, making clothes, grinding corn, making beer and so on. In fact, economic and household work was not demarcated as it is today, as all tasks were to do with ensuring they and their families were properly fed, watered and clothed.

In aristocratic circles the women wove, spun, and managed the domestic side of the household. In circumstances where the men were away or otherwise unable to manage affairs, the lady of the household took charge of everything – including, on more than one occasion, leading the defense of a castle against attack. Widows in particular could have a large measure of economic independence, and in many cases took over the ownership and management of their deceased husband’s business. Nuns of course lived lived lives largely free from male domination, and could rise to be Abbesses of their communities, holding positions of wide respect and great responsibility.

Children, education and literacy

Children took on adult roles at a young age. Children from poorer families were put to work in the family’s plot of land or workshop at the age of seven or so. If the family could afford to send them to school this too began at seven. Sons of craftsmen and merchants were sent to another household to be apprenticed to another master for seven years, learning how to follow in their trade. In aristocratic households, boys were sent to another household to be trained in military skills. They earned their keep by acting as servants in this household. Girls of all classes were trained in weaving, needlework, and all the household chores they would need when they had their own households to manage.

Until towards the end of the Middle Ages, the only people who had what we would call an “education” were those destined for a career in the church. The majority of the population were completely illiterate. Even aristocrats were mostly unable to read and write until the later Middle Ages. Literacy was not regarded as a particularly valuable accomplishment for a gentleman, as he could delegate tasks involving reading and writing to clerks.

In English, the word “clerk” is closely linked to the word “cleric”, or churchman. This reflects the fact that, in medieval England and other northern European countries, the only people who were expected to be able to read and write were men and women of the church. Literacy was seen as a purely practical skill which clerics needed to have in order to do their work.

Boys intended for a career in the church would be taught the rudiments of reading and writing by a local priest, before being sent to a monastery to progress their education. Here they would follow a curriculum known as the trivium, which consisted of grammar, rhetoric and logic.

Education was always more widespread in southern Europe, where urban life continued, albeit in a shrunken form, from Roman times and where education was never the exclusive preserve of the clergy. In later medieval times, education became more widespread in northern countries as well. Schools began to appear in towns, at first attached to cathedrals and large churches, later maintained by guilds or town councils (but still taught mostly by clergy and with a curriculum still focussed on grammar – hence the label grammar schools).

As society became more complex, more people had to learn to read and write. Administration and law increasingly involved written documents, so that anyone who managed manors or was involved in courts or administration needed to be able to read. The growth of long-distance business networks made letter-writing and account-keeping a necessity for merchants and their agents. Right at the end of the Middle Ages, the coming of printing allowed books to become much cheaper. Upper class people, both men and women, took to reading for pleasure. Education became the mark of a gentleman or gentlewomen.


From the late 11th century, a new kind of educational institution appeared, the university. The first of these was at Bologna, in northern Italy, but other medieval universities soon appeared in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and other places. In origin, they were communities of teachers (all clergymen) who banded together in a loose association to study and teach.

By the 14th century some of these universities had acquired such an outstanding reputation that scholars came from all over Europe to study and to teach in them. These great centers of learning spread an international academic culture which has endured in Europe, the West up to the present day, and has now spread around the world. At first, the students who attended these universities were all intended for the church; however, others soon followed, especially the sons of noblemen and wealthy merchants who wished to study law.

Buildings and homes

Building styles and materials varied around Europe, but most poorer people, both in village and town, would have lived in small, single-story cottages, usually with a single room and often with stalls next to them for the family’s animals (animals roamed freely round many towns). The walls would usually be made of wattle and daub, and the roof of thatch.

Larger town houses had two or more stories. In merchant’s houses the lower story would be given over to the family business. But here too the walls would mostly be made of wattle and daub plastered on to a timber frame, with the roof thatched, slated or tiled. Only the wealthiest merchants would live in stone- or brick-built mansions.

In many towns, the largest secular building was the guildhall, where the merchants met together for business and pleasure, and where much of the towns’ public affairs were dealt with.

In the countryside, landowners below the level of the castle-owning nobility lived in manor houses. These varied in size, from small structures not much larger than those of prosperous yeomen famers, to large buildings housing a wealthy gentlemen and his family plus numerous servants.

For the aristocracy, massive stone castles housed powerful nobles, along with their families, retainers and domestic servants.

These building complexes would be structured around a great hall in which the noblemen met with other nobles or with royal officials; and where great feasts were held on regular occasions. Manor houses were smaller versions of castles, also built around a large hall. in mid-medieval times these would have been fortified, true small castles; later, they were built more with comfort and display in mind, with many decorative features. (Read more on castles here.)

Churches were to be found in most villages, and the smallest town would have several churches. These were by far the most common public edifices. Most towns would also have had at least one monastery within it or nearby.

Medieval cities were noted for the marvelous cathedrals that they boasted – the crowning architectural glories of the age. A cathedral spire soared above a skyline of most medieval cities, able to be seen for miles around. This was a powerful testimony to the importance of the Church in the life of a place, and in fact, the community surrounding the cathedral, with its bishop and his household, senior church officials, attendant monastery and nunnery with their monks and nuns, cloisters, dormitories and so on, and all the other hangers-on who served their needs, formed the prime economic element in all but the most dynamic commercial centers.


Villagers’ clothes were simple, consisting of woolen tunics for men and woolen dresses for women. Shoes were made from the leather of slaughtered animals.

Poor townsfolk dressed in much the same way, but wealthier townsmen would have brightly dyed cloaks and gowns to wear, with linen (or, for the wealthiest, silk) undergarments next to their skin. Their womenfolk, likewise, would have various layers of garments, and also brightly colored cloaks.

 King Lothair I is shown in a cloak fastened on one shoulder worn over a long-sleeved tunic and cross-gartered hose

King Lothair I is shown in a cloak fastened on one shoulder
worn over a long-sleeved tunic and cross-gartered hose

Monks wore habits – plain, woolen garments, often with a hood. The habit reached to their feet. The top of their heads was shaven. Nun’s also wore habits. Their head and hair was almost covered by a headpiece (or “coif”).


The year was punctuated by many religious festivals, which were times for communal fun and games. Villages and towns (or their guilds) organized their own games, such as an early version of football, which were often rough and could be violent. Towns and villages had many inns, and drink flowed freely. spectator sports included cock fights and bear bating. In southern Europe, bull fighting

There were also plays, put on in the market place by local people, or by troops of traveling actors. Jugglers and acrobats also performed in the streets.

Jousting and Heraldry

The aristocratic also enjoyed feasting, which took place in the great halls of their castles and manor houses. They also enjoyed a form of entertainment called the tournament. Originally, this was more or less a mock battle between two sides of knights, and could be almost as dangerous as the real thing. Later they became much more formalized, with jousts between two knights.

With the body armor of the contestants covering the face, knights’ identity had to be proclaimed by unique patterns of symbols on their shields and banners. This practice gave rise to heraldry, by which family descent was represented symbolically by these patterns. This in term led to aristocratic families being demarcated from the rest of the population by heraldic coats of arms though which their families could be traced for generations.

Law and order

In medieval Europe, law was a hotchpotch of local custom, feudal practice, Roman law and Church law. These, together with laws issues by kings and parliaments, gradually became more important as time went by.

Most people’s experience of law would have been in their local manor court, which settled disputes between neighbors and tried petty crimes. These courts were presided over by the lord of the manor, or by his official (usually a villager who had the respect of his peers).

More serious cases were tried in higher courts. In many European countries these were presided over by noble magnates or their officials. In others, notably England, these course were shire courts, and presided over by the king’s sherif or by a judge appointed by the king.

The supreme courts in medieval countries were those of the king himself. It was here that cases between nobles were heard, and also where the ruler enforced justice on the nobles.

Towns had their own courts, presided over by magistrates.

In many medieval countries, a professional body of royal judges grew up who had the expertise to try cases more professionally than in the feudal courts. In most of western Europe they drew more and more on Roman law, while in England they were based on a growing body of common law.

The professionalization of law was also apparent in the emergence of lawyers as a distinct profession. In western Europe, this took place first in Italy, as early as the 11th century; over the following three centuries the legal profession put down roots in the rest of Europe. This was largely the result of the rise of a more complex and commercial society – and also a more stable one, in which disputes between powerful men were increasingly settled in court rather than on the battlefield.

Throughout the Middle Ages, however, much justice could be horrifyingly rough and ready by modern standards.

If a thief was caught red-handed in the street, a mob would chase him and beat him up (or, not infrequently, kill him) – this was an accepted way of administering justice (it was called “hue and try”). Even when law was administered in a more orderly way, it could take a grisly form.

Capital punishment was common – and carried out by barbarous methods – burning at the stake, or hanging, drawing and quartering, for example. Torture was administered on a routine basis for obtaining information – the wrack was a common procedure. Determining guilt or innocence was often undertaken through “ordeal” – a suspect made to hold a red-hot iron to see whether his hands blistered (guilty!), or being thrown into water to see whether he floated (guilty! – clearly a lose-lose situation).

A violent society

This kind of justice was part and parcel of a violent society, which medieval Europe undoubtedly was. By modern standards, crime was horrifically high. The murder rate in most small towns was several time what it is in a modern inner city like New York or Chicago. Whole stretches of countryside were inhabited by outlaw bands and off limits to law-abiding folk. Fraud was rife in trade, wholesale corruption was embedded in government – so common as to be seldom commented upon. Unwanted babies were habitually left in the open to die (hence the idea of children being found under mulberry bushes). It was a rough, tough, violent world, not for the faint-hearted.

Medieval Europe and its neighbors

Medieval Europe was comparatively isolated from the rest of the world, geographically, culturally and commercially.

To the West: the Atlantic

The broad reaches of the Atlantic ocean formed an impenetrable barrier to the west. The small and comparatively primitive ships of the time were not well suited to long voyages in heavy ocean seas, and the navigation techniques were utterly inadequate to the challenge of long voyages far from land. Despite these limitations, by the end of the Middle Ages some Europeans had neared, or even landed on, the North American cost. The Vikings had settled Iceland, areas of Greenland (warmer, less ice-bound in those days) and “Vinland”, which may have been Newfoundland or Labrador. Later, Breton fishermen took to sailing regularly to the cod fishing grounds off Newfoundland and New England, to satisfy the huge demand for fish in Catholic Europe (where eating fish was virtually compulsory on a Friday). These long voyages were probably initiated by sailors who had been blown well off course from their usual sailing routes, but in any case are testament to astonishing practical navigation skills and outstanding courage.

To the South and Southeast: the World of Islam

To the south and south east the Mediterranean Sea, which in Greek and Roman times had formed a busy conduit of goods, ideas and settlers between the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, now formed a barrier between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa and the Middle East.

From the time of the Muslim conquests of the Middle East and North Africa, in the 7th century CE, and of most of Spain in the early 8th century, there were almost permanent hostilities in the Mediterranean region throughout the medieval period. In the eastern Mediterranean, Muslim armies repeatedly raided Asia Minor, turning much of what had been one of the wealthiest regions of the ancient world into a virtual no-man’s land. These culminated in two sieges of Constantinople (674-8, 717-8). After this a kind of peace prevailed for several centuries, but Muslim pirates remained active throughout the Mediterranean Sea.

Then, in the western Mediterranean, the Christian Reconquesta got under way in Spain in the 10th century. The Christians gradually drove out the Muslims in a sequence of wars endured until the end of the 15th century. At the same time, in the eastern Mediterranean war flared up again. Between the 11th and the 13th centuries, in the Crusades, Christian European armies took and then ultimately failed to hold Jerusalem and parts of the Levant (the lands on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, modern-day countries of Syria, Lebanon and Israel).

Finally, in the later Middle Ages, it was the turn of the Muslim world to go on the attack in the eastern Mediterranean as the Ottoman Turks began their expansion. In the 13th and 14th centuries they expanded to conquer most of Asia Minor at the expense of other small Muslim emirates and the Byzantine empire, and later considerable territory in southeastern Europe at the expense of the Byzantines, Serbs and Bulgarians.

Throughout all this time, trade between Christian and Muslim ports continued. Christian traders and travelers ventured inland on only the rarest of occasions, however, and the same was true of Muslim visitors to Europe.

To the Northeast and East: the steppes

To the northeast and east of Europe, beyond the Baltic Sea, lay the expanses of Russia and central Asia. From here, various steppe peoples invaded and settled central Europe. Some – the Bulgars and Magyars formed Christian kingdoms (Bulgaria and Hungary respectively); others (the Pechenegs) conducted destructive raids.

From the 9th century Scandinavian sailors, traders and settlers explored the river systems of western Russia, pioneering trade routes between the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. In the wake of these expeditions they established trading settlements, which grew into towns from which the Rus (as these Scandinavians were called) gained control over neighboring Slavic tribes. They thus established extensive principalities, which came under the control of the Grand Principality of Kiev. In the 11th century these joined Christendom by adopting Christianity, in its Orthodox, Byzantine form.

Kiev soon lost its primacy, but then, in the 13th century, the Mongols occupied the Russian principalities. They went on to launch extraordinarily destructive raids into eastern Europe, making short work of all European armies sent against them. For the remainder of the Medieval period the Mongols – known in Russia as the Golden Horde – were a looming presence in the east.

The Mongol domination of much of Asia had the immensely beneficial effect of fostering greater contact between west and east. The peace which their conquests brought allowed the Silk Road to flourish as a trade route as never before. This in turn enabled the Venetian merchant Marco Polo to travel around Asia from the 1260s to the 1290s, spending many years in China but also visiting South East Asia, Sri Lanka, India and the Middle East.

More importantly, the Pax Mongolica allowed innovations which originated in China, most notably gunpowder, but also, quite probably, printing, to travel from China to Europe. Here they would help to bring about transformations which would lead to the rise of modern Europe.




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