Life in the Middle Ages

Seen as a period of decline after the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages was characterized by endless wars, the prominence of the Church, and a disparate social structure created by the feudal system. 

Some parts of Middle Ages life are well-documented granting modern scholars insight, but other aspects, particularly pertaining to the lower classes, that are not recorded well causing historians to speculate on the lives of the peasants.  The lives of medieval individuals were affected by the aspects of family life, education, profession, religion, health, and politics.

Family Life

Core family units were the common family organization.  A mother and father would live together with their children.  It was important to have enough children to help with the family’s work, but conversely too many children became difficult to feed and care for.  Living spaces for the majority of the population were quite small in size, and in order to make the most efficient use of heat, the family would often sleep in one room near the fire.

For the nobility marriage was seen almost as a financial agreement between two parties.  The result of such unions was mixed, but of utmost importance was producing a male heir to preserve the family legacy.


Academic and intellectual training was not common among the poorer people of the Middle Ages, but it was during this period when the first universities were founded and other developments in philosophy and science were discovered.  Abbeys became prime educational sites as they often held libraries of a larger scale than private residences.

While a majority of religious texts were written in Latin, medieval scholars began to champion the use of vernacular languages, particularly in poetry and literature.  This made new texts more accessible to those who did not speak or read Latin.

For most youth, a suitable education consisted of learning a trade or working the land.  This sort of practical learning often took the form of an apprenticeship with a tradesman or working alongside family.  Even if children received education in their youth, it was more important for the financial survival of families to have labourers than scholars.

Social Structure

Throughout the Middle Ages, agricultural technology vastly improved increasing production and profit.  It is estimated that approximately ninety percent of the population of Europe consisted of peasants who mostly worked in agriculture. 

The very small proportion of the population remaining consisted on the nobility and the clergy.  Nobles owned vast amounts of land from which they received rent from the serfs as well as proceeds from the products sold.  Land was hereditary and titled positions often relied on the possession of a particular piece of land.  Nobles were able to expand their holdings through conquering neighboring territories or through gifts for service to the monarchy.

It was nearly impossible to change social classes because of the disparity among the classes.  However, between the peasantry and the nobility, were a developing group of townsmen and tradesmen.  These professionals engaged in trades such as blacksmithing, weavers, and others.  Later in history these merchants and tradesmen would become a strong middle class altering the status quo of social organization.


The Catholic Church created the moral law during the Middle Ages though in parts of Europe, particularly in Spain, Islam played a significant role as well.  In 1054 the Church was divided in the Great Schism into the Roman Catholic Church in Roman and the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantinople.  The division ultimately strengthened the power of the Church is Europe.  Monasteries were the academic centers of the Western world and responsible for the production of many architectural and artistic treasures of the Middle Ages.

The clergy in many instances became a type of politician, active in deciding courses of action for world affairs.  Bishops and other high-ranking church officials became important allies for royalty and nobility.

It is nearly impossible to discuss Middle Ages life without mentioning the Crusades.  The series of wars were fought by Christian forces in attempt to regain the Holy Land of Jerusalem from Muslim control.  There has been much speculation about the wars and those who fought them, including the almost legendary Knights Templar.  The Fourth Crusade was fought with the intent to return Constatinople to Byzantine rule, and though this was politically accomplished, the centre of Eastern Orthodox religion and culture never fully recovered the glory of the earlier empire.


Nutrition and sanitation in the Middle Ages is deplorable by modern standards and had significant health repercussions.  The new developments in agriculture allowed for greater production of crops, but landowners tended to specialize in a single crop so in case of a crop failure or inability to trade at market, the peasants were left with little nutritional variety.  The early 14th-century had notable famines that affected population growth.

The infamous plague, known as the Black Death, terrorized the entire European continent in the mid-14th-century.  It was estimated that one third of the European population was killed by the plague.  Poor sanitation and hygiene were significant factors of the spread of disease.  The trauma experienced during the Black Death led to even greater religious devotion because hope for recovery and salvation after death were prominent thoughts.


The Middle Ages were a very volatile time politically with constant warfare and strife.  Europe was not divided as it is today but instead was comprised of numerous smaller kingdoms.  Alliances were formed through treaties and more importantly through marriages between various kingdoms.  Through this practice, the rulers of Spain, England, and France were able to create new larger empires that begin to resemble the countries on a modern map. 

While it was challenge to arrange for strategic marriages, it was also difficult to actually unite kingdoms and bring nobles (who lived as minor kings over their feudal dynasties) under the new, presumably stronger, monarchy.

Governing a kingdom was extremely complicated and relied on the support and allegiance of the nobility and clergy.  It was necessary for royal positions to descend through a family lineage, and the production of a male heir was the Queen’s most important task.  Controversies over succession of the throne led to bitter conflicts within the court and throughout the territory.

Leave a Comment