1 FALSE The Middle Ages were not drab and grey
There was an appreciation of colour in the medieval period very similar to modern enjoyment of bright and colourful things. From garments to jewellery, and stained glass windows to painted walls in both secular houses and churches, colourful decoration was everywhere. Unfortunately the paintings and clothes have faded but look at a manuscript to see the true colours
2 TRUE The English were multilingual
The medieval English did not only speak English – they used French, Latin and Hebrew, as well as other languages. People employed different languages in different situations: the language of religion was Latin and Hebrew, but for law it was French. When it came to insulting people, however, this could be done in any language.
3 FALSE Piped water was not unknown
Clean water was important in the medieval period – for hygiene, for food preparation, and for drinking. Establishing a water supply, especially in the cities, was not always easy, though. London was famous for its conduit – a series of cisterns to supply water to its people: the water itself was piped in from outside London. Some castles also had pipe systems for their water supplies. (Dover Castle, for example, used lead pipes to move water from its well through the building.)
4 FALSE Life was not necessarily short
As for lives being short, while it may be true that the average life expectancy was 35 years, we tend to overlook one very important word there: average. Infant mortality was brutal, since vaccinations against childhood diseases didn’t exist yet and medicine was still in its “Here, chew on this root and stick some leeches on your junk” stage. So that skews the average way down. But if a male living in 1500 managed to see his 21st birthday, he was expected to live around 50 more years from that point.
5 FALSE The poor were not kept in a state of near starvation
This is completely false. Peasants (those who worked in manual work) would have had fresh porridge and bread daily – with beer to drink. In addition, each day would have an assortment of dried or cured meats, cheeses, and fruits and vegetables from their area. Poultry, chicken, ducks, pigeons, and geese were not uncommon on the peasants dinner table. Some peasants also liked to keep bees, to provide honey for their tables
6 FALSE The death penalty was NOT common in the Middle Ages
Despite what many people believe, the Middle Ages gave birth to the jury system and trials were in fact very fair. The death penalty was considered to be extremely severe and was used only in the worst cases of crimes like murder, treason, and arson. It was not until the Middle Ages began to draw to a close that people like Elizabeth I began to use the death penalty as a means to rid their nations of religious opponents
7 FALSE Medieval times were not a period of filth and squalor and people rarely washed and would have stunk and had rotten teeth.
In fact, Medieval people at all levels of society washed daily, enjoyed baths and valued cleanliness and hygiene. As in any period prior to modern hot running water, they would have been less clean than we are, but like our grandparents or great-grandparents, they were able to wash daily, stay clean, valued cleanliness and did not like people who were filthy or smelt.
Contrary to the depiction of medieval peasants with blackened and rotting teeth, the average person in the Middle Ages had teeth that were in very good condition. This is substantially due to one factor—the rarity of sugar in the diet. People in the Middle Ages considered healthy, white teeth a sign of beauty and wrote of sweet-smelling breath as a desirable attribute. So, not surprisingly, we have extensive evidence that people liked to keep their teeth clean and a large amount of evidence of toothpastes and teeth powders, as well as mouth washes and treatments for halitosis.
8 FALSE Its not true that in the Middle Ages millions of women were burned by the Inquisition as witches or that witch burnings were a common occurrence in Medieval times.
Actually, the “Witch Craze” was not a Medieval phenomenon at all. Its heyday was in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and was an almost exclusively early Modern affair. For most of the Middle Ages (ie the Fifth to Fifteenth Centuries) not only did the Church not bother pursuing so-called witches, but its teaching was actually that witches did not even exist.
(Thinking about witches began to change in the Fourteenth Century and came to a head in 1484 when Pope Innocent VIII published the bull Summis desiderantes, which effectively kicked off the Witch Craze which raged across Europe for the next 200 years.)
9 FALSE People did not think that the earth was flat and the Church did not teach a flat earth doctrine.
In fact, the Church did not teach that the earth was flat at any time in the Middle Ages. Medieval scholars were well aware of the scientific arguments of the Greeks that proved the earth was round and could use scientific instruments, like the astrolabe, that accurately measure its circumference. The fact that the earth is a sphere was so well known, widely accepted and unremarkable that when Thomas Aquinas wanted to choose an objective fact that is not able to be disputed early in his Summa Theologica he chose the fact that the earth is round as his example.
And it was not only the learned who knew the shape of the earth – all evidence indicates that this was commonly understood by everyone. A symbol of the earthly power of kings, used in their coronations, was the orb: a golden sphere held in the king’s left hand to represent the earth. That symbolism would not make sense if it was not understood that the earth was round. A collection of German sermons for parish priests from the Thirteenth Century also mentions, in passing, that the earth was “round like a apple” with the expectation that the peasants hearing the sermon already understood what this meant. And the popular Fourteenth Century English book of travelers’ tales, The Tales of Sir John Mandeville, tells of a man who traveled so far east that he returned to his homeland from the west, while not explaining to its audience how this works.
10 TRUE Rich people did eat porpoise haggis.
The Forme of Cury(e) is one of the earliest cookbooks written in English. The 14th century instructional pamphlet was written by a chef working in the court of King Richard II. One of the recipes calls for the blood of a porpoise to be mixed with oatmeal, pepper and spices and boiled in the porpoise’s stomach before serving. As recipes go, it’s similar to haggis… but much more upsetting.
11 TRUE Medieval shoes could be up to two feet long.
From the 1330s onward, men considered long toed shoes to be the height of fashion. By the late 14th century, toes were so long they had to be reinforced with wool, moss or whalebone. Nobles had to tie the ends to their leggings in order to get around and crusaders had to cut off the tips of their shoes in order to be able to run away from the enemy. The long toe was roumoured to be an indication of the size wearers manhood.
12 TRUE Medieval England was virtually empty at least after the Black Death.
In 1086 there were just one million people living in England, compared with 53 million today. By the 1300s this had climbed to four million but the Black Death wiped out around 1.5 million people between 1348 and 1350, meaning many villages were either completely decimated or abandoned by survivors.
13 TRUE Animals could be tried for – and convicted of- crimes.
There are records of animals being taken to court for killing people, or occasionally for smaller crimes. Some mice were publicly tried for stealing part of the harvest and in another case a swarm of locusts was convicted of eating crops. They didn’t even bother to show up in court to defend themselves. Stupid locusts.
14 TRUE There was a war between Oxford University students and local townspeople.
On 10 February 1355, there was a dramatic falling out between students at Oxford University and local townsfolk after a student complained about the quality of drinks at a local tavern. As the situation escalated, serfs from the surrounding countryside poured in, crying: “Havac! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!” The resulting conflict left 30 locals and 60 students dead.
15 FALSE Farm animals were tiny compared to today.
Medieval farm animals were small and often unhealthy. A full-grown bull was only slightly larger than a modern calf, and sheep were about a third of the size they are today. Depending on the breed of sheep, fleece yield was sometimes less than one pound per animal. In contrast, modern sheep yield around 7.3 pounds (3.32 kg) of wool thanks to advances in farming techniques and scientific breeding methods.
16 TRUE A monk called Roger Bacon predicted the future.
Roger Bacon was a Franciscan friar who lived from around 1214 to 1292. In his Epistola de Secretis Operibus, he wrote: “Cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity,” and “flying machines can be constructed by which artificial wings are made to beat the air like a flying bird.” He also predicted steamships, submarines and diving suits.
17 TRUE Men did wear figure hugging clothing (and corsets).
Forget suits of armour: by the 1390s male clothing had become extremely vain, saucy and revealing. Fashionable young noblemen paraded around in tights and ‘courtpieces’: very short tunics that showed off the wearer’s – er -front bottom. Basically, England briefly turned into a nation full of Labyrinth-era David Bowies. They also wore tight corsets to give themselves a nipped in waist.
18 FALSE Taking a Dead Whale was against the law and was a serious offence as they all belonged to the crown.
In medieval England people ate any animal they could get their hands on. This law existed as Whale was considered a delicacy and was therefore reserved for Royalty – stealing the King and Queen’s precious Whale remains was a genuinely heinous offence. Why such a large animal that could feed so many was considered a Royal treat is beyond me, then again screwing the poor seems to be the medieval way. Admittedly Whale carcass theft isn’t an issue nowadays, but with many Whale species on the endangered list it seems like a sound idea to make sure that dead ones end up, if anywhere, in the right hands.
19 TRUE Neglecting to Wash Your Sheep could get you in serious trouble.
In classic medieval style an entire village was punished in the 1200s for not washing their master’s sheep. We’ve all seen flocks of filthy, sad looking sheep at the side of English country roads during a long monotonous road trip. If we could force farmers to wash these poor fluffy bastards the world would be a much brighter place.
20 TRUE Football was illegal. And violent.
“Mob football” was popular in medieval England. It involved an unlimited number of players, a pig’s bladder and very few rules. Due to its destructive nature, it was banned by King Edward II in 1314: “There is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls…we forbid… on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.”