Brutal Realities of Life in the Middle Ages

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The Middle Ages lasted from the fall of Rome in 486 AD through to the middle of the 15th century.

Only around 300 million people populated the entire world, and for the vast majority life was short, brutal, and often brought to a premature end through violent death or infectious disease.

This list looks at 10 reasons why the Middle Ages were not a golden age to be alive.

10. The Feudal System

For the relatively small number of people at the top of the feudal pyramid, life could be good. They held the power, the wealth, and the status.

The king technically owned all of the land in his own name, but much of it was leased out to noble barons in return for an oath of fealty. These noble barons were then free to rule their land and set taxes in whatever way they saw fit.

This opportunity to add to their family wealth came at the expense of the serfs who had no land, no legal rights, and effectively served as slaves to their local baron.

In antiquity it was rare but possible for slaves to rise to positions of real power. A few former slaves became hugely wealthy, some led armies into battle, and the son of an emancipated slave even managed to become Emperor of Rome.

This sort of social mobility would have been unthinkable in the medieval world. Anybody born into life at the foothills of the feudal pile could expect, with very few exceptions, to toil and work there for the rest of their days. 

9. The Little Ice Age

Human civilization has existed for around 6,000 years. The journey of modern humans has been benefited by unusually stable and agreeable temperatures. There have, however, been some significant bumps in the road.

In around the year 1300 the global average temperature plummeted by around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2-3 degrees Fahrenheit), and it didn’t recover for centuries.

This period came to be known as the Little Ice Age, and it had a devastating impact on Medieval Europe and beyond. Rivers and harbors froze solid for months on end, crops failed, and millions of people starved to death as famine and death stalked the land.

Science now tells us the Little Ice Age was caused by a combination of volcanic eruptions and solar activity, but the superstitious people of the Middle Ages had their own theories.

Natural phenomenon tended to be attributed to a vengeful God or the work of magic and witches. The massive fall in temperature contributed to the religious persecution and witch burnings that were prevalent in the Middle Ages.

8. Bubonic Plague

The bubonic plague has never entirely gone away. Several hundred cases are recorded each year, although these are largely confined to remote areas of Africa and Asia.

In 1347, the bubonic plague, which came to be known as the black death, reached the shores of Europe for the first time. It quickly cut a swathe of death through the continent, killing as many as twenty-million people. In one of history’s worst catastrophes, almost half of Europe’s population perished over the course of just a few years.

Black death was a swift killer. People would go to bed at night entirely healthy, only to be dead by morning. It killed rich and poor without distinction, and only around 10% of those who contracted the disease survived the experience.

As terrible and terrifying as the plague was, it did at least bring some benefits for the survivors. With so many dead there was a serious labor shortage. This afforded the surviving peasants a little more bargaining power in relations with their lords, since they could no longer be easily replaced.

7. Life Expectancy was Awful

For those who managed to avoid starvation or the ravages of black death, there was still no shortage of ways to die a horrible death.

Diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy, and cholera were commonplace, and even basic standards of sanitation were rarely met. The inhabitants of medieval London alone produced around 50 tons of excrement every day. Since a sewage system didn’t yet exist, most of this was just thrown onto the roads. Quite apart from creating what must have been an unavoidably pungent smell, this created an ideal breeding ground for disease.

This fact was recognized during the Middle Ages, and the Miasma Theory, which held that bad smells were the direct cause of disease, became popular. While the theory wasn’t quite correct, it did lead to people belatedly rediscovering the importance of cleanliness and bathing.

The ruling class had the means and opportunity to keep themselves clean and smelling relatively fresh if they chose to do so. However, it was far more difficult for the serfs who usually lived in cramped conditions in a single room along with their family and often their livestock.  

Only around 30% of children made it through to adulthood, and childbirth all-too-often proved fatal for mother, baby, or both. Average life expectancy was something in the region of 35 years. Men may have generally lived slightly longer than women, suggesting that childbirth may have been even more dangerous than warfare in the medieval world.

6. Religious Persecution

"Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099" / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library

The Catholic Church was the most powerful organization in the world. It paid no taxes itself, but peasants were compelled to pay the church a tithe in the form of 10% of their earnings and set aside time to work its lands for free. The church’s wealth made it a huge political force, and it pervaded almost every aspect of medieval life. 

As head of the church and God’s representative on Earth, the Pope wielded power that matched and even exceeded that of most of Europe’s monarchs. While Popes didn’t control any armies directly, they had the influence to call the crusades against the Muslim-controled Holy Lands. These count amongst history’s bloodiest wars, and its estimated they led to the death of as many as three-million people.

The Islamic world and the Christian world were largely separate entities, and almost everybody in medieval Europe was a God-fearing Roman Catholic, or at least professed to be. However, there were small numbers of pagans, Jews, and others, and they followed their religion at the risk of persecution and even their lives.

5. Women’s Rights


Life in the Middle Ages was brutal, difficult, and unfair. This was especially true for the half of the population unfortunate enough to be born female in a deeply patriarchal society.

Women had very few rights of their own. Up until the point they were married they were considered the property of their father; after this they became property of their husband.

If a woman was attacked and injured, or even killed, her husband could expect to be judged as the injured party; it was, after all, his property that had been damaged.

While women were largely seen as baby-making machines, female peasants were none the less expected to work the fields. Not surprisingly they were paid less than men, despite doing the same work.

Despite these handicaps, a small number of women did succeed in rising to positions of power and influence. In England at least, it was occasionally possible for a woman to obtain a special license allowing her to run her own business, and in certain circumstances she could inherit money.

4. Medical Knowledge

At some time around the year 540 BC an ancient Greek physician named Alcmaeon of Croton popularized the idea that human health revolved around the balance of four juices, usually referred to as humors. These consisted of blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

The theory was entirely incorrect, but it proved to be nothing if not persistent. A thousand years later and medieval medicine had not advanced much further than this, and in some respects it had managed to regress. While the ancient Greeks had recognized that illnesses had physical causes, medieval physicians and patients alike tended to attribute supernatural causes to their ailments.

It was not out of the ordinary at all for an examination to begin with the study of the patient’s astrological chart. More often than not the diagnosis would be an imbalance of the humors. This could be treated by draining the patient’s blood through cuts or the application of leeches.

Things got much worse for those in a bad enough condition to require surgery. Knowledge of the internal workings of the human body was limited, as dissecting corpses was illegal.  To make matters worse physicians considered the work of surgery to be beneath them.

Surgery was instead often carried out by barber surgeons, who were often illiterate with no formal training and who, as the name suggests, doubled up as barbers. The only anesthetics available were alcohol or herbs such as mandrake. Many surgeons didn’t even use these, wrongly believing that pain helped the healing process.

Even those that survived the surgery itself were at a huge risk of death through infection in the days and weeks that followed.

3. Job Opportunities

The medieval world was largely agrarian and around 80% of the population worked the land. However, towns and cities were growing in size and importance, and this opened up other potential careers. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them were still badly paid, hugely time and labor intensive, and in many cases downright disgusting.

The medical profession’s insatiable demand for leeches opened up the job of leech collector as a viable prospect. There were no sophisticated methods of capturing the bloodsucking creatures. Collectors instead waded into a suitable body of water and waited for the leeches to attach themselves.

Fullers were more numerous, and they could earn three-times as much as a peasant working the fields, but it was still very far from a dream career. Their job was to beat oil, dirt, and other impurities out of freshly spun cloth. The most effective way of accomplishing this was by stamping the cloth underfoot in a barrel of human urine for hours on end.

2. Crime and Punishment

Whilst violent criminals and thieves could expect brutal retribution if they were caught, there were many other ways to fall foul of the law.

It was illegal to be a vagrant or to be caught begging, illegal for peasants to marry without their lord’s permission, and women could even face punishment for excessive gossiping. In 1314 a law was passed in England that made it illegal to play football.

In the early part of the Middle Ages guilt or innocence was often determined through trial by ordeal. A woman suspected of witchcraft might be bound and thrown into a pool of water. If she survived, then no more proof was needed that she was indeed a witch. If she died, then maybe she was innocent after all.

From the 1300s onwards trial by jury began to replace trial by ordeal, but punishments remained exceptionally harsh by modern standards.

Perhaps the worst crime imaginable was high treason, the betrayal of one’s king. For this heinous act was reserved one of the worst punishments imaginable. The victim would be fastened to a wooden panel and dragged towards their place of execution. They would then be hanged, only to be cut down shortly before death. This, however, was certainly no act of mercy. Next, frequently whilst still fully conscious, they would be disemboweled, and their entrails burned before their eyes. Finally an axe would be swung to hack through their neck and chop off their head, which would be placed on display as a warning to others.

1. Endless Warfare

The Middle Ages were a time of almost constant warfare. Some of these wars were short and bloody. Others, like the 100 Years’ War, which actually lasted for 116 years, were long, drawn out affairs that took decades to resolve.

Almost every able-bodied man was a potential combatant. Nobles spent much of their life training for war, and when one inevitably came along they were expected to put their skills to use, or at least pay a substantial sum to excuse themselves from the fight.

The vast majority of the population lacked the financial means to buy their way out, and they could be called up through a form of conscription. Any landowner could be called upon to provide troops, and the more land they owned the more men they were expected to find.

More often than not these unfortunate peasants would be sent into battle with little or no military training, led by a knight or two who would attempt to instill some sort of order on the rabble.

It was recognized that a well-trained, organized peasant army would be useful on the battlefield, but this was generally outweighed by the fear that they might use their training to rise up and overthrow their rulers.


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2 Comments

  1. Just…. Just no. This list is really over the top and also has a lot off nonsense. Stop spreading such BS, please.

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