Medieval Life


Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that was determined by the ownership of land.

Learning Objectives

Recall the structure of the feudal state and the responsibilities and obligations of each level of society

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Feudalism flourished in Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries.
  • Feudalism in England determined the structure of society around relationships derived from the holding and leasing of land, or fiefs.
  • In England, the feudal pyramid was made up of the king at the top with the nobles, knights, and vassals below him.
  • Before a lord could grant land to a tenant he would have to make him a vassal at a formal ceremony. This ceremony bound the lord and vassal in a contract.
  • While modern writers such as Marx point out the negative qualities of feudalism, such as the exploitation and lack of social mobility for the peasants, the French historian Marc Bloch contends that peasants were part of the feudal relationship; while the vassals performed military service in exchange for the fief, the peasants performed physical labour in return for protection, thereby gaining some benefit despite their limited freedom.
  • The 11th century in France saw what has been called by historians a “feudal revolution” or “mutation” and a “fragmentation of powers” that increased localized power and autonomy.

Key Terms

  • mesne tenant: A lord in the feudal system who had vassals who held land from him, but who was himself the vassal of a higher lord.
  • vassals: Persons who entered into a mutual obligation to a lord or monarch in the context of the feudal system in medieval Europe.
  • fiefs: Heritable property or rights granted by an overlord to a vassal.
  • homage: In the Middle Ages this was the ceremony in which a feudal tenant or vassal pledged reverence and submission to his feudal lord, receiving in exchange the symbolic title to his new position.
  • fealty: An oath, from the Latin fidelitas (faithfulness); a pledge of allegiance of one person to another.


Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. It can be broadly defined as a system for structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land, known as a fiefdom or fief, in exchange for service or labour.

The classic version of feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and a fief was what the land was known as. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal land tenure, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief formed the basis of the feudal relationship.

Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralization of an empire, especially in the Carolingian empires, which lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to support cavalry without the ability to allocate land to these mounted troops. Mounted soldiers began to secure a system of hereditary rule over their allocated land, and their power over the territory came to encompass the social, political, judicial, and economic spheres.

Many societies in the Middle Ages were characterized by feudal organizations, including England, which was the most structured feudal society, France, Italy, Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, and Portugal. Each of these territories developed feudalism in unique ways, and the way we understand feudalism as a unified concept today is in large part due to critiques after its dissolution. Karl Marx theorized feudalism as a pre-capitalist society, characterized by the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) in their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom and principally by means of labour, produce, and money rents.

While modern writers such as Marx point out the negative qualities of feudalism, the French historian Marc Bloch contends that peasants were an integral part of the feudal relationship: while the vassals performed military service in exchange for the fief, the peasants performed physical labour in return for protection, thereby gaining some benefit despite their limited freedom. Feudalism was thus a complex social and economic system defined by inherited ranks, each of which possessed inherent social and economic privileges and obligations. Feudalism allowed societies in the Middle Ages to retain a relatively stable political structure even as the centralized power of empires and kingdoms began to dissolve.

Structure of the Feudal State in England

Feudalism in 12th-century England was among the better structured and established systems in Europe at the time. The king was the absolute “owner” of land in the feudal system, and all nobles, knights, and other tenants, termed vassals, merely “held” land from the king, who was thus at the top of the feudal pyramid.

Below the king in the feudal pyramid was a tenant-in-chief (generally in the form of a baron or knight), who was a vassal of the king. Holding from the tenant-in-chief was a mesne tenant —generally a knight or baron who was sometimes a tenant-in-chief in their capacity as holder of other fiefs. Below the mesne tenant, further mesne tenants could hold from each other in series.


Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony, which was composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered into a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, while the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces.


Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne: Roland (right) receives the sword, Durandal, from the hands of Charlemagne (left). From a manuscript of a chanson de geste, c. 14th Century.

Once the commendation ceremony was complete, the lord and vassal were in a feudal relationship with agreed obligations to one another. The vassal’s principal obligation to the lord was “aid,” or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, he was responsible for answering calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court, whether manorial or baronial, or at the king’s court.

The vassal’s obligations could also involve providing “counsel,” so that if the lord faced a major decision he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. At the level of the manor this might be a fairly mundane matter of agricultural policy, but could also include sentencing by the lord for criminal offenses, including capital punishment in some cases. In the king’s feudal court, such deliberation could include the question of declaring war. These are only examples; depending on the period of time and location in Europe, feudal customs and practices varied.

Feudalism in France

In its origin, the feudal grant of land had been seen in terms of a personal bond between lord and vassal, but with time and the transformation of fiefs into hereditary holdings, the nature of the system came to be seen as a form of “politics of land.” The 11th century in France saw what has been called by historians a “feudal revolution” or “mutation” and a “fragmentation of powers” that was unlike the development of feudalism in England, Italy, or Germany in the same period or later. In France, counties and duchies began to break down into smaller holdings as castellans and lesser seigneurs took control of local lands, and (as comital families had done before them) lesser lords usurped/privatized a wide range of prerogatives and rights of the state—most importantly the highly profitable rights of justice, but also travel dues, market dues, fees for using woodlands, obligations to use the lord’s mill, etc. Power in this period became more personal and decentralized.

The Manor System

The manor system was an element of feudal society in the Middle Ages characterized by the legal and economic power of the lord of a manor.

Learning Objectives

Illustrate the hierarchy of the manor system by describing the roles of lords, villeins, and serfs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The lord of a manor was supported by his land holdings and contributions from the peasant population. Serfs who occupied land belonging to the lord were required to work the land, and in return received certain entitlements.
  • Serfdom was the status of peasants in the manor system, and villeins were the most common type of serf in the Middle Ages.
  • Villeins rented small homes with or without land; as part of their contract with the lord they were expected to spend some time working the land.
  • Villeins could not move away without the lord’s consent and the acceptance of the new lord whose manor they were to move to. Because of the protection villeins received from the lord’s manor, it was generally not favorable to move away unless the landlord proved to be especially tyrannical.
  • The manor system was made up of three types of land: demesne, dependent, and free peasant land.
  • Manorial structures could be found throughout medieval Western and Eastern Europe: in Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Baltic nations, Holland, Prussia, England, France, and the Germanic kingdoms.

Key Terms

  • villein: The most common type of serf in the Middle Ages. They had more rights and a higher status than the lowest serf, but existed under a number of legal restrictions that differentiated them from freemen.
  • demesne: All the land, not necessarily all physically connected to the manor house, that was retained by the lord of a manor for his own use and support, under his own management.
  • serfs: Peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism. It was a condition of bondage that developed primarily during the High Middle Ages in Europe.
  • freemen: Men who were not serfs in the feudal system.

Manorialism was an essential element of feudal society and was the organizing principle of rural economy that originated in the villa system of the Late Roman Empire. Manorialism was widely practiced in medieval Western Europe and parts of central Europe, and was slowly replaced by the advent of a money-based market economy and new forms of agrarian contract.

Manorialism was characterized by the vesting of legal and economic power in the lord of a manor. The lord was supported economically from his own direct landholding in a manor (sometimes called a fief), and from the obligatory contributions of the peasant population who fell under the jurisdiction of the lord and his court. These obligations could be payable in several ways: in labor, in kind, or, on rare occasions, in coin. Manorial structures could be found throughout medieval Western and Eastern Europe: in Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Baltic nations, Holland, Prussia, England, France, and the Germanic kingdoms.

The main reason for the development of the system was perhaps also its greatest strength: the stabilization of society during the destruction of Roman imperial order. With a declining birthrate and population, labor was the key factor of production. Successive administrations tried to stabilize the imperial economy by freezing the social structure into place: sons were to succeed their fathers in their trade, councilors were forbidden to resign, and coloni, the cultivators of land, were not to move from the land they were attached to. The workers of the land were on their way to becoming serfs. As the Germanic kingdoms succeeded Roman authority in the West in the 5th century, Roman landlords were often simply replaced by Gothic or Germanic ones, with little change to the underlying situation or displacement of populations. Thus the system of manorialism became ingrained into medieval societies.

The Manor System

Manors each consisted of three classes of land:

  • Demesne, the part directly controlled by the lord and used for the benefit of his household and dependents;
  • Dependent (serf or villein) holdings carrying the obligation that the peasant household supply the lord with specified labor services or a part of its output; and
  • Free peasant land, without such obligation but otherwise subject to manorial jurisdiction and custom, and owing money rent fixed at the time of the lease.

Additional sources of income for the lord included charges for use of his mill, bakery, or wine-press, or for the right to hunt or to let pigs feed in his woodland, as well as court revenues and single payments on each change of tenant. On the other side of the account, manorial administration involved significant expenses, perhaps a reason why smaller manors tended to rely less on villein tenure.


Serfdom was the status of peasants under feudalism, specifically relating to manorialism. It was a condition of bondage that developed primarily during the Middle Ages in Europe.

Serfs who occupied a plot of land were required to work for the lord of the manor who owned that land, and in return were entitled to protection, justice, and the right to exploit certain fields within the manor to maintain their own subsistence. Serfs were often required to work on not only the lord’s fields, but also his mines, forests, and roads. The manor formed the basic unit of feudal society, and the lord of a manor and his serfs were bound legally, economically, and socially. Serfs formed the lowest class of feudal society.


A serf digging the land, c. 1170 CE: “Digging,” detail from the Hunterian Psalter, Glasgow University Library MS Hunter.

Many of the negative components of manorialism, and feudalism in general, revolve around the bondage of the serf, his lack of social mobility, and his low position on the social hierarchy. However, a serf had some freedoms within his constraints. Though the common wisdom is that a serf owned “only his belly”—even his clothes were the property, in law, of his lord—he might still accumulate personal property and wealth, and some serfs became wealthier than their free neighbors, although this happened rarely. A well-to-do serf might even be able to buy his freedom. A serf could grow what crops he saw fit on his lands, although a serf’s taxes often had to be paid in wheat. The surplus crops he would sell at market.

The landlord could not dispossess his serfs without legal cause, was supposed to protect them from the depredations of robbers or other lords, and was expected to support them by charity in times of famine. Many such rights were enforceable by the serf in the manorial court.


A villein (or villain) was the most common type of serf in the Middle Ages. Villeins had more rights and a higher status than the lowest serf, but existed under a number of legal restrictions that differentiated them from freemen. Villeins generally rented small homes with or without land. As part of the contract with the landlord, the lord of the manor, they were expected to spend some of their time working on the lord’s fields. Contrary to popular belief, the requirement was not often greatly onerous, and was often only seasonal, as was the duty to help at harvest-time, for example. The rest of villeins’ time was spent farming their own land for their own profit.

Like other types of serfs, villeins were required to provide other services, possibly in addition to paying rent of money or produce. Villeins were tied to the land and could not move away without their lord’s consent and the acceptance of the lord to whose manor they proposed to migrate to. Villeins were generally able to hold their own property, unlike slaves.

Villeinage was not a purely uni-directional exploitative relationship. In the Middle Ages, land within a lord’s manor provided sustenance and survival, and being a villein guaranteed access to land and kept crops secure from theft by marauding robbers. Landlords, even where legally entitled to do so, rarely evicted villeins, because of the value of their labour. Villeinage was preferable to being a vagabond, a slave, or an un-landed laborer.

In many medieval countries, a villein could gain freedom by escaping from a manor to a city or borough and living there for more than a year, but this action involved the loss of land rights and agricultural livelihood, a prohibitive price unless the landlord was especially tyrannical or conditions in the village were unusually difficult.


Plowing a French field (French ducal manor in March Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c.1410): In the foreground, a farmer plowing a field with a plow pulled by two oxen; man the leader with a long pole. Winemakers prune the vine in a pen and till the soil with a hoe to aerate the soil. On the right, a man leans on a bag, presumably to draw seeds that he will then sow. Finally, in the background, a shepherd takes the dog that keeps his flock. In the background is the castle of Lusignan (Poitou), property of the Duke of Berry. Seen on the right of the picture, above the tower Poitiers, is a winged dragon representing the fairy Melusine.

Trade and Commerce

Trade started to expand during the late-13th and early-14th centuries as forms of partnerships and financing began to appear.

Learning Objectives

List the factors that led to a change in commerce and trade in the Late Middle Ages

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Explorers opened up new trade routes to the south of Africa, India, and America due to the dominant position of the Ottoman Empire impeding trade routes to the west.
  • The Commercial Revolution began in the late-13th and early-14th centuries with the rise of insurance issuing, forms of credit, and new forms of accounting allowing for better financial oversight and accuracy.
  • In England, the crises caused by the Great Famine and the Black Death from 1290–1348, as well as subsequent epidemics, produced many challenges for the economy, culminating in the Peasant ‘s Revolt.
  • The English agricultural economy remained depressed throughout the 15th century, with growth coming from the greatly increased English cloth trade and manufacturing.
  • Fairs grew in popularity, reaching their heyday in the 13th century, as the international wool trade increased. Despite an overall decline after the 14th century, the great fairs continued to play an important role in exchanging money and regional commerce.
  • In cities linked to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, the Hanseatic League developed as a trade monopoly.

Key Terms

  • guild: Association of artisans or merchants who controlled the practice of their craft in a particular town. They were organized in a manner similar to something between a professional association and a trade union.
  • usury: The practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender.
  • bullion: Gold bars, silver bars, and other precious metals bars or ingots.
  • Ottoman Empire: Empire founded by Oghuz Turks under Osman Bey in northwestern Anatolia in 1299 and dissolved in 1923 in the aftermath of World War I, forming the new state of Turkey.

During the Late Middle Ages, the increasingly dominant position of the Ottoman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean presented an impediment to trade for the Christian nations of the west, who started looking for alternatives. Portuguese and Spanish explorers found new trade routes south of Africa to India, and across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

Start of the Commercial Revolution

In the late-13th and early-14th centuries, a process took place—primarily in Italy but partly also in the Holy Roman Empire—that historians have termed a “commercial revolution.” Among the innovations of the period were new forms of partnership and the issuing of insurance, both of which contributed to reducing the risk of commercial ventures; the bill of exchange and other forms of credit that circumvented the canonical laws for gentiles against usury and eliminated the dangers of carrying bullion; and new forms of accounting, in particular double-entry bookkeeping, which allowed for better oversight and accuracy.


With the financial expansion, trading rights were more jealously guarded by the commercial elite. Towns saw the growing power of guilds that arose in the 14th century as craftsmen uniting to protect their common interest. The appearance of the European guilds was tied to the emergent money economy and to urbanization. Before this time it was not possible to run a money-driven organization, as commodity money was the normal way of doing business.

In medieval cities, craftsmen started to form associations based on their trades. Confraternities of textile workers, masons, carpenters, carvers, and glass workers, all controlled secrets of traditionally imparted technology—the “arts” or “mysteries” of their crafts. Usually the founders were free independent master craftsmen who hired apprentices. These guilds were organized in a manner similar to something between a professional association, a trade union, a cartel, and a secret society. They often depended on grants of letters patented by a monarch or other authority to enforce the flow of trade to their self-employed members, and to retain ownership of tools and the supply of materials. A lasting legacy of traditional guilds are the guildhalls constructed and used as meeting places.

Where guilds were in control, they shaped labor, production, and trade; they had strong controls over instructional capital, and the modern concepts of a lifetime progression of apprentice to craftsman, and then from journeyman eventually to widely recognized master and grandmaster, began to emerge. European guilds imposed long standardized periods of apprenticeship and made it difficult for those lacking the capital to set up for themselves or without the approval of their peers to gain access to materials or knowledge, or to sell into certain markets, an area that equally dominated the guilds’ concerns. These are defining characteristics of mercantilism in economics, which dominated most European thinking about political economy until the rise of classical economics.

Hanseatic League

In cities linked to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, the Hanseatic League developed as a trade monopoly. This facilitated the growth of trade among cities in close proximity to these two seas. Long-distance trade in the Baltic intensified as the major trading towns came together in the Hanseatic League under the leadership of Lübeck.

The Hanseatic League was a business alliance of trading cities and their guilds that dominated trade along the coast of Northern Europe and flourished from 1200–1500, and continued with lesser importance after that. The chief cities were Cologne on the Rhine River, Hamburg and Bremen on the North Sea, and Lübeck on the Baltic Sea. The Hanseatic cities each had their own legal system and a degree of political autonomy.

The league was founded for the purpose of joining forces for promoting mercantile interests, defensive strength, and political influence. By the 14th century, the Hanseatic League held a near-monopoly on trade in the Baltic, especially with Novgorod and Scandinavia.

English Economy

The crises caused by the Great Famine and the Black Death between 1290 and 1348, as well as subsequent epidemics, produced many challenges for the English economy. The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War, and instability within the local leadership of London.

Although the revolt was suppressed, it undermined many of the vestiges of the feudal economic order and the countryside became dominated by estates organized as farms, frequently owned or rented by the new economic class of the gentry. The English agricultural economy remained depressed throughout the 15th century, with growth coming from the greatly increased English cloth trade and manufacturing.


From the 12th century onwards, many English towns acquired a charter from the Crown allowing them to hold an annual fair, usually serving a regional or local customer base and lasting for two or three days. Fairs grew in popularity, reaching their heyday in the 13th century, as the international wool trade increased. The fairs allowed English wool producers and ports on the east coast to engage with visiting foreign merchants, circumnavigating those English merchants in London keen to make a profit as middlemen. At the same time, wealthy magnate consumers in England began to use the new fairs as a way to buy goods like spices, wax, preserved fish, and foreign cloth in bulk from the international merchants at the fairs, again bypassing the usual London merchants.


Bridgnorth marketplace: The market place at Bridgnorth, one of many medieval English towns to be granted the right to hold fairs, in this case annually on the feast of the Translation of St. Leonard. Photo taken by Pam Brophy.

Towards the end of the 14th century, the position of fairs started to decline. The larger merchants, particularly in London, had begun to establish direct links with the larger landowners such as the nobility and the church; rather than the landowner buying from a chartered fair, they would buy directly from the merchant. Nonetheless, the great fairs remained important well into the 15th century, as illustrated by their role in exchanging money, regional commerce, and providing choice for individual consumers.

Daily Medieval Life

During the High Middle Ages, the population of Europe more than doubled, but daily life remained harsh, with risk of disease and illness.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the lives of different groups of the population during the Middle Ages

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the High Middle Ages, the population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million between 1000 and 1347, probably due to improved agricultural techniques and a more mild climate.
  • 90% of the European population remained rural peasants gathered into small communities of manors or villages.
  • Towns grew up around castles and were often fortified by walls in response to disorder and raids.
  • Daily life for peasants consisted of working the land. Life was harsh, with a limited diet and little comfort.
  • Women were subordinate to men, in both the peasant and noble classes, and were expected to ensure the smooth running of the household.
  • Children had a 50% survival rate beyond age one, and began to contribute to family life around age twelve.

Key Terms

  • kinsman: A male relative.
  • husbandry: Farming or agriculture.
  • agrarian: Based around producing and maintaining crops and farmland.
  • sickle: Hand-held agricultural tool with a variously curved blade typically used for harvesting grain crops or cutting succulent forage (either freshly cut or dried as hay) used chiefly to feed livestock.

The High Middle Ages was a period of tremendous expansion of population. The estimated population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million between 1000 and 1347, but the exact causes remain unclear; improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slaveholding, a warmer climate, and the lack of invasion have all been suggested. As much as 90% of the European population remained rural peasants. Many were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into small communities, usually known as manors or villages. These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorialism. There remained a few free peasants throughout this period and beyond, with more of them in the regions of southern Europe than in the north. The practice of assarting, or bringing new lands into production by offering incentives to the peasants who settled them, also contributed to the expansion of population.

Development of Towns

Castles began to be constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries in response to the disorder of the time, and provided protection from invaders and rival lords. They were initially built of wood, then of stone. Once castles were built, towns built up around them.

A major factor in the development of towns included Viking invasions during the early Middle Ages, which led to villages erecting walls and fortifying their positions. Following this, great medieval walled cities were constructed with homes, shops, and churches contained within the walls. York, England, which prospered during much of the later medieval era, is famed for its medieval walls and bars (gates), and has the most extensive medieval city walls remaining in England today.

The practice of sending children away to act as servants was more common in towns than in the countryside. The inhabitants of towns largely made their livelihoods as merchants or artisans, and this activity was strictly controlled by guilds. The members of these guilds would employ young people—primarily boys—as apprentices, to learn the craft and later take position as guild members themselves. These apprentices made up part of the household, or “family,” as much as the children of the master.


York city and walls: View of the city looking northeast from the city wall. The spires of York Minster are visible in the background.

Peasant Life

Medieval villages consisted mostly of peasant farmers, with the structure comprised of houses, barns, sheds, and animal pens clustered around the center of the village. Beyond this, the village was surrounded by plowed fields and pastures.

For peasants, daily medieval life revolved around an agrarian calendar, with the majority of time spent working the land and trying to grow enough food to survive another year. Church feasts marked sowing and reaping days and occasions when peasant and lord could rest from their labors.

Peasants that lived on a manor by the castle were assigned strips of land to plant and harvest. They typically planted rye, oats, peas, and barley, and harvested crops with a scythe, sickle, or reaper. Each peasant family had its own strips of land; however, the peasants worked cooperatively on tasks such as plowing and haying. They were also expected to build roads, clear forests, and work on other tasks as determined by the lord.

The houses of medieval peasants were of poor quality compared to modern houses. The floor was normally earthen, and there was very little ventilation and few sources of light in the form of windows. In addition to the human inhabitants, a number of livestock animals would also reside in the house. Towards the end of the medieval period, however, conditions generally improved. Peasant houses became larger in size, and it became more common to have two rooms, and even a second floor.

Comfort was not always found even in the rich houses. Heating was always a problem with stone floors, ceilings, and walls. Not much light came in from small windows, and oil- and fat-based candles often produced a pungent aroma. Furniture consisted of wooden benches, long tables, cupboards, and pantries. Linen, when affordable, could be glued or nailed to benches to provide some comfort. Beds, though made of the softest materials, were often full of bedbugs, lice, and other biting insects.

Peasants usually ate warm porridges made of wheat, oats, and barley. Broths, stews, vegetables, and bread were also part of a peasant’s diet. Peasants rarely ate meat, and when they did, it was their own animals that were saved for the winter. Peasants drank wine and ale, never water.

Even though peasant households were significantly smaller than aristocratic ones, the wealthiest peasants would also employ servants. Service was a natural part of the cycle of life, and it was common for young people to spend some years away from home in the service of another household. This way they would learn the skills needed later in life, and at the same time earn a wage. This was particularly useful for girls, who could put the earnings towards their dowries.


Nobles, both the titled nobility and simple knights, exploited the manors and the peasants, although they did not own land outright but were granted rights to the income from a manor or other lands by an overlord through the system of feudalism. During the 11th and 12th centuries, these lands, or fiefs, came to be considered hereditary, and in most areas they were no longer divisible between all the heirs as had been the case in the early medieval period. Instead, most fiefs and lands went to the eldest son. The dominance of the nobility was built upon its control of the land, its military service as heavy cavalry, its control of castles, and various immunities from taxes or other impositions.

Nobles were stratified; kings and the highest-ranking nobility controlled large numbers of commoners and large tracts of land, as well as other nobles. Beneath them, lesser nobles had authority over smaller areas of land and fewer people. Knights were the lowest level of nobility; they controlled but did not own land, and had to serve other nobles.

The court of a monarch, or at some periods an important nobleman, was the extended household and all those who regularly attended on the ruler or central figure. These courtiers included the monarch or noble’s camarilla and retinue, the household, nobility, those with court appointments, and bodyguards, and may also have included emissaries from other kingdoms or visitors to the court. Foreign princes and foreign nobility in exile could also seek refuge at a court.

Etiquette and hierarchy flourished in highly structured court settings. Most courts featured a strict order of precedence, often involving royal and noble ranks, orders of chivalry, and nobility. Some courts even featured court uniforms. One of the major markers of a court was ceremony. Most monarchal courts included ceremonies concerning the investiture or coronation of the monarch and audiences with the monarch. Some courts had ceremonies around the waking and the sleeping of the monarch, called a levée.

Court officials or office-bearers (one type of courtier) derived their positions and retained their titles from their original duties within the courtly household. With time, such duties often became archaic. However, titles survived involving the ghosts of arcane duties. These styles generally dated back to the days when a noble household had practical and mundane concerns as well as high politics and culture. These positions include butler, confessor, falconer, royal fool, gentleman usher, master of the hunt, page, and secretary. Elaborate noble households included many roles and responsibilities, held by these various courtiers, and these tasks characterized their daily lives.

Daily life of nobility also included playing games, including chess, which echoed the hierarchy of the nobles, and playing music, such as the music of the troubadours and trouvères. This involved a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were skilled poets as well as singers and instrumentalists.

Women in the Middle Ages

Women in the Middle Ages were officially required to be subordinate to some male, whether their father, husband, or other kinsman. Widows, who were often allowed some control over their own lives, were still restricted legally. Three main activities performed by peasant men and women were planting food, keeping livestock, and making textiles, as depicted in Psalters from southern Germany and England. Women of different classes performed different activities. Rich urban women could be merchants like their husbands or even became money lenders, and middle-class women worked in the textile, inn-keeping, shop-keeping, and brewing industries. Townswomen, like peasant women, were responsible for the household and could also engage in trade. Poorer women often peddled and huckstered food and other merchandise in the market places or worked in richer households as domestic servants, day laborers, or laundresses.

There is evidence that women performed not only housekeeping responsibilities like cooking and cleaning, but even other household activities like grinding, brewing, butchering, and spinning produced items like flour, ale, meat, cheese, and textiles for direct consumption and for sale. An anonymous 15th-century English ballad described activities performed by English peasant women, like housekeeping, making foodstuffs and textiles, and childcare.

A painting of a peasant home showing a woman brewing cheese and a man carrying food and a man seated a table eating.

Peasant household: An image of a peasant household, including a woman preparing cheese.

Noblewomen were responsible for running a household and could occasionally be expected to handle estates in the absence of male relatives, but they were usually restricted from participation in military or government affairs. The only role open to women in the church was that of a nun, as they were unable to become priests.


For most children growing up in medieval England, the first year of life was one of the most dangerous, with as many as 50% of children succumbing to fatal illness during that year. Moreover, 20% of women died in childbirth. During the first year of life children were cared for and nursed, either by parents if the family belonged to the peasant class, or perhaps by a wet nurse if the family belonged to a noble class.

By age twelve, a child began to take on a more serious role in family duties. Although according to canon law girls could marry at the age of twelve, this was relatively uncommon unless a child was an heiress or belonged to a family of noble birth. Peasant children at this age stayed at home and continued to learn and develop domestic skills and husbandry. Urban children moved out of their homes and into the homes of their employer or master (depending on their future roles as servants or apprentices). Noble boys learned skills in arms, and noble girls learned basic domestic skills. The end of childhood and entrance into adolescence was marked by leaving home and moving to the house of the employer or master, entering a university, or entering church service.

Intellectual Life

Developments in philosophy and theology and the formation of universities from the 11th century led to increased intellectual activity.

Learning Objectives

Describe intellectual life in the Middle Ages

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Increased contact with Byzantium and with the Islamic world in Muslim-dominated Spain and Sicily, the Crusades, and the Reconquista allowed Europeans to seek and translate the works of Hellenic and Islamic philosophers and scientists, especially Aristotle.
  • The groundwork for the rebirth of learning was also laid by the process of political consolidation and centralization of the monarchies of Europe, especially of Charlemagne and Otto I.
  • Cathedral schools and universities started to develop, with young men proceeding to university to study the trivium and quadrivium.
  • Scholasticism was a fusing of philosophy and theology by 12th- and 13th-century scholars that tried to employ a systematic approach to truth and reason.
  • Royal and noble courts saw the development of poems and songs spread by traveling minstrels.
  • Legal studies advanced in Western Europe.
  • Algebra was invented, allowing more developed mathematics, and astronomy and medicine advanced.

Key Terms

  • Ptolemy: Greco-Roman writer of Alexandria (c. CE 90–c. 168 CE) known as a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet. Ptolemy was the author of several scientific treatises, three of which were of continuing importance to later Islamic and European science.
  • quadrivium: The four subjects, or arts, taught after the trivium. It consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy and was considered preparatory work for the serious study of philosophy and theology.
  • trivium: In medieval universities, the trivium comprised the three subjects that were taught first: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
  • Thomas Aquinas: Italian Dominican friar and priest (c. 1225 CE–1274 CE) and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism.
  • Corpus Juris Civilis: The modern name for a collection of fundamental works in jurisprudence, issued from 529–534 CE by order of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I.
  • Aristotle: Greek philosopher and scientist born in Stagirus, northern Greece, in 384 BCE. His writings covered many subjects and constitute the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy.
  • scholasticism: Method of critical thought that dominated teaching by the academics (scholastics, or schoolmen) of medieval universities in Europe from about 1100–1700 CE.

During the 11th century, developments in philosophy and theology led to increased intellectual activity, sometimes called the renaissance of 12th century. The intellectual problems discussed throughout this period were the relation of faith to reason, the existence and simplicity of God, the purpose of theology and metaphysics, and the issues of knowledge, of universals, and of individuation. Philosophical discourse was stimulated by the rediscovery of Aristotle—more than 3,000 pages of his works would eventually be translated—and his emphasis on empiricism and rationalism. Scholars such as Peter Abelard (d. 1142) and Peter Lombard (d. 1164) introduced Aristotelian logic into theology.

Historical Conditions

The groundwork for the rebirth of learning was also laid by the process of political consolidation and centralization of the monarchies of Europe. This process of centralization began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768–814) and later Holy Roman Emperor (800–814). Charlemagne’s inclination towards education, which led to the creation of many new churches and schools where students were required to learn Latin and Greek, has been called the ” Carolingian Renaissance.” A second “renaissance” occurred during the reign of Otto I, King of the Saxons from 936–973 and Holy Roman Emperor from 952. Otto was successful in unifying his kingdom and asserting his right to appoint bishops and archbishops throughout the kingdom. Otto’s assumption of this ecclesiastical power brought him into close contact with the best-educated and ablest class of men in his kingdom. From this close contact, many new reforms were introduced in the Saxon kingdom and in the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, Otto’s reign has also been called a “renaissance.” The renaissance of the twelfth century has been identified as the third and final of the medieval renaissances. Yet the renaissance of the 12th century was far more thoroughgoing than those renaissances that preceded in the Carolingian and Ottonian periods.

Conquest of and contact with the Muslim world through the Crusades and the reconquest of Spain also yielded new texts and knowledge. Most notably, contact with Muslims led to the the European rediscovery and translation of Aristotle, whose wide-ranging works influenced medieval philosophy, theology, science, and medicine.

Schools and Universities

The late-11th and early-12th centuries also saw the rise of cathedral schools throughout Western Europe, signaling the shift of learning from monasteries to cathedrals and towns. Cathedral schools were in turn replaced by the universities established in major European cities.

The first universities in Europe included the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), and the University of Oxford (1167). In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium—the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic or logic—and the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.


Mob Quad at Merton College, University of Oxford: Aerial view of Merton College’s Mob Quad, the oldest quadrangle of the university, constructed from 1288-1378.

Philosophy and theology fused in scholasticism, an attempt by 12th- and 13th-century scholars to reconcile authoritative texts, most notably Aristotle and the Bible. This movement tried to employ a systemic approach to truth and reason and culminated in the thought of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who wrote the Summa Theologica, or Summary of Theology.

The development of medieval universities allowed them to aid materially in the translation and propagation of these texts and started a new infrastructure, which was needed for scientific communities. In fact, the European university put many of these texts at the center of its curriculum, with the result that the “medieval university laid far greater emphasis on science than does its modern counterpart and descendent.”

Poems and Stories

Royal and noble courts saw the development of chivalry and the ethos of courtly love. This culture was expressed in the vernacular languages rather than Latin, and comprised poems, stories, legends, and popular songs spread by troubadours, or wandering minstrels. Often the stories were written down in the chansons de geste, or “songs of great deeds,” such as “The Song of Roland” or “The Song of Hildebrand.” Secular and religious histories were also produced. Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. c. 1155) composed his Historia Regum Britanniae, a collection of stories and legends about Arthur. Other works were more clearly pure history, such as Otto von Freising’s (d. 1158) Gesta Friderici Imperatoris, detailing the deeds of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, or William of Malmesbury’s (d. c. 1143) Gesta Regum, on the kings of England.

Legal Studies

Legal studies advanced during the 12th century. Both secular law and canon law, or ecclesiastical law, were studied in the High Middle Ages. Secular law, or Roman law, was advanced greatly by the discovery of the Corpus Juris Civilis in the 11th century, and by 1100 Roman law was being taught at Bologna. This led to the recording and standardization of legal codes throughout Western Europe. Canon law was also studied, and around 1140 a monk named Gratian, a teacher at Bologna, wrote what became the standard text of canon law—the Decretum.

Algebra and Astronomy

Among the results of the Greek and Islamic influence on this period in European history were the replacement of Roman numerals with the decimal positional number system and the invention of algebra, which allowed more advanced mathematics. Astronomy advanced following the translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest from Greek into Latin in the late 12th century. Medicine was also studied, especially in southern Italy, where Islamic medicine influenced the school at Salerno.

The Weird Truth about Arabic Numerals: How the world came to use so-called Arabic numerals—from the scholarship of ancient Hindu mathematicians, to Muslim scientist Al-Khwarizmi, to the merchants of medieval Italy.

Arts and Sciences

The renaissance of the 12th century was a highly productive time of social, political, and economic transformations, and saw important artistic, technological, and scientific advancements.

Learning Objectives

Write about the scientific and artistic advancements of the High Middle Ages and how these advancements were influenced by certain technological advancements and changes in thinking

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages was a time of little scientific and artistic advancement until the renaissance of the 12th century, when increased contact with the Islamic world and Byzantium revived the arts.
  • William of Ockham insisted that the world of reason and the world of faith had to be kept apart, and this new approach liberated scientific speculation from the dogmatic restraints of Aristotelian science, paving the way for new approaches.
  • After the renaissance of the 12th century, medieval Europe saw a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth.
  • The period saw major technological advances, including the adoption of gunpowder, the invention of vertical windmills, spectacles, and mechanical clocks, and greatly improved water mills, building techniques (Gothic architecture, medieval castles), and agriculture in general (three-field crop rotation).
  • In northern European countries, Gothic architecture remained the norm, and the Gothic cathedral was further embellished. In Italy, architecture took on a new form, inspired by classical ideals.
  • The most important development of late medieval literature was the ascendancy of the vernacular languages.

Key Terms

  • Hellenic: From Ancient Greek; Hellenikos, “of or relating to Greece or Greeks.”
  • Thomistic: The philosophical school that arose as a legacy of the work and thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), philosopher, theologian, and Doctor of the Church.
  • the Reconquista: Period of approximately 781 years in the history of the Iberian Peninsula, from after the Islamic conquest in 711-718 to the fall of Granada, the last Islamic state on the peninsula, in 1492.
  • Nicolaus Copernicus: A Renaissance mathematician and astronomer (1473–1543) who formulated a heliocentric model of the universe that placed the Sun, rather than Earth, at the center.
  • Gutenberg: German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, and publisher who introduced printing to Europe. His invention of mechanical movable type printing started the Printing Revolution and is widely regarded as the most important event of the modern period.
  • Euclid: A Greek mathematician (~300 BCE), often referred to as the “Father of Geometry.” His Elements is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics.
  • vernacular: The native language or native dialect of a specific population, especially as distinguished from a literary, national, or standard variety of the language, such as Latin.


The renaissance of the 12th century was a period of many changes at the outset of the High Middle Ages. It included social, political, and economic transformations, and an intellectual revitalization of Western Europe with strong philosophical and scientific roots. For some historians these changes paved the way for later achievements such as the literary and artistic movement of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century and the scientific developments of the 17th century.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Western Europe had entered the Middle Ages with great difficulties. Apart from depopulation and other factors, most classical scientific treatises of classical antiquity, written in Greek, had become unavailable. Philosophical and scientific teaching of the Early Middle Ages was based upon the few Latin translations and commentaries on ancient Greek scientific and philosophical texts that remained in the Latin West.

This scenario changed during the renaissance of the 12th century. The increased contact with Byzantium and with the Islamic world in Spain and Sicily, the Crusades, and the Reconquista allowed Europeans to seek and translate the works of Hellenic and Islamic philosophers and scientists, especially Aristotle.

Scientific Advancement

The rediscovery of the works of Aristotle allowed the full development of the new Christian philosophy and the method of scholasticism. By 1200 there were reasonably accurate Latin translations of the main works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Galen—that is, all the intellectually crucial ancient authors except Plato. Also, many of the medieval Arabic and Jewish key texts, such as the main works of Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides became available in Latin. During the 13th century, scholastics expanded the natural philosophy of these texts by commentaries (associated with teaching in the universities) and independent treatises. Notable among these were the works of Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John of Sacrobosco, Albertus Magnus, and Duns Scotus.

Scholastics believed in empiricism and supporting Roman Catholic doctrines through secular study, reason, and logic. The most famous scholastic was Thomas Aquinas (later declared a “Doctor of the Church”), who led the move away from the Platonic and Augustinian and towards Aristotelianism.

Meanwhile, precursors of the modern scientific method can be seen in Grosseteste’s emphasis on mathematics as a way to understand nature and in the empirical approach admired by Roger Bacon. Grosseteste was the founder of the famous Oxford Franciscan school. He built his work on Aristotle’s vision of the dual path of scientific reasoning. He concluded from particular observations into a universal law, and then back again—from universal laws to prediction of particulars. Grosseteste called this “resolution and composition.” Further, Grosseteste said that both paths should be verified through experimentation in order to verify the principals. These ideas established a tradition that carried forward to Padua and Galileo Galilei in the 17th century.

Under the tuition of Grosseteste and inspired by the writings of Arab alchemists who had preserved and built upon Aristotle’s portrait of induction, Bacon described a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, and experimentation, and the need for independent verification. He recorded the manner in which he conducted his experiments in precise detail so that others could reproduce and independently test his results—a cornerstone of the scientific method, and a continuation of the work of researchers like Al Battani.

The first half of the 14th century saw the scientific work of great thinkers. The logic studies by William of Ockham led him to postulate a specific formulation of the principle of parsimony, known today as Ockham’s Razor. This principle is one of the main heuristics used by modern science to select between two or more underdetermined theories.


William of Ockham: William of Ockham, from stained glass window at a church in Surrey. He is considered one of the major figures of medieval thought and was at the center of the major intellectual and political controversies of the 14th century.

Thomas Bradwardine and his partners, the Oxford Calculators of Merton College, Oxford, distinguished kinematics from dynamics, emphasizing kinematics, and investigating instantaneous velocity. They formulated the mean speed theorem: a body moving with constant velocity travels distance and time equal to an accelerated body whose velocity is half the final speed of the accelerated body. They also demonstrated this theorem—the essence of “The Law of Falling Bodies”—long before Galileo, who has gotten the credit.

In his turn, Nicole Oresme showed that the reasons proposed by the physics of Aristotle against the movement of Earth were not valid, and adduced the argument of simplicity for the theory that Earth moves, and not the heavens. Despite this argument in favor of Earth’s motion, Oresme fell back on the commonly held opinion that “everyone maintains, and I think myself, that the heavens do move and not the Earth.”

The historian of science Ronald Numbers notes that the modern scientific assumption of methodological naturalism can be also traced back to the work of these medieval thinkers

Technological Developments

After the renaissance of the 12th century, medieval Europe saw a radical change in the rate of new inventions, innovations in the ways of managing traditional means of production, and economic growth. The period saw major technological advances, including the adoption of gunpowder, the invention of vertical windmills, spectacles, mechanical clocks, and greatly improved water mills, building techniques (Gothic architecture, medieval castles), and agriculture in general (three-field crop rotation).

The development of water mills from their ancient origins was impressive, and extended from agriculture to sawmills both for timber and stone. By the time of the Domesday Book, most large villages had turnable mills; there were around 6,500 in England alone. Water power was also widely used in mining for raising ore from shafts, crushing ore, and even powering bellows.

European technical advancements from the 12th to 14th centuries were either built on long-established techniques in medieval Europe, originating from Roman and Byzantine antecedents, or adapted from cross-cultural exchanges through trading networks with the Islamic world, China, and India. Often, the revolutionary aspect lay not in the act of invention itself, but in its technological refinement and application to political and economic power. Though gunpowder and other weapons had been started by the Chinese, it was the Europeans who developed and perfected its military potential, precipitating European expansion and eventual imperialism in the Modern Era.

Also significant in this respect were advances in maritime technology. Advances in shipbuilding included the multi-masted ships with lateen sails, the sternpost-mounted rudder, and the skeleton-first hull construction. Along with new navigational techniques such as the dry compass, the Jacob’s staff, and the astrolabe, these allowed economic and military control of the seas adjacent to Europe and enabled the global navigational achievements of the dawning Age of Exploration.

At the turn to the Renaissance, Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical printing made possible a dissemination of knowledge to a wider population that would lead to not only a gradually more egalitarian society, but one more able to dominate other cultures, drawing from a vast reserve of knowledge and experience. The technical drawings of late-medieval artist-engineers Guido da Vigevano and Villard de Honnecourt can be viewed as forerunners of later Renaissance works by people like Taccola or da Vinci.


European output of printed books c. 1450-1800: Estimated output of printed books in Europe from c. 1450 to 1800. A book is defined as printed matter containing more than 49 pages.

Visual Arts and Architecture

A precursor to Renaissance art can be seen in the early 14th century works of Giotto. Giotto was the first painter since antiquity to attempt the representation of a three-dimensional reality, and to endow his characters with true human emotions. The most important developments, however, came in 15th-century Florence. The affluence of the merchant class allowed extensive patronage of the arts, and foremost among the patrons were the Medici.

There were several important technical innovations in visual arts, like the principle of linear perspective found in the work of Masaccio and later described by Brunelleschi. Greater realism was also achieved through the scientific study of anatomy, championed by artists like Donatello. This can be seen particularly well in his sculptures, inspired by the study of classical models.

In northern European countries, Gothic architecture remained the norm, and the Gothic cathedral was further embellished. In Italy, on the other hand, architecture took a different direction, also inspired by classical ideals. The crowning work of the period was the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, with Giotto’s clock tower, Ghiberti’s baptistery gates, and Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome of unprecedented proportions.


Duomo in Florence, Italy, seen at night from Michelangelo’s Piazza: Giotto’s clock tower on the right and Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome on the left. In one structure, two of the most influential architectural designs in the world.


The most important development of late medieval literature was the ascendancy of the vernacular languages. The vernacular had been in use in England since the 8th century and in France since the 11th century. The most popular genres of written works had been the chanson de geste, troubadour lyrics, and romantic epics, or the romance. Though Italy was later in evolving a native literature in the vernacular language, it was here that the most important developments of the period were to come.

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century, merged a medieval world view with classical ideals. Another promoter of the Italian language was Boccaccio with his Decameron. The application of the vernacular did not entail a rejection of Latin, and both Dante and Boccaccio wrote prolifically in Latin as well as Italian, as would Petrarch later (whose Canzoniere also promoted the vernacular and is considered the first modern lyric poetry collection). Together these three poets established the Tuscan dialect as the norm for the modern Italian language.

The Black Death

The Black Death was an infamous pandemic of bubonic plague and one of the most devastating pandemics in human history.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the impact of the Black Death on European society in the Middle Ages

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Black Death resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75-200 million people—approximately 30% of Europe’s population.
  • It spread from central Asia on rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships, and traveled towards Europe as people fled from one area to another.
  • The Great Famine of 1315-1317 and subsequent malnutrition in the population likely caused weakened immunity and susceptibility to disease.
  • Medieval doctors thought the plague was created by air corrupted by humid weather, decaying unburied bodies, and fumes produced by poor sanitation.
  • The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history.
  • As people struggled to understand the causes of the Black Death, renewed religious fervor and fanaticism bloomed in its wake, leading to the widespread persecution of minorities.
  • Flagellantism, the practice of self-inflicted pain, especially with a whip, became popular as a radical movement during the time of the Black Death, and was eventually deemed heretical by the church.
  • The great population loss wrought by the plague brought favorable results to the surviving peasants in England and Western Europe, such as wage increases and more access to land, and was one of the factors in the ending of the feudal system.

Key Terms

  • bubonic plague: Disease circulating mainly in fleas on small rodents. Without treatment, the bacterial infection kills about two thirds of infected humans within four days.
  • the Silk Road: Series of trade and cultural routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent, connecting the West and East from China to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Flagellant: Practitioners of an extreme form of mortification of their own flesh by whipping it with various instruments.


In the Late Middle Ages (1340–1400) Europe experienced the most deadly disease outbreak in history when the Black Death, the infamous pandemic of bubonic plague, hit in 1347. The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75–200 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1348–1350.

Path of the Black Death to Europe

The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of Central Asia, where it then travelled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1346. It was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships.

Mongol dominance of Eurasian trade routes enabled safe passage through more secured trade routes. Goods were not the only thing being traded; disease also was passed between cultures. From Central Asia the Black Death was carried east and west along the Silk Road by Mongol armies and traders making use of the opportunities of free passage within the Mongol Empire offered by the Pax Mongolica. The epidemic began in Europe with an attack that Mongols launched on the Italian merchants’ last trading station in the region, Caffa in the Crimea. In the autumn of 1346, plague broke out among the besiegers and then penetrated into the town. When spring arrived, the Italian merchants fled on their ships, unknowingly carrying the Black Death. The plague initially spread to humans near the Black Sea and then outwards to the rest of Europe as a result of people fleeing from one area to another.


The spread of the Black Death: Animation showing the spread of The Black Death from Central Asia to East Asia and Europe from 1346 to 1351.

Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s total population. While Europe was devastated by the disease, the rest of the world fared much better. In India, populations rose from 91 million in 1300, to 97 million in 1400, to 105 million in 1500. Sub-Saharan Africa also remained largely unaffected by the plagues.

Symptoms and Treatment

The most infamous symptom of bubonic plague is an infection of the lymph glands, which become swollen and painful and are known as buboes. Buboes associated with the bubonic plague are commonly found in the armpits, groin, and neck region. Gangrene of the fingers, toes, lips, and nose is another common symptom.

Medieval doctors thought the plague was created by air corrupted by humid weather, decaying unburied bodies, and fumes produced by poor sanitation. The recommended treatment for the plague was a good diet, rest, and relocating to a non-infected environment so the individual could get access to clean air. This did help, but not for the reasons the doctors of the time thought. In actuality, because they recommended moving away from unsanitary conditions, people were, in effect, getting away from the rodents that harbored the fleas carrying the infection.

Plague doctors advised walking around with flowers in or around the nose to “ward off the stench and perhaps the evil that afflicted them.” Some doctors wore a beak-like mask filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which was seen as the cause of infection.


A plague doctor: Drawing illustrating the clothes and “beak” of a plague doctor.

Since people didn’t have the knowledge to understand the plague, people believed it was a punishment from God. The thought the only way to be rid of the plague was to be forgiven by God. One method was to carve the symbol of the cross onto the front door of a house with the words “Lord have mercy on us” near it.

Impact of the Black Death on Society and Culture

The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover, and the effects of the plague irrevocably changed the social structure, resulting in widespread persecution of minorities such as Jews, foreigners, beggars, and lepers. The uncertainty of daily survival has been seen as creating a general mood of morbidity, influencing people to “live for the moment.”

Because 14th-century healers were at a loss to explain the cause of the plague, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence. No one in the 14th century considered rat control a way to ward off the plague, and people began to believe only God’s anger could produce such horrific displays. Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian writer and poet of the 14th century, questioned whether plague was sent by God for human’s correction, or if it came through the influence of the heavenly bodies. Christians accused Jews of poisoning public water supplies in an effort to ruin European civilization. The spreading of this rumor led to complete destruction of entire Jewish towns, but it was caused simply by suspicion on the part of the Christians, who noticed that the Jews had lost fewer lives in the Plague due to their hygienic practices. In February 1349, 2,000 Jews were murdered in Strasbourg. In August of the same year, the Jewish communities of Mainz and Cologne were exterminated.

There was a significant impact on religion, as many believed the plague was God’s punishment for sinful ways. Church lands and buildings were unaffected, but there were too few priests left to maintain the old schedule of services. Over half the parish priests, who gave the final sacraments to the dying, died themselves. The church moved to recruit replacements, but the process took time. New colleges were opened at established universities, and the training process sped up. The shortage of priests opened new opportunities for lay women to assume more extensive and important service roles in local parishes.

Flagellantism was a 13th and 14th centuries movement involving radicals in the Catholic Church. It began as a militant pilgrimage and was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical. The peak of the activity was during the Black Death. Flagellant groups spontaneously arose across Northern and Central Europe in 1349, except in England. The German and Low Countries movement, the Brothers of the Cross, is particularly well documented. They established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. The followers would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hands to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs, known as Geisslerlieder, until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up by rags and treated as a holy relic. Some towns began to notice that sometimes Flagellants brought plague to towns where it had not yet surfaced. Therefore, later they were denied entry. The flagellants responded with increased physical penance.

The Black Death had a profound impact on art and literature. After 1350, European culture in general turned very morbid. The common mood was one of pessimism, and contemporary art turned dark with representations of death. La Danse Macabre, or the dance of death, was a contemporary allegory, expressed as art, drama, and printed work. Its theme was the universality of death, expressing the common wisdom of the time that no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death united all. It consisted of the personified Death leading a row of dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave—typically with an emperor, king, pope, monk, youngster, and beautiful girl, all in skeleton-state. Such works of art were produced under the impact of the Black Death, reminding people of how fragile their lives and how vain the glories of earthly life were.

A Medieval etching depicted four skeletons dancing and playing music and one skeleton lying on the ground.

Danse Macabre: The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Liber chronicarum by Hartmann Schedel.

Economic Impact of the Plague

The great population loss wrought by the plague brought favorable results to the surviving peasants in England and Western Europe. There was increased social mobility, as depopulation further eroded the peasants’ already weakened obligations to remain on their traditional holdings. Feudalism never recovered. Land was plentiful, wages high, and serfdom had all but disappeared. It was possible to move about and rise higher in life.

The Black Death encouraged innovation of labor-saving technologies, leading to higher productivity. There was a shift from grain farming to animal husbandry. Grain farming was very labor-intensive, but animal husbandry needed only a shepherd, a few dogs, and pastureland.

Since the plague left vast areas of farmland untended, they were made available for pasture and thus put more meat on the market; the consumption of meat and dairy products went up, as did the export of beef and butter from the Low Countries, Scandinavia, and northern Germany. However, the upper classes often attempted to stop these changes, initially in Western Europe, and more forcefully and successfully in Eastern Europe, by instituting sumptuary laws. These regulated what people (particularly of the peasant class) could wear so that nobles could ensure that peasants did not begin to dress and act as higher class members with their increased wealth. Another tactic was to fix prices and wages so that peasants could not demand more with increasing value. In England, the Statute of Labourers of 1351 was enforced, meaning no peasant could ask for more wages than they had in 1346. This was met with varying success depending on the amount of rebellion it inspired; such a law was one of the causes of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England.

Plague brought an eventual end of serfdom in Western Europe. The manorial system was already in trouble, but the Black Death assured its demise throughout much of Western and Central Europe by 1500. Severe depopulation and migration of people from village to cities caused an acute shortage of agricultural laborers. In England, more than 1300 villages were deserted between 1350 and 1500.

Black Death (“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani): It’s hard to find a song to parody for such a gruesome subject. Our apologies to Gwen’s fans, but it’s for the cause of education!