10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad

D.G. Hewitt - May 27, 2018

Not for nothing is the Medieval period often referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’. Not only was it incredibly gloomy, it was also quite a miserable time to be alive. Sure, some kings and nobles lived in relative splendor, but for most people, everyday life was dirty, boring and treacherous. What’s more, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD, things only really started getting better for normal people some 1,000 years later, with the start of the Renaissance and the dawn of the Age of Discovery.

Of course, life wasn’t all that bad. People were in touch with nature and stayed close to their loved ones. Family values were strongly embraced, and the everyday drudgery was often eased with the occasional festival or party. But, on the whole, life was a grim as we think it was. Few people lived to a good age, which might have been something of a blessing given how hard they had to work and the stresses and dangers they faced on an everyday basis. Here are just ten hardships the average man or woman had to put up with in the Middle Ages:

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
In the Middle Ages, many people never left their home villages. Lost Kingdom.

You might never leave your village

When we think of Medieval times, we often think of knights on their horses setting off on adventures to lands afar. But, while there certainly was a tradition of knights and kings traveling vast distances (well, vast by the standards of those days), the life of the average person didn’t involve much travel at all. In fact, written records from the time show that a sizeable proportion of people not only didn’t travel to other countries, but they never even left their region or even the village they were born in!

Even if you did manage to travel, being on the move was fraught with dangers. The average traveler would often sleep out in the open air. Inns or other forms of accommodation were few and far between and usually too expensive for the typical Medieval person to afford. As well as running the very real risk of freezing to death overnight, travelers in the Middle Ages might be robbed or attacked on the road. Many people, therefore, chose to travel in groups. But even then, you weren’t entirely safe – there are countless tales of people being attacked or even killed by their traveling companions.

But even if you were lucky enough to steer clear of bandits, there was still no guarantee of getting to your destination safe and sound. Roads and pathways were rough and even spraining an ankle could prove to be fatal. What’s more, bridges were quite rare, especially outside of big cities, so you might have to cross rivers. Drownings were all too commonplace – even the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I died while attempting to cross a river in the year 1190. Small wonder, then, that so many people didn’t stray far from their homes – better a boring but safe life than hazardous adventures on the open road.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
Medieval marriages were often spontaneous affairs but famously hard to prove. Pinterest.

Marriage was quick, easy and difficult to prove

Marriages between men and women of the elite – after all, same-sex unions were most definitely frowned upon by the Medieval church – were usually carefully thought-out affairs. Planned well in advance, they were usually designed with some political or monetary aim in mind. The happiness of the couple was often not a consideration at all. Among ordinary folk, however, things were quite different. Here, things were a lot more spontaneous. So spontaneous, in fact, that it might often be hard to prove that you were actually betrothed!

Quite simply, in the Middle Ages, if you and a loved one wanted to get hitched, all you needed to do was declare yourselves married there and then. No need for a ceremony or even a priest. As you can imagine, such spur-of-the-moment unions were often carried out in the heat of the moment. Sex before marriage was largely condemned in Medieval society, so a couple caught up in a moment of passion would simply declare themselves to be man and wife and then get down to business.

Of course, unscrupulous men could take advantage of the situation. Again, there was no need for a marriage to be witnessed, so if you were a woman in the Middle Ages you ran the very real risk of falling foul of a scoundrel who took you as his wife in order to get you into bed chamber and then, once he had had his satisfaction, denied ever agreeing to the union. Most women, then, did try their best to ensure that their comings together were witnessed, even if only by members of their own families rather than by members of the clergy.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
Medieval peasants and farmers were often sent to war ill-trained and ill-equipped. Pinterest.

You could be sent off to war – with just your farming tools to fight with

Medieval society was a truly feudal affair. Nobles ruled over the peasants working their land with impunity. Not only could a nobleman levy taxes on the landless peasants, he could also require all male peasants over the age of 18 to report for military service. It didn’t matter if it was a justified war against a viable external threat or just a petty fight against a local rival, if you were called up for duty, you had to report. And, once pressed into service, you’d probably be wishing you were back toiling the fields for minimal recompense.

According to histories of the time, around 1 in 5 peasant men would be in military service at any one time. However, this number would have fallen significantly during the summer months. Then, if you weren’t fighting your Lord’s war, you would be toiling in his field. Hard work, but unlikely to get you killed. But then, fighting rarely got you killed either. In most battles, the two sides just showed up, sized each other up and then a deal was made. Actual fighting was very expensive and so remained a last resort. That’s the good news. The bad news? Well into the mid-1800s, being sent away on extended military service was still a very risky business. Military camps were very primitive. You were exposed to the rain and the cold. Food and clean water were in short supply, and disease was rife. Indeed, some historians reckon two-thirds of all conscripted men who died were killed by the unsanitary conditions of their own camps rather than by enemy action.

But what really sucked about military service in medieval times is how little was in it for you. These days, joining the army can be a way of learning a trade or generally improving your lot in life. Not so back then. Feudal lords were fearful of their peasants getting too powerful. That’s why, in most cases, peasants were required to bring their own weapons. Moreover, they would rarely receive anything more than rudimentary training, so they were sent to war unprepared and ill-equipped. If a peasant soldier did get too skillful on the field of battle, then there were several cases of them ending up mysteriously dead.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
In some years, it rained for 150 days straight, causing crops to fail. Medievalists.net.

The weather was terrible

Over recent years, extreme weather events have become more commonplace the world over. But all this is nothing compared to what some people had to endure in Medieval Europe. The 12th century was particularly brutal. From 1522 onwards, a so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ swept through the continent. Temperatures plummeted and many people simply froze to death. It’s estimated that around 15% of all the people living in England died during this short, brutal period – and, of course, it was the poor, living in their shabbily-constructed houses, who made up the majority of unfortunate casualties.

But cold temperatures weren’t the end of it. The records show that, between the years 1315 and 1322, England received huge levels of rain. Sometimes it rained for 150 days non-stop! This wasn’t just miserable, it was fatal. Farmers’ fields were almost constantly flooded. They struggled to grow crops. And what could be grown was often covered in mildew. This shortage of supply meant that prices soared, keeping even basic food staples out of the reach of the poorest in society. People starved in huge numbers simply because of this freakish run of bad weather.

According to anthropologist Professor Brian Fagan of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the weather played a huge role in shaping society in Medieval Europe. In his book The Little Ice Age, he explains how freezing temperatures led to ‘bread riots’ among the peasantry. More interestingly, it may also have led to landowners getting even tougher, leading to the rise of despotic leaders and tyrants. The widespread famines caused by the cold and the rain may even have led to witch-hunting. All across Europe, people looked for explanations for the harsh conditions, often pointing the finger of blame at supernatural causes, with innocent women killed as a result.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
Medieval cities were good places to earn a trade, but dangerous places to live. Slate Magazine.

City life was a real killer

Living in the countryside was tough during the Middle Ages. The ‘Little Ice Age’ meant that crops routinely failed, and people literally starved to death. Understandably, people began heading to towns or cities. From the 14th century onwards, Europe’s cities began to boom. Most were founded where people tended to meet naturally, either at a crossroads or by a river or lake. Alternatively, cities started to spring up around cathedrals. But life here was not much easier, especially for everyday folk. Indeed, as many historians of the period have noted, town or city life for a poor person in the Medieval era was “nasty, brutal and short“.

It goes without saying that cities were amazingly unsanitary. Rivers and streams were used for both sewage and for drinking water. Disease was rife and, since houses and makeshift dwellings were packed together inside the city limits, spread rapidly. Moreover, since few people knew about matters relating to health and hygiene, little was done to keep rivers clean. And, as if dysentery and typhoid weren’t bad enough, these cramped conditions meant that the Black Death, or plague, spread rapidly through Europe’s cities, decimating their populations.

But still, people stayed, preferring city life to the brutal existence of living and starving in the countryside. Certainly, they didn’t stay for the nightlife. Yes, there were taverns, dens of drunkenness, with prostitutes ready to take any spare coins you might have. But going out to the local pub was a huge risk. Almost all cities in the Middle Ages imposed nightly curfews, a time when people were expected to be in their homes. If you went out after that, then you ran the risk of being robbed or murdered, with no police out on the streets to protect you.

That said, there were some upsides. Many cities had private bath-houses for their citizens. And there were opportunities to make a living, including for women. In fact, it was in the cities where women started moving away from domestic work into trades. Often, if a man died his wife would carry on his trade. Or some just started out on their own, becoming hatmakers, weavers or even brewing beer. It wasn’t quite living the American Dream, but, at a time when peasants in the countryside were starving or living with the very real threat of rape or violence, cities offered safety in numbers and perhaps even the chance to earn a bit of money.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
Sex could be far from frivolous fun for men in the Middle Ages. Good Reads.

Men were under pressure to ‘perform’

In this time of counseling, understanding doctors and little blue pills, men who might be struggling to perform in the bed-chamber have a number of ways to seek help. Not so their counterparts in the Middle Ages. They couldn’t even expect any real sympathy, not from their wives or their communities. This was a time when so-called conjugal duties were taken very seriously indeed. And it wasn’t just the men who had the right to ask their partners to perform. Wives could also demand intimacy, and a failure to provide this could be very real grounds for divorce.

Indeed, there are many recorded cases of women being granted divorce due to their husbands’ impotency. What’s more, many such cases were carried out in public. In Medieval France, men were even subjected to “Impotence Trails“, where they were expected to – ahem – perform in front of a jury. To be granted a divorce, the woman had to prove that her man was unable to perform. Strangely, a chap could save himself the shame of annulment due to impotency by calling on ‘special witnesses’ – prostitutes or other women who could attest to his manly prowess!

Any Medieval lady capable of putting her husband through such a humiliating ritual was almost always from a wealthy family. Those lawyers and expert physicians didn’t come cheap. But impotency was also a serious issue for everyday folk. Married couples were expected to produce children, and a failure to start a family was blamed firmly on the male.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
An apprenticeship could be the way to a brighter future – if you didn’t die of exhaustion first. Wikipedia.

Apprenticeships could be a living hell

If you think today’s internships are akin to slave labor, think again! They nothing on the Medieval apprenticeship schemes. The system of a young apprentice learning their trade under an experienced master actually originated in this period. From the mid-point of the Middle Ages onwards, master craftsmen were permitted to employ youngsters for free, so long as they provided them with food, a place to sleep and, above all, formal training in their specific craft. Sure, the end result was worth it – having a craft would undoubtedly elevate your status in Medieval society – but getting to the end of an apprenticeship took guts, fortitude and even bravery.

In many cases, apprenticeships were a way for parents to get troublesome teens out of the house and learning some discipline. Unsurprisingly, then, their masters were often very cruel to their young charges. The hours were long and the pay non-existent, much like today’s internships. But, unlike the present day, the masters might give out meager rations, effectively starving their apprentices. What’s more, beatings were commonplace and even to be expected. And, of course, an apprentice’s parents might specifically request that a craftsman beat their son, again with the aim of toughening him up and instilling in him a bit of discipline.

To add insult to injury, apprentices were stuck between childhood and adulthood. So, on the one hand, a teen in Medieval times would have been treated as an adult, with the tough working conditions this entailed. On the other hand, however, the privileges of adulthood, for example, the right to inherit money or take ownership of land, often didn’t come into play until the age of 21. Small wonder, then, that tales of apprentices behaving badly are a staple of written accounts from the Middle Ages. Rather than dedicating themselves to their professional development, apprentices would often be found in pubs or in brothels. And sometimes disgruntled apprentices caused real trouble, joining up with their peers to make gangs, like in London in 1517, when different guilds ransacked the city.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
Clothes were simple, but the rules about stripes had to be followed. The Getty Iris.

The fashion police were for real

As crazy as it may seem, in Medieval Europe, the simple act of wearing stripes could lead to your imprisonment or even your death. Why? Quite simply, for some reason, striped clothes were seen as the garments of the devil. Thus, anyone caught wearing them would, at best, get an evil eye from people in the street or, at worst, get a hangman’s noose around their neck. Indeed, there are countless examples of people being persecuted simply for choosing to wear the wrong thing. The fashion police were very real and they were very harsh and extremely unforgiving.

Quite when and where this extreme prejudice against stripes started, nobody can say for certain. However, historians of the period have found ample evidence to show that, far from being a brief and localized phenomenon, it was actually quite commonplace right across Europe for many decades, if not centuries. In the year 1310 in the French town of Rouen, for example, a local cobbler was condemned to death simply because he “had been caught in striped clothes“. Even members of the clergy weren’t exempt – in fact, they were judged even more harshly. So much so that in 1295, Pope Boniface VIII issued a Papal Decree banning religious orders from wearing any type of striped clothing.

From the year 1250 onwards, then, the only people who would be caught wearing striped were the lowest of the low in society. Prostitutes, lepers and cripples would don striped outfits, highlighting their status as outsiders. Similarly, those born out of wedlock would routinely be required to wear striped clothes. And, if you were judged to be a really serious offender, then you hangman would most likely be wearing a striped uniform. Crazily, even animals weren’t exempt. The records show that zebras were called ‘the beasts of the devil’ – even though people in Europe had only ever heard reports of them and not seen one with their own eyes.

With the dawn of the Enlightenment in Europe, the hatred of stripes eased and eventually disappeared. Many looked on the phenomenon with confusion, and understandably so. More recently, however, scholars have sought to explain quite why this was such an issue in the Middle Ages. One theory is that stripes can act as a form of camouflage and so simple fear drove the prejudice. Others think it stemmed from a much-too-literal interpretation of the Old Testament verse forbidding the wearing of garments made from two types of material.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
Taxation was confusing and often unfair during the Middle Ages. The Daily Telegraph.

Taxation was far from progressive

If you think tax is complicated today, it’s a cakewalk compared to what it was like in Medieval times. To call it complex is an understatement. Taxes went up and down all the time. Sometimes they were low, other times they were frighteningly high. And it often depended on where you were living, too. Levels of taxation did, of course, vary between the different states of Medieval Europe – so, a peasant in Sweden would pay much more than a peasant in England – but it also varied markedly within countries too. Quite simply, peasants were often relying upon the generosity of their local Lord and hoping that he would fix taxation at a low rate – or best, of all, be extremely slack in collecting what was due to him.

Right across Medieval Europe, there was no income tax, simply because nobody had a regular income. Sure, lords, nobles and aristocrats would have had pretty regular income from their land, but then they were exempt from taxation anyway. Peasants and tradesmen, meanwhile, had irregular income, often going up and down according to the seasons. As a result, they were taxed by the local lords either once or twice a year. Farmers would be made to either pay a portion of what they made for their crops or more commonly in countries like Sweden and Denmark, they would simply be required to hand over a certain number of pigs or cows.

The stressful thing was that the lord could increase – he rarely decreased – how much he demanded without any prior notice. It was up to him to judge how much individual farmers or households owed him and failure to pay this could result in the confiscation of property or even imprisonment. Taxes were most likely to go up in times of war, especially in cities. This was especially common in modern-day Italy, where city-states would regularly raise armies to fight their neighbors, with the citizens footing the bill.

At several points in history, taxes became simply too high for the people to tolerate. In Sweden, the peasants revolted in 1434, burning their land after their lords demanded too much of them. So-called ‘peasant revolts‘ caused by taxation issues, were also relatively commonplace in Medieval England. And sometimes they were successful, forcing the nobility to lower their demands if they wanted to hold onto their power.

10 Reasons That Prove Living in the Middles Ages Was Truly Bad
Dead bodies were often disturbed, often by people fearful of restless spirits. Medievalists.net.

There was no peace even after death

So, as we’ve seen, life was pretty grim for the average person in Medieval times. Perhaps it was a blessing that, for most people, life was as short as it was brutal. Anyone over the age of 50 in the Dark Ages was considered to be elderly. But that didn’t mean you got to retire. The over-50s were expected to pay their way and keep working until they simply couldn’t physically do it anymore. After that, they were seen more as a burden than anything else. So, for many, death was the only real chance to escape from the everyday hardships or working the fields and trying to get enough money and food to survive. But even in death, many people didn’t get peace.

According to some research, in Europe during the Middle Ages, a massive 40% of graves were disturbed. Now, this wasn’t like grave-robbing during the Enlightenment. There were no university medical schools paying good money for fresh corpses to study. Rather, most cases of grave disturbances were run-of-the-mill theft. Often, people would be buried with a small selection of their possessions, perhaps a favorite cup or other such trinkets. In tough times, even such objects might be enough to tempt a thief to dig up a grave.

However, this wasn’t always the case. Archaeologists in England have found many examples of Medieval graves being disturbed. More specifically, they have found evidence to suggest that, rather than looking for objects, those responsible bound and gagged the dead bodies. It seems that they were fearful of restless souls, or perhaps even of the undead rising again. Freak weather events – such as the ‘Little Ice Age’ – led people confused and often making outlandish assumptions. For many, things could only get better if the dead were dug up and then tied up. Grim times indeed – small wonder that many people simply chose to bury their relatives in unmarked graves so that they could, at last, enjoy some genuine peace and rest.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Life in Medieval Towns and Villages”. Brewminate.

“Everyday Life in the Middle Ages”. BBC Education.

“10 dangers of the medieval period”. Dr. Katherine Olson, BBC History Extra.

“When Fashion Decreed Stripes a Capital Crime”. Emily Eakin, The New York Times, June 2001.

History Extra – How Bloody Was Medieval Life?

Medievalist – Sex in the Middle Ages

Medium – 12 Interesting Facts About Sex In Medieval Times

History Extra – Plague, Famine And Sudden Death: 10 Dangers Of The Medieval Period

History of Yesterday – Putting Impotency to the Test

Spartacus Education – Taxation in the Middle Ages

Smithsonian Magazine – Why Did Early Medieval Europeans Reopen Graves?

More From Medieval Times & Ages:

History Collection – 12 Knights and Famous Figures from Medieval Times

History Collection – 8 Medical Practices From Medieval Times That Will Turn Your Stomach

History Collection – 10 Things You Should Know Before Hosting a Medieval Feast

History Collection – 12 of the Coolest Medieval Women of All Time

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