In today’s popular culture, medieval times are portrayed as filled with chivalry, nobility, balls, drama, and romance. While all of these elements did play a role in life in the Middle Ages, they were far from the everyday life men and women lived at the time. Understanding the difficulties and challenges people faced during these times is challenging, perhaps even moreso due to the vast differences in the quality of life enjoyed by those of higher social standing and greater wealth and those in the majority, the peasants who struggled to maintain their standards of living.
Understanding the fundamental structure of the class system of the time is critical to comprehending the ins and outs of daily life in Middle Ages. Classes were established at birth, and little if any room was available for an individual to change his station in life. Nobles could lose favor and find themselves cast down to lower classes, but those at the bottom were afforded very little opportunity to better their circumstances, instead having to focus on the day-to-day work that was expected of them.
The royal family was at the very top of the chain, and commanded everyone in the country. Nobles gained their status at birth by virtue of their families’ accumulated wealth, power, and favor with royalty. Nobles enjoyed a high quality of life, living on manors or even in castles, collecting income and crops from the serfs who worked beneath them.
There was no “middle class” as we consider it today. Instead, the wealthy and privileged reined superior over the vast majority of the populace, peasants who toiled to support their own families while working for the nobles and lords whom they served. The feudal system in place at the time left those at the lower end of the ladder unable to move their way up and improve their lots in life. Movies, books, and television have placed a great focus on the rare occurrence of a poor peasant girl being swept into the glamorous and wealthy life of nobility via a romantic love affair. In reality, this was quite unlikely, and those born into peasantry had very little chance to break away from it.
The Role of Women
Daily life in Middle Ages was vastly different for noblewomen than for peasant women. Women of nobility were afforded a certain amount of luxury in their daily lives. They were also granted complete authority to manage their households, employees, and finances if ever their husbands were away or unable to perform these day-to-day tasks themselves.
Noblewomen had the assistance of ladies-in-waiting, who helped them with tasks such as bathing and dressing. Servants prepared meals and maintained the cleanliness of the home. The noblewoman’s daily life largely revolved around eating, drinking, planning weddings or feasts, and even gossiping. Their active social lives were critical to maintaining the family’s good standing within the community, and their involvement in local events allowed them to keep the family name prominent and well-respected.
Peasant women lived tremendously different lives from noblewomen. Their days could begin as early as three in the morning throughout the year. They were expected to prepare meals for their families, beginning with a hearty breakfast. Throughout the daylight hours, they worked on the land or in the fields, tended to animals such as ducks or chickens, and cared for any children. Childcare included education and medical care in addition to expected child-rearing duties.
Peasant women were responsible for making clothing, harvesting and preserving fruits and vegetables, and housecleaning. Women did not have the chance to engage in leisure time or idle activities, instead frequently working from before dawn until after dusk. In many cases, their workloads were such they could not sit down for meals with their families, instead eating cold food after the rest of the family had retired for the night.
Knights played a unique role in daily life in Middle Ages. A knight was neither a noble nor a peasant. Instead, knights worked for royals, lords, or nobles. Much of their time was spent in exercises and training in order to keep their skill level and physical strength at their peaks.
Knights would begin their day with morning prayers and breakfast, followed by extensive training. Training included horseback, jousting, sparring, and strategizing. Afternoons frequently found knights accompanying their lords or masters on hunting or exploring trips. Later in the Middle Ages, knights also spent a great deal of time studying and learning courtship arts and chivalry, in particular etiquette and dancing.
The Feudal System
In the simplest terms, the feudal system aimed to provide military protection to all in exchange for goods, labor, or services. Peasants earned their protection by working land for or paying dues to their nobles, who in turn trained knights and supplied them for military service when needed. In times of war, the feudal system required 40 days of service from all men able to fight. The 40 day requirement ensured that adequate manpower was always available at home to work the land and keep the crops and livestock healthy.
Nobles were required to provide skilled military units to the king when needed. They were also responsible for providing troops with food, clothing, and shelter as needed. In essence, the military system was designed so that everyone earned their protection based on what they were able to provide to the system itself. Peasants were unable to provide funding for the military, but could offer their services during wartime. They could also tend to their nobles’ land, crops, and livestock so that nobles could continue their funding of the military system.
It is worth mentioning that the feudal system had both pros and cons. While those at the bottom of the chain could find it very difficult to move up from their position, skilled and trained fighters could and did frequently find themselves well-rewarded for their service. As they gained more training and experience, an eventual promotion to knighthood would find them enjoying a quality of life they may not have had had they remained working the fields rather than getting into military service.