Medieval misconceptions: 12 myths about life in the Middle Ages – busted
Did everyone die young in medieval times? And were medieval people really as dirty as we think? Historian Hannah Skoda shares a dozen little-known facts about the Middle Ages and busts some of the biggest misconceptions...
From the idea of the ‘dark ages’ to the myth that everyone was short, Hannah Skoda challenges the misconceptions that…
Women were so oppressed in the Middle Ages that they never did anything of interest
Medieval society was certainly deeply patriarchal, and women were severely oppressed. However, this does not mean that women were passive victims. There are many examples of extraordinary women who achieved great notoriety: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, to name a few.
But we also now know much more about the day-to-day lives of women across the social spectrum. Women participated in social, economic and political life, actively and often critically.
For instance, peasant women played critical roles in their small-holdings; single women in towns were very economically active; merchant women sometimes ran businesses very successfully. And women stuck together. We find cases of women helping each other in cases of sickness; sisters, mothers and daughters sticking up for one another; and women accompanying one another on difficult journeys.
Everyone was short and died young
Evidence such as the small size of many medieval door-frames has led many to believe that people were significantly shorter in the Middle Ages. In fact, archaeological analysis shows that average heights have changed little over the past 1,000 years. From the 10th century through to the 19th-century, the average height did not shift more than a few centimetres from about 158cm for women, and 170cm for men.
It's also misleading to think that life span was considerably reduced. Averages are skewed by the very high mortality rates in periods of epidemic disease, such as the Black Death of 1348 and by the high incidence of childhood mortality. In fact, sources provide many examples of village elders in their eighties, able to reminisce about the profound social changes since their childhood.
Listen to Hannah Skoda tackle some common misconceptions about the middle ages, from irrational peasants to mindless violence:
Peasants were revolting and irrational
It’s true that medieval peasants had little access to education or literacy, but they were by no means stupid. When they were involved in protests, they did so strategically, and knowingly evoked important documents about their ancient rights like the Domesday Book of 1086.
As for their more general acumen, many peasants were able to draw effectively on strategic and quite sophisticated rationales about how to manage their agricultural concerns. And the surviving legal evidence right across Europe demonstrates that peasants knew how to engage with legal systems and courts to their advantage – whether in disputes with neighbours, with their husbands and wives, or indeed their overlords.
Medieval towns were unhygienic and squalid
Whilst many medieval towns probably did stink, people were certainly bothered about this. More and more recent scholarly work has focused on the efforts to keep medieval towns clean and healthy, particularly in the late medieval period.
While we might often see or read portrayals of urban filth and squalor, there was an enormous amount of regulation about such matters as dumping sewage in the streets or allowing animals to roam free.
Watch Hannah's lecture on crime and violence in the Middle Ages, recorded as part of our free virtual Medieval Life and Death History Festival:
Medieval people were brutally and mindlessly violent
Although it’s very hard to assess this statistically, levels of interpersonal physical violence were indeed probably very high. However, this was something which really bothered medieval people: across a range of contexts, they really agonised about levels of violence and the harm which it could cause, whilst also acknowledging that sometimes it was a useful way of restoring ‘order’.
For example, domestic violence was sometimes encouraged as a way to ‘discipline’ unruly wives, but it was also the subject of real concern that it could go too far. Codes of chivalry provided ways to glorify violence, but at the same time tried to channel and contain it.
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Medieval people thought the world was flat and had little conception of the wider world
Whilst medieval people loved fantastical stories about monstrous peoples in far-off lands, most were perhaps surprisingly well-informed about the world beyond their home.
This was partly because travel was very common in the Middle Ages: pilgrimages, trade and commerce, and diplomacy all meant that there was a lot of moving around.
And did medieval people all think the world was flat? Actually, most understood that the world was spherical. If medieval maps look rather naïve to modern eyes, it’s often because their function was different: many maps were intended as devotional objects rather than scaled geographical representations.
Medieval people had no sense of humour
This is perhaps the most glaring misconception of all. Whilst it may not always be to our taste, medieval life was imbued with wit and humour. There was an appetite for jokes, ranging from the subtle and sophisticated to the obscene and bawdy.
Sometimes the surviving evidence is material. For example, one jester called ‘Fromage’, from northern France, sealed his invoice with a piece of cheese, the mould of which still lingers unpleasantly on the parchment. Another merchant from the Netherlands wrote a witty line to explain that he had to begin a new sheet of parchment in his accounts because his cat had urinated on the page.
Funny stories were also ubiquitous, as people loved to be entertained. Stories by writers such as Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio and English writer Geoffrey Chaucer often drew on older folk tales and revelled in rude jokes and cases of mistaken identity.
Religious dogma meant that no one thought for themselves
The medieval Church did not value toleration, but nor did it try (or have the means) to impose absolute religious uniformity. Whilst the Middle Ages are punctuated by moments of censorship and persecution, religious thinking of a remarkably sophisticated kind was actively encouraged in many medieval universities. Paradigm-shifting advances in knowledge were made by posing fundamental questions: for example, on the nature of God.
On a more popular level, people also held a wide range of religious views. The line between magic and religion was blurred, and a range of religious practices developed which may seem to us frankly bizarre. Amulets and charms were a popular and largely tolerated way to deal with ill health or pregnancy.
Torture was used often, and cruel corporal punishment was ubiquitous
In very many cases, corporal punishment was actually commuted to a monetary payment instead. Very often authorities were quite reluctant to punish people in a bodily manner. And when executions did happen, they often provoked pity and horror: in fact, that was precisely the point.
Torture was used in some cases, but again, we know that medieval thinkers agonised about the problems which it raised: not least that it might elicit desperate and false confessions.
There was little concept of childhood in the Middle Ages
This myth originated with a famous book by historian Philippe Ariès, first published in 1960, which claimed that there was no distinctive notion of childhood in the Middle Ages.
It is patently untrue – medieval children were certainly treated differently from modern children, but there was a real sense that children had different needs and different behaviours from adults.
This has since been most comprehensively illustrated in the work of Nicholas Orme on medieval education. The survival of medieval toys provides a touching indication that children were often thought of as rather special. They rode hobby-horses, played with marbles, and cuddled dolls.
There was little trade or commerce, partly because credit was underdeveloped
The origins of modern commercial practices lie precisely in this period. Extremely sophisticated commercial patterns emerged – both at a local level and internationally. These tended to be underpinned by complex systems of credit, and the 14th-century even saw the establishment of what are known today as ‘super companies’. And it is untrue that all lending at interest was undertaken by Jewish communities, even if this formed an increasingly dangerous anti-Semitic trope.
The Renaissance was a breakthrough moment in terms of critical thinking, rediscovery of the classics, and a sense of the individual
The idea of the ‘dark ages’ was one dreamed up by Italian scholar Francis Petrarch in the mid-14th century. Petrarch was an early humanist thinker, and one of the features of humanism was to disparage the Middle Ages as an era of blind and uncritical dogmatism. Needless to say, this is rubbish.
Medieval thinkers, particularly in the context of the universities, were mind-blowingly sophisticated. Many classical texts were well known and taken as important authorities for history writing in particular. And the idea that it was only during the Renaissance that a true sense of the individual emerged is nonsense. Medieval people articulated the relationship between the individual and the community in fascinating ways and agonised about the role of individual conscience.
In any case, the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance had precursors. The Middle Ages saw at least two previous ‘Renaissances’: the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th–9th centuries; and what is known as the ‘12th-century Renaissance’, a period of flourishing intellectual debate and provocative ideas.
Hannah Skoda is fellow and tutor in medieval history at St John’s College, Oxford. She works on the social and cultural history of the later Middle Ages, and has published notably on Medieval Violence (OUP, 2013), and co-edited two volumes on Legalism (OUP, 2012 and 2018)
To watch Hannah's lecture on crime and violence in the Middle Ages – plus other talks on medieval food, marriage and religion – click here. These lectures were recorded as part of our free virtual Medieval Life and Death History Festival, which ran in May 2020