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Native American History
Middle Ages

What was life like in Europe during the middle ages?


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July 24, 2010 2:01PM

The middle ages lasted about a thousand years and covered all of Europe. They were very different from one place to another, and from one time to another.

In the East, the Middle Ages revolved around the fate of the East Roman Empire. Historians today call this the Byzantine Empire, but the people of the time still thought of themselves as Roman, and they called their country the Empire of the Roman People. Of course they were Greek, rather than Latin, but that did not bother them. They were tied up for much of the time with wars with Muslims, to the east, and Bulgarians, to the north. On top of everything else, they were thoroughly beat up by crusaders who came from Western Europe to save them from the Muslims and did a whole lot more harm than good.

The Byzantines also had a lot of internal problems. Partly this was because of Iconoclasm. Some of them thought icons should be venerated, and others thought the icons should be destroyed. Partly it was because of the Blues and the Greens, who were constantly at odds with each other. The problem between Blues and Greens started with the colors of liveries different sides wore at horse races, and it never got

more intellectual than that, but it did cause a lot of grief and a lot of people died.

In the West, when the West Roman Empire collapsed, the land was taken over by Germanic groups that had to establish new kingdoms, and things were pretty chaotic. They had their own laws, and tried to live by them, but they also were governing people who had been Roman citizens, and tried to provide laws that those people were accustomed to. In the mean time, other groups were invading and trying to carve out nations of their own.

Things settled down by about the year 700, which was just about the time the Vikings started raiding, and they settled down again when the Vikings settled in various places, notably Normandy, and set themselves up as part of the process.

For ordinary people, things were not easy. Most people were serfs, who farmed the land and were not free to move away. Feudal hierarchies had to be established, new laws had to be established, and people had to recover from the chaos. For hundreds of years, they wore pretty much the same sorts of clothes and ate the same sorts of boring food, if they had it. Life was hard, and there were very few opportunities for change. Serfs could not legally leave the land they worked without the permission of their lords, but they were not slaves either, and they lords could not easily evict them. So the serfs had, at least, a certain measure of security that people who worked for pay in towns and cities did not have. And if they ran off, they were free after a year, in many places.

The unifying factor across all this was the Church. Christianity was perhaps the defining element of the Middle Ages. The issues of the Church were usually not particularly important to serfs, who just did what they were told, so the various splinter groups and heresies were not usually important more than locally. But the Church promised a better life, and that was one thing everyone could relate to. This was not merely true for the afterlife, but also for the present. Many people went to monasteries to live and work there. Monasteries were safe and secure, for the most part, and were less harsh than the realities of lives spent farming on the manorial estates.

The Middle Ages were full of wars. The best known were the crusades, when people saved their souls by risking their lives to drive the infidels out of the Holy Land. A large part of the problem with this was that it was true for both sides. Everyone thought God was on his side and cursed the other.

The Middle Ages were full of surprises, however. Art and invention were both on the rise. Believe it or not, ancient Romans and ancient Greeks did not have fireplaces and chimneys. Imagine the novelty of sitting at a fireplace and being able to breath fresh air, instead of having to sit at a fire built in the middle of the floor, with smoke rising to the ceiling and going out a hole in the wall or roof. The ancient people also did not have stirrups for their saddles. They did not have grinding wheels. They did not have a lot of things invented in the Middle Ages. Wheel barrows were one thing, eliminating the need for two people by replacing one with a wheel.

People of the Middle Ages were religious, and they believed that the condition of a person's body was a reflection of the condition of that person's soul. If they lived too far from the public baths that were available in towns and larger villages, they bathed in rivers or streams. This was true year round. The Church never was able to figure out what to do about the public baths, with its nudity, but the people did. There are illustrations of nude couples in bath tubs lined up with a plank down the middle, feasting on food laid out on the plank.

We sometimes think of education being absent in the Middle Ages, but it was not. There are still seventy primary and secondary schools open in Western Europe that were founded in the Middle Ages, with several dating to the sixth and seventh centuries. And the Byzantines were operating an extensive system of schools for primary education. King Alfred the Great of England even sought to see that every freeman (i. e., tenant serf) got an education to read and write in English. Universities were founded starting in the eleventh century.

Music saw huge advances. Counterpoint was invented, and this radically altered the music of Europe and set the stage for full harmony. Gothic art and architecture rose in the High Middle Ages, and Europe was filled with new churches and cathedrals, including some of the most beautiful in Europe. The walls were covered with windows, and the windows were often filled with stained glass.

As time went on banking and guilds became important, giving rise to towns, especially in Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, where the governments were free of the feudal hierarchy and the basis of government was republican. The Republic of Venice was founded in the Early Middle Ages, and became a power in the Mediterranean. The Hanseatic League, which was a confederation of towns and cities of Northern Europe in the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia, rivaled nations, but was run by merchants. There was a huge rise of the middle classes, and serfdom all but disappeared in Scotland, England and Scandinavia.

In the fourteenth century, the plague it, and half the people of many areas died, often within weeks. There were wars, and there was famine from climate change.

They were exciting times, if you only chose to view them that way.