When students think of medieval times, they might first imagine the legends of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. While knights, quests, and codes of honor did play a role in medieval times, also known as the Middle Ages, they occupy only a small and early part of the history. Much more beyond legendary British tales remains to learn about this age from more than half a millennium ago.
Today in the West, we have innumerable different foods available to us at our nearby grocery stores, from spices like cinnamon and ginger to fruits like avocados and mangoes. Globalization and improved transportation allows for this variety. In medieval times, however, the difficulty of travel meant that Europeans didn’t have as much access to these foreign commodities. Medieval diets depended on what the land where you lived could grow as well as on your social standing.
Among peasants, fresh meat and fish were scarce and expensive. To extend the shelf life of what they had, peasants would heavily salt and season their meat and fish, which both preserved it and masked any taste of spoilage. The same went for fruits and vegetables: Peasants would harvest them and then pickle, preserve, or dry them for later use. Dairy formed an important part of the medieval peasant’s diet, as most families had a cow or two to raise for milk and cheese.
In later years of the Middle Ages, aristocrats and nobles could partake of the luxuries that the spice trade between European merchants, mainly Italians, and the Middle East brought. Wealth also provided fresh meat and fish for a full and satisfying table. Though a kitchen staple today, wheat was also primarily reserved for wealthier consumers because it was more expensive to grow. Nobility would eat wheat in manchet bread, which contrasted with the coarse breads of barley and/or rye that the peasantry had.
Social standing aside, all Europeans in medieval times enjoyed pottage, a thick stew, though the contents of it obviously varied depending on your resources. The “wealthier” version of pottage, which would contain meat, was called mortrew; the “poorer” version, frumentry, contained mostly boiled grains.
As with what you ate, what you wore also indicated to society where you stood on the social ladder. The Sumptuary Laws that King Edward III of England passed in the 14th century were partly responsible for this stark division. These laws designated who could wear what and how much.
The lower class depended on four main materials for their clothing: sheep’s wool, sheepskin, leather, and linen. Women would use these goods to make, line, and reinforce the family’s wardrobes. Common clothing articles included tunics, stockings, cloaks, hats, and mittens. For shoes, families would purchase a pair from a local cobbler who served the surrounding peasant households and could fashion a variety of shoe styles.
The upper class displayed their wealth through impractical garb, such as longer tunics, accessories, and fabric colored with expensive dyes. Fashions in France, Italy, and Spain, especially those sported by royalty, influenced the clothing of aristocrats. Only the upper class, as well as the powerful members of the Catholic Church, could afford jewelry. In addition, the wealthy could have their fashions built around the fine fabrics that came along the arduous Silk Road and from lands that Europeans rediscovered following the religious Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries. The most prized fabric was silk, the production of which a Sicilian king discovered during an attack on the eastern Byzantine Empire.
A last group of people whose fashion is worth noting are the monks, those men who devoted themselves to lives of prayer and service to God. Their ascetic and coarse tunics, frocks, and/or robes reflected the simple lives they chose to lead.
Art in medieval times was primarily religious. You can divide art history during the Middle Ages into three periods: the Byzantine period, the Romanesque period, and the Gothic period.
The Byzantine period covers the years 500 to 1000, also called the Dark Ages. During this time, Western Europe produced little culturally, so the mantle passed to Eastern Europe’s Byzantine Empire.
Just as medieval art can be divided into three times, so can Byzantine art: the First Golden Age, the Second Golden Age, and the Third Golden Age. As culture changed, the art output also changed, so you can’t describe one distinct Byzantine art style. A predominant feature in any time, however, were the mosaics. Mosaics decorated the walls, ceilings, and floors of Byzantine cathedrals. They often used fragile materials and glass cubes called tesserae to convey an ethereal light and reflect the wealth of the Eastern Empire. Notable examples of Byzantine mosaics are found in the Hagia Sophia, a Greek Orthodox cathedral built in 537. In addition to the characteristic Greek Orthodox dome, the Hagia Sophia contains a wealth of stylistic mosaics that depict bodies as flat objects lacking the illusion of depth.
Mosaics were a type of Eastern Orthodox icon, an item that represented a religious object, person, or idea. A wave of iconoclasm (“war on icons,” a time when the church disputed the use of icons) in the 8th century, unfortunately, caused the destruction of much of these early Byzantine icons.
The Romanesque style dominated the studios of Western Europe from 1000 to the 12th century. Romanesque art brought together Roman and Byzantine influences to produce massive churches, which the rise in monasticism demanded, and decorative art and sculpture to fill these imposing spaces. Of these, church architecture, inspired by the Roman basilica, was the most important aspect of Romanesque art.
Romanesque churches most resemble the strong and dark churches we imagine when we think of medieval cathedrals. Thick walls, massive pillars and vaults, and small windows made for an imposing and dim atmosphere.
As in the Byzantine period, paintings and sculpture focused on religion. In wall paintings, some characters were drawn out of scale to emphasize their importance. Like in Byzantine portraits, humans were not drawn realistically. The same went for sculptures; these artists instead took ideas and cast them as patterns that molded to the shape of a surface. For example, in a narrow space, figures would be drawn tall and thin.
A final noteworthy art form of the Romanesque period are illuminated manuscripts. Notable among them is St. Alban’s Psalter, which has 40 full-page illustrations. In these works, the pages were richly decorated with religious figures and icons.
The Gothic period arose from France in the 12th century and lasted two centuries. Unlike the previous two medieval art periods, Gothic art valued naturalism, which would bridge the gap between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. In addition to improving techniques in Byzantine stained glass and Romanesque illuminated manuscripts, the Gothic period produced many frescoes and panel paintings. A favorite focus was the Madonna, as in Duccio’s Madonna and Child.
In architecture, the main innovation of the Gothic period was the pointed arch and ribbed vaulting that allowed for lighter structures and more height. Romanesque architects tried this technique in the later part of that period, but Gothic architects refined it. More windows meant that Gothic cathedrals were much brighter than those from the Byzantine or Romanesque times. In addition to larger windows, impressive stained glass illuminated the halls.
Under the medieval feudal system, vassals worked land owned by a lord or monarch, which obligated them to serve their masters in battle. Thus, all men needed to know how to fight. Artifacts reference gunpowder as early as the mid-13th century, but for the most part, weapons requiring gunpowder like cannons were not used. But there was, of course, the sword, a favorite of medieval knights. Other common weapons were the lance, a long pole that horsemen used; the mace, an iron club; the bullhook, a farming tool that was developed for combat use; and the halberd, a combination of ax, hook, and spike. After the Dark Ages ended in the 11th century, the bow and arrow also gained popularity.
Medieval medicine combined tradition, superstition, and spirituality. Medical literature was scarce, so doctors had little idea how to deal with sickness properly. They based much of their treatment on the works of ancient Greek physicians, who believed that four elements and four humors were at work in the body and you had to balance the humors to achieve optimal health. A go-to cure was bloodletting.
The primary patients of the medieval physicians were the rich. For the peasantry, the local wise woman would prepare concoctions of herbs, roots and other organic matter or people would do it themselves. The result was many very odd medicines, such as using the slime of a snail to heal burns and treating gout with the salted, baked, and pounded remains of an owl.
Games and Entertainment
Some of the games that people played in the Middle Ages were not much different from the games enjoyed today. Children would play hide and seek, tag, and hopscotch. Trade with the East brought chess and playing cards.
Inspired by the gladiatorial fights of the Roman Empire, medieval folk used old amphitheaters to pit beast against beast, usually bears or bulls, in baitings. Armed knights would also compete in tournaments. Tournaments were the fare of the aristocratic, who used them to celebrate noble lineage and family honor.
Of musicians, there were minstrels and troubadours who entertained the public with stories, music, and various antics. The nobility also could hire a personal entertainer for their home, called a court jester. The popularity of court jesters died out beginning in the 17th century.
The Middle Ages has so much to discover, from weird recipes to bizarre medicines to exciting games. You can learn more about medieval times by playing online games, cooking a medieval meal, building a castle, and much more.