Introduction to the Middle Ages
A Guide for Teachers
Kiwanis Medieval Faire
Lehigh Acres, FL 33972
The people of the middle ages had the same needs for work and recreation as we do in the twenty first century. They lived in rural villages and towns, they attended marketplaces and enjoyed the holidays as a break from their daily duties and routines.
The initial objective of this guide is to acquaint teachers and their students with activities that we find familiar in the middle ages. We hope to provide you with information to aid you in teaching your educational goals as you plan your visit to the Kiwanis Medieval Faire. This guide may be used to teach chronology, vocabulary and history. We will include a small bibliography to assist you in your quest to teach your students about the middle ages. We will include sample activities and questions that you may find useful in your classroom. We also will link websites that are helpful herein.
We hope that this information will make the Middle Ages come alive for you and your students and transport you to a simpler time where knights were chivalrous and ladies were honored.
Table of Contents
When Were the Middle Ages
Characteristics of the Middle Ages
A Peasant’s Life
Development of Towns
Tradesmen’s Signs and Their Villages
The Market Place
Merchants Guilds and Businesses
System of Credit
The Faire as Entertainment
Decline of Trade Faires
Nations Began in the Middle Ages
Dawn of a new Age
Medieval Faire Fun
Medieval Time Line
Words and Phrases
*(research) –reminds you to have your students research the topic at hand
When Were the Middle Ages?
The time period between ancient and modern times is known as the Middle Ages, or medieval times. The middle ages began when the Roman Empire fell. By 395, the Empire was too large to be ruled by only one man. It was split into two parts. One emperor ruled from Constantinople. The other emperor ruled from Rome. In 410 the Goths (research) swept into Rome . They vandalized and terrorized the city. In 455 the Vandals arrived with the same intention and burned Rome as well. In 476 the end of the Western Roman Empire came as the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus we dethroned by Odoacer. This is the end of what we called ancient times. (research)
Characteristics of the Middle Ages
The barbarian tribes did not foster advances in art, literature, architecture and government as the Romans had. Once the Romans were conquered they began to follow the customs of the barbaric tribes who had settled in Rome. This combining of two lifestyles changed the way both groups viewed life and their customs.
Religion was one of the most important influences in the middle ages. All things existed for the glory of God. The government of Rome disappeared. It was replaced by thousands of small, regional governments wherein the local lord was in charge and held all the power. This new system is known as feudalism. (research)
All medieval manors held certain characteristics that were common to all agricultural communities of the time. The lord of ‘this feudal state’ ruled his lands with an army made up of loyal subjects. They gave their loyalty and protection.
To him in return for land grants. This was a time of unrest and discord.
The manor was the place where most people lived during the Middle Ages. Feudalism bound most people to the land of a lord in return for protection from the lord. The manor house and land, crops and livestock were located on a demesne, or home farm. This farm was encircled by a wall with towers to watch from. Within the walls were fruit trees, wells, dovecote and a fish pond among other things. (research)
The village was located outside the wall. Cottages surrounded by gardens lined the paths that led to the manor house. Many other building made up the village including a church, an alehouse, a smith and a mill for grinding grain (if there was a stream nearby).
There were three social classes, the clergy, the nobles and the peasants. The local lords protected their own lands because the Kings could not do so. The Kings granted powerful nobles land in return for their protections. Lesser nobles would join with powerful nobles and give greater protection from their enemies. The strongest noble became the overlord and the lesser nobles became his vassals. (research)
Others living in the village included the priest, the reeve (an overseer of the manor), carpenters, carters, miller, cowherds, and freemen who paid rent for land. Coffers held no land but served as house servants in the manor. The steward oversaw the lord’s lands and stayed in the manor house during his visits but left the management of the lands and its workers to his assistant, the bailiff. The beadle, (constable) seized cattle that trampled property, collected fines and measured grain.
- The church was the strongest institution of the Middle Ages. Why is this true? What is the strongest modern institution? Substantiate your thoughts.
- Who invaded Romans lands? What happened to their art, architecture, education and literature when they were invaded? Why?
- The word “feudalism” come from the Latin word feudal, meaning possession or property. How does this reflect the premise of feudalism in the middle ages? Give examples.
- How do you think feudalism benefited the King? The overlord? The vassal? The peasants?
- Make a chart showing the class system in the Middle Ages.
A Peasant’s Life
Most peasants were serfs who were unable to leave the estate without the lord’s permission. Some peasants were freemen who had more rights and fewer responsibilities to the lord. Both required the lord’s protection and served the lord well.
The peasants home were made of logs held together with mud. The roof was thatched with straw. They were generally one room with hole in the ceiling through with heat and smoke cook escape. A peasants’ furniture was sparse. It consisted of a table and some three-legged stools, several piles of straw covered with animal skin for beds, and a loom. (research) Pegs on the walls held a change of clothes. There was also a wooden tub, leather jug, iron cooking pots and hooks for hanging poultry and meats. The house was surrounded by a patch of land. The peasant grew his/her own vegetables, fruit trees and raised animals to provide for their food. Animals were important so in the winter they were brought inside the hut to keep them from freezing. Ale or wine was brewed. Honey bees were kept to sweeten foods. Salt could be purchased and water was drawn from a village well or the river.
Garments were spun from the wool of sheep. To hold up their clothing, they used rope. Most of the peasants went around barefoot. In cold weather they wrapped their feet in cloth.
A peasant might have a life span of about thirty years. Many things contributed to this short life span. Poor sanitation, poor medical help and lack of medication, and poor diet were contributing factors to a short life span. Cholera, small pox and typhoid fever were common ailments and killed many. Many babies died at birth or never lived past infancy.
A peasant’s labor three days a week was owed to the lord. During harvest and other times extra hours were required. These extra hours sometimes saw the ruin of the peasant’s crops. Crops were sowed by hand. Grain was cut with a sickle. Fields were plowed with a crude plow. The plow might be powered by any animal. If this was not the case, farmer and his wife dragged the ploy through the soil.
Not only did the peasant work for the lord, he paid him rent. Rents were paid by giving a portion of grain, honey, and eggs that the peasant raised on his plot of land. They also had to tithe one tenth of all that was raised to the Church.
A peasant typical day may have been something like this. The serf arose, said his prayers, grabbed his clothing, at a piece of bread and left his home to meet with other villagers. They waited for their daily assignment from the reeve. Remember him??? The peasant’s wife was not needed in the fields, usually. She stayed at home collecting eggs, feeding the livestock, and milking the cow. After she finished these tasks, she put a wooden yoke with buckets attached to it, on her shoulders and went to the river or well to haul her water for cooking or washing. She weeded the garden, picked vegetable, spun and wove cloth. Wool, linen and flax were spun into clothing. She also spun hemp for sacks and cords.
Children worked along side their mother. They worked in the fields. They helped to tend the animals. There was no formal education except what was necessary for religious instruction.
After all the work was finished for the lord, the serf returned home to work his own land. He shared a plow with other peasants. If they were fortunate, they had oxen to share too. They day ended as the serf sat down to meal of stew and black bread and cheese. Soon after the sunset, the serf would go to bed.
- How many social classes were there? Explain the differences in them.
- What were the common causes of death during the middle ages?
- What was the average life span of a peasant?
- What is the average life span of a modern person?
Although the work days were long and heard, there were many holidays on the calendar. Most holidays were determined by Church holy days. Beginning, with a Christmas Ever feast, the peasant and village artisan celebrated twelve days of leisure and recreation until the Twelfth Night. Another week was allotted to them at Easter and another week at Whitsuntide, seven weeks after Easter. Sundays were always free days. There were also occasional breaks with fairs, weddings funerals and public occasions. As you can imagine, a day of celebration meant a welcomed day away from the rigors of hardship and work.
Troops of wandering minstrels and singers, taking part in the dancing, or viewing the mystery, morality and miracle plays were all enjoyed during the church holidays. All days began, however with religious services. On feast days, the whole community participated together in church rituals. Depending on the type of holiday, certain entertainment and foods were provided. There were miracle plays written about the saints. These described the struggle between good and evil. Mystery plays were based on the Bible.
Sporting events were important in keeping all men trim and in good fighting condition. Laws were passed that required able-bodied men to practice archery on Sunday but these laws were ignored by many young men so that they might play a type of Rugby instead! The game was rough, with few rules and no referee. Other sports included wrestling, casting heavy stones, and tilting a pole at the quintain. The quintain was a post with a revolving crosspiece that had a target at one end and a sand bag at the other.
The joust became the main sporting event by the Middle Ages. One armored competitor rode against another with the intent of dismounting him or breaking his lance. Gambling was another form of entertainment and the Alehouse was a gathering place for gossip and game-playing. During the Middle Ages leisure time was characterized by community participation. The entire village gathered for the events described above.
- How did peasants spend their free time?
- What is a morality play? Why do you think they had them?
- Research the common games played during the Middle Ages. Explain your findings.
Development of Towns
Towns in western Europe began to disappear after the Germanic barbarians conquered the Roman Empire in 476. The barbarians were not used to living in cities. They had no need for them. Cities need trade to grow and trade had been cut off from the cities of Western Europe by the Moslems who controlled the Mediterranean Sea.
Peasants lived in small villages near the lord’s castle during the Feudal Period. Some may have lived near monasteries too. They produced enough to feed themselves and pay their debts, the peasants avoided robbers. A barter system of trading goods was developed during this time. This system allowed trading without using money. As the feudal system took hold and refined it became a venue for new villages. The villagers sought freedom from manorial control and moved to town to work for a daily wage. In order for the villein to change from a villein to a burgher they had to prove residence within the walls of the village for a year and one day. During the winter months they pursue other livelihoods and interests. They had time to make cloth, boots, pottery and other things. The peasants sold their wares from the windows of their huts thus beginning small shops!!! (research)
- What method of trade was popular when money wasn’t used to get goods? Would this still be a method that would be useful today? Why?
- Name some ways that village life and formation changed life for peasants.
- Name some things that didn’t change.
People who lived in the villages needed more than the food that they were able to raise for their survival and comfort. The weekly market was a meeting place for both town and country people. It provided those necessities that would have been unavailable. The lord would bring his crops to sell, local craftsmen would display their wards and peasants would bring their handiwork.
Early traders supported themselves and accumulated wealth by traveling from village to village. There were risks to the traders. They were exposed to robbery and murder but because they had the ability to make a lot of money they took the chances.
Most wares were presented on tables or in open stalls. Bread, meat, ale, meals, candles, cloth, leather goods, wood and metal were some of the wares offered. Trade was important to the survival of the town and merchants realized this early on. The market place was the hub of social life for the village. The village square was transformed into a market on the weekends. It had bookkeepers who recorded all sales and officers who kept the populous safe.
Food sales were monitored because there was no food supply area available outside the market area. Each patron was assured of his/her share of bread, ale, meat and cooked foods. No vendors were allowed to inflate prices.
Markets added to the towns coffers. Officials collected rents for spaces and stalls. They collected payments for the use of official weights and measures. Wagons entering the market paid a toll at the village gates and special courts imposed fines for market violations and disturbing the peace. It was a well organized and much supervised event. Banners and bells announced the opening of the faire.
During fairs traders from Venice or Genoa would sell silks and spices. Others would vend fine woods. Yet others would specialize in beautiful leather goods. As with all faires, there was entertainment. These faires saw jugglers, musicians, puppet shows and games and rides. No too different from today’s faires. Festivity abounded! (research)
The guilds were associations of craftsmen, merchants, and/or food sellers who controlled commerce in towns and cities. They joined together and created rules to govern their trade. Their initial objective was to maintain prices and standards of workmanship, and give equal opportunity to their members.
Traveling merchants were not allowed to sell the same merchandise that local vendors sold. The Guild imposed a time limit on traveling merchants as well. The Guild created rules that governed taxes, held elections and built offices. The selling of products not made by the members was forbidden. Quality of product sold was monitored by the guilds as was training people to follow in member’s trades. This is called apprenticeship. Journeymen were skilled workers who were paid daily wages by a master. He was still someone who was learning the trade. Once a journeyman reached this status he was allowed to open a shop and train apprentices. Masters held their position by producing masterpieces each time they crafted something. Guilds also set working hours and imposed fines for poor workmanship, shoddy service and not following rules. (research)
Merchants and Business
Not until the 13th century did merchants begin shipping commodities. (remember Marco Polo-research!!) Because the age of exploration had begun, new trade routes and advances in navigational tools helped lead the way for a new type of trade.
Many inventions took hold during this time. The plow, wider looms, water driven mills name just a few. Many wonderful things developed because of the inventions. The plow offered a use of teams of horses rather than a peasant and his wife. Wider looms made it possible to have wider lengths of fabric. Mills made it possible for advances in sawing wood, crushing ore, producing cast iron and tanning skins.
This greater volume of trade led to the beginning of credit facilities. The banks in the middle ages were owned and run by the merchants who had the knowledge of trade and could convert foreign money. Not all money was created equal. There was widespread use of the Florentine Florin, the English sterling, and the ducat from Venice. All coins were measured against standard weight and, it should be noted here, that merchants had elaborate conversion tables to do this job.
- Merchants who traveled took risks. What were they? Why did they risk life and livelihood?
- What are guilds? Why did they come into being?
- What other professions began as a result of the Faires in the Middle Ages?
- Research explorers and trade during the Middle Ages as a major project for this unit.
As we know, faires were the life of medieval trade. International faires provided a venue for raw and manufactured goods and a monetary exchange on an international basis.
Faires began as a part of the gathering for religious festivals. They grew because they were directly related to a church or monastery. Because of this association, the church helped develop “the peace of the faire”, an immunity from violence.
Champagne, France held the largest international trade faire annually. It was there, at the crossroads of Europe, the traders from Scotland, Egypt and many other places came to vend their wares. They had to adhere to special rules and times in which they could sell their goods. You paid a fee for space and followed the dictates of times to vend your particular craft or product!
Credit-the good, the bad and the ugly
At this busy marketplace, the busiest of all areas was the section designated for the moneychangers. The practices of these people led to what is now modern day banking.
At this place, debts were contracted for the faire that was taking place. It was here, at the moneychangers, that debts from previous faires were cleared.
All this money-play resulted in a system of exchange called “bills of exchange”. It was here that the first written promissory notes took flight. One merchant signed a note (a written promise) to pay another merchant in a place other than this market at a time other than immediately. Thusly, the system of debit and recording began. (research)
Champagne’s faire not only was the beginning of credit and debit as we know it, it was the beginning of mingling of classes, too. During the 13th century people from faraway places arrived in town for a limited amount of time. While they were here they created a very positive effect on the populous.
The Faires became an eagerly awaited event. Peasants and nobles alike anticipated the Faire. For common people, a faire created a break in a dull routine. For the nobles, it gave them a chance to acquire many beautiful things from faraway places.
Faires enabled both peasant and noble to examine wares and treasures from other lands. Faires were places at which you good gain a bargain or sell animals. They were also places that offered respite from hard work and a hard life, in the form of acrobats, jugglers, dancers and actors.
Faires were good for the economy. They were good for the mental well being of the people of the village. A faire was a much anticipated event by all classes of people.
Trade Fairs begin to Fade
While it was at the Faire that credit and exchange began, this also contributed to the demise of the faire. As we have noted, faires were temporary events. After a while, permanent credit houses became part of cities alleviating the need for money changers at the Faires.
This was not the only thing that caused trade fairs to fall into extinction. Increased taxation, wars, poor harvests, famine, and the Plague helped to finish the fair system. It was during this time that the faires became a haven for miscreants. Murder, disease and dishonestly took hold. While we do not want to harp on this, it must be made known.
Remember that because of the faires of Charlemagne we have a financial structure in place that can be traced to the middle ages. With a few twists and turns, we have what we now know as the modern day banking system.
Nations in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages many modern countries began. The Church was influential at this time too. We had a system of Kings, overlords, lords and peasants in place. The Kings helped facilitate the forming of countries by uniting small feudal states into large kingdoms. They helped develop the idea of a central government within these kingdoms. This government was stronger than the small state governments or the Church’s rule.
It is from this time that Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, Russia, France, Poland and Scandinavia can trace their roots. Leaders like Julius Caesar, King Henry II, Ivan the Great, Leif Erickson and Alfred the Great influenced the development of these countries. Europeans faced a new way of life. Medieval men (and women) journeyed beyond the village walls. They became world travelers. Nationalism took hold in the hearts of the people. (research origins of countries)
The Crusades..See the world
From 1096-1291 soldiers had a sworn duty to free the holy lands. Crusaders, as they were known, wore the Christian sign of the cross on their tunics. They crossed Europe in the name of their King. They increased the power of their King while they reduced the power of the feudal lord. The Crusaders witnessed the advances that had occurred in the Far East while Europe dealt with wars, feudal systems and the struggle between the Church and government. They told their Kings of the wonderful things they saw. Their ideals and visions molded a better way of life for all.
With all the changes that were coming to pass the Middle Ages ideals were faltering. These changes brought on the time in history called the Renaissance. The Renaissance would bring beauty and creativity to the forefront but this is for a future discussion.