Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Middle Ages were Not at all What I Thought

When the subject of Knights in armor, castles and tournaments - the way life was in the Middle Ages is considered, what do people of our age think it was like?

I for one, had thought it would be a simple society with very few social divisions, and those would be highly stratified.  I thought people would be illiterate, untraveled, unwashed and ignorant - totally unsophisticated - except for a few centers of learning, a few merchants and knights.

I could not have been more wrong in my opinions.

Untraveled? Perhaps the people who worked the fields stayed in one place, but my reading shows that merchants and from the knightly class and upwards, people traveled a great deal.  They went back and forth across the English Channel like we go back and forth across a street.  They visited Ireland, Scotland, Wales, like neighbors dropping in for tea (except they often dropped in for a battle).  It was a part of their of culture for the men, who sometimes brought their wives with them, to take out some time to go to Jerusalem, or at least make a pilgrimage to a shrine in Spain, Italy or Germany.

Illiterate?  although writing was most often practiced by scholars, lawyers and priests, the upper classes were fluent in two, and often three, languages. Well educated barons might also read Greek. Their libraries, though small, might contain books in three languages, all of which they read. High Norman French was spoken at court in England, Latin was spoken when dealing in diplomacy and legal affairs, including the transfer of property, and Anglo-Saxon was spoken with farmers, servants and merchants.  Depending on where their seat of power was located, the ruling class might also be fluent in Cymric (the language of Wales).

Consider my amazement when I discovered that castles often had bathing rooms, and some rulers even ported a large bathing tub with them when they traveled.  Bathing never went out of fashion, but the devastation caused by the extreme famine in the 14th century, followed by nearly half the population dying of the plague, left the remaining people too weakened to do more than just barely survive.

Most of all, I am astonished at the complexity and sophistication of the culture and society of the Middle Ages.  There was a body of laws which were enforced in courts at various levels of power.  There was a highly developed system of trade not only within the borders of a country, but across borders and seas.  There was a rapid progression of development in architecture and art, and in the mechanics of offensive and defensive warfare - armour, weapons, siege engines and the like.

While most people did spend their lives in the class into which they were born, there was also a certain amount of upward mobility, and everyone who was freeborn had certain rights in the law and in custom.

It was a world quite different from ours, and yet I have found more points of similarity than I expected. While women had less freedom than we do now, it was not only women who had to live according to narrow rules and expectations. Everyone including knights had lives more circumscribed by custom, rules and law than people these days.

Scholars have said the mindset, the assumptions and expectations of people living in the Middle Ages is so different from ours as to render it impossible for us to understand them.  No doubt they are right, but that doesn't keep me from exploring what I can find, and reorienting my view accordingly.

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