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A painting of a medieval feudal township at night featuring crowds gathered in the town's centre

Medieval Life: The Best & Worst Bits

Image: | Above: A painting of a medieval feudal township at night

We've picked out our top five best and worst things about medieval life.

The Good Bits

It don't matter if you're black or white

Magic was a big part of medieval life. This period of history saw the lasting distinction made between black and white magic. Black Magic included witchcraft, was associated with the devil and was widely thought to be the cause of accidents, bad luck and illness. White Magic, on the other hand, was associated with the church and linked to good fortune, recovery from illness, wealth and love. Astrology and alchemy fell into this bracket too.

The wild side of the law

In medieval Europe, if an animal committed a crime, particularly one against humans, it could be put on trial in front of a court and given a suitable punishment. As crazy as this sounds, nowadays when an animal harms a human it is more often than not put down, so this isn't so hard for us to believe. Often these cases involved animals running riot through towns, harming or killing humans and very occasionally bestiality cases. It was frequently assumed that these animals were possessed by evil spirits, or carrying out the work of Satan. The animals were subjected to a full trial, complete with jury, witnesses, prosecution and defence. We quite like the mental image of a pig taking the stand in a court of law!

What's in a name?

This is two good points in one! For the first part of the Middle Ages, you only had to remember first names, as surnames did not exist at all, which makes things very easy! Then, when surnames were introduced in 1066 you could pick your own. This was usually a nickname and could be anything. People often used their hair colour, or a defining physical feature. It wasn't until several years later that the concept of continuing a surname throughout a family via the father was introduced.

A man's home is his castle.

Though they don't all remain to this day, medieval Europe was full of castles. They provided residencies for Lords and Ladies; Knights and all of their servants, pages and squires. So, regardless of your social status, it was perfectly feasible for you to live in a castle. Though, the life of a Lord, Lady or Knight would have been much more pleasant and bountiful than that of a servant.

Knights in shining armour

Today, we think of chivalry simply as men opening doors and pulling out chairs for women, but in the Middle Ages it was an established code that all Knights took an oath on and had to swear by. In short, it meant that they were generally kind and considerate people. The code insists that they swear allegiance to their lord, do not make contact with traitors, treat all women well, and always go to church and observe religious practices.

The Not-so-Good Bits

What's the point?

Medieval diners had the luxury of spoons and knives, but no forks! This meant that a lot of eating was done using their hands. This meant that disease and illness were easily spread.

A cobweb a day…

Medicine was certainly not as effective as modern medicine, and some of the proposed cures for day-to-day ailments were rather wacky. For example cobwebs were used to treat warts, and an ale made of crushed and roasted egg shells, leaves and petals of marigold flowers was used to treat the plague. It is not surprising to hear that these 'cures' had very little effect.

Knight school

Education was provided free of charge to every boy who proved themselves able to follow a strict and challenging curriculum of grammar, rhetoric, Latin, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and logic. Knights were also educated, and looked down upon if they were not literate, as with the daughters of very rich Lords. Unfortunately, this education only applied to a select few in society, which meant that illiteracy was widespread.

A pest problem

The plague began in 1328 and lasted until 1351, though there were several smaller outbreaks of the disease over the next 60 years. It orginated in Asia and spread across Europe killing 200 million people and reducing the population by a third. At its peak, 7,500 people were dying per day. After contracting the disease, the victim had around 2-4 days to live, and would experience severe swelling of the lymph nodes, delirium, bleeding in the lungs, vomiting and disorientation, among many other symptoms. The disease was spread by rats, and as they reproduce rapidly, the plague was carried around the world at an alarming rate. With diseased bodies everywhere, Genghis Khan took the opportunity to become the first user of a biological weapon, by catapulting masses of infected corpses at his enemies.

A hairy business

As well as cutting hair, middle ages barbers had licence to also perform the roles of dentists and surgeons. During these procedures lots of blood was shed. The rags used to clean up were washed, spun round poles and hung outside the shops to dry. This is how passersby would be able to recognise the shop and is how we get the red and white striped pole we're familiar with today.