History The more you know

Daily life in the Middle Ages

The sound of bells marks the beginning of the day with the first at six in the morning; in homes, people wake up, make the sign of the cross three times, get fully dressed, and wash what is left uncovered, hands and face. The habit of Roman antiquity to take a daily bath was now lost, the cleaning of the body was now replaced by the cleaning of the linen; the public baths, a typical place for amorous encounters and prostitution, are now few in number (Paris in 1292 had twenty-six for two hundred thousand inhabitants), the bath is only done if dirty for particular reasons or after a long journey with the tub for laundry .

The clothes are: the shirt, a common garment for men and women, made of linen, cotton, wool or silk for the most affluent, with long sleeves, high-necked but without a collar; the female one reaches the ground, the male half-leg. If they don’t leave the house, the women of the wealthy classes over their shirts wear a large linen or silk dressing gown and in winter an ermine jacket. Men and women over the shirt wear a buttoned garment closed by laces, the male one up to half leg and the female one down to the ground. Under the robe the men wear slings of light fabric, linen or canvas, and a second heavier pair (hence the sayings “drop the slings” or “stay in canvas slings”). Each female dress is provided with a certain number of sleeves of different shapes, colors and fabrics, to be worn according to the occasion and season (hence the saying “it’s another pair of sleeves”). Germanic-style wool robes are used from the 6th-8th centuries. In winter, we protect ourselves with a second garment of the same length as the first and with felt or fur coats (fox, sable, ermine, marten, lynx, beaver, bear, otter, marten, rabbit, mole, lamb, badger) for the wealthier classes. From the thirteenth century wool socks came into use, knitted by housewives, sometimes even soled; during the first millennium, instead, bands were used to protect the legs, which later became work trousers and slings. If you did not wear soled socks, you would use boots or boots, women slippers, clogs or shoes with soles or real cork wedges.

The houses are mostly with two or more floors connected by wooden stairs, the bedroom occupies the upper floors; those of the wealthy class have the façade that gives onto the main road, sometimes protected by an arcade, on the ground floor there are the possible shop and the barn, on the back the courtyard, the vegetable garden, the stable, the closet, the barn, the chicken coop, pigsty, oven, woodshed, fountains for laundry. On the ground floor there are therefore the kitchen, with the fireplace on the bottom, the pantry, the dining room and, in the craftsmen’s houses, the shop, all one with the house. The residential rooms of the family, that is the living room or dining room, on the first floor, consist of a single room divided by wooden bulkheads and curtains. The bedrooms occupy the upper floors and are accessed via an internal staircase while sometimes the dining room is accessed via an external staircase.

The furniture is scarce and heavy: in the living room also often the entrance and kitchen, in addition to the hearth there is a table where you can prepare food and eat; the cupboard in which various types of pots and utensils are kept; some benches. In the bedrooms there is a chest for clothes, linen and parchments of the house (the precious and the money were kept in a well-stocked and closed cabinet); a large bed with a straw mattress and feather pillows, in which several people slept, totally lacking a differentiated space (even in the hotels guests all slept in large rooms and the servants at the foot of their masters’ bed) often dominated by sacred images , sometimes a chair. The bathrooms are protruding loggias with a seat that opens onto a canal, on a moat that is kept well stocked with ash or on an alley (unlike the Roman city, in fact, the medieval city has no sewage system); the washbasins are missing, iron or wood tripods are placed on the ground or on the wall to support basins and jugs.

The day begins with Mass; religion is an integral part of medieval life, all shared the same vision of the destinies of man and the universe, indeed, the supernatural was not felt distinct from earthly life but was part of it, as the ancient city stood when they came recognized his divinities and was considered a pact between gods and men, in a similar way in the Middle Ages the sensitive world is populated by divine presences that intervene continuously. Wars, famines and pestilences are divine punishments or the work of demons, the rain of ice was considered the work of demons who lived in the intermediate layer of air between the clear and lukewarm one near the earth and the hot one closest to the sun (as explained for example the Dominican Giordano from Pisa in one of his famous sermons). Against all these dangers it was necessary to take measures, often go to the Church, a mass was considered a valid action to avert an illness or to conclude a deal no less than a medicine or a trip, participate in processions, attend sacred performances, make a pilgrimage. Civil authorities were concerned with securing harmony with God; special provisions ordered frescoes representing the Virgin and Saints along the walls or at the gates, recommending that they be resistant and of good quality; the bells were blessed and sounded to drive away the enemy armies and other evils the work of the devil, such as hail, storms and lightning.

To protect themselves, the people often used amulets and talismans mostly with images of the Saints, Saint Agatha against the uncontrollable forces of nature, Saint Christopher and Saint Julian who protected travelers and pilgrims were particularly invoked in case of travel or even a simple stay outside from the city walls.

Venturing down an external road meant in fact putting your life at risk; assaults by brigands, armed teams and even ferocious animals were on the agenda.

Sudden and violent death without being able to free oneself from sins with confession, repentance, penance and pious works and which therefore led straight to hell, was the real obsession of medieval man. This is why so often the image of San Cristoforo is found, the protector of the ferrymen, travelers and merchants, on amulets, sewn on clothes, painted on various objects and also painted and large so that it is visible even from afar on walls and buildings, it was believed that the mere sight of the saint’s image protected from dangers.

Despite the dangers, however, travel is one of the necessities of medieval life; since there is no food preservation technique every day a large quantity of provisions must be transported to the city from the countryside. The movements are slow and difficult, the great Roman roads have not always been preserved; during the trips you proceed on horseback and in a carriage with frequent changes of mounts and stops, but it is often necessary to move on foot, for example, near the mountain passes. On horseback or carriage, no more than 15-20 kilometers per day are traveled, 50 if the territory is flat and the road is particularly easy. For the transport of goods, traffic takes place preferably by river, using boats and taking advantage of favorable winds and currents or if it is not possible using oars. If the river is poor in water, boats are towed from the ground and tied to mules, oxen or horses. Particularly feared is the sea voyage, said not by chance periculum, which is used on the occasion of pilgrimages or military actions

After the morning mass, around six in the morning, the day begins; we have breakfast, a second one we make at the third hour around nine, and we go to work.

The craftsmen open their shop, the doctors start their tour, the newsboys start to travel the streets of the city announcing the hawker’s wagon, the gardeners leave for the countryside, the housewives give orders to the servants or daughters for the kitchen laundry and other chores.

The city streets begin to come alive, pets pass undisturbed, the craftsmen and merchants display their wares, most of the work takes place outdoors, the shops communicate with the street and so do the houses. In the street you can buy everything: the fish, kept in special tanks, meat, displayed on the butcher’s counter under the loggia or at his shop where sausages and dried meat hung on poles resting on the shelves on the facade are also on display. vegetables, bread, but also furniture, kitchen utensils, tools, fabrics, shoes, soled socks, scattered on the ground or on the artisans’ benches in their shops.

The streets are then enlivened by public newscalls, auctioneers and messengers from the municipality, men who deal with their affairs in the streets and squares, merchants who come from other lands.

Every day a great deal of people and goods enter the city; given the impossibility of storing food, vegetables, meats, game and more must be transported within the walls from the countryside every day.

On the streets you can then meet crowds of poor and beggars who live on alms; it was easy to become poor, a bad harvest, a disease, a fracture that made the death of her husband or father crippled was enough; even demented and insane, often called possessed, lived on alms. The Church invited to help the destitute but did not question or intervene on the causes of the phenomenon, indeed believed that the existence of the poor was wanted by God to allow the rich to do the necessary good to erase many sins. On the other hand, lepers were excluded from the city, forced to move with rattles and bells that signaled their presence and allowed others to leave when they arrived. The Church certainly encouraged charity by relying on the shining example of the Saints; it is precisely by narrating his meeting with a leper that St. Francis begins his Testament, but often the poor and the marginalized were felt as a burden by the community, sometimes they were even driven out of the city and left to their fate.

Another public spectacle that could be seen on the streets and in the squares was the public punishment of the criminals who were often carried around the streets of the city and exposed to the insults of bystanders to be a warning to the population; the sodomites were burned at the stake, the thieves were whipped put in the pillory and branded on the cheeks, the blasphemers were whipped and dragged through the city with a pincer on the tongue, the murders were dragged tied to the tail of a mule or a horse and finally hanged and so the traitors and disturbers of public peace.

The infernal punishments that are often seen represented in the paintings are representations of the true tortures to which the criminals were subjected. The purpose of the particularly frightening images was also in this case to impress terror on the fate of damnation that belonged to sinners.

Always outdoors and especially in the city squares, the words of the preachers were heard, but also the stories and songs of the jesters that narrated the adventures of the knights and paladins, but also the lives of the saints, equally adventurous and “heroic”, the shows acrobats with their tricks, the trained beasts.

Even a funeral could become a sort of public spectacle; if the deceased was worthy of particular honors he could be greeted by a procession with flags and harnessed horses, men and women of all classes in their best clothes, the departure was first announced by the shouters of the dead on horseback, followed by a large lunch in the house of mourning and then the funeral, with costs and number of participants variable depending on the economic availability of the deceased’s family.

All of this should not surprise us also because death was much more part of daily experience than it is today; infant mortality was very high (10 to 20% of children died within the tenth year of age), almost every woman sooner or later went through the experience of losing a child and very high was also death from childbirth or its consequences, a sixty-year-old man was considered very old.

Doctors were rarely used, only in extreme cases, the expense was in fact huge. The diagnosis then, mostly incomprehensible to the patient and his family and adorned with beautiful words, was not based on the observation of the body, but on the notions learned from the books (the first anatomical dissections were performed in Bologna at the end of the thirteenth century century, and only the Renaissance anatomists really changed medieval conceptions), notions which in turn were based on ancient knowledge, on the ancient treatises of Hippocrates or Galen accessible only through often misleading translations; often the doctors (as well as the copyists who glossed the manuscripts) came to the meaning of a term from the etymology, according to the all medieval principle for which names are a consequence of things (nomina sunt consequentia rerum) and since the Middle Ages did not know ancient Greek often the same etymology was wrong or even invented ad hoc. Nor should it be surprising that a hierarchical and theocentric epoch such as the Middle Ages sought answers to Sacred Scripture also for medical questions, seeing, for example, the organs of the female body, as “designed” by God for the sole purpose of procreating, the only purpose assigned to the woman from the Creator and from Scripture.

The only gestures that the doctors made was to feel the patient’s pulse and observe his urine in a glass jar. The recommended remedies were mostly bloodletting or, for those who knew them, they used medicinal herbs, known for example, through the Herbarium of Lucio Apuleio reported by Pliny. This is also why doctors were often the victim of the irony of storytellers and artists.

A prayer was often considered more useful than a doctor’s advice; the pharmacists themselves were well aware of the limit of their remedies, in fact in the shops of pharmacists and apothecaries you could find ex-votos of wax, which represented the part of the body healed thanks to the intercession of a saint and that the faithful placed on the tomb of the protector in gratitude.

But real remedies and potions were women’s monopoly; forced to live closed at home and only responsible for the health of their children were “functionally” forced to learn the virtues of herbs and pass on the knowledge to their daughters. Often it is women who intervene with medical practices on many female diseases; the women assist the parties, sometimes also practicing cesarean sections, especially if the mother dies during childbirth before the baby has left her womb, they take care of the newborn and if necessary they give him medicine.

Needless to say, from medicine to witchcraft the step is short. Many women were accused of making magic ointments and making evil especially towards small children; if a child did not grow up, because he was frail or ill, he could be considered an “exchange”, that is, a child who had been replaced by the devil with a hellish creature destined to never change. The unfortunate child could be subjected to cruel rites aimed at forcing the devil to bring the kidnapped child back. Infant mortality was very high, as well as malnutrition and the diseases that followed, for this reason explanations and scapegoats of all kinds were found; of course the devil lent himself well in any eventuality.

Naturally, women always took care of the house; thinking about the fire, lighting it was a long and complex operation, it was necessary to prepare a suitable bait, beat the flint on the steel to obtain a spark and revive it by blowing with a straw. Once the fire was obtained it was necessary to keep it; if the embers went out it was easier to go to a neighbor and ask her to be able to bring a rag close to her hearth and then be able to light her own. The same care was reserved for the embers that had to be covered with ash every evening so as not to cause fires and to be found the next morning. Water was also as necessary as it was tiring to obtain; the privileged had a well of their own to draw on, in some noble houses there was even drawing water on the balcony of each floor from a window that gave access to the well, instead the people had to resort to public fountains or common wells in the neighborhoods. Each type of matter was therefore infinitely more tiring and complex, even the preparation of a simple meal, consisting almost always of a soup, required a very long preparation starting precisely from the preparation of the fire and the supply of water.

When lunchtime came, everyone returned home; for the rich, the meal was based on spiced meat, sauces, game, sausages, vegetables, legumes, eggs, cheeses, fresh and candied fruits, spiced desserts and wine; The poor ate mostly soups with vegetables, legumes, cereals depending on the place and season, enriched perhaps by a piece of lard, bread, eggs, cheeses, sometimes game depending on availability, pork once a year, the day slaughter, river fish, wine only in special circumstances. No plates or forks were used, but large slices of bread on which the meat with its sauce rested; napkins were not used but water was washed to wash hands between courses and the tablecloth was also changed frequently. One glass was available for every two people, cut portions with a large knife and serve with your hands.

Lunch was followed by a siesta and entertainment outside the houses or at the shops with stories and jokes exchanged with neighbors.

After the evening meal, however, no one, except the little masnada who goes to the taverns to drink and play dice always looking for brigades, goes out into the streets.

You throw your clothes on a horizontal pole, to protect them from animals, dogs or mice that are, you only wear the shirt that rises only under the covers and you get back immediately as soon as you wake up, and you fall asleep. At regular intervals the monks get up to ring the bells, first midnight, then the morning, then the praises, which will mark the beginning of a new day.

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