Debunking some of the Myths of Medieval Daily Life

This is a very long post, but I hope it is enjoyed. It is a list of questions and answers debunking many myths that we as modern human beings think about medieval daily life. In some ways, we are living in the dark ages. :)

What is alchemy? What was so important about gold to alchemists in the Middle Ages?

Alchemy is the 'science' of turning base metals into gold and the men who were alchemists are credited by many as developing the basis for modern chemistry. The term philosophy was the closest term to what scientist means to us now and a philosopher or any 'seeker of knowledge' was seeking knowledge for a very different purpose than we do today. To most philosophers, alchemists, etc,.. any pursuit of knowledge was useful if it brought you closer to God.... there was no other reason to pursue knowledge but to try and become closer to God and to understand how and why God did/does the things that he did/does. Gold was so important and was so obsessed over because gold was perfect- it could be changed, melted, beaten, etc... and couldn't be destroyed. Other metals and other natural substances could be changed and destroyed- sometimes changed so much that they could not be returned to their original state. However, gold could be changed and not destroyed... and so many alchemists struggled to find out how to make gold- for to make gold was to discover perfection and to become closer to and to understand God himself. (As Terry Jones said- “To study gold was to study perfection.”) In the process, alchemists discovered the stronger acids... and developed distillation which is the basis for our modern chemistry. They discovered the methods for gold plating as well in the attempt to discover transmutation: the process of turning a metal into another metal.... hopefully gold. :) And if you were able to make a philosopher’s stone what could make gold, it was believed that you could have perfection and eternal life.... maybe even bring back the 'Garden of Eden' or the condition of man before the 'Fall'. To develop a elixir of life so that men could life forever and bring back the perfect life that God wanted for us.

What was the main goal of medieval medicine? How did "doctors" try to achieve this goal?

The main goal of medieval medicine was a little different from medicine today. A medieval physician's job was not to cure disease, but to prevent you from getting it in the first place. It was believed that if you suffered from a disease or malady, it was because you didn't have enough 'health' to keep you from getting the problem. So they would try herbs and food to try and restore your balance of health. The majority of medieval physicians also believed in the doctrine of health as taught by the Greek physician Galen was that the humors of the body (which were four as mentioned by Hippocrates) could change and affect the moods and healthy of the patient. The four vital humors are: yellow bile which made you choleric, black bile which caused melancholy, the blood associated with sanguine, and phlegm which caused you to be phlegmatic.

To achieve the goal of bringing a patient back to health, the physician have a few tools at their disposal. Using the theory or doctrine of the humors, the doctor would determine what humor/humors you were having problems with and use that as a starting point for treatment. The medieval physician also treated the whole patient and not just complaints or lists of symptoms which until recently has been very unusual in medical practice. The would also check a pulse which could tell them about the blood and if the person had a fever- if a fever was found, the patient would be 'bled'... which would lessen the fever. They could also do a uroscopy which is the term used for visually inspecting a patient's urine. The physician could look at the color and texture of the urine- looking for 'floaters, blood and other abnormalities- and could sometimes make determinations of the patients difficulties and treatment based on what they found. Tasting the urine could also give the doctor information- most notable diabetes if the urine was 'sweet'.

What are some of the misconceptions of medieval science and medicine? Who do we have to thank for those misconceptions?

There are many misconceptions about medieval science and medicine. It has been taught and almost assimilated into our modern society that medieval times were a time of ignorance and that we 'know' better now. We have tended to believe (and be taught) that in the medieval world, everyone believed that the earth was flat, that the medieval church was against all scientific knowledge and persecuted those who did not agree with them, medicine was likely to kill you and was horrible, and everyone had a majority of beliefs that were ignorant and superstitious. We are taught that Galileo was the inventor of the telescope… and Newton was the man to discover white light is actually made up of a spectrum of color and that mathematics is the basis of the world– in essence, science didn't really start until the seventeenth century. But a philosopher and monk Roger Bacon wrote about all of these subjects and came to the same conclusions as these scientists... he just did it four hundred years before they did. Medieval sailors knew the world was round and Roger Bacon wrote about the curvature of the earth. Medieval medicine also has been misunderstood and the physicians who practiced at that time had a full body/mind approach- something that we are starting to value today in medicine. As a modern society, we believe that medieval medicine killed more than it cured... but the facts of our time show that we are more likely to die from medical mistakes in our time from our medicine. Successful surgeries were performed and there were hundred of plants with medicinal products that could be used to help 'cure' patients- many times successfully. And like our modern medicine, monks and physicians would experiment to try and find better treatments for their patients.

Today, we have these misconceptions and believe in these falsehoods for a few reasons. One is that we believe and take as 'gospel truth' falsehoods written in novels or 19th century biographies. These books helped spread the falsehoods of the 'flat earth' theory and that the Catholic church was totally against scientific discovery- indeed, the opposite is true as many members of the church were philosophers and alchemists... including Roger Bacon. It was only later in time that the Catholic Church became more threatened by science and tried to control it and the knowledge produced from research. Another reason is that we do not understand how to read medieval documents. Because the maps and documents from medieval times are written for a different culture and for a different audience, we misread them through our own cultural biases. So we make false assumptions based on what we expect to see. In actuality, individuals in medieval times in almost all categories were pushing the envelope of knowledge- between science, chemistry, architecture, medicine, mathematics, flight, etc – and using that knowledge for political and economic expediency. In the end, our ignorance of our past and our arrogance of our brilliance has robbed us of our heritage and knowledge that we could have enjoyed and built from much sooner.

Who were the Folvilles? What is the importance of the Folville gang?

The Folvilles were sons of a noble aristocrat who died and left his inheritance to his oldest son as custom demanded. The problem with this tradition was that other sons of aristocrats have fewer options with which to make money. There was always the church or the military, but becoming an outlaw was also an option. However, he had six other sons who then became a gang who robbed others, kidnapped, raped and killed terrorizing the area in which they worked. It must be noted that they were certainly not the only gang of gentry 'outlaws' that were operating at the time. They were one of several gangs from the 'higher' ranking class and so were able to have political influence and even protection for other high ranking individuals. The Folvilles were also protected by Robert De Vere, who was the constable of the castle Rockingham. The Folville's leader Eustace Folville was credited with five murders which include the murder of Sir Roger Bellere as well as robbery, ransom and rape to. After sixteen years of crime, the Folville gang members (that were still living) were pardoned for military service to the king... and Eustace Folville was even eventually knighted for exceptional military service. His reputation and the reputation of his gang had very much improved by the time of his death. Eustace Folville and his gang appear to be the basis for the myth/story of 'Robin Hood and his Merry Men'. This gang is important because they are really a representation symbol for the people of that time. To the population at large, the Folvilles became a gang with a law unto themselves. Those they killed were considered more corrupt than the killers. To many people, the Folvilles may have broken the legal laws... but they were following God's law. They became a symbol for the populace of a period of time where the forests were free and useable and the populace did not feel as oppressed as they did at that time under Norman rule.

What did it mean to be an outlaw in Anglo-Saxon England versus being an outlaw in Norman England?

In Anglo Saxon England, the law was less worried about physical punishment as much as making sure that the victims were re-payed or compensation. The law was administered by the local inhabitants and was quite strict. For each injury was a tariff of repayment. To technically become an outlaw, you had to fail to show up for trial on at least three occasions. Becoming an outlaw was a really bad thing- you were shunned, had no city or home, no possibilities for work and always at risk for being killed on sight.

In 1066, England was taken over by the Normans who took the idea of punishment and tariffs away from the communities. The Norman punishments were more severe and focused on punishment and not retribution. Most Englishmen were not OK with Norman justice which was much harsher and gave no relief to the local inhabitants affected. There were also too many new laws and it appeared that everything was carefully controlled by law. This created a very litigious society and so having to go to court for small matters constantly was frustrating and not always possible... and so many people were outlaws at some point in their lives at this time. This made the idea of becoming an outlaw much more comfortable and acceptable... to outlaws and Anglo-Saxons alike. Becoming an outcast was no longer the shame and the horrible punishment that it had been before the Norma invasion. At some points of time as illustrated by the Folvilles, these gangs could be mercenaries for hire to the king or others and could then be pardoned for their crimes.

What was the purpose of medieval prisons? What was sanctuary?

Medieval prisons were developed for a very different purpose than we use them today. Prisons were privately owned and those who owned them used them to make money. When you were caught you were taking to prison -not to be punished- but to be forced to stand trial. You had to pay to get into prison, pay for the very few things you got in prison... and pay to get out. The only torture used was was 'pressing' and it was only used for one purpose- to force you to stand trial. You could refuse to stand trial or be pressed to death. You were not tortured for a confession-simply to force you to attend trial.

Sanctuary could have two definitions, but an easy way to look at it was a place of safety. The place of safety could be a place of consecration or church that allowed a person protection for prosecution if you could get to it. In Norman times, a government official could also grant sanctuary- or freedom from punishment for a crime (I think I understood that correctly...?) Once you reached a place of 'sanctuary', you were safe from prosecution for a specified period of time. All consecrated buildings offered sanctuary for 40 days (average length of time) as a period of rest to try and reach a peaceful conclusion to the 'problem'. The town of Beverly was a very attractive place for people to go for sanctuary because you could register for permanent sanctuary- or lifelong protection from prosecution. One problem that critics discussed about sanctuary was that criminals could use sanctuary as legal protection and commit more crimes and then go back to their 'safe' place. But sanctuary could be used to start your life over after mistakes or was even used by royalty or nobles to protect themselves when they families were no longer in power or 'in favor'.

What evidence was there that peasants and their agendas could be political and organized in nature?

The most obvious example of an agenda organized by a group of 'peasants' would be a protest called the 'peasant’s revolt' in 1381 in England. But other examples can clearly be seen that are not quite so violent. :) As feudal lords were off fighting for the king, they left the running of the lands to the peasants who had small courts and laws to deal with minor infractions or rule breaking by themselves. This experience of dealing with law, legal challenges and defense, as well as working together to interpret and enforce the law gave peasants a knowledge of minor legal matters and the peasants would use this knowledge to help and protect themselves. Some examples given were of whole villages pretending insanity so the king wouldn't pass through their town and set new taxes. Peasants also used literacy/education to be able to read court papers and other documents to see how what was written in them affected their lives. It is thought the peasants were able to use codes and literacy (letters) to help organize revolts when the aristocracy and the king passed too many laws restricting them. During the peasants revolts they were careful to attack aristocracy and lawyers, but not others. While the revolt failed, the ideas of freedom lasted. And these revolts suggested to both sides that peasants were not entirely ignorant and stupid. They could organize and be a force to be reckoned with.

What was the feudal burden?

The term 'feudal burden' is used to describe the price paid by the peasant to the feudal lord. The peasant would work a piece of land 'owned' by the feudal lord and they would basically work and support those members of society that could not do work themselves – usually because those individuals were fighting for the king or working for the church. The peasants for the privilege of working the land would 'pay' their lord in days of labor worked. These varied by area but in the areas with the heaviest burdens the days worked would be between 50-60 days. This work would pay for the individual's accommodations as well as yearly taxes. However, it must be noted that while the peasants had this 'burden' to pay, the feudal lord was obligated to protect the peasants from invading armies, throw a fete or two a year for the peasant’s enjoyment and sometimes other perks. It was not a 'one way' burden.

What medieval institution dominated the village? How is this reflected in the lives of the peasants?

The most dominant organization in a medieval village was the Catholic church. The church provided most of the social life for the medieval village. Most community gatherings including local sports activities, fairs, weddings, funerals, etc... all happened at the church. The church created ceremonies for the community members to show gratitude to the church and also insisted on celebrating eighty holidays a year where no work would be performed -if I understood that correctly. The church also collected tithes from the peasants to survive and grow. The church also was in charge of most education and one of the only ways that peasants could rise above their 'station' was education and work for the church.

How did the Black Death change things for the peasants?

The black death changed many things for medieval life in general and the peasants. Those peasants who survived the black death found that as so many people had died, the need for laborers and workers was high and peasants could now ask for privileges or concessions- in essence, they could look for the best place and deal to work and not have to settle in desperation for any place just for food and work. They could negotiate wages and some even became free men and worked their own land. The aristocracy tried to pass laws that pushed the peasants down again. A revolt didn't change the peasant's conditions in some regards, but the whole feudal system broke done. The peasants could have freedom and land, but the lords no longer had to protect them and in some cases the peasants were simply thrown off the land and sent on their way to find a livelihood elsewhere- such as in cities, guilds, etc....

What is the difference between a minstrel and a troubadour? What did each one of them do? What is a wandering minstrel?

A minstrel was a individual who would sing songs and poems and provide entertainment to different groups as they traveled - at least that is the easy simplified and stereotyped definition. A minstrel in reality is not always so easily described. A word minstrel means' little servant'. In many places there was very little distinction between an individual who played songs, or had army training, or the guy who washed the floors or cooked. There was very little value placed on being able to play instruments or write poetry as higher value was placed on the delicacies of warfare and killing people so the more roles in the household a minstrel was able to perform, the more valuable they were. A minstrel might be required to imitate animals, use marionettes, juggle, dancing, recite and write poetry, sing epic songs or 'songs of great deeds', etc... Being a minstrel was not an easy job.... although the humor was usually physical (slapstick for example) or easy in the sense that no education besides experience and practice was required. Some entertainment was also more propaganda and black slapping than truthful. On a side note, minstrels were also used a spies because they could get into the room for 'private' parties and people might tend to forget that they could hear what was going on around them.

A troubadour was a very different animal altogether. In the South of France, a new style a music was developed and there a new form of minstrel came to being. The troubadour was a well educated as well as aristocratic. The troubadour didn't really perform low humor- he performed poetry and songs about love and sex- instead of just war and fighting... and farting... He talked irreverently about love and women and sex. Women were given a higher status in his poetry than men and the performances were also performed in the language of the common man- so not only the educated could understand what the troubadours were saying. These new entertainers were more than just entertaining and to be a troubadour you needed intelligence, sarcasm, real whit and frankly- snottiness. :) These entertainers saw themselves as much better than the 'mere' minstrels and soon troubadours were the entertainment of choice in more than just southern France. One famous English troubadour was Geoffrey Chaucer and he not only wrote several popular works, but may have been 'disappeared' after a major political upheaval where his humor was no longer found amusing.

A wandering minstrel was a typical minstrel who, due to being unpopular after the troubadours, would wander looking for paid work. The upside was that minstrels no longer needed to be propaganda machines for someone... They could speak their mind on a street corner for nothing. The power of the wandering minstrel to sow dissent against the government or the aristocracy was painfully obvious to those in power and at times, minstrels were banned when there was an politically sensitive environment. The downside was poverty, danger, and the life of a person on the move.

How did monks live?

The life of a monk was not the contemplative life that I imagined. Abbots could have their own armies, and bishops could be married or on brothels. Even archbishops could spend more time working in politic than working for the church. The monks needed to support themselves so they could stay 'away' from the outside world. So they would pray and work to support themselves and their companions in the church. At one point, as the members of the surrounding culture saw a monk's prayer as being more powerful than their own... those who could afford to would pay monks to pray for them. Soon monks and abbots were quite wealthy and found more ways to make money- a monastery became a commercial enterprise.. This of course brought the monks and the inhabitants of the church out into the world- no longer living in poverty or even finding it necessary to follow the commandments. Some monks could be hired to fight wars! During different times, different individuals would try to reform the process and go back to poverty vows and a simpler life. But a vicious cycle could begin as the poorer monasteries would be flooded with money for prayers by the warring classes because they believed the poorer monasteries would give better prayers. This would eventually corrupt the monks, the monastery and the other church leaders. Monks found loopholes to laws that were supposed to be followed and would use sign language so they could 'talk' during meals without breaking the vow of silence or they would eat meat in the infirmary- because only the sick were allowed to eat meat. Monks would use brothels as well. Monasteries would compete with each other to be more popular and get more money and so gimmicks such as 'relics' were used- a better relic would get you more money. The wealthier that the church became, the more this would cause power struggles with government and even between the villages and their inhabitants. This struggle would continue in England until Henry VIII came to power and broke away from the Catholic church- robbing and destroying the monasteries.

What things made the job of an arming squire unpleasant?

There were a few things that could make the life of an army squire unpleasant. First, being an arming squire was the lowest position you could have in your journey to become a knight. So your job ends up being a little bit like a valet and a washer woman- according to Toni Robinson. The squire would have to sometimes go on to the battlefield to get to his knight- a place that was not known for its cleanliness. Imagining trying to walk through the bodies, mud, blood, and other detritus... including the seriously wounded sounds just awful. The squire has to undress the knight and then wash the armor -all 24 pieces- in vinegar and sand... and maybe a little bit of urine.

What was so bad about being an archer?

It was no fun to be an archer. If you were captured, you would have two of your fingers cut off and after the battle, it was the archer's job to go through the battlefield looking for the seriously wounded... and then killing them to put them out of their 'misery'. I can't imagine having to do that-especially if it ended up being someone you knew!

What remedies and unpleasant tasks were associated with medieval medicine?

In medieval medicine, leeches were used for medicine and for sucking blood and the 'bad' stuff out of the patient. So someone would have to catch the leeches. To catch them, you would go into the rivers without pants -so usually women in dresses- and walk around stirring up the bottom of the body of water. This would stir up the leeches and they would attach themselves to the bare legs of the person... who could then come out and remove them. You would then have them to sell to a medical doctor. Another medical job that could be unpleasant was the man who performed the dual roles of barber/surgeon. The fun part of the job would be haircuts or shaving of a beard. The other part of the job was bloodletting, amputations and even medicinal enemas which were given with a long metal tube attached to a funnel that the medicine was placed in after the tube was placed about six inches into the rectum. (Ouch!) Clearly these remedies would not be fun... especially without anesthesia. A wise woman could use many remedies to help or hinder your recovery including cutting live eels and smearing their blood on your wart to help remove it.

What is worm stew? How is it used?

Worm stew is a medieval 'pick me up' that is made with fresh worms, water, butter, bread and herbs. It might have also been used to cure sore throats and because it was so high in protein ...it probably helped make a few things feel better! I wonder if it was used for the flu, colds, etc...

What is significant about the building of Cathedrals? What did it do for an area?

A rich person would build a cathedral for the Catholic church to buy the love of god and freedom and grace for their soul. It would provide hundreds of jobs for the local area for years and decades. The villages around a cathedral (or built up around a construction zone for one) would fill with craftsman and other jobs – from CEO's to janitors and maids. Some would work on the same cathedral their entire lives. One really tough job in building cathedrals was to delving stones. All day, someone would drill with a hammer and spike through rock to split it into a smaller piece which could then be moved by cart to the cathedral site. Another rock job was running the 'wheel' or crane to move the large pieces of rocks up the scaffolding to the top of the building- called the treadmill worker. One of the risks was that cranes were still experimented with and a runner could be crushed when everything collapsed onto him including the large rocks. Heck, any worker including stone masons could be severely damaged or killed when the scaffolding or cranes collapsed. A treadmill worker had a very boring... yet dangerous job. It was done many times by the blind and feeling the problems with the machine and knowing you were a few hundred feet in the air would be awful!

What is so dangerous about making lime?

Making lime was a very dangerous process. Heating chalk would turn it into lime and the lime would be used with sand to make mortar. Using giant kilns, chalk would be burned and if not burned correctly, it could create carbon monoxide poisoning which could paralyze the worker and then kill him- it was mentioned that you could fall into the kiln when you were paralyzed and then you would burn as well. So the kiln needed to be carefully watched and cared for for a continuously 48 hours. That would make quick lime and then would be added to water to turn it to powder. Turning the lime into powder could cause great burning and could also cause blindness if it got into your eyes- could really burn your respiratory system if breathed. Caustic to skin, lime makers didn't live too long. :(

What was so nasty about the fulling process? What was it necessary to full cloth? What did the process actually do to the cloth?

A fuller softened wool by treading on it in bare-feet -in urine. The rough cloth is put into a vat full of week old urine and the 'fuller' simply walks and stamps on the cloth in the urine. You just keep moving and after a while you make sure that you move the fabric around more too. The smell of the ammonia is horrible (and clearly nauseating) but hopefully you get used to the smell and it removes the grease from the cloth and slowly felts up the cloth... which was then used to make all of the clothing worn by the population. It made the cloth stronger, cleaner, non greasy and the holes in the cloth from the making would be made much smaller allowing for thicker and even warmer clothing.

Hope you enjoyed... and sorry this was LONG! :)


  1. Very interesing and I shall return to read more.
    I would like to say though,in regard to the short piece on medieval archers,it is a myth that captured archers had any fingers cut off,the truth is that common soldiers were not taken prisoner they were killed. The only people that were taken prisoner were the nobles,those able to pay ransom.

  2. Grey Owl- you are quite welcome and it is good to 'meet' you. I do want to ask about your sources that you are using to decide that what I wrote about the medieval archers was a myth. I did a lot of research on that and was agreed upon by two of my history professors... So I am wondering about your sources. Thanks!

  3. If I remember correctly, I've only ever heard about archers' fingers being cut off during the Hundred Years War. France had suffered 3 disastrous, humiliating defeats almost entirely because of massed longbowmen. At Crecy, Poitiers, and yet again at Agincourt. The longbowmen were so hated that they would occasionally cut the fingers off of wounded or captured archers during skirmishes every now and then as a message to the English. I'm not sure if it was ever practiced on a very wide scale. I think that throughout most of the medieval world, common soldiers including archers were indeed killed.

    I love the post by the way. I've been reading several books about the medieval world recently and I actually went to a Renaissance festival today if you can believe that.

  4. Anonymous- sorry it took so long to get back to you. I am in my last two weeks of school and I won't lie and say that I was caught up and had nothing to do- in fact I will be finishing one class over the summer. :)

    I think that we have found some agreement. There are only a few instances of the archer's/fingers and they were clearly to make a point - as some countries still do today with forced 'amputations'. I certainly wasn't trying to suggest that if you were an archer in a fighting army then you were always allowed to survive and foot soldiers were always killed. I was trying to point out that the job description was not a pleasant one and could have lifelong physical consequences in the loss of those fingers and potentially your livelihood- not to even mention the long term emotional consequences of war without adding in having to sometimes kill members of your own regiment.

    In all of history, there can be a lot of debate and gray area depending on which sources you use and where your strengths and studies lie. I am so jealous about the Renaissance fair/festival... those rarely happen in my neck of the woods. Are you planning on going to school to continue your interest in history or are you enjoying your foray into medieval history for fun and leisure?

  5. I meant last two weeks for this semester- I have quite a few more to go. :)

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