The Medieval period, also called the Middle Ages, spanned from the 5th century through the 15th century. This era became famous for the Bubonic Plague, Crusades, and harsh life. But many peoples’ assumptions about the Medieval period are wrong.
For instance, if you thought that knights were chivalrous, you would be incorrect. Assuming that people were unhygienic and couldn’t drink water is common, but factually incorrect. Test your understanding of the Middle Ages with these facts; here are the most frequently believed misconceptions about Medieval life.
People Were Not Dirty All The Time
Contrary to popular belief, people in the Middle Ages were not constantly living in filth. According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, at least 80% of people bathed daily during that period. Water from lakes and rivers was available in most cities.
Hot baths, however, were seen as a luxury. Evidence suggests that people spent a lot of money on scented oils and wood-ash soap. Medieval doctors also recommended bathing because they knew that they could prevent disease. Although Medieval people were less clean than we are today, they were not dirty all the time.
People Did Not Eat With Their Hands
Another common fictional portrayal is that Medieval people ate with their hands. However, utensils had been around since the 4th century. Forks were invented in the Byzantine Empire, and knives had been around since 600 BC. Spoons were made from cow horns, wood, and brass.
The nobility owned silver and gold utensils that many people are familiar with today. During parties, many people brought their own knives, as hosts were not expected to provide them. In Medieval Asia, citizens had already been using chopsticks for the past few thousand years.
Medieval People Had Access To Clean Water
One of the most common history myths is that Medieval water was too dirty to drink and that people only drank beer. On the contrary, historical evidence proves that most people drank water.
Water was free and clean, often gathered from rivers and wells. In 1236, construction of water pipes began in London, and soon everyone had access to it. However, since water is tasteless, many people preferred other drinks. Sometimes, Medieval people would flavor water with wine or honey, but religious clergy preferred to have water only.
Waste Did Not Go Straight Into The Street
The myth that Medieval people threw human waste into the street is so widespread that even some teachers repeat it. However, people did not actually do this. Although they did not know that exposure to waste caused disease, they knew that it smelled terrible and polluted the streets.
Medieval towns had strict rules about waste disposal. In 14th-century London, throwing anything out the window would result in a fine equivalent to $142 today. Houses had latrines or buckets that they emptied every day into a river.
Plague Doctors Did Not Exist During The Black Death
Plague doctors, the physicians who wore iconic bird-like masks, are often associated with the Middle Ages. Many people believe that they were everywhere when the Black Death began in 1346. But according to historians, the first plague doctors appeared during the 1600s.
Even then, few plague doctors emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most lived in Italy, mainly Rome and Milan, although some were recorded in southern France. Of course, physicians existed during the Black Plague, but none of them are recorded as wearing masks even remotely similar to plague doctor masks.
Knights Were The Opposite Of Chivalrous
Knights were not as chivalrous as the average person assumes. According to Jennifer Goodman Wollock, a medieval studies professor, they were “hired thugs.” In fact, the chivalrous code was designed to keep knights in check.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, knights were known as being hot-headed and inclined to violence. The concept of a “chivalrous knight” only appears in fiction. Many of these stories were not written by knights themselves, but poets and clergymen who invented a romanticized view of knights in the Middle Ages.
Peasants Worked Less Than We Do
The modern perception of Medieval peasants is that they worked constantly from day to night. In reality, peasants had less vigorous work schedules than we do today. History professor Julier Schor said that the tempo of Middle Age life was slow, with workers even stopping to take naps.
Thirteenth-century laborers often had 25 weeks off every year. In contrast, the average American has 16 days off annually. Although the work was still demanding, English peasants had around 1/3 of the year off, including religious holidays.
The Medieval Diet Was Better Than Today’s
Despite what movies about the Middle Ages portray, peoples’ diets were not entirely bland. Peasants had access to livestock and gardens, which gave them milk, cheese, sage, garlic, and parsley. Meats were preserved with salt and drinks were sweetened with honey. Although food depended on the season, peasants had a largely filling diet.
Since spices were expensive, the upper class had more varied and flavorful meals than the lower classes. Still, Medieval meals were probably far healthier than today’s diet, according to the BBC. They were varied, flavorful, and less sugar-filled than modern food.
The Average Life Expectancy Was Not 35
If you’ve ever heard that the average life expectancy in the Middle Ages was 35. This is technically correct. However, the term “average” is misleading. If one person dies before the age of one, and the other lives until age 70, then the average life expectancy is 35, explains historian Walter Scheidel.
This average number is low because of the high infant mortality rate. In reality, human life expectancy has not changed much throughout the centuries. Once people in the Middle Ages survived early childhood, they often lived for 70, 80, even 100 years.
Not Everyone Was A “Flat Earther”
In the Middle Ages, most people did not believe that the earth was flat. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell claims that the “flat earth” theory stopped being a widespread belief by the 3rd century B.C.
You might ask, “But what about the church?” Between two and five popes asserted that the earth was flat, but the rest disagreed. The concept of “anti-science” Middle Ages came from 19th-century writers who were largely anti-religious, according to Russell. It is possible that there are more flat-earthers today than there were in the Medieval era.
Medieval Citizens Were Diverse
Modern depictions of Medieval Europe show people who are mostly Anglo-Saxon. However, the Middle Ages were diverse, even in Europe. This even appears in Medieval paintings. Art professor Pamela Patton says that Medieval artists “seem clearly interested in representing a diversity of ethnic variations.”
Why don’t we see more diversity, then? Blogger and researcher Malisha Dewalt found that many textbooks did not include this art. Many people don’t focus on diverse art, because it contradicts what many people believe about the Middle Ages. If you want to see them, go to a museum.
People Did Not Sleep Through The Night
Today, health experts recommend that we get around eight hours of sleep per night. But in the Middle Ages, people did not sleep that long. They had two “sleeps;” they would rest for four hours and then wake up to read, write, chat, etc. Then, they would sleep again for three or four hours.
This pattern of sleeping continued until the 19th century. Doctors even recommended a nightly break from sleep. In France, a 16th-century doctor told couples that the nightly break was the best time to conceive.
Most Maps Did Not Feature Mythological Creatures
When people think of Medieval maps, many picture inaccurate naval charts with drawings of mythological sea creatures. These maps did exist, but they were not used for navigation. They were owned by nobility and often hung as art pieces.
On top of that, the creature illustrations were not viewed as “magical” or “monstrous.” According to historian Chet Van Duzer, cartographers tried to follow scientific descriptions of sea animals. What we’re seeing are the early imaginations of lobsters, sea lions, whales, sea cucumbers, and other animals that people didn’t yet have names for.
Robin Hood Never Existed
Robin Hood has been a popular fictional figure for 700 years, but historians have yet to discover a real person like him. Academics have yet to find evidence of a person who steals from the rich and gives to the poor.
In the 13th century, terms like “robehod” “rabunhod” were slang for thieves. Perhaps 14th- and 15th-century ballads about Robin Hood were a tongue-and-cheek twist on the term. But if there was a person who inspired the Robin Hood stories, we have not found him yet.
People Traveled For Fun
Many people believe that Medieval people grew up and died in one village, never seeing any other part of the world. According to the British Library, people in the Middle Ages were fascinated with civilizations beyond their borders. If they could afford to, they traveled.
The common person traveled to neighboring villages, which had town centers and churches where people would worship. Armies traveled farther. When people could not see the world, they explored maps of Asia and Africa. The maps were not perfect, but the passion was there.
During the Middle Ages, many countries–including France, England, Spain, and Germany–had monarchies. However, some democratic institutions formed before the Medieval Era. In 930, the first assembly of the Alþingi convened in Iceland, which is regarded as the world’s first parliamentary system.
In the 13th century, parliaments formed in England and France. The first one was created in 1215 with the Magna Carta. These groups were summoned by the king, and they were mostly men. However, they made major strides toward democracy and representation in these Medieval civilizations.
Knight’s Armor Was Light And Easy To Wear
All that steel-plated armor and chain mail looks heavy, doesn’t it? In reality, it was actually quite light. Knight armor weighed between 10 and 15 pounds, which is actually less than modern soldiers carry. American soldiers have to haul 60 pounds of gear at least.
That said, certain types of armor were heavier than others. In 2011, a study found that 15th-century French armor required knights to use twice as much energy as the English did. Contrary to common belief, the sword was the lightest part, only around 2.5 to 3.5 pounds.
The Middle Ages Saw Many Medical Advances
Although people in the Middle Ages were not as medically advanced as we are today, they made many strides in the field. For instance, records from a 14th-century Dominican friar prove that Medieval people wore eyeglasses. We do not know who invented them, only that they were worn.
Historians also believe that interest in anatomy began in the Middle Ages. Doctors began dissecting during this time, and Italian physician Mondino de Luzzi even hosted public dissections to teach his students in 1315. These developments are what make us so knowledgeable about medicine today.
They Had Universities
If you think that most people in the Middle Ages were uneducated, you wouldn’t be the only one. But the Medieval era had several universities, some of which still exist today. These include the University of Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Bologna.
By 1300, 23 universities existed in Europe. Many of these schools did not have a founding date, instead of being built over time. Students studied liberal arts, language, law, and medicine. In some schools, such as Bologna, a guild of students hired professors to teach them whatever they wanted to know.
The Middle Ages Were Not Lawless
Despite what some movies portray, the Middle Ages were not lawless. Citizens had laws, punishments, and trials. The 12-person jury first emerged in the 13th century, and capital punishment was on the table for some criminals.
Less life-threatening laws also existed. Merchants had to pay taxes, and they could declare bankruptcy if needed. When envoys traveled, they had diplomatic immunity. Many citizens in Spain, France, and Germany owned property, and they brought these laws to the Americas. The legal system was not too different from today, really.
Clothing Was Not Dull, Dirty, Or Plain
Many TV shows and movies about the Middle Ages show people wearing dull, drab clothing in grays and browns. In reality, Medieval clothing was far more colorful and ornate. Most clothing pieces were blue, crimson, yellow, green, and purple.
The higher classes decorated their clothing with jewels, feathers, fringes, tassels, and embroidered designs. Both sexes of all classes wore long tunics that were tied with brooches and belts. They also had decorative belt buckles, gloves, and hats. Although lower classes wore simpler clothing, they were still colorful and had some special design elements.
Vikings Did Not Wear Horned Helmets
Vikings existed during the Middle Ages, many residing in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. But many modern notions about the Vikings are incorrect. One is that Vikings wore horned helmets. According to the National Museum of Denmark, there is only one preserved helmet from the Viking Age, and it does not have horns.
Written accounts from the Middle Ages do not mention Vikings wearing horns. The first depiction came from an 1876 German play, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The costumes defined how many modern people perceive Vikings today.
Archers Did Not Keep Quivers On Their Backs
Fictional depictions of the Middle Ages show archers wearing quivers on their backs. But this is not how real Medieval archers traveled. Instead, archers attached quivers to their belts. It was much more useful to draw their arrows and quivers from their belts while riding on horseback.
Another fun fact is that Medieval archers did not wear shoes. Because early shoes did not have rubber soles, they lacked the grip that archers needed. By traveling barefoot, archers got more grip on buildings, dirt, mountains, and grass.
King Arthur Probably Did Not Exist
Throughout the centuries, historians have debated over whether King Arthur was a real person. More accurately, most wonder whether he was based on a historical figure. King Arthur was first mentioned in 829, and he was supposedly involved in the Saxon invasion of the 500s. However, historians cannot find any accounts of people who match his description.
The mythological figure really became famous in the 12th century with the book History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The legend of the Holy Grail came from the French poet Chrétien de Troyes.
Even Peasants Had Table Manners
Do not believe Monty Python–people in the Middle Ages were not always rude and brash. Everyone knew table manners and basic hygiene. Before people sat down to eat, they always washed their hands. Guests were expected not to make rude or offensive jokes, especially in front of ladies.
People waited for everyone to be served before eating. If a dog sat under the table, people were expected not to feed them. Of course, the nobility had more strict etiquette rules than the lower classes. But everyone had manners in the Middle Ages.
“Prima Nocta” Did Not Exist
Prima nocta, also called droit de seigneur, was supposedly the legal right of a monarch or lord to date any peasant woman at any time, especially on her wedding night. The concept goes back to the Mesopotamian tale The Epic of Gilgamesh. However, scholars have not found any evidence that prima nocta existed.
Although the idea appears frequently in literature, there is no historical record of it. In the 19th century, French author Louis Veuillot claimed that “the Middle Ages had never heard of the droit du seigneur.”
Medieval People Did Not Believe That The World Would End
Does anyone remember when people predicted that the apocalypse would occur in the year 2000? Some historians propose that people in the Middle Ages thought the same thing about the year 1000. However, there is little evidence that people actually believed this.
In the 10th century, Pope Sylvester II predicted that the Judgement would happen in 1000. Although some believed him, there is no evidence of mass terror or even widespread belief. The concept of a 1,000-year-long reign exists in the Book of Revelations, but few people put much stock in it.
There Were Not Entire Armies Of Knights
Many fictional portrayals of the Middle Ages show entire armies of knights. However, there were not that many knights. Each familia or group of knights did not even reach 1,000. King Henry III’s familia only consisted of 100 knights, according to records from 1225.
Knights were expensive and rarely formed the backbone of armies. Most soldiers were foot soldiers. Even during the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses, most knights fought on foot, not on horseback. Throughout the entirety of the Middle Ages, there were rarely more than 1,200 knights at a time.
Medieval People Had Pharmacies
When Medieval people wanted medicine, they did not always have to enlist a physician or a cunning man. Many towns in the Middle Ages had pharmacies. The first pharmacy opened in Baghdad, 754. They became popular in the Arabic world, and by the 12th century, they spread to Europe.
Apothecary shops were operated by pharmacists who studied for the job, similar to today. By the Renaissance, many nuns took over the pharmacist job, especially in Italy. Pharmacists became more skilled and even developed classes in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Witch Hunts Were Not Common In The Middle Ages
Pop quiz: when did the European witch hunts happen? If you guessed the 13th, 14th, or 15th centuries, you’re too early. Major European witch hunts did not begin until the Early Modern Period, between 1550 and 1700.
Witch trials were not common during the Middle Ages. Some religious leaders, such as Pope Gregory VII, did not believe in witches and requested that people did not search for them. But others still believed in witchcraft. In 1487, clergyman Heinrich Kramer wrote the infamous Malleus Maleficarum which explained how to spot and condemn a witch.
Castles Were Packed With People
When most people think of castles, an image of a king or a lord might come to mind. However, they were greatly outnumbered by the other hundreds of people that lived within the confines of its walls.
Not only did the ruler of the castle typically live with their entire extended family, but the castle had to be manned by soldiers and maintained by countless servants. Basically, a castle held a small village. Not to mention that the lords of castles often had guests who brought plenty of their own people with them.
You Did Not Want To End Up In The Dungeon
Castles had banquet halls, chambers, throne rooms, and kitchens, and many also had dungeons. These served as prisons inside of the castle where those who had committed crimes against the lord were kept.
The dungeons were usually located in the darkest depths of a castle, and the conditions were deplorable. Moreover, if you weren’t rotting away in a cell, the dungeons often had torture rooms that those unfortunate enough would visit if the lord or lady believed it was necessary.
Rats Were A Normalcy
Because castles were such murky, dark, and damp environments, they were the perfect homes for rats and other vermin. Although today, finding a rat in your home may be horrifying, it was a way of life in medieval castles.
However, that didn’t mean that people living at that time were less afraid of them. Not only did people fear their physical presence as many do today, but they were also known to carry diseases that were rampant during the medieval era.
There Was No Sleeping In
With no electricity, a fire was the only source of light, which meant that the daytime was the best time to be the most productive. Because of this, everyone needed to take advantage of whatever sunlight was available, which meant waking up early.
Because most castles only had small windows, indoor work began at sunrise, and it was the same was for outdoor chores. Most individuals had to wake up well before the sun even rose to get fires going, cook food, and prepare themselves and their lord for the day.
Better Bundle Up!
While castles may have protected those living within from the elements, by no means were they a place of warmth. Castles were built using stone as a purpose to keep enemies out, not necessarily for comfort.
With the stone providing no insulation, castles kept the cold in, which was especially problematic in a region that is known to be cold and wet. In addition, the windows were so small that they let in minimal sunlight, and those were only located in certain parts of the castle. Many of the rooms in the castle had no windows at all and were more or less an icebox.
Say Goodbye To Privacy
Although castles may look like impenetrable fortresses on the outside, on the inside, they usually had an open floor plan, and there was little space for the privacy that we hold dear today.
While the lord and the lady of the castle would have private chambers to themselves, the majority of the servants and others dwelling within the walls were forced to spend their days and nights surrounded by one another. There were shared sleeping quarters, bathrooms, dining halls, and more. There was essentially no escape from human interaction.
Hosting Guests Was No Easy Task
If you think having a dinner party or hosting Thanksgiving is a pain, you couldn’t imagine what it was like to hold a feast, banquet, or any other occasion in a castle. Unfortunately for the servants, large gatherings and extravagant meals were the norm, and it took more work than most people think.
Numerous courses had to be prepared without the luxury of modern technologies, and they were expected to be suitable for all of the nobility in attendance. This meant that the food had to be harvested, processed, prepared, and served all at the perfect time. Don’t forget about the dishes!
There Was No Shortage Of Alcohol
Alcoholic beverages such as beer, mead, wine, and ale were the preferred drinks during meals during the medieval period. Just like today, those who produced the finest alcohol were held in high regard.
However, it’s worth noting that the lower class drank beer mostly because it was safer than drinking most of the water available. While royalty might have had access to anything they wanted at the time, the lower classes took whatever they could get their hands on.
There Was A Status Quo
Inside a castle, there was a banquet hall where a lot of the castle dwellers would eat together. However, much like high school, there was a structure to where people ate. Back in the medieval ages, people sat in halls according to their level of importance.
The lord and the lady sat at the head of the table, and their meals were served first (they were also the highest quality). It then went down the table according to rank until the lowliest people in the castle were served. Nevertheless, the last people served were still treated better than the serfs living in the fields.
The Floors Weren’t Exactly Pleasant
Keeping a castle clean was hard enough without having to deal with the floors. With so many people treading through on a day-to-day basis, bringing in all of the filth from the ground outside, it was almost impossible.
The flooring was typically lined with fresh reeds and herbs to help soak up everything that was tracked in from the outside. When the reeds, straw, or other material was removed, the floors would need to be deep cleaned before they were lined once again.
Kitchen Fires Weren’t Uncommon
In the Middle Ages, the kitchens were primarily built out of timber. With so many different cooking fires going consistently, it wasn’t unusual for fires to break out.
This would often result in a large-scale fire that usually ended with the entire kitchen burning down. Luckily, because castles were made of stone, the kitchens were often the only casualty of a fire. Eventually, the kitchens were built using stone as well, with hearths to keep the flames under control.
Going To The Bathroom Was Not A Pleasant Experience
Although today, many of us enjoy the luxury of doing our business behind closed doors and with running water, that wasn’t the case during the medieval era. Back then, going to the bathroom meant sitting on a long bench made of wood with a hole in it.
Very much like a modern-day Porta-Potty, the waste would drop into a cesspool, which would later be emptied into a castle’s moat (if there was one). If that wasn’t bad enough, there were no stalls, and most people did what they needed to do in the direct view of others.
Castles Smelled Incredibly Unpleasant
Due to the non-existence of plumbing and overall lack of hygiene, castles were not the healthiest or nicest-smelling places to be. Even though there were servants at the beck and call of the lords and ladies, it didn’t mean that they were able to keep the castle pristine.
With little fresh water to go around, castles weren’t cleaned to the standard of hygiene that many of us think of today. Because of this, sickness was rampant within the confines of a castle, and the stench was horrid.
Attending Church Was A Must
On top of everything that most castles provided, one of the essential aspects of any such structure was an onsite chapel. However, this was typically reserved for the lord and his family to attend mass.
In some instances, the chapel was the only other room aside from the great hall that would be distinguishable from the rest of the castle. Although many people still attend religious services today, back then, it was so commonplace that people didn’t even have to leave their homes.
Other Than The Lord And Lady, People Were There To Serve
Maintaining a castle is a lot of work, which is why there were so many people living in them at one time. However, the work was very clearly divided. The majority of the people there were only there to serve the lord and lady of the castle, as well as their family members.
Their job was to make the lord and his family feel comfortable and handle any of the daily chores that needed to be done. On the other hand, the lord dealt with political matters and made decisions regarding his keep.
The Lord And Lady Lived In A ‘Solar’
Although the vast majority of those living in the castle had to be in a communal setting, that certainly wasn’t the case for the lord and lady.
Although they didn’t live there every second of their lives, when they were there, they resided in a place in the castle known as the solar. The solar was typically located at the top of one of the towers and was one of the few places that anyone could have privacy.
The Lords Of Castles Ate Like Kings
Although kings had their own castles, the lords who had their own also lived in extravagance, especially when it came to food. More often than not, meals were served in a series of courses with each containing what we would now consider rare meats such as peacock, porpoise, and swan.
Many also ate their food in what was known as a “trencher,” which was a hollowed-out piece of bread that was filled with the meats served. Nobles ate very few vegetables, which may have resulted in countless health problems in royal families.
They Kept Enough Guards As Needed
By definition, castles were pointless unless there were soldiers there to guard them. However, the number of guards housed at a castle greatly varied depending on the situation.
During a time of peace, maybe a few dozen knights were needed as a light defense to raise the portcullis and other simple duties. Yet, in a time of war, especially a siege, as many soldiers as possible were forced into the castle to hold the structure.
Bathing Was A Chore And An Open Spectacle
Unlike the commoners who lived outside of the castle walls, those living within bathed on a more regular basis than most. However, that doesn’t mean that bathing was easy by any means.
Not only was finding clean water difficult, but servants usually had to heat the water and transport a wooden tub to whichever room it was required in. This usually meant that people bathed in the same tub, and in full view of anyone in the same room. Not only was this entire process unsanitary, but it also lacked any privacy.
Stairways Were Built Clockwise
In most medieval castles, almost all of the staircases were constructed clockwise. However, this was no coincidence, but as a form of defense. The reason for this is that if an enemy were to attack, those going up the stairs would have difficulty wielding their swords with their right hand, which is how the majority of people would be carrying their weapon.
On the other hand, those going down the stairs to defend the castle would have the advantage of the full swing of a weapon.