Medieval Society I: Aristocratic Lifestyle (Nobles
The social structure which grew up in the early Middle Ages was clearly
a product of the disorders of this period.
Much of society was organized on the local level. Localities had
to be as self-sufficient as possible; because they had relatively little
contact with one another.
While a few groups, like soldiers, pilgrims, and merchants, might move
around a good deal, the majority of the population remained close to home.
Most men and women lived their whole lives within sight of the village
where they were born. During the Middle Ages, particularly in the
earlier centuries, most people led a fairly isolated existence, largely
unexposed to the intellectual crosscurrents which help bring about change.
A medieval bishop characterized his society as being divided into three
groups: "the men who work, the men who fight, and the men who pray."
These were the three great social classes of the medieval world.
Estates: the name which people of the Middle Ages applied
to these social classes.
(1) First Estate = the Christian clergy (the men who pray)
(2) Second Estate = the Warrior Aristocracy (the men who
(3) Third Estate = the rest of the population (the men who
The first two estates were the 'upper classes' or elite of medieval society.
Although they comprised a relatively small percentage of the population (never
more than about 5%), they dominated that society.
Throughout the Middle Ages, most (though not all) members of the third
estate were agricultural laborers known collectively as peasants.
Among the peasants there were three basic sub-groups (serfs, slaves,
and free peasants). It was largely their work that supported
the Churchmen and warriors.
As the Middle Ages progressed, a new social group appeared on the scene
- townspeople who who lived in the fast growing towns and cities
of late medieval Europe. Despite great economic and social differences
within the ranks of townspeople, medieval society grouped them in the third
estate, along with the peasants. Although they remained vastly outnumbered
by the peasant population, their growing economic and political strength soon
made them the dominant sector of the medieval working class.
When the bishop characterized medieval society, he referred to the men
who worked, fought, and prayed. This merely illustrates his masculine
orientation. Actually, women belonged to all three estates,
including the clergy (albeit their role as members of the church was fairly
The bishop was also referring to Christian society. During
the Middle Ages, virtually all of Europe converted to Christianity.
The relatively few non-Christians who were permitted to live among the Christian
majority were, at best, barely tolerated. They were social outcasts
who did not really fit into any of the three estates.
Most of the non-Christians whose presence medieval society usually tolerated,
but never welcomed were Jews. A few, primarily in Spain and southern
Italy, were Moslems. Both groups were used as scapegoats for anything
which went wrong in medieval society.
Examples of medieval intolerance:
(1) At the beginning of the First Crusade (c. 1095), crusaders starting
out for the Holy Land massacred Jews in France and Germany.
(2) In the mid-fourteenth century, many European Christians blamed
the Jews for the great plague that devastated Europe and which may have destroyed
more than a third of the European population. Several of their explanations
for the plague worked to the distinct disadvantage of the Jewish population.
(a) It was God's judgment against a society that would allow non-believers
to live among Christians.
(b) The Jews were causing the plague by "poisoning the wells."
No matter that that Jews were dying from the plague every bit as quickly
as Christians or that many who drank from those supposedly poisoned wells
never got sick. In what was considered 'just retribution,' many Jews
were slaughtered by the frightened Christian majority.
Pogrom: a word which refers to a massacre of the Jewish population.
Although the life of a warrior in the Middle Ages tended to be far better
than that of a peasant, by modern standards, it would be considered quite
primitive. One need only remember how many things we take for granted
simply did not exist during the Middle Ages. They were no more available
to the wealthiest king than to the humblest worker.
The medieval warrior was a member of the Second Estate.
Knight: the English word for the heavily-armed, mounted warrior
of the Middle Ages.
Knighthood: the state of being a knight.
The usual candidate for knighthood was a young man who had been born into
the warrior class and whose father had been a knight before him. Only
on fairly rare occasions did a commoner from the third estate win knighthood.
Knighthood was an exclusively masculine institution. A women
could not become a knight. In fact, for a woman to wear men's clothing
was regarded as unnatural and could get her in serious trouble with society
and the church (witness the case of the maid of Orleans, Joan of
Arc. One of the charges brought against Joan was the wearing of men's
Most Romance languages had a term meaning "knight" which was related to
their word for "horse" - the animal with which the the medieval warrior was
(1) Chevalier (French) (Horse = cheval)
(2) Caballero (Spanish) (Horse = caballo)
(3) Cavaliere (Italian) (Horse = cavallo)
Chivalry: a word, derived from French (cheval, chevalier);
it refers to that whole code of honorable conduct in accordance with which
a warrior was supposed to shape his actions. Knighthood is often used
as an English synonym for chivalry.
The institution of knighthood probably grew out of the primitive German
ceremony - described by the Roman historian Tacitus - in which young
warriors, upon coming of age, were given their arms in the presence of the
tribe, making them full-fledged members.
Many aspects of medieval society can be seen to have their roots in
either the Roman or German past. Knighthood is just one illustration
of this important fact.
Over the course of the Middle Ages, knighthood, like almost everything
else, underwent an evolutionary process. The whole concept of the knight
and his duties to society grew increasingly complex.
In the early period, the knight was called upon to be loyal to his lord;
and faithful to his vassal. He was to show courage (prowess) in battle.
He was to defend his own rights and honor; as well as the rights and honor
of family members. Thus, early knighthood was almost exclusively
a military ethic which centered around the individual and his family.
The only outsiders to whom he owed a duty were his lord and his vassal.
In this early period, knightly training was also rudimentary. While
a person might spend a short period of time in some other warrior's household,
leaning the rudiments fighting, much of his real training was what we might
call “on the job.” The young warrior would be introduced to battle where
he could sharpen his skills by actually fighting the enemy.
Accolade: tap on the shoulder with the flat of a sword making
a man a knight.
Forces which helped reshape the ideals of the medieval knight as the Middle
(2) Changing view of women
As the Middle Ages progressed, an ever more elaborate code of chivalry
infused with Christian values tried to impress upon the knight that his obligations
extended beyond just himself, his family, and his lord or vassal; that in
fact, he owed various duties to the larger society in which he lived.
In particular, chivalry came to embody his obligation to promote the interests
of the Church, to spread the faith, and to protect the poor, the defenceless,
and the downtrodden of society.
Around the year 1000, the new rules were set forth by the Church in two
(1) The Peace of God (pax dei): listed the non-combattants
of society whom the knight was not to harm. These included widows,
orphans, travellers, merchants, priests, pilgrims, and peasants.
(2) The Truce of God (truga dei): specified certain days
of every week, and whole seasons of the year when all fighting was to cease.
Although often ignored in practice, these rules helped define chivalry
in its more developed state. All of these changes reflect Christian
influences on the code of chivalry.
Later in the Middle Ages, the Church also decreed that it was part of
the knightly function to participate in crusades, both to protect and to
spread the faith.
Crusade (from the Latin word 'crux' meaning 'cross'): holy
war that Christian society conducted not against pagans and the followers
of Islam, but also against heretical Christians.
Another significant force which helped alter the concept of chivalry was
the improving status of women in the Middle Ages.
Early medieval society, like many other past societies, did not have a
particularly high regard for women. Nor did Christian theory help much
to improve their standing, since it tended to view women in a rather unfavorable
light - as the temptress, Eve, whom men should avoid as much as possible.
Dowry: the property that a woman brought to marriage; an important
consideration in estimating her "value".
However, once again over the course of centuries, there were counter-currents
which did tend to improve the status of women:
(1) The important role aristocratic women played in a rough-and-ready
society where warriors were often away fighting or had died young
(2) The cult of the Virgin Mary
(3) The cult of Courtly Love
The lady of the manor played a major role in running the household and
even the estate, particularly when her husband was absent, injured, or dead
- all of them fairly frequent occurences in the Middle Ages! In an age
of disorder, as in any frontier society, the demands on everybody tend to
be greater. Consequently, both men and women are required to pull a
heavier load. This often results in a rise in the status of women, society's
way of acknowledging their contribution.
In the early church, Mary had not been the highly important figure she
became during the Middle Ages. By raising her to a leading position
in Christian doctrine, the church helped improve, by association, the image
of women as a whole. There was now a new Christian image of women--Mary,
the compassionate mother--to counter the older image--Eve, the temptress
who leads man into sin.
Courtly love was a "secular idealization" of women. It created
the powerful image of the "knight's lady," a woman whom the knight was to
place upon a pedestal and in whose name he was to do his great deeds.
Starting around the 12th century, this image began to permeate the chivalric
literature. Spread by the troubadours, the cult of courtly love called
upon the knight to adore, honor and serve a particular lady; and, to be
courteous and good to all noble ladies. (Note that the words "courteous"
and "courtly" derive from this phenomenon.)
The object of a knight's courtly love was not ordinarily his own wife.
Not infrequently, it was somebody else's wife (a fact which has led one
historian to characterize courtly love as "adultery raised to the level of
social obligation!") This could often lead to marital problems: witness
the most famous "love triangle" of the Middle Ages, the case of King
Arthur, his wife, Queen Guinevere, and her "courtly lover," Sir
Lancelot, which destroyed the king's friendship for Lancelot and brought
down the Round Table.
Eleanor of Aquitaine: the strong willed duchess who
married the king of France, then deserted him for the younger and more handsome
king of England, Henry II. Eventually, she mothered two of England's
most famous (though by no means most competent monarchs--Richard the
Lionheart and his brother, John; and, when they came of age, plotted
with both of them against her husband, Henry. She played a key role
in pioneering and promoting the idea of courtly love, by gathering around
her minstrels and troubadours who composed the romances of chivalry that
became the embodiment of courtly love.
Despite improvement in image and condition of women, widowhood remained
the freest time in a woman's life - a period when she was not under the
control of some male - and noblewomen often paid for the right to remain
widows when their lords or relatives tried to marry them off for a second
or third time!
As the medieval period progressed, training for knighthood became
more elaborate and institutionalized.
There came to be three stages through which a knight was expected to pass:
(1) Page (age 7-14)
(2) Squire (age 14-21)
Training was usually conducted in someone else's household. Thus,
the would-be knight had to leave his home at a relatively young age (approximately
Only while he was still a page could a future knight be required to do
menial tasks. At that point, it was considered good discipline.
Later on, such tasks would be considered to be below him.
Important Aspects of knightly training:
(1) use of weapons
(5) gaming (!!) (A warrior had to know how to gamble like
In some relatively refined households, there might also be some training
in poetry, music, and dancing.
Rarely would the education including reading and writing, for which the
warrior class saw little use throughout most of the Middle Ages.
Even the ceremony of becoming a knight became much more elaborate.
It was the secular equivalent of ordination to the priesthood. A young
man dressed in special clothes, fasted for 24 hours, and spent a night in
prayer and contemplation before the accolade was administered. The
higher ranking the person to administer the accolade, the better.
There was also a ceremony for stripping a man of his knighthood, in which
he was declared "dead to the world," not dissimilar to what happened in the
ceremony conducted for lepers, the most despised segment of medieval society.
Not all squires became knights. While some failed to complete
the training, others were simply not wealthy enough to take on the mantle;
in fact, the elderly squire became a medieval literary stereotype.
Medieval Weaponry (Arms, Armor, and Training)
The primary weapons of the medieval warrior:
The sword was the weapon most typical of the medieval warrior. In
fact, the right to wear a sword was a distinguishing feature of membership
in the warrior class. In many European countries, right up into the
nineteenth century, it remained a privilege of noblemen to wear a sword
in everyday life. However, while an aristocrat might at times put
aside his sword, he would rarely be found without his dagger.
Broadsword: a heavy, two-handed type of sword used only in
Other aristocratic weapons: battleaxe, mace, morning star,
war hammer, ball and chain or battle flail
Use of the Battleaxe: In some parts of northern Europe (for
example among the Vikings) , the battleaxe was used at least as extensively
as the sword.
There were also some weapons which a medieval knight would not use
in battle. (For example: the pike, club, bow, and crossbow.)
Reasons for Not Using a Weapon:
(1) The weapon was not well suited for use on horseback. (The pike
was a long spear designed for use by a footsoldier.)
(2) It was regarded as a lower class weapon (pike, club).
(3) It was not as effective as other weapons available. (A
club was potentially less lethal than an edged weapon such as a sword or
(3) It was regarded as unfair or ungentlemanly. (Although
aristocrats might make use of a bow or crossbow in hunting, they would not
normally use such weapons on the battlefield. Since a gentleman was
expected to fight his enemy in hand-to-hand combat, these weapons, which
could kill a man at a distance, were regarded as unfair.)
Warrior churchmen were a common feature on medieval battlefields.
Despite the fact that churchmen were still banned by Christian law
from spilling blood, despite their ability to send a substitute to render
military service in their place (called an advocatus), many churchmen
still took in battle. High churchmen (abbots, bishops, archbishops)
tended to come from the warrior class and shared their relatives' war-like
ethic. Some tried to rationalize their conduct: for example,
the bishop who plead a split personality. He said that when he was
in his church, he was a cleric; when out on the battlefield, a warrior vassal
of his lord. Some used a club on the grounds that killing with a blunt
weapon like that was not actually spilling blood, as would be the case with
an edged weapon like a sword or axe.
Armor also constituted a critical part of the medieval warrior's equipment.
It came in two forms:
(2) Body armor
Over the course of the Middle Ages, both medieval weaponry (both arms
and armor) underwent an evolutionary process that tended toward greater
lethality and greater weight. Armor grew heavier.
Although heavier armor provided greater protection, there could be trade-offs:
in some cases, it limited both vision and mobility.
Four kinds of medieval armor (in order of development):
(1) Thick, tanned leather
(2) Such leather with small metal rings or plates sewn to it
(3) Chain mail
(4) Plate armor
Chain mail (often simply called mail): a flexible, interwoven
mesh made of metal which was capable of turning aside or at least slowing
the penetration of hand-held metal weapons and stopping arrows from the
short bow of the early Middle Ages.
Plate armor: a suit composed of iron plates molded to fit
the human body and joined together to allow some degree of movement.
When one thinks of a suit of armor, one is thinking of plate armor.
Shields: There was a change in shape from round to kite-shaped
(roughly triangular) as the Middle Ages learned that this shape gave greater
body protection for less weight. Later in the medieval period, as body
armor became heavier, shields tended to become somewhat smaller - to the
point where they could no longer fulfill one of their earlier functions
as stretchers for the wounded.
The increasing weight of body armor raised a key question: how much
weight could a person carry and still be an effective fighter? It
has been argued that if a fully armored knight of the later Middle Ages
were to fall off his horse, and land on his back, he be relatively
helpless, akin to a turtle suffering a similar misadventure. However, recent
research into the use of good suits of plate armor have shown that they could
be relatively flexible.
Reasons for the changes in armor which occurred over the course of
the Middle Ages:
(1) Improved metal-working techniques
(2) Improvement in weaponry (crossbow, longbow) necessitated the
use of stronger (and therefore heavier) armor
Crossbow: although present at the Battle of Hastings in 1066,
the crossbow did not come into general use until after the First Crusade,
around the year 1100. It fired a bolt or quarrel that had great
penetrating power and which, due to its relatively short length, was fairly
easy to transport. It could be fired from behind cover, making it a
perfect weapon for castle defense. In the field, crossbowmen often
fought behind a stand-up shield known as a pavisse.
The crossbow was such a fearsome weapon that in 1139, the papacy issued
a decree at the Second Lateran Council, outlawing its use against
Christians. Henceforward, according to the pope, it should be used
only against second-rate folks such as Moslems, pagans, and heretics!
This is history's first example of an attempt to prohibit a weapon, on the
grounds that it was too terrible to use; and, like most other such attempts,
this one failed.
Knightly attitude: even those skilled in the use of crossbows
in hunting tended to hate the use of this weapon which undercut their preeminence
on the battlefield. There are instances in which they rode down their
own crossbowmen (e. g. the battle of Crecy, 1346) and crossbowmen captured
often had their hand cut off.
Nevertheless, most European armies made use of crossbowmen in their armies; they
were simply too useful in warfare to put aside because of knightly scruples.
Some places, most notably the Italian merchant city of Genoa, trained
crossbowmen to serve as mercenaries in feudal armies.
Longbow: Essentially an English weapon. In the 13th century,
the English, in their conquest of Wales, ran afoul of the heavy Welch bow.
They were so impressed that they borrowed and improved upon it. It
was this borrowed piece of military technology became the feared English
longbow. The longbow was as powerful as the best crossbows and could
fire at a much greater rate. It was the best missile weapon before
the invention of the gun and helped account for England's victories over
the French in the Hundred Years War. However, its use required considerably
more training than use of a crossbow and required carrying arrows that were
longer and therefore less portable than crossbow bolts.
Various of the entertainments most important to the warrior class actually
constituted forms of weapons training.
(1) Horsemanship: the horse was the animal most closely
associated with the warrior class. Only a warrior enjoyed the right
to fight and hunt from horseback. Many places, the very possession
of a warhorse constituted proof that one was a member of this class.
Consequently, mastery of the horse was a duty, a necessity, a pleasure,
and a point of pride. (1) For many in the warrior class, warfare was
a major entertainment as well as an occupation.
(2) Mock warfare
(a) Joust - single combat between warriors carried on for
sport (not to be mistaken for a duel or trial by battle!)
(b) Tournament - a fight which involved a number of men on
either side. Sometimes they fought as teams; sometimes as individuals.
Melee: an alternate name for tournamen; it is still used to refer
to a brawl.
Although the joust and tournament were sporting events, they were very
dangerous ones and not infrequently, participants were severely wounded or
killed while taking part in them. The most famous joust in history occurred
in 1559 when the French king, Henry II, was killed during the celebrations
for his daughter's wedding.
Duel (Trial by Battle): a serious combat, often fought to
the death, for the purpose of settling a quarrel. A joust, which was a
sporting event, was
different than a duel. Nevertheless, both not infrequently ended in severe
injury or death.
(3) Hunting: Either on foot or on horseback, using swords,
spears, javelins, and crossbows, medieval aristocrats spent much of their
time slaughtering the wild animals which still inhabited the European world.
In addition to relatively peaceful game, like deer and elk, there were a
number of animals which could be quite formidible: for example, wolves, bears,
and wild boar.
Falconry (or "Hawking"): The use trained birds of prey to
hunt for smaller birds and animals. It was a form of hunting which
was highly favored by medieval aristocrats (and which is still practiced
in various parts of the Near East.)
Henry the Fowler: an example of the passion for hunting displayed
by nobles. When messengers arrived telling him of his election to
the imperial crown, rather than thanking them, he scolded them for scaring
away the birds he was hunting.
On the Art of Hunting with Falcons: a book written by an
intellectual emperor of the thirteenth century named Frederick II,
dealing not only with the life and training of falcons, but also with the
many bird and small animals that falcons hunted. Many historians regard
this as the finest scientific book of the Middle Ages.
Throughout the Middle Ages, hunting was a jealously guarded privilege
of the aristocracy in many parts of Europe. Peasants were not
allowed to hunt. If they defied this ban, it was considered to be
poaching (illegal hunting), for which there were savage penalties,
including branding, maiming or, in certain places, even death. In
fact, the peasant was not even permitted to kill gave on his own land, to
protect his crops from destruction. The famous case of this in literature
involved a legendary English hero (we do not know when he live or even if he lived):
Most of the homes of medieval aristocrats were heavily fortified places
of the sort we call castles. These tended to be dark and drafty. To
afford better protection and to help keep out as much of the cold air as
possible, castles had relatively few windows, and those usually on upper
floors where they were less vulnerable to attack.
Castle: derived from the Latin word 'castra,' meaning
the fortified camp in which a legion was quartered. In the centuries
of disorder which accompanied the fall of Rome, private individuals began
to construct fortified dwellings of their own. Such a dwelling became
known as a castellum, or "little castra".
The medieval castle was the chief architectural expression of the feudal
age, comparable to the cathedral in the religious sphere. It served
as the center of local authority and as a refuge for the local population
in times of disorder.
Whenever possible, such structures were erected on an easily defensible
spot, such as a hilltop or behind the natural protection afforded by a stream.
If these natural features were not available, it might be constructed on
an artificial mound, surrounded by a man-made ditch.
Moat: the man-made ditch surrounding the castle.
Palisade: the wooden fence enclosing early castles.
The earliest castles were built primarily of wood. By later medieval
standards, they were quite primitive structures - blockhouses of rough-hewn
logs, sometimes containing just a single large room with narrow slits for
windows which let in a minimum of light. Such a structure would be
surrounded by a wooden stockade (the palisade), with the earth pushed up
around it to give it added strength. Every so often, along the length
of this stockade, the builder might strengthen the defenses by putting up
a tower. Outside the stockade would be the moat.
Drawbridge: the bridge across the moat, which could be drawn
up in time of attack. There might be several drawbridges incorporated into
the castle defenses.
As the medieval centuries passed, the castle underwent major changes:
(1) An increase in the number of different buildings within the
castle complex: Originally, the main building might serve a number
of functions - fortress, residence, storehouse and stable all combined into
one structure. However, over the course of centuries, new buildings
were erected, each to serve a special function. The creation of separate
stables and storehouses, as well as new residential wings, provided the
castle's inhabitants with greater space and privacy.
(2) The switch from wood to stone as a building material:
With the cultural decline following the fall of Rome, the use of stone in
construction had become far less common throughout the west. Over
the medieval centuries, however, the west relearned the the art of the stone
masonand the techniques of stone architecture. This relearning process
seems to have been stimulated by increasing contact with the eastern Mediterranean,
where both the Byzantine Empire and Islam were culturally far ahead of the
west. Eventually, the wood blockhouse was replaced by a multistory
stone tower known as the donjon or keep. Even with the switch-over to stone,
wood continued to be an important building material in the construction
of castles. Furthermore, some parts of the structure (eg. roof and
floor) continued to be regularly made of wood. In addition, stone tended
to be more expensive and required the hiring of specialized craftsmen known
as masons. Consequently, even the wealthiest aristocrats would build
stone dwellings only on their most important estates; making due elsewhere
with wood or a combination of wood and stone.
(3) The move from square to round forms: The original
building material - wood - had dictated more or less square or rectangular
buildings. These had been carried over into the original stone castles,
in which the buildings and the towers lining the walls were square.
Eventually, however, two factors encouraged the switchover to rounded structures:
(a) The re-introduction of siege artillery gave medieval armies an
effective means of attacking castles.
(b) It was discovered that rounded walls were more resistant to artillery
than square walls. This does not mean that square forms were entirely
superceded. Many later castles contain a bewildering combination of
square and rounded towers and buildings. However, it is safe to generalize
that more and more, round elements replaced square ones - especially at those
points in the defenses where resistance to siege artillery was vital.
(4) The creation of concentric fortifications: Concentric
fortifications were simply a system of walls within walls. In attacking
these multi-layered defensive structures, an enemy might manage to overrun
the outer wall, only to encounter another wall which he would have to attack.
Since this inner wall was usually stronger and built on higher ground than
the one he had just captured, the fact that he held the outer wall was not
of much use to him. Furthermore, it would often be harder to find
a good spot from which to bring his siege artillery to bear against this
By the late twelfth century, the engineers and masons of western Europe
had combined to construct the great stone fortifications which dominated
the rural landscape. As engineering feats, many of these massive structures
rivalled the great gothic cathedrals of the age.
Examples: Krak des Chevaliers (Syria); Chateau Gaillard (Normandy);
Coucy le Chateau (north of Paris)
Lifestyle of the Medieval Warrior
Not every member of the warrior class could afford his own castle -
even one made out of wood. The majority of medieval warriors served
other, more important members of their class; and many of them lived in
the castles of the men whom they served. In medieval society, a warrior
who served someone else was known as a vassal; the person whom he
served was his lord. For lord or vassal, life in a medieval castle, whether it was wood or
stone, would have been relatively uncomfortable. Such structures were
cold, damp, and drafty; and tended to be quite crowded. Privacy for
the inhabitants of a castle was usually at a minimum. Move from wood to
stone actually made castles colder, since wood is a better insulating material.
Relatively few varieties of furniture existed, even for the use of the upper
classes (chairs, tables, benches, stools, chests for storage, beds for the
leading figures in the castle.)
Although the more important occupants of the castle, such as the lord
and his family had beds, the majority probably slept on pallets or bedrolls
brought out at night and thrown on the floor. Four poster beds
with bed curtains increased warmth and privacy.
Starting around the time of the crusades, rugs and tapestries were added
to the castle's furnishings. These floor and wall coverings helped
make castles somewhat warmer and more habitable places. However, both
dcontinued to be luxury items throughout the Middle Ages.
Most castles, especially in the earlier period, had as their only form
of insulation a layer of straw thrown down on the floor, in order to help
protect against the winter cold.
Disadvantages of a straw floor-covering:
(1) Food thrown to the animals would often get into the straw and
(2) The animals which frequented the castle would urinate and defecate
By spring, the inhabitants of the castle were usually glad to see the winter
covering swept out the door!
Clothing: The selection of clothing available in the Middle
Ages was relatively limited. Most of it was made of either wool or
hides. Although silk was also available, it was an extremely expensive
import from the Far East or the Byzantine Empire, beyond the price range
of low-ranking members of the warrior class. Cotton, which had to come
from India, was virtually unknown. Linen was widely used, but probably
more costly as wool; brocades were expensive.
There was no underwear until around the thirteenth century; nor were there
special nightclothes. People habitually slept at night in part of the
same clothing they had worn during the day; and, in cold weather, spare clothing
often served as blankets.
The problems of cold, lack of privacy, and lack of clothing are all reflected
in the design of medieval beds. These tended to have high bedposts
at the four corners; from which were hung bed curtains. These bed curtains
provided both warmth and a certain measure of privacy to those lucky enough
to have such a bed.
The interior of a castle, especially in winter, was more often than not
filled with smoke which came from both the sources of heat (an open fire
either on the stone floor or in an iron brazier) and of light (primarily
torches, and occasionally the more expensive candles).
Chimney and fireplace: It was not until later in the Middle
Ages that the chimney introduced into western architecture, making possible
the kind of enclosed and vented fireplaces we know today. The appearance
of the chimney caused a revolution in the lifestyle of western man.
It made it possible to construct a number of rooms, each of which could
be heated by an individual fireplace. No longer did everybody have
to huddle around the common fire in the main hall. This, in turn,
greatly promoted the growth of privacy in the west.
Getting enough food tended to be a much more serious problem in the
Middle Ages than it is in modern western society. Given the technology
of the period, agricultural surpluses were smaller and harder to store successfully
than in the modern world. Nor was it usually possible, given the primitive
system of transportation, to move food supplies from one district to another.
As a result, medieval men and women were far more vulnerable to famine than
their modern counterparts. Although this critical problem particularly
threatened peasants, it could, upon occasion, affect aristocrats as well.
A member of the warrior class not only got larger quantities of food than
the average peasant; he ordinarily enjoyed a far greater variety.
Food varieties available to aristocrats:
(1) Meat from domesticated animals (beef, pork, lamb, pigeon)
(2) Wild game
(3) Vegetables (in season)
(5) Drinks (fruit juice, ale, wine, beer, mead; and, later in the
Middle Ages, distilled liquor)
Distillation Process: Increases the alcoholic content; appears to have
been developed in the monasteries, probably by the Benedictine Order, and
became a significant source of revenue. The process soon spread into
the secular world.
The aristocrat's major food problem was normally neither abundance nor variety,
but rather preservation. The primitive methods of storage guaranteed
that much which was served, especially during the winter, would reach the
table in a moldly, rancid, or semi-spoiled state. Knights, as well
as peasants in the Middle Ages, had to have good digestive systems!
Other than fingers, the only eating utensils common in the Middle Ages
were the spoon and knife, often one's own dagger for cutting and spearing
meat. An aristocrat's dagger rarely left his person. (If a woman
did not have a dagger, she would borrow one from the nearest male at the
table.) Forks, which were only introduced late in the Middle Ages from
the Byzantine Empire, took a long time to catch on.
Although plates were used with some kinds of food, eaters often dispensed
with them. The bread trencher shaped like a bowl was often used.
Table scraps were thrown to the animals or saved for the poor.
Entertainment of medieval aristocrats (other than combat related):
(1) Games: backgammon, dice, and chess. Cards seem to have
been invented only in the later Middle Ages; according to tradition to entertain
an insane, late fourteenth century French monarch known as Charles the Mad.
They quickly spread and, by the late fifteenth century, were highly
popular in Europe.
(2) Occasionally, travelling entertainers would arrive at the castle
and put on a show. These included travelling actors, acrobats, animal
tamers, and strolling players to put on what passed for drama in this period..
Most popular of all were the story tellers who were called minstrels
(English), troubadours (French) and minnesingers (Germany).
They recited the great epic poems, known as chansons de geste (literally
"songs of deeds") which told of great heroes such as King Arthur,
Roland, and Sigfried.
(3) Visiting the medieval fairs
(4) Feasting, drinking, sex
Reading is not included among the common entertainments of aristocrats.
Throughout most of the Middle Ages, most members of the warrior class were
no more able to read than the peasants they dominated. Reading was
largely confined to clerics or churchmen. In fact, at one time, simply
demonstrating an ability to read was regarded as sufficient proof that one
was a member of the clergy. It would only be toward the end of the
Middle Ages that the aristocracy would become literate when it was to their
advantage to do so.