Sunday, October 18, 2009

What Was It Like to Live in the Early Middle Ages?

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 your 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.

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 the Middle Ages.


  1. This is all quite true. However, I think even for "ordinary" people, it was possible to get (reasonably) warm and dry indoors. OTOH, it's quite probable that people went outdoors as little as possible when the weather was extremely cold, snowy, or wet. As for changing clothes, again, it probably depended. Most people had a few clothes, and they didn't change them very much, but they did usually try to keep as clean as circumstances allowed. And sometimes, quite ordinary people went on journeys, though those left behind certainly wouldn't have heard anything about these journeys till they returned, even if they lived in a city. Finally, I'm not sure "camping" is the best comparison here; people just "lived" in whatever circumstances they found themselves, in earlier medieval times. But what you've described is a very good thought exercise, and I'm glad you posted it.
    Anne G

  2. Re: 15. never having privacy.

    More than once in the book I just handed in to my editor, I found I had to use the excuse of going to fetch water or take animals to a stream to drink, for characters to talk without other people present....I hope it wasn't too obvious a ploy! :-)