Friday, May 28, 2010

What Was It Like to Live in the Middle Ages in Europe

Jeanne Crain as Guebever in The Sword of Lancelot, clean, warm, dry, elegant, well-nourished, healthy, naturally beautiful, and having all her teeth.  That's what the Middle ages was like.  Not.

You know what it is like to go camping. How would you like to camp from the moment you are born to the moment you die?

1. You spend a lot of time outdoors because indoors there was very little light even at the best of times.

2. You are only warm and dry when the weather outside is warm and dry.

3. If something hurts, it keeps hurting until it heals. The efficacy of herbal medicine that you read of in historical novels is highly optimistic.

4. You break a tooth on the bits of millstone in the bread you eat.

5. You do not change your clothes very often at all.

6. You never go more than several miles from where you were born.

7. You do not hear about important events for weeks, months or even years.

8. If you do travel, you are out in the weather whether walking or on horse, If it rains you get soaked. The roads are narrow and muddy much of the time.

9. If you leave your loved ones or they leave you to live even a matter of leagues away, you hear very little if anything from or about them ever.

10. The food you eat is based on what is in season at the time or what could be preserved or stored. There is little variety.

11. You breathe in smoke from your fire day and night.

12. You probably have to deal with lice and fleas.

13. If you become pregnant you know you have a strong chance of dying in childbirth.

14. Just about everything you have you or someone in your family made by hand.

15. You never have any privacy.

16.  You are more likely not to know how to read or write.

17.  It is unlikely you have ever seen a book outside of a church or monastery and probably fewer than five ever.

18.  Depending on where you live you may or may not bathe regularly, but when you do, it is likely you are in wooden tub with slivers and air in the room is cold.  You would use a lye based soap if any.

19.  You start worrying whether your daughter is ever going to get married when she is fifteen.

20.  If you have any sort of disability, physical , sensory, emotional or mental, you will be lucky if you at least get to live at home and not be forced out to beg on the street.
The point of this list is not to disturb anyone's illusions, but simply to acknowledge differences that are easy to forget. It is likewise easy to forget that these conditions still exist in the world.

Feel free to add to this list.

Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne's Booking History.

2 comments:

Kilian said...

Unless you were Jewish, in which case

4. You don't eat any bread at all for 8 days during Passover.

7. You get news regularly from your acquaintances who travel widely for business reasons.

9. Your have a large extended family who write to each other.

10. The variety of kosher food is not limited to what you can find in your immediate vicinity because you live where there is a Jewish community, and that means trade and contact with others outside your immediate area.

12. You and your clothing is kept clean, with vermin at a minimum.

16. You and everyone you know well can read and write.

17. Your community has a small library of books.

18. You bathe in a ritual bath, submerging yourself completely at least once a week (males) or once a month (females). You scrub yourself thoroughly before you enter the ritual bath and change into clean clothing after.

20. If you are disabled, your extended family/community will take care of you.

On the other hand, you:

A. Run the risk of being accused of blood libel (ritual killing of children), and being killed by the mob

B. Witchcraft, since you can read/write, and being killed by the mob.

C. Causing the plague because your cleanliness protects you from most communicable diseases and being killed by the mob.

D. Gaining a reputation as being greedy and grasping for money because almost all trades and guilds are closed to you, leaving only money-lending and peddling open to you, and being killed by the mob

E. Being taxed to the max because you have money and being killed by the mob.

F. Being evicted or forced into conversion when the monarch takes a dislike to your people and being killed by the mob.

All in all life in the middle ages was no picnic for anyone.

Dr John Yeoman said...

A superb article - and comment. If historical conditions were portrayed as they 'really' were, in so far as we could understand or replicate them, few would read historical fiction. Too depressing. Or too alien.

But then, a story supposedly narrated by a person of the time, would take all these things as 'givens'. They would not be foregrounded in the story. Do we annotate every dog turd that we step over in the street? Future generations might wonder that we didn't - and marvel at our cloddish sensibility.

I believe an historical novelist (like any fiction writer) must strike a balance between revealing the incidental crudities of an era and suppressing them, in the interests of reader appeal.

For example, nowhere in stories published in the early 20th century do I find mention of one everyday fact: that it was common for people to have all their healthy teeth removed in middle age, supposedly to offset dental problems in their dotage. Both my father and mother wore full dentures from around the age of 50.

What impact might that have had upon domestic life: to see one's beloved's teeth smiling at one each night from a bedside jar?

No fiction writer of the time discussed this, so far as I know. Because it was 'not spoken about' in company. Should a novelist foreground such ugly trivia for the sake of authenticity, or suppress it, to avoid discomforting the reader?

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