19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

We know a lot about the Middle Ages (the 4th-15th centuries). The crusades, wars of succession, the Black Death, and many other interesting facts can be found in different sources like books, films, and articles. Unfortunately, we know very little about the people who lived during that time. For example, have you ever heard anything about legal duels between spouses that were meant to resolve disputes?

AZtag wants to fill the gap in our knowledge and find out what the lives of European people looked like back then.

  • There were no words or phrases to propose to a woman. Consent could be shown by giving and receiving an item referred to in English as a “wed.” A wed could be anything, but in most cases, it was a ring. If a woman took the present from a man, they were considered married.
  • Divorce, as we understand it today, wasn’t common either. The only way to end a marriage was to prove it never legally existed. One of the reasons could’ve been the fact that a wife and a husband suddenly found out they were relatives or one of the spouses wasn’t a Christian. In addition, a couple could break up if it was proven that one of the spouses got married to a different person which actually wasn’t really difficult, considering the “proposal” traditions.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

  • To get married, ordinary people didn’t need any official ceremonies. To become spouses, a man and a woman just gave verbal consent to each other. In Medieval England, some future wives and husbands “got married” in front of a church to make the process more spiritual and receive God’s blessing. Even after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) decided a priest’s presence was essential, this rule wasn’t observed by everyone.
  • Before 1215 there was a law, according to which, anyone with a great-great-great-great-great-grandparent in common was too closely related to get married. As it was really difficult to trace one’s genealogy, the Fourth Council of the Lateran decided to simplify the law, which was reduced to having a great-great-grandparent in common. Anyway, this rule wasn’t applied to monarchical marriages that were determined by the state interests. For example, the Habsburg dynasty: the family members had different physical and mental diseases because of incestuous marriages.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

Charles II of Spain, the representative of the Habsburg dynasty with the Habsburg jaw, a physical defect caused by incestuous marriages

  • It’s interesting that until the end of the 14th century, there was no word for “widower” in English or other languages, though the word “widow” was mentioned in many different documents. It was connected with the fact that a man who’d lost his wife had the right to marry again unlike a woman who’d lost her husband. For example, a woman wasn’t allowed to marry again within one year as, according to the law, all children born within a year after the man’s death had a right to claim his property.
  • In the Middle Ages, there was a tradition to “consummate a marriage”, and the absence of this consummation was a reason to void the marriage. There’s a famous story of Ingeborg, the daughter of Valdemar I of Denmark, who married Philip II of France. By the time all the marriage agreements came into force, the marriage became useless for the man. The next day after the ceremony, Philip decided to banish his new Queen without consummation, so, in fact, the marriage wasn’t confirmed. She refused to leave France and was imprisoned in a tower where she was humiliated for 20 years.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

The marriage of Ingeborg and Philip II

  • At the end of the 14th century, a person wrote a book titled The Goodman of Paris for the instruction of his future young wife. She had to admire her husband, love him, always give him clean clothes, and be a good cook and a housewife. According to this book, the man then agreed to come back home and to not look at other women.
  • In Piers Plowman, created by William Langland in the 14th century, there are lines that say there are only 3 things that can turn a man away from the family home or even push him to another woman: a leaky roof, a smoky fire, and an obstinate wife who wasn’t punished — her tongue would make her man run away.
  • In Germany, there was a custom of so-called marital duels that were meant to resolve all disputes between spouses. They put on tight costumes, but a wife had an advantage: her husband was put in a hole, with one arm tied behind his back, and given 3 wooden sticks. His wife was allowed to move the way she wanted and she was supplied with a bag full of stones.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

A marital duel, meant to resolve a dispute between the spouses

  • Unfortunately, domestic violence was really common. What’s more, things that are strictly prohibited today were allowed in the past. In 1325, one Colin le Barbier from Paris was accused of murdering his wife and then he was acquitted. In court, he said he accidentally hit his wife with a billiard stick, and she died not because of the hit, but because she failed to tend to the wound properly. What’s more, he claimed that his wife deserved this because she had nagged him in public.
  • Contrary to popular belief, witch hunting wasn’t a tradition of the Middle Ages, it appeared later. In the famous book Hammer of Witches, which was written in 1486-1487 by clergyman Heinrich Kramer from German Ravensburg, he attempted to prove that witches existed, while the Catholic church denied it. The reason he wrote the book was his grudge against the Innsbruck bishop who acquitted women accused of witchcraft by the clergyman. What’s more, the bishop offered Kramer a chance to leave the city, and later, the clergyman’s colleagues condemned him for his inquisitorial methods.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

Execution by burning, the end of the 15th century

  • Medieval doctors thought mental diseases were a result of an imbalance of 4 essential fluids in the body: lymph, yellow bile, blood, and black bile. The theory about the fluids was suggested by Hippocrates and developed by Galen who saw a connection between the fluids and the types of temperament we know today. According to this theory, in phlegmatics, there was the predominance of lymph, in cholerics — yellow bile, in sanguines — blood, and in melancholics — black bile. Restoring the balance was considered to be a possible way to defeat a mental illness, so doctors used diuretics, emetics, and bloodletting.
  • In most cases, medieval “medicines” were strange, but there were some really effective recipes. In fact, a group of modern students tried a medieval recipe against a sty. They had to mix onion, garlic, wine, and bull’s gall, leave the mixture on for 9 days, then strain it through a cloth, and apply it to the eye with a feather. The remedy turned out to be really great, and today, it’s being studied to find a cure against one species of Staphylococcus aureus, which is resistant to antibiotics.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

In the Middle Ages, doctors were sure that one’s urine and other fluids could indicate whether or not a person suffered from this or that disease.

  • The modern word “wardrobe” literally means “to guard a garment” and the etymology can be easily explained. The thing is, in the castles, the closets were located near the toilets because people thought ammonia could kill any nasty bugs.
  • There’s a theory that says that ladies of the past wore fur and had pets to catch fleas. These insects spread dangerous diseases like plague and irritated people with their bites. So it was really trendy to decorate women’s clothing with fur as it was meant to attract the bugs, and some ladies even preferred living “flea catchers.” According to one version, an ermine depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine is an example of this pet.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo da Vinci (presumably), 1489–1490

  • In the late Middle Ages in England, there was a law that said all people (mostly women) who broke the public peace would be punished. The punishment was pretty unusual: the person was placed in a chair and submerged in a river several times to cool down.
  • Despite the fact that women didn’t have an opportunity to study in the Middle Ages, there were exceptions to this rule. Writer and poet Christine de Pizan, who lived from 1365-1430, is considered to be the founder of feminism. In her book The Book of the City of Ladies, she says that a woman is equal to a man in many aspects, and marriages get ruined because of vices common to both men and women.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

An illustration from The Book of the City of Ladies

  • The average life expectancy of women in the Middle Ages was lower than the average life expectancy of men. Many women died during labor due to a weakness caused by a lack of food, but those who managed to survive labor could live to be 70 years old. What’s more, the lack of food affected babies too: since their mothers’ milk wasn’t enriched with all the proper nutrients, babies immune systems were weak and they often died soon after birth.
  • Women were involved a lot with medicine: for example, women supported each other during childbirth since men weren’t allowed to look at the naked bodies of unfamiliar women. It’s said that a manuscript that the whole medieval theory of medicine is based on was written by Trota of Salerno, who lived in the 11th-12th centuries. Besides disease treatment, the manuscript describes ways to get rid of unwanted hair, wrinkles, freckles, and birthmarks, it has makeup tips and advice for getting rid of bad breath.

19 Facts About Life in the Middle Ages That Cast a New Light on History

Medieval skincare procedures

Is there anything else you’d like to know about the Middle Ages?

Preview photo credit Carlo Raso / Public Domain / flickr