Hail companions! How fare thee? A just saying, common to many castle, village, and traveler folk of the medieval ages.
Have you ever danced with the Devil under the pale moonlight? You likely would have, had you been alive between the 5th and 15th century in Europe. Back then, despite its glorification in television, film, and literature, things were full of chaos, strife, greed, lust, and no small amount of plague. Sounds awfully like today, does it not? Minus the plague of course. Much of today’s living conditions have a great number of similarities to the medieval ages. Though they will not be explicitly stated in this article, it is your task to uncover the secrets for yourself, based on what is stated and what is not stated. And so, as they would have also said back then—take heed, for what you are about to learn is not to be taken lightly!
The grand majority of people were not royalty or nobility. You likely lived a life as a servant of a superior being, society, and order. These servants were called serfs. They worked the land indefinitely, and could not leave it for any reason, unless granted access by their liege lord. They were prisoners of the land. The serfs had awful living conditions and were treated as scum. They were beaten for discrepancies and killed for trying to escape. If they refused to pay tithes to their lords, they were killed. If they so much as said something out of line, they were killed…or worse.
The most dangerous threat to people was undoubtedly the plague. As is common knowledge at this point, the Black Death wiped out over half the population in Europe when it hit. Although the exact number is unclear, even to this day, it is known that an upwards of a hundred million and counting were killed. Let that sink in for a moment. The reason the total count is a gray matter is because records back then were poor, to say the least. Not too many people knew how to write anyways. The Black Death was just one of the plagues that affected the populous of Europe. Countless epidemics eradicated countless people. If you were infected with the plague, you had no more than a 20% chance of survival. You likely died within the week, never to be seen again. If you got it, there was no escape. You would say your farewells to the family you had left and hoped you would meet them once more in the kingdom of heaven.
If you had a disease, the solution believed to work by healers was to bleed the skin in the place where the exposure took place. The idea was to remove the “bad blood” from the infected sight. Unfortunately, this erroneous method resulted in infection, horrific pain, and death.
If you received wounds from swords, spears, arrows, knives, or anything else, there was little to no chance of recovery. Anesthetics was nonexistent in this time frame. There was little understanding of the way the body operated. No formal medication was at hand. Pain, misery, and death resulted.
For the most part, the knights, who so many believe to be a group of chivalrous men who protected the people and exhibited exquisite manners, were naught more than a group of men with high testosterone levels. They sought combat, rape, and power. Women, despite what many believe today, were actually just as much a part of their land as the men. They worked the fields just the same as men; they ran small shops just the same as men; they were queens just the same as kings. Occasionally, they were raped and oppressed in certain villages and cities. If they were, those who did so were killed.
Sudden and early death was communal amongst all people. People went to rest each night, not knowing whether they would make it to the next morning. People arose each day, not knowing whether they would see another sunrise. Everyone ran the risk of beheading for some reason or another. They just bided their time and prayed to God for a safe, long, and peaceful life with their loved ones. Even if you were a noble or royal, everyone died at a young age, for food was scarce and not in surplus, and was not like how we have it today where there was prolonged and sustained life. Of course, longevity did depend on socio-economic class. Kings and queens broke bread like bears, whereas serfs only just scraped by. Even so, there was no guarantee. Royals and those in power were often murdered by conspirators and assassins out of terror and fear of what might be the next decree. It was not common, until the later portion of the medieval ages, that people ate three meals. This was when people began to realize they needed more strength to perform better in the fields, as well as have more wits to deal with the regal affairs of angry lords. It did not matter, though. Even those who were well-fed faced famine at some point or another. The standard two meals per day might have become two per week. And as is known today, malnutrition leads to a shutdown in bodily function, just the same as sleep deprivation. The Great Famine is said to have killed off 15% of all the people in England.
Those who live to 80 today would have taken their last breaths at 40 back then. People typically lived to their late twenties and early thirties. If they made it to 30, though, they had a good chance of surviving to 40. If they made it to 40, 50 was not so out of the question. Again, there was no guarantee. Death, in some cases, was an ally. With all the hardships faced in life, death was an attractive alternative. Suicide was just as common as execution.
Disagreeing with the church was seen as a sin, in and of itself. Heretics were burnt at the stake, crucified, or executed, or all three. Wars waged across lands in an effort to unify the world under one religion—Christendom. Those who were condemned to be users of witchcraft were also burnt at the stake with their heads mounted on pikes afterwards. You were publicly ostracized for all to see and witness as a threat to the world.
On the subject of war, it was a grueling affair. Kings were lustful for expansion into other lands. Knights were barbaric individuals with an agenda for violence, bloodshed, and sex. Queens wanted to see their husband’s dead in order to be free from their abuse, and often turned to poison. In some cases, you were exiled from the safety of the kingdom into the wild, where enemies would capture you, enslave you, beat you, and kill you. Or if you were worth something, you were ransomed off. On the eve of battle, some may have been caught fleeing the castle or battle grounds out of fear for their lives. Others would pray to their God or gods for strength, guidance, and protection. Others might have drunk themselves till they could no longer see properly. Others might have been seen in brothels.
New recruits in battle tended to literally defecate at the sound of their enemies approaching. Teenagers and younglings did not know if they would see the light of day after the coming battle. They thought of home, their brothers and sisters, and all the things they had not yet done in their lives before the battle began. Loved ones, who stayed away from the battlefield, would get upset with their husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles for leaving them when times were most tough. They would get upset with the king and lords for taking away their loved ones, not knowing if they would ever see them again. Some who fought in battle would get what we know today as PTSD, only for them it was likely called bewitchment or Devil’s disease.
Post battle, the men who survived typically went home to their families or stayed up all night getting drunk once more for the loss of their fellow soldiers and brothers. They might have shared stories of their heroics during the battle. Typically, there would be a burial service to mourn the fallen. If soldiers were not at the assigned rendezvous point by sun’s rise or set, they would be thought of as dead or captured, and left to the will of their God or gods. Death tolls ranged from 10,000 to 30,000 for single battles and grew to well over 100,000 for the entirety of a single conquest.
If famine, disease, and poor living conditions were not enough to kill, the weather would do the job just fine. Summers were hot; winters were harsh; everything in between was no better than decent. Winter was worst of all, for it soiled the crops and resulted in failed harvests. Starvation, disease, inflation, and higher death rates resulted. People began to believe the bad weather was the fault of heathens, idolaters, and witches. The weather killed the animals, first. And because of that, the people had nothing left to eat. The winter was a person of its own. When wars were fought during winter, soldiers lay awake at night feeling like the winter season was trying to kill them before the battle, so as to save them from the onslaught that might’ve ensued (if they were outnumbered from their enemies). Therefore, some chose to let the cold take them, while the strong fought with all their might and bundled up as best they could till morning, vowing to not be defeated by the forces of nature.
Violence itself was in the heart of every home, village, town, and castle. People were either bystanders or accomplices. Blood vendettas even occurred between families for claims to the throne, claims to the land, or claims to marriage partners. For those who did not have the authority to exercise justice over the matters, a higher authority stepped in and likely settled them, the hard way.
Trials by ordeal were the go-to answer for all violence. There was trial by combat, in which participants—likely two—fought to the death for the right to live and be deemed innocent under the eyes of God or gods. There was trial by poison, in which participants ingested a poisonous bean. If they died from it, they were guilty, while if you threw it up, you were innocent. There was trial by hot water, in which participants had to stick their hand in a kettle or pot of boiling hot water to retrieve a stone. If someone refused to do it, they were deemed guilty, while if they successfully retrieved it, they were deemed as innocent. There were a whole number of other sorts of trials that took place, all of which were usually in a church with the intention that God would watch over the participants and judge who was innocent and who was guilty.
Traveling of all kinds was extremely unsafe. Travelling by land was a death wish. Horses could only ride for so long a time before they needed rest, just the same as how a human could only walk so far without tiring. In the time people rested, their throats were cut by invaders and raiders. If you were a courier and carried battle plans or secret documents for another lord or royal, and you were killed, those plans were stolen by the enemy and resulted in another bloodbath. Again, the weather was spiteful. Sleeping overnight in the cold resulted in hypothermia. The nearest inn was miles away—much too far to travel when freezing. Foreigners on the road, who did not speak the common tongue, would believe you to be an enemy and would raise arms against you. So, unless you were a skilled fighter, the road was all too risky.
Travelling by sea was also a death wish. Storms or enemies, or both, would claim your lives before you could reach your destination.
Childbirth for women was a 50-50 situation. Giving birth was riskier than crossing an armed knight. Unskilled laborers administered a child’s birth, and likely knew not what they were doing. If the mother was fortunate enough to survive childbirth to see their newborn, they might only see them for all of a few minutes because of infection and unforeseen conditions, whether for the mother or the child or both. Being born into a royal or noble family did not guarantee survival, nor did all the doctors in the area. The fate of both mother and child was often left to priests of the church to see to their good health. Children suffered from plague just the same as adults.
The punishment for refusal or inability to pay tithes was not what we know today as filing for bankruptcy or imprisonment. Lords saw no more use for those who could not pay their dues. The result: death.
Those who were disabled or had mental issues were seen as demons, possessed beings, and threats to the general public. They were publicly flogged, flayed, castrated, imprisoned, and killed—all dependent upon the lord of the castle.
Water was in short supply. Because of this, everyone drank ale, wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages, religiously. The water that was supplied was not certain to be clean. Continuous deprivation from clean water eventually caused bodily malfunction. Additionally, showers did not exist. The occasional bath took place for royals and nobles once every two weeks. Again, the water was far from what we know today as clean. If you were a peasant—and you likely would have been—a bath was out of the question. The inability to stay clean only catalyzed disease.
All in all, the medieval ages were a deadly era to have lived in. Perhaps it is that very reason so many find it most interesting. There is much and more to discover about such an age that remains a mystery. It is best to tell what we do know, true, and deflate the myths. As they would say back then—go in peace to serve the church, the king, and the light! Until our next meeting.