Daily Medieval Life

Learning Objective

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

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.



Based around producing and maintaining crops and farmland.


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.


A male relative.


Farming or agriculture.

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.


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.