7 weird and wonderful medieval facts

To modern minds, the Middle Ages might seem full of alien concepts and circumstances. Now, a new book aims to demystify this complex period in English history, and dispel the modern assumptions that surround it...

In The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050–1300, Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania explore a wide range of topics from law, religion and education to landscape, art and magic. The experts also examine aspects of daily life including housing, food, clothing and crafts.

Here, writing for History Extra, Dr Kania and Dr Polack share seven lesser-known facts about the medieval period…

 

1) Pigs could be a real danger

In medieval times, pigs were kept as meat animals, often in a type of extensive husbandry that included foraging in forests and on common grounds. People thus had much more contact with live pigs than we do today – this could be dangerous, and even deadly.

There were multiple accounts of pigs eating children. From the 13th century, lawsuits could in theory be filed against the porcine perpetrators – this usually resulted in a death sentence for the pig. Such lawsuits were rare in England but were more common in France, especially in the region around Paris.

 

2) The Middle Ages were not drab and grey

There was an appreciation of colour in the medieval period very similar to modern enjoyment of bright and colourful things. From garments to jewellery, and stained glass windows to painted walls in both secular houses and churches, colourful decoration was everywhere.

While many wall paintings have been lost and most textiles have faded or turned brown in the soil (if they survived at all), illuminations in medieval manuscripts still give us a glimpse of the many colours of life in medieval times.


Stained glass window of King Cnut from Canterbury Cathedral, 15th century. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

3) The English were multilingual

The medieval English did not only speak English – they used French, Latin and Hebrew, as well as other languages. People employed different languages in different situations: the language of religion was Latin and Hebrew, but for law it was French. When it came to insulting people, however, this could be done in any language.

 

4) People did bathe

Hygiene was considered a sign that you were civilised, and cleanliness meant bathing. Most major towns boasted public baths, as did many private houses. Bathtubs were made using similar techniques to those used to craft wine barrels.

One might also be advised on medical grounds to bathe – for example, if you had kidney stones.


(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

5) People knew the world was round

The round Earth was described both scientifically and philosophically, and people knew about the Antipodes (the antipodes of any place on Earth is the point on the Earth's surface that is diametrically opposite to it). However, as today, a minority believed devoutly in a flat Earth.

 

6) Not everyone was Christian, or white

There were Jews and Muslims in medieval Europe, and there were also practitioners of other religions, such as Paganism. The percentage of followers of each religion in each region varied according to history and culture. Paganism was for a long time common in the north, for instance, and Islam in the Iberian peninsula.

Race wasn’t defined according to modern terms, so ‘white’ and ‘black’ were far less important than one’s religion: a black bishop from north Africa was considered more civilised and of far higher rank than a white slave from eastern Europe, for example. People were more likely to be discriminated against according to religion than skin colour, with Cathars, Jews and known heretics among those who suffered greatly.

 

7) Piped water was not unknown

Clean water was important in the medieval period – for hygiene, for food preparation, and for drinking. Establishing a water supply, especially in the cities, was not always easy, though. London was famous for its conduit – a series of cisterns to supply water to its people: the water itself was piped in from outside London.

Some castles also had pipe systems for their water supplies. Dover Castle, for example, used lead pipes to move water from its well through the building.

Dr Gillian Polack and Dr Katrin Kania are the authors of The Middle Ages Unlocked: A Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050–1300.

Kania is a freelance textile archaeologist and teacher and a published academic who writes in both German and English. Polack is a novelist, editor, medieval historian and lecturer. To find out more, visit www.gillianpolack.com and www.pallia.net, or Katrin’s blog at togs-from-bogs.blogspot.co.uk.

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