After the fall of the Roman Empire and before the Renaissance was a time period called the Middle Ages. There were many interesting events that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages, from the rising power of the Church to the rights of peasants and the role of knights. This age was a very important time for Europe and is responsible for many of the changes that led to the revolutionary ideas that sparked the Renaissance.
The European Church
Christianity swept across Europe during the Middle Ages and the Roman Catholic Church was, perhaps, the most influential institution of the time. Strict laws required people to obey the Church and to pay taxes to it which resulted in the Church growing in power.
The Church also encouraged the giving of gifts in exchange for favors or for the certainty of being granted entry into heaven. These were called indulgences. The Pope was the head of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages and he and the Church had the power to influence even the most powerful of kings and lords.
Every town had its own parish church which played an important role in the lives of all the townsfolk. Children were baptized at the parish church, couples were wed, and every Sunday the villagers attended a church service given in Latin.
The Church told its people stories from the Bible which, for the most part, they could not read and led prayers in Latin, a language they couldn’t understand.
Life in the Middle Ages was structured by a strict caste system which dictated how people interacted and what sort of role they performed in society. At the bottom of the societal ladder were the peasants–slaves, serfs and freemen. Slavery began to decline during the Middle Ages, but serfs were much the same thing.
A serf was bound to the land and owned by the Lord of the Manor until the serf had completed one year and one day of service. After completing their required period of service, serfs became freemen who could own small pieces of land and were no longer under the forceful hand of the feudal lord.
The peasant class worked hard during the Middle Ages. In addition to working the land of the feudal lord, peasants were expected to perform repairs on the roads, around the manor and to take up the role of blacksmith, carpenter and tanner as well.
The average peasant lived in a small cottage in towns or on farms near the lord’s manor and subsisted on a diet of bread, stew and vegetables. Occasionally, peasants were rewarded with a bit of meat or, if they were lucky, they could catch fish to supplement their unchanging diets.
Schooling was not a large part of peasant life during the Middle Ages, but some children were lucky enough to attend a school run by the local parish church. Though life was hard for the peasants of the Middle Ages, they managed to survive and even made time to enjoy life during holidays and to celebrate births and marriages.
Towns in the Middle Ages
Though farming was the major industry of the Middle Ages, toward the beginning of the 11th century towns began to rise up as individuals left their farms to learn and practice a trade or craft. Craftsmen and tradesmen came together as free men to form towns where they could create and sell their goods.
Merchants were not subservient to any lord, but the town itself was required to pay taxes to the lord on whose land the town sat.
Councils and the lord mayor were elected from among the wealthiest of the townsmen and these individuals were charged with the duty of passing laws and of protecting the town against outsiders.
Europe in the Middle Ages was ruled by kings and lords who owned the land and gave peasants the right to farm it.
A nobleman could receive his own plot of land, or fief, from a lord by pledging himself to the lord and becoming his vassal. In turn, that man could then give a portion of his land to another man and become a lord himself. Lords collected taxes and tolls and acted as judge to settle disputes between his vassals.
Knighthood was another way for noblemen to gain power and honor during the Middle Ages. At the age of 7, a boy born to a noble family could travel to the castle of another lord and serve as a page until he was 13 when he then became a squire.
Squires were taught the arts of weaponry and warfare and were drilled in the use of the sword, lance and shield until they became knights when they were between the ages of 18 and 21. Knights were bound by a code of chivalry and acted in defense of the lord’s land and people against invaders.
Life was hard during the Middle Ages and most people did not have the privileges enjoyed by the lords and nobles. The peasants of Europe were the people who farmed the land and supplied the lords with food for their families and, in exchange, they led difficult lives.
This was not a glamorous time during which to live, but many important things happened during this period. The code of chivalry ruled the class of knights and the Church in Europe rose to a higher power than it had ever known before. The developments made in industry and culture during the Middle Ages heralded in the next stage in Europe’s history, the Renaissance.
"Medieval Europe," Minnesota State University, https://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/middleages/
"Life During the Middle Ages," Medieval Life.net, https://www.medieval-life.net/life_main.htm
Christ Church Cathedral photo by Flickr user Informatique, https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/2112841979/
Medieval Town photo by Flickr user Hans S, https://www.flickr.com/photos/archeon/3502779765/
Tournament Procession photo by Flickr user Aske Holst, https://www.flickr.com/photos/askeholst/3831744784/
This post is part of the series: Life During the Middle Ages
- Life in the Middle Ages: Churches, Knights & Peasants
- Lances, Swords, and Horses: Jousting Fun Medieval Style
- Elements of a Castle During Medieval Times
- Falconry and Hunting in the Middle Ages
- Turn Medieval Tools Into Fun Projects For Kids