Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Medieval People – What Where They Thinking?

by | December 2, 2012 | 8 comments

Last month my medieval post generated a lot of discussion, and while some of it set me off, other points set me to thinking.  One point that was made was that you can’t judge the mindset of medieval people using modern worldviews and values.  True.  Very true.  So, curious as ever, I dove into my collection of history books to piece together a picture of what the mindset of the medieval world really was.

Just some of my history books

Of course the first thing I discovered is that it was as drastically different within the different eras of the Middle Ages (commonly divided into Dark Ages, High Middle Ages, and Late Middle Ages) as our modern worldview is from any of those three.  A peasant living in the kingdom of the Franks under the rule of Odo the Great in 870 would have had a vastly different view of the world than a nobleman living in the England of Henry II in 1170, and both wouldn’t have recognized the values and thought process of a Venetian living in plague-swept Italy in 1370.  Life changed, and values with it, just as fast in the overly long stretch of time that we call the Middle Ages as fast as it changed from 1900 to today.

Okay, but what where those values, world views and thought processes like?

First of all, I just want to point out that that “famous” quote about medieval life being “nasty, brutish, and short” is a misquote.  The quote, written in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes, was in reference to warfare, not day to day life.  Yet somehow a lot of people have the mistaken idea that those words can be used to describe life in the Middle Ages, particularly the Dark Ages.

The reality of the Dark Ages was probably quite different.  According to Charles Van Doren, the people of the Dark Ages most likely didn’t think of their own lives as dark at all.  Sure, they were poor and uneducated, their lives were rural and small, and they were disconnected from everyone else in their so-called kingdoms.  But Van Doren’s theory is that none of that mattered, because the goal of life in the Dark Ages was not material, it was spiritual.

As he discusses in his book A History of Knowledge, Van Doren points to St. Augustine’s seminal work City of God as the primary intellectual motivator of the Dark Ages.  In City of God, written as the barbarian hoards were descending on Rome, St. Augustine says that while the material things of this world might pass away, it is the attainment of a non-material relationship to God that mankind should be striving.  This was a huge departure from the materialistic culture of the Roman Empire, but it was one that stuck.  After all, what better goal could your average person living anytime from 450 – 1000 have than something they had already attained: worldly poverty and spiritual riches.

Van Doren’s theory is that the centuries that we now call the Dark Ages were not a wasteland of underachievement and ignorance, but rather a time when the average person saw spirituality as worthy of merit, not wealth.  And it was a spirituality that bore a closer resemblance to the pagan past than what we think of as Christianity today. 

By the year 1050 things were beginning to change.  As Norman F. Cantor discusses in his book The Civilization of the Middle Ages, Europe as it entered the High Middle Ages was a tapestry of vastly different ideals and achievements.  In England you had a culture that had been turned upside-down in the past couple of centuries as Viking invasions had rewritten both the laws and customs.  The king, Edward the Confessor, was pious but weak and his nobles saw no problem in waging personal wars against each other and their so-called sovereign for territory and position.  Further south, in France, you had a noble class, mostly descended from Italian and Rhenish nobility, engaged in similar local wars.  The German emperor, Henry III held more real power in his territory because of his connections with Rome, but this was not an era of centralized authority.

This was an era when most people still never traveled outside of twenty miles from the place where they were born.  Peasants were far more concerned with the unprecedented productivity of the land that they were experiencing than national politics.  The nobility felt this fluidity of fortune and looked for opportunities to seize power wherever they could.  It was an age of political maneuvering and small-scale battles.

Strangely enough, it still wasn’t an age when wealth mattered.  In fact, in spite of the fact that the economy was booming, money still wasn’t important to the people of the Middle Ages, not even by the twelfth century.  In the twelfth century, the heart of the High Middle Ages, status was all-important.  Status was gained through military and matrimonial victory.  If you were a noble it was all about who you had married and who you conquered in the process.  The rulers who made it to the top of the pile, Henry II of England, Philip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, got where they were through strategic victories on private battlefields and through savvy negotiations in the bedroom.  They were able to maintain their empires through the same means.

But something else was going on behind the scenes, as Joseph R. Strayer demonstrates in his book Western Europe in the Middle Ages.  (These are all super awesome books, btw)  While the emphasis was still on status over wealth, in the High Middle Ages it was also becoming about the individual over the collective.  For kings a self-made man was one who battled his way to the throne.  For the common man, advancement could come through skill and hard work.

On the continent, in Flanders and Italy in particular, a new phenomenon was underway.  It used to be that all people could be classed into one of three categories: those who fought, those who prayed, and those who labored.  Now there was a new and increasingly powerful group: the bourgeois.  For the first time you had a small but influential class of people whose motto might just have been “show me the money”.  These people were increasingly rich.  They came from the lower tiers of the nobility, but also from the ranks of the peasantry who had made something of themselves.  They built cities, founded churches and religious orders, loaned money to kings, and advised the Church what to do.

Granted, it wasn’t quite time for the French Revolution yet, but this is where the seeds were planted.  Yes, the Church was the most powerful entity in Medieval Europe, but the Church was staffed with priests who came from very worldly backgrounds and who were more interested in politics than souls.  The twelfth century saw the rise of great universities that still exist today.  These centers of learning and inquiry were where most of the religious men from this time onwards came from.  By the thirteenth century the Church was powered not so much by the kind of spirituality St. Augustine advocated in City of God, but by the logic and proto-scientific inquiry of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.

Are you still with me?  We’ve gone from being a society content with its own material and intellectual poverty, simple in its spirituality and outlook, to a civilization with a sound economy, growing by leaps and bounds, in which status was king but wealth, individuality, and knowledge were beginning to be the measure of a man.  Two very different worlds.

And then it all blew up and fell apart.

Just when life was good, when the immense forests of Europe were being cut down to make enough space for people to live, when peasants were contentedly excused from their feudal duties because they could easily pay scutage instead of providing labor, when monasteries were more like a cross between a university and a country club and universities were teaching metaphysics and methods of reason and deduction that would lead to the scientific method, when rediscovered knowledge began to filter back into the west from the east as trade became more prevalent, it all fell down like a house of cards.

If you want to get a good idea of what happened to set Europe back a couple hundred years in terms of development and standard of living, read Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century.  I’ve actually written an entire series of blog posts about the various issues that brought Europe to its knees during this time: famine and climate change, the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Papal Schism.  So instead of rehashing all of that horrifically fascinating history that made up the Late Middle Ages, I just want to talk about what it did to people’s attitudes.

Basically, it wrecked them.  All of the optimism of the High Middle Ages was gone.  Europe experienced a collective period of manic-depression.  Death could be around any corner, so you should either live it up and not care what happened or punish yourself for your sins and wait for the better life that was to come.  Suddenly material things became much more important because there was no telling when you were going to lose them. 

When the English invaded France and it looked like they were going to win the Hundred Years War, soldiers looted noble homes and sent “stuff” back to England.  The average English home in the early 1400s was outfitted with pilfered French goods.  This was a huge change from, say, the Viking invasions of the Dark Ages.  Back then you were more likely to suddenly find your English house stocked with Danish goods than to find a Danish house decked out with English stuff.  Warfare had changed from conquer and settle to smash and grab.

This is also when the Church became more militant about squashing any opinion, especially scientific ones, that didn’t agree with their bottom line.  And yes, that’s the right metaphor.  In the 14th century the Church underwent a civil war.  Coming out of that there was a feeling that it needed to crack down on differences of opinion in order to maintain the level of political and social control that it had had back in the High Middle Ages when things were good.  Why?  Because there was big money in being the only spiritual game in town, in selling indulgences and relics.  And after the curtain was pulled back by the Papal Schism, giving the average man a glimpse into the corrupt inner workings of the Church, the rumblings that would eventually lead to Martin Luther and the Protestant revolution were already being heard.

So what were people in the Middle Ages thinking?  What were those attitudes that we can’t compare to the way people think now?  Well, as Strayer suggests, because the vast majority of primary resources that exist about the Middle Ages were written by and about less than 10% of the population, we can only guess what the other 90% of the population was thinking.  Granted, we can make educated guesses based on court records, papal decrees, and laws that were enacted.  For example, repeated attempts by the clergy in Paris in the 13th century to shut down the many public bathhouses due to an outbreak of syphilis probably doesn’t indicate that the prevailing attitude in the city was one of anti-cleanliness and chastity.  The importance of the brewing, spinning, and soap-making guilds, all female-dominated professions, in the High Middle Ages is a strong indicator that women were not expected to exclusively stay at home under the power of their husbands or fathers.  The prevalence of court cases in which a woman sued to have a man who had seduced her be forced to legally marry her, and won those cases too, indicates that it was not so much of a man’s world as we might be tempted to think.

And since this post is now twice as long as I intended it to be, I’ll leave it there.  The point is that attitudes changed drastically throughout the span that we think of as the Middle Ages.  If you’re a writer wondering what the world your characters inhabit might be like, keep in mind that the ever-changing tapestry of medieval thought was just as complicated as the world we live in now, even if the overall worldview was different.


[All images are public domain in the US … except for my bookshelves ;)]


  1. derekd

    Great post, Merry. Nothing like a romp through medieval history to get me going on a Sunday morning! I really liked some of your conclusions, and many echo my own, after studying this fascinating time in history for many years.

    Please don’t apologize for the length, as you are preaching to armchair historians here. I prefer a more indepth post like yours over a glossing over such a huge span of time. Thanks for taking the time to research and share your findings.

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks! It’s funny, but while researching and writing this post I was totally siezed with the urge to write an entire book comparing attitudes in the three eras of the Middle Ages. It was such a dynamic, fascinating time!

  2. Ella Quinn

    Merry, this is a wonderful post.

    • Merry Farmer

      Thanks, Ella! =D

  3. Lacey Falcone

    Hi Merry! Great post! I recently took a university course on Europe in the Middle Ages, and you have virtually summmarized all the main points from the class. You have a good handle on Medieval life… Thanks for sharing!

  4. Blythe Gifford

    I’ve set five books in the Fourteenth Century and the “before and after” of “the pestilence” can scarcely be overstated. Believe me, the mid-century meltdown you describe has given rise to some seriously cynical heroes in my books!

  5. Terry Irene Blain

    Great post. If anyone wants to read about the viking invasions of England in the time of Alfred the Great, you can’t do better than Bernard Cornwells Saxon series (these are NOT romances). Great story telling.

  6. Angelyn

    Great summary of the three ages. Your bookshelf looks like mine!



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