Middle Ages: Truths And Myths (Part I) – Analysis


When children have introductory history lesson in the school, teachers usually explain what will they learn in the next few years. There is a kind of consensus that the beginning and end of history are the most interesting, more precisely: the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and 20th century. The middle part of history is often considered boring for both teachers and students. This primarily refers to Middle Ages. However, such a perspective is deeply wrong and should be rejected because every historical era is interesting, unique and full of its charms in its own way.

The Middle Ages is actually the most magical era of human history and literally exudes its own magic. How could it not be when it is a time of religious domination and religious wars, witches, sorcerers, knights, castles, towers, kings and queens. That the Middle Ages is a very interesting period of human history when it is presented in the right way is shown by the successes of TV series such as Game of Thrones, Vikings, Borgias, Tudors, Medici, The Last Kingdom, Marco Polo. Also, a huge number of historical or fantastic novels and short stories were written about that period.

What gives the Middle Ages a special stamp is that many call it the “Dark Ages”, during which Europe supposedly drastically regressed from an advanced to a backward civilization. But is it really true? A closer look gives different impressions. According to the time frame, the Middle Ages is the period of European history from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 to the emergence of the Renaissance at the end of the 15th century: Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492. It is a period of approximately one thousand years, which is a huge period, an entire millennium.

Division of periods

To make it easier to understand the period, the Middle Ages are divided into: Early, High and Late. Although different historians interpret the duration of the Middle Ages and its sub-periods differently, the largest number divide it in the following way. The Early Middle Ages lasted from 476 to about 1000 AD. That time was marked by the drastic strengthening of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, the migration of peoples, the creation of a feudal relationship between noble (feudal) and serf, ruralization and the emergence of knights who own land.

The High Middle Ages lasted between 1000 and 1300. That period was characterized by the Crusades, the church split between Catholics and Orthodox, the development of agriculture, the growth of the population, the appearance of castles and universities.

The Late Middle Ages is usually placed in the period from 1300 to 1492. It is marked by the plague, the decline of the population, the invention of printing, the appearance of Protestantism, the Renaissance and great geographical discoveries in the New World.

Origin of the term “dark”

The Middle Ages were often referred to as “dark ages” because they symbolized the backwardness and stagnation of society in science, art, technology, and everyday life in general. The term Dark Ages with its negative connotations was invented by Italian humanists. They were engaged in the revitalization of classical teachings, and the notion of a thousand-year period of darkness and ignorance that separated them from the ancient Greek and Roman world served to emphasize their own work and ideals. The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca was the most vocal of the humanists in his condemnation of the Middle Ages in the 1330s.

Humanists coined the term Dark Ages to distinguish it from the “light” Antiquity. Nevertheless, they implicitly accepted the medieval conception of history as a series of defined ages within a limited time frame. They didn’t talk about Augustine’s six divisions of the world or the Bible scriptures, but they still accepted a vision of history that began with the Garden of Eden and will end with the second coming of Jesus. Throughout European history, there was never a complete break with medieval institutions or ways of thinking, which shows that not everything was so negative.

The early Middle Ages bring stagnation in Europe

The fall of Rome by Alaric I the Visigothic king in 410 AD had a huge impact on the political and social climate of Europe because the Western Roman Empire formed the core of European development. Although the Germanic tribes that forcibly immigrated to southern and western Europe in the 5th century eventually converted to Christianity, they retained many of their customs and lifestyles. The social changes they introduced made centralized power and cultural unity unsustainable. Many civilizational achievements acquired during Roman rule, such as well-organized cities, sewage, public baths and spas, efficient agriculture, a wide network of roads, water supply systems and shipping lanes (as well as artistic and scientific achievements), largely collapsed when the Middle Ages began.

Scientific, technological, cultural decline was present especially during its early period. The period of migration lasted from the fall of Rome in 476 to about 1000, with a brief interruption of the rise of the Carolingian court established by Charlemagne. In addition, a powerful political structure that would ensure stability did not emerge in Europe. The great kingdoms lost their political unity through a series of small city-states and had to wait until the 18th or 19th century before they were united again as nations. The only force that could provide a basis for social unity was the Roman Catholic Church. The Middle Ages represents a society that tries to structure itself politically on a spiritual basis. This attempt ended with the rise of artistic, commercial and other activities based on secularism.

The hierarchy of medieval society and the dominance of the Church

The social hierarchy in the Middle Ages was formed by the royal court, nobility and representatives of the Church. All of them, although numerically small, dominated society and the rest, although numerically dominant, were subjects. The most powerful was the royal court, followed by the nobility and then the knights, while the peasants were at the bottom of society. In essence, the king, the nobility and the clergy ruled the European states of the time.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the idea of Europe as one big church-state emerged. Christianity was thought to consist of two distinct groups: the ecclesiastical hierarchy (sacerdotium) and secular leaders (imperium). In theory, the two groups complemented each other, caring for the spiritual and worldly needs of the people. Supreme power was held by the pope and the emperor. In practice, these two institutions constantly argued or went to war. Emperors often tried to regulate church activities by arrogating to themselves the right to appoint church officials and interfere in doctrinal matters. The Church not only owned cities and armies, but often regulated state affairs.

The hard life of a peasant

Medieval villages consisted mainly of peasant estates that included houses, barns and stables for animals. In addition, the village was surrounded by arable fields and pastures. For the peasants, daily life revolved around agriculture, with most of their time spent working in the fields and trying to grow enough food to get them through the year.

Church holidays marked sowing and harvesting days and occasions when peasants and feudal lords could rest from their work. The peasants who lived on the estate next to the castle were given plots of land for planting and harvesting. They usually planted rye, oats, peas and barley, and the crops were harvested with a scythe, sickle or reaper. Each peasant family had its own pieces of land; however, peasants worked in groups on tasks such as plowing and haying. They were also expected to build roads, clear forests and work on other jobs assigned by the feudal lord. The houses of medieval peasants were of poor quality compared to modern houses. The floor was dirt, there was very little ventilation and light sources in the form of windows. In addition to people, cattle would also live in the house. However, towards the end of the medieval period conditions generally improved. Peasant houses became bigger, and more often they had two rooms and even a floor.

It was not much better even in better quality houses. Heating has always been a problem with stone floors, ceilings and walls. There wasn’t much light coming through the small windows, and the oil and fat-based candles often produced an unpleasant smell. The furniture consisted of wooden benches, long tables and wardrobes. Bedding, when accessible, could be taped or nailed to the pews to provide some comfort. The beds were often full of bed bugs, lice and other biting insects. Peasants most often ate warm porridge made from wheat, oats and barley, as well as vegetables and bread. They rarely ate meat. They mostly drank wine and beer.

Peasants were serfs legally bound to the land owned by the local landowner/lord. If they wanted to move, or even marry, they first needed the lord’s permission. In exchange for permission to cultivate the land they lived on, they had to give the lord a portion of the food they grew each year. Peasants also had to pay taxes to the Church. The tax was 10% of what they produced on their land. Life was hard. If the crops did not produce enough food, they faced starvation. Some peasants were free people. They could move from one village to another and did not have the same restrictions towards their masters. There were more of them in the regions of southern Europe than in the north.

Rise of cities and castles

The main factor that stimulated the development of cities was the Viking invasions during the Early Middle Ages, which led to the construction of walls in villages and the determination of their positions. Then large medieval cities were built surrounded by walls with houses, shops and churches inside the walls. England is recognizable for its medieval city walls. The inhabitants of the cities mainly earned their living as merchants or craftsmen, and this activity was strictly controlled by the guilds. Members of these guilds would employ young people – primarily boys – as apprentices, to learn a trade and later become guild members themselves. These apprentices were as much a part of the household as the master’s children.

Castles began to be built in the 9th and 10th centuries because they provided protection from invaders and other masters. In the beginning, the castles were built of wood, and later of stone. After the castles were built, towns were built around them. Cities were often in unsanitary conditions due to the growing population and the lack of adequate sewage, waste water and waste disposal. Modern toilets and plumbing were far in the future, and excrement and waste were thrown into the streets. There were “famous” night pots. Animals such as pigs, goats and sheep roamed the streets while butchers and traders often threw meat and other food scraps into the street or into the river. The streets were full of brothels, various shops and restaurants that did not stand out for their cleanliness. These unhygienic conditions contributed to the spread of dangerous diseases such as the plague. The typical appearance of medieval cities can best be seen in TV series such as Game of Thrones (especially the city of King’s Landing).

High nobility

The nobles, both the titled nobility and the common knights, exploited the manors and the peasants, although they did not always own the land completely through the feudal system they had rights to collect income from the land. During the 11th and 12th centuries, lands were considered hereditary, and most would go to the eldest son in the family.

The dominance of the nobility was built on ownership of land, possession of cavalry, control of castles and exemptions from taxes and other levies. However, the nobles were divided. Namely, kings and the highest-ranking nobility controlled a large number of commoners and large parts of the country, as well as smaller nobles. The smaller nobles ranked below them had authority over smaller areas of the country and a smaller number of people. Knights were the lowest level of nobility: they controlled but did not own land and had to serve other nobles. The court of a monarch, or in some periods an important noble, was an extended household that served the monarch or noble. Courtiers meant the monarch’s or nobles’ cabinet and retinue (persons with court appointments and bodyguards), and sometimes included emissaries from other kingdoms or visitors at court. Foreign princes and foreign nobility in exile could also seek refuge at the court.

Submissive position of women

In the Middle Ages, women were officially required to be subordinate to a man, be it their father, husband, brother or cousin. Widows, who were often allowed some control over their own lives, were still legally restricted. Women of different classes performed different activities.

Peasant women planted agricultural crops, kept cattle and made textiles. Wealthy urban women could be merchants like their husbands or even became moneylenders, while middle-class women worked in the textile, inn and beer industries. Citizen women, like peasant women, were responsible for the household, and they could also engage in trade. Poorer women often traded and resold food and other goods in markets or worked in wealthier households as housekeepers or laundresses. Many women performed not only household duties such as cooking and cleaning, but also other activities such as working in the fields, brewing beer, butchering cattle.


For most children growing up in medieval Europe, the first year of life was the most dangerous: as many as 50% of children died from deadly diseases. Moreover, 20% of women died in childbirth. During the first year of life, the child was looked after and nurtured by the parents if the family belonged to the peasant class. If the family was noble, the child was taken care of by a wet nurse. By the age of 12, the child began to take on a more serious role in family duties in the countryside.

Although girls could be married off at the age of 12, this was relatively rare unless the girl was a noble and an heiress. Peasant children at this age stayed at home and continued to learn and develop the skills of working in the fields. City children moved from their homes to the homes of their feudal lord or employer (depending on their future role as servants or apprentices). Noble boys were taught the skills of handling weapons, and noble girls were taught basic household chores. The end of childhood and entry into youth is marked by leaving home and moving to the house of an employer or master, enrolling in university or entering church service.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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