In pictures: medieval life

It was one of the most turbulent and transformative periods in history. But what was life like for ordinary people in the Middle Ages? Here, we take a look at medieval life in pictures…

Playing chess, 1305-40. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This image, dated c1150, depicts officers receiving and weighing coins from taxpayers at the exchequer in Westminster, London. As today, medieval people were concerned about money and status. In the cities, people had all kinds of jobs: merchants, salesmen, carpenters, butchers, weavers, foodsellers, architects, painters, jugglers. And in the countryside it was not at all the case that everyone was an impoverished ‘serf’ (that is, ‘unfree’ and tied to the land). Many peasants were free men – and women – and owned their own land. 

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

 

This illustration from the codex of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c1280, depicts two minstrels. It was found in the collection of the Monasterio de El Escorial. In the medieval period, minstrels earned a living playing music or reading poetry. 

(Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

 

This image from Tacuinum Sanitatis, a medieval health handbook, dated before 1400, depicts a peasant with her daughter gathering crops. Famine was a real danger for medieval men and women: faced with dwindling food supplies due to bad weather and poor harvests, people starved or barely survived on meagre rations like bark, berries and inferior corn and wheat damaged by mildew.

(Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

 

In this image dated c1400, a servant is seen tasting wine before serving it at the table. He is watched by priests, bishops and a king. Contemporary sources suggest medieval people enjoyed a wide variety of cuisine, and were adventurous in their tastes: pasta, pasties and sweet and sour dishes were commonplace courtly dishes.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

This is a c1275 Franco-Flemish depiction of a couple taking baths in adjoining tubs. Contrary to popular belief, even in the medieval period hygiene was considered a sign that you were civilised. Most major towns boasted public baths, as did many private houses. Bathtubs were made using similar techniques to those used to craft wine barrels. 

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

In this image dated 1491, a physician is seen removing a stone from a patient's bladder. Just as we do today, people in the medieval period worried about their health and what they might do to ward off sickness, or alleviate symptoms if they did fall ill.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

This 1491 woodcut from Jacob Meydenbach's Hortus Sanitatis (Garden of Health) depicts an apothecary using a pestle and mortar to extract tyriac from snake flesh while the snakes are eating birds and their eggs. In the medieval period, tyriac was used to treat poisonous bites. Other unusual medieval remedies included snails, owls and liquorice. 

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

This c1250 image depicts a medieval knight surprising a lady in her bath.

(Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

 

This c1340 illustration from the Romance of Alexander in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, depicts clothes infected by the Black Death being burnt. The Black Death was thought to have been an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which killed up to half the population of Europe. 

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

This 1390-1400 illustration from Tacuinum Sanitatis - an illuminated medical manual found in the collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris - depicts a woman waving a stick at a dog drinking the whey from some freshly made cheese. Meat, cheese and cereal crops dominated the medieval diet.

(Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

This early 14th-century image depicts a woman and her new baby. During the medieval period, giving birth was incredibly perilous

(Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 

In this c1338-44 image, babies are seen being carried in double panniers.

(Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 

This 13th-century image of a couple being married by a clergyman features in the Chapter Archive of Tarazona, Spain. In medieval London, there was often some confusion as to whether or not a couple was legally wed: a simple exchange of vows between a couple – made in the tavern, the street or even in bed – followed by ‘consummation’ was considered a valid marriage by the church. No witnesses were required, so it could be difficult for either party to prove or disprove that they were married. 

(Photo by PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

 

This 1338-44 illustration from A Short History of the English People, Volume 2, by John Richard Green, depicts schoolchildren reading their books. Youngsters were a cause of concern in the medieval period, especially if they were mischievous and got into scrapes. 

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

In this c1450 image, a group of peasants is seen dining al fresco in the village of Moegeldorf, Germany. It appears that one reveller has enjoyed the festivities a little too much!

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

This 14th-century illustration from Tacuinum Sanitatis, an illuminated medieval handbook of health, depicts women cutting pigs' trotters. Cooking, washing and cleaning had to be done from scratch in the Middle Ages. Before dinner could be cooked, the fire had to be lit, and the medieval housewife also had to churn butter, brew ale and tend livestock, as well as spin and weave cloth to make clothes for the family.

(Photo by Prisma/UIG via Getty Images)
 

This c1450 image depicts mixed bathing and merrymaking at a medieval bathhouse. As musicians didn’t usually play at bathhouses, it is possible the scene represents a fete or public holiday. Medieval people enjoyed midsummer festivals, and they often raised money for charity by holding a ‘help ale’: brewing up a batch of ale, having a big party to drink it, and collecting donations.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Four men are seen apple bobbing (or playing 'bob-apple') in this early 14th-century image. Bobbing for apples was incorporated into Halloween celebrations by the Romans. Ghost stories enthralled medieval readers - click here to read three favourites

(Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 

To find out more about what life was like for ordinary people in the Middle Ages, pick up a copy of our Medieval Life special, which pulls together the very best BBC History Magazine articles. 

And here you can listen to historians and experts discuss a range of topics related to the medieval world – from the Black Death, to faith and superstition. 

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