This four-book series takes a close-up look at life in Europe during the High Middle Ages, roughly 1100-1400.

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"Readers of the impressive Life in the Middle Ages series will be struck first by the beauty of its design, then by the intriguing information. Each volume focuses on one facet of medieval life, and although there is inevitably a little overlap, reading one after another opens up a panoramic, cohesive view of the period."


". . . report writers will be richly rewarded. The texts provide clear explanations of the people, places, and cultural events of this intriguing time. Interesting sidebars feature recipes, games, and stories. . . . Attractive, information-rich resources."

--School Library Journal (reviewing City and Countryside)

"Two informative and beautifully illustrated titles that demonstrate that the Middle Ages was a complex, fascinating period of progress and growth. . . . Both texts are enriched by excerpts from the literature of this era. Quality period reproductions of paintings and clear, color photos appear throughout. . . . Solid overviews that contain fascinating tidbits of information."

--School Library Journal (reviewing Castle and Church)

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Jacks (and Jills) of All Trades

Many castle servants had general functions: the same man might wait at table, deliver messages, make purchases at local markets, and take care of other matters as needed. Some servants were craftspeople part of the time, making candles, soap, and the like.

The lord's most trusted servants tended to be his personal attendants. These were frequently lower-ranking noblemen, and they might do anything from helping the lord dress to going on diplomatic missions for him. In fact, a number of the chief servants in a castle could be of noble birth. In France and Italy, many of the lord's attendants and upper servants were his own cousins and other relatives.

Even many non-nobles were ranked as gentlemen, the servants who did the least physical labor. Lower in status were the valets. They often performed skilled jobs and had a great deal of responsibility. Valets' duties could include anything from assisting the stable marshal to making the lord's bed to slaughtering livestock. The lowest-ranking servants, grooms, had the hardest and dirtiest tasks, such as scrubbing pots and cleaning out stables. Valets and grooms typically came from peasant families in the villages near the castle.

In the Middle Ages, nearly all servants were male, and most of them were unmarried. If a servant was married, his wife and children usually did not live at the castle with him. An upper servant's wife, however, might become an attendant or lady-in-waiting to the lord's wife.
Occasionally a steward's or clerk's widow might take over his job. Otherwise, the only female servants in a castle were laundresses, caregivers for the lord's children, and the lady's personal attendants. Except for those who did the humblest jobs of the lady's chamber, these attendants, like the lord's, tended to be from noble families. Most were girls and young unmarried women. In addition, some of the lady's attendants were young boys, who ran light errands for her. Boys also worked in the kitchen and the bakery and did such chores as dusting.

--Life in the Middle Ages: The Castle

Working Women

In much of Europe during the High Middle Ages, women worked in almost as many fields as men did. Only a few professions were totally closed to women at this time: They could not be sailors, notaries, lawyers, or priests. But we have records from around 1300 that tell of women--especially in France Germany, and England--who were merchants, money changers, jewelers, goldsmiths, artists, stone masons, entertainers, tavern keepers, shoemakers, leather workers, shield makers, archers, gatekeepers, millers, blacksmiths, brewers, wine dealers, food sellers, fishmongers, bakers, peddlers, dyers, yarn makers, wool weavers, linen workers, tailors, dress makers, hat makers, furriers, hair dressers, candle makers, spice dealers, pharmacists, doctors, surgeons, and barbers (who not only cut hair but also performed minor surgery and set broken bones). As household servants, laundresses, nurses, wax dealers, silk spinners, silk weavers, embroiderers, and lace makers, Parisian women outnumbered men in 1292. Unfortunately, as in so many other times and places, medieval women routinely earned less money than men, even for the same work.

Women who didn't work for pay still worked hard, raising children and keeping house. Even with a servant or two to help, household chores were time consuming and often demanded a great deal of strength from the medieval housewife. Only women in very wealthy families avoided physical labor completely.

--Life in the Middle Ages: The City

Wind and Water

Grain was the basis of the peasant diet. It could be boiled to make porridge and gruel, or ground into flour to make bread. In northern Europe before the Middle Ages, grain was usually ground in stone querns, or hand mills. The ancient Romans generally used large millstones turned by donkeys or slaves. Yet the Romans knew of a better technology: the waterwheel, which probably originated in Persia or India. Mysteriously, the Romans rarely used it.
In the early Middle Ages, however, western Europeans realized the great potential of the waterwheel. By the eleventh century, water-powered mills were grinding grain into flour all over Europe--wherever there was a fast-running stream to turn the mill's waterwheel. The wheel turned a pair of gears, which turned the millstone. Large amounts of grain could now be ground with very little effort.

Toward the end of the twelfth century, a new European invention made still more progress in the technology of grinding grain. This was the vertical windmill, probably developed in eastern England. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, but it was soon in use throughout western Europe. It caught the force of the wind in its sails, and their turning ran the gears that turned the millstone, grinding grain with little human effort.

The waterwheel and the windmill are examples of medieval Europe's search for new forms of nonhuman power and new ways to use it. Such technological advances pointed the way to even greater progress in the future.

--Life in the Middle Ages: The Countryside

Monastary Children

Boys who entered monasteries had a difficult period of adjustment and training. They were constantly supervised by a senior monk, their teacher. They were never left by themselves or in groups of only children. They could not signal or speak to one another without the teacher's permission. In many places they were allowed to play for only one hour once a week or once a month. In some monasteries they were not allowed to play at all.

Girls being raised and educated in monasteries seem to have been allowed a little more playtime. (One reason for this may be that girls usually entered monasteries when they were five or six years old, much younger than most boys did.) Otherwise they had the same restrictions as boys. They did not always receive the same education, though. They did learn to read and write, and of course they were thoroughly instructed in religion. But few girls had the opportunity to master Latin or to study such things as science and law. On the other hand, many received training as scribes and artists, and there were women's monasteries that were well known for the books they produced.

--Life in the Middle Ages: The Church



As a special feature, this Web page offers some bonus material for readers who would like to add more to their medieval experience.

A Monkish Meal

According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, monastery meals were supposed to be very simple: "Let two kinds of cooked food, therefore, be sufficient for all the brethren. And if there be fruit or fresh vegetables, a third may be added. Let a pound of bread be sufficient for the day." In addition to these instructions, no one was supposed to eat "the flesh of four-footed animals" unless they were weak or sick and in the infirmary. At the abbot's table, however, more elaborate meals that included meat could be served, for guests of the monastery often ate with the abbot (or abbess), usually in a dining room separate from the refectory. On special occasions, common monks and nuns received dishes of eggs and fish in addition to their usual fare.

To experience a little of what life was like in a medieval monastery, try having a meal like nuns and monks did. You can serve one or two kinds of plainly cooked vegetable. Peas, green beans, carrots, onions, or leeks would be good choices; but potatoes, tomatoes, corn (maize), peppers, and squash all came from the Americas and so were unknown in medieval Europe. You could serve fruit, too. In the Middle Ages, fruit was rarely eaten raw, so try baking an apple or pear; you could drizzle a little honey over it if you wish. Another good cooked dish would be a grain, such as barley or even oatmeal. But remember, no more than three cooked foods! The meal will be complete with cheese and some whole wheat bread with a little bit of butter or honey. You can have grape juice to drink, since people in monasteries, like other medieval Europeans, usually drank wine or ale (often watered down) at every meal. To make your meal truly monastic, eat in complete silence while one of your family members reads aloud from a serious book.

A Special Christmas

At Christmastime today in a number of countries, many homes and churches set up crèches or nativity scenes, which show the newborn Jesus in the stable with his parents, animals, shepherds, and other figures. Some churches even have living crèches, where church members play the human roles and farm animals complete the scene. This tradition was begun by Saint Francis of Assisi in the early thirteenth century.

According to Thomas of Celano, a Franciscan friar who wrote the first biography of the saint, Francis wanted to remember the words and actions of Jesus at all times, and he wanted to share this experience with other Christians. So one year in the town of Greccio, Italy, he decided to help people think of the birthday of Jesus in a new way. "I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by," Francis told his friend Giovanni.

Giovanni saw to it that a manger was set up in a cave in a nearby forest. When Christmas arrived, Francis's friars and many townspeople of Greccio went to the cave, lighting the way with candles and torches. Francis rejoiced to see how things had been prepared. The manger was filled with hay, and an ox and a donkey were brought in as the brothers began to sing. Then a priest performed Mass over the manger. Francis himself sang the Gospel in a sweet, clear voice, and he gave a sermon to the gathered people. As he told them about the birth of Jesus, a certain man had a marvelous vision. He saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger, then saw Francis wake the child as if from a deep sleep. Thomas of Celano wrote that this was a fitting vision, "for in the hearts of many the child Jesus really had been forgotten, but now, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life."

excerpts copyright © 2001 by Marshall Cavendish Corporation

extras copyright © 2006-2011 by Kathryn Hinds