Medieval Europe – An Overview by Dr Sara Warneke

This lecture will present a broad background to the everyday lives of the medieval peasantry. Don’t be perturbed if you haven’t studied medieval history previously, or forgotten most of that you have studied. An understanding of the daily lives of the ordinary folk largely does not require a vast knowledge of the workings and developments of the High Church, or of governments, monarchies and economic conditions. However, there are some concepts you should be familiar with in order to more fully understand the medieval world view, and this lecture is designed to introduce (or remind) you of them.

First, a broad TimeLine, and an introduction to some of the terms you might come across in readings:

300: Roman Europe:

410-476: collapse of western Roman Empireimages-2

476-1000: the Dark Ages

1000-1400: the Middle Ages

1400-1500: the Renaissance

1517-1564: the Reformation

1500-1700: early modern Europe

The term ‘medieval Europe’ can cover anything from 476 to (according to some historians, 1917!) normally about the late 1300s, but any ‘label’ is always very vague and somewhat inaccurate. Just as one ‘for instance’, the Renaissance was an elitist and largely intellectual movement that a) didn’t touch the mass of Europeans at all (they never had any idea they were living through a cultural revolution) and b) occurred in different parts of Europe at different times. Italy’s Renaissance was in the mid-1300s to the late 1400s, England’s Renaissance was in the 1500s. Many of these labels describe states of minds more than anything else: the term ‘medieval’ can be used to describe a state of mind or a social system (thus it can be applied to early twentieth-century Russia as easily as thirteenth-century France); others, like the Reformation, can be clearly dated to defined events.

Secondly, you should be aware that most of the modern European borders or countries did not exist in medieval Europe (defined as Europe between the 1000s and 1600s). France had only become a coherent state by the late 1600s, Germany remained a fragmented mess of virtually independent states until the nineteenth century, as did Italy. Spain had managed to unite itself in the late fifteenth century, but still underwent turmoil in the early modern era. England was the only medieval state that resembled its later, modern form. People identified themselves with

  • lordmedieval europe small
  • race (based on language similarities rather than geographical regions)
  • but, most particularly, their very local community and region

rather than nation or country.

  • largely ordinary people saw no evidence of a ‘state’:
  • central administration a joke in most countries
  • their local lord was the one to whom they paid taxes and relied on for the admin of the law
  • their local priest was the man who conveyed to them news of the outside world
  • people’s loyalty was to their village/local region/local lord & people who lived fifteen miles away were foreigners

Even the few ‘coherent’ states in existence (ones which had effective central administrations, stable currencies, effective taxation systems) still had ‘identity problems:

England, the best example of a coherent state in medieval Europe, was nonetheless a ‘fruitcake’ culture. Its culture was a mix of:

  • Celtic
  • Roman
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Viking
  • French (very strong)

English did not become the national language until the late 1500s, the ‘English’ as a people really only existed from about the 1200s and then few thought of themselves as such.

Medieval Europe, particularly its social system, was built on the back of the chaos in post-Roman western Europe and the invasions of the Dark Ages.

  • Western Roman Empire collapsed from the early fifth century, gone by the end of the fifth century (the eastern Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire to finally be overrun by the Turks in 1453)
  • Western Europe in the Dark Ages was characterised by
    • a generally rural society (most towns shrank or disappeared)
    • invasions:
      • invasions during the fifth and sixth centuries by ‘Germanic’ tribes from northern and central Europe;
      • invasion during the eighth century from the south by Arabs (Muslims); Europe only just avoided becoming an Islamic state;
      • invasion during the ninth century by Vikings from the Scandinavian region
      • the Norman Invasion of England in 1066 was the last of many hundreds of years of invasions (although the movement of peoples across the Eurasia had been in progress for thousands of years)

The centuries of turmoil during the Dark Ages (a broad statement, for there were many years of peace, and many great achievements, during the so-called ‘Dark Ages’) resulted in a peculiar structuring of society, largely known as ‘feudalism’ (a problematical term); see my first year lecture notes on Feudalism . Society was grouped into three ranks, or estates:images

  • the First Estate, the church and all its clergy. This was the estate that guarded the spiritual welfare of society;
  • The Second Estate, largely the nobility. The nobles protected society, they provided its literal sword arm;
  • The Third Estate: everyone else, largely the peasantry and what townsmen and craftsmen there were. This was the estate that worked. It comprised some 90% of Europe’s population, all of which was needed to work the land to feed the top 2 estates (approx. 10% of any given population)

A few words about the three estates. (See my first year lecture notes on Feudal Society for more on the first two estates.)

  • the Church was highly independent: considered itself free from all secular controls, believed itself the leader of society, gave itself the right to interfere with monarchs and state policy. Divided into higher clergy (abbots to popes) and lower clergy (mostly parish priests and sundry monks and friars); the higher clergy tended to come from the second estate and were generally very wealthy, the lower clergy came from the third estate. As a massive and unwieldy, but immensely powerful and wealthy, institution, the Church, as the greater number of the clerics, were often corrupt.
    • part of the reason the Church was so powerful and so wealthy, was that in this prescientific world, the Church guarded all knowledge and explanations of this world. The world, for virtually all medieval people, was understood in almost exclusively religious or spiritual terms.
  • the second estate lived only for war; the men trained exclusively for war, their women to keep the home estate. With the first estate, the second estate largely controlled all the land, as well political and economic power in any given region.
  • the third estate is what this unit is all about, so only a few words about them here. Most members of the third estate were:
    • peasants, either free or unfree, but most would have had some kind of bond to a local lord
    • lived in a manorial situation
    • were rural workers
    • rarely moved from the village or locality of their birth
    • lived their lives to the dictates of Church and season … and to the dictates of their local custom and culture

The Medieval Christian Religion:

Medieval Europe, as the European’s lives, was dominated by the Christian Church, and it is useful to say a few things about it here.

  • The conversion of Europe was a time-consuming and nail-biting time for the Church, and some of its conversion practices had a massive impact on how medieval religion was practiced among the common people.
    • Roman Europe had a veneer of Christianity, but this was largely lost during the age of Germanic invasions;
    • from the sixth century the Roman Church began a reconversion campaign in Europe (which took many centuries). In order to convert the mass of Europeans, the missionaries tended to absorb pagan practices, so that by the 1000s Christianity had many questionable rites and beliefs. What this meant for the ordinary people was that their daily religious beliefs and practices still contained much of their pagan past, although it is important to note that the Europeans believed themselves devout Christians.
  • In western Europe there was only one Church: the Roman Catholic Church (the Byzantine Empire had a Church that was based around Constantinople – Istanbul – and became what we know as the Eastern Orthodox Church). The Roman Catholic Church, however, was not terribly securely seated: medieval Europe was shaken by successively stronger heresies (evidence of a deep dissatisfaction with, and resentment of, the Catholic Church) until it was torn apart by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. After 1517 there was a religious schism: the Roman Catholic Church versus a variety of Protestant churches.

The medieval world was a very insular place. Most people had no idea of the outside world: anything more than 20 miles away was foreign, anything more than a thousand miles away was myth. Most people believed themselves ringed by hostile infidels or hostile seas: Arabs, Mongols, Turks and the vast sea of death populated with sea monsters – the Atlantic. Most ordinary people had little to no contact with the outside world, the world beyond western Europe was dark and largely evil. Stories and myths abounded about what was out there, but mostly people had no idea was existed beyond their own world, and their own world was all they would ever know.


There are three major changes which profoundly affected the lives of the ordinary people during the period 1000-1600 (for you to keep in mind when reading):

  • the breakdown of the feudal structure of society between 1300-1500.
    • there are many intertwining and complicated reasons for this breakdown, but it was primarily related to the rise of wealth (feudal society was based on a system where there was no cash about), and so thus people could rely on wealth to buy them what previously they’d relied on the feudal system of relationships for; but the Black Death (below) also had a profoundly destructive effect effect on feudal society
  • The Reformation of 1520s – 1550s: the final schism within the Catholic church which had been falling apart in degrees since the early 1300s. This profoundly affects people’s lives, particularly in newly Protestant regions, but some aspects of people’s lives don’t change: the new Protestant churches remained as profoundly intrusive and controlling of people’s lives as did the Catholic Church. (In Protestant regions the cult of the saints was abolished, magical religious practices were suppressed etc.)
  • The Black Death of 1348-1350: nothing has more profoundly altered Europe than this event. Between a third to a half of Europe’s population died – and no one understood why. Neither the Church nor the states could explain it or mitigate its effects. Very broadly, what happened was that because the twin authorities of society could neither help nor explain, the common people became far more ready to question them. The old deferential bonds were, if not completely destroyed, profoundly undermined.

There are many useful general medieval histories in the library. Some are:

  1. Bishop, The Penguin Book of the Middle Ages
  2. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe
  3. K. Ferguson, Europe in Transition 1300-1520
  4. Grabois, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Medieval Civilization
  5. R. Hale, Renaissance Europe
  6. Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West
  7. Hay, The Medieval Centuries
  8. Heer, The Medieval World
  9. St. L. B. Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages
  10. Painter, A History of the Middle Ages
  11. W. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History (2 vols.)

(Also note the longer Cambridge Medieval History in the Reference section of the Library&emdash;this is currently being updated with the latest edition. An excellent reference.)

  1. W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages

Of them all, Bishop and Painter are probably the best.


2 thoughts on “Medieval Europe – An Overview by Dr Sara Warneke

  1. Sarah says:

    This is extremely interesting!!! Thank you to Sara, ( I miss you and wish I could have taken your class) Karen and Ian for making this material available!! Please post more.

    Will this site let me know when you add material?

  2. Sara's Worlds says:

    I will let you know through FB if the site doesn’t! So don’t worry. I will post three or four more lectures every month. It’s better that way rather than putting them all up at once. I can dole them out for everyone to enjoy. I also want to add pictures and give them an edit (they were not meant for public consumption after all!). But I am so glad you like them! Karen x

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