The Middle Ages as we know them spanned from 700 – 1500 AD. This period in history was colorful and vibrant in many ways, yet dark and ruthless in other ways. Unfortunately, scholars and other popular authors of the early Modern Era (17th and 18th centuries) had focused on the ‘dark’ side of the Middle Ages, blaming their ancestors for being too violent, dirty, ignorant, and Catholic. That is, too religious and not Christian. Sadly many people to this day uphold the beliefs of our early modern counterparts, even though those beliefs are false.
There are several myths about the Middle Ages. All of them have been written about and published online, but I have decided to cover the seven myths that stand out to me the most.
1. People never bathed.
The belief that medieval people never – or seldom – bathed continues to live on. It is probably the most widely known myth about the Middle Ages. Medieval people did bathe. They bathed quite often actually and bathing was not a luxury restricted to noblemen and women either.
In those days, personal hygiene and cleanliness was considered as next to godliness. Most towns in medieval Europe and in the Levant (Holy Land) had public bathhouses. Bathing was even incorporated into important ceremonies. It is quite possible that kings and the wealthiest nobles had their own private bath tub. Bathing in hot water was just as common back then as it is today. The only difference: The medieval people had to manually heat their water.
2. The Death penalty was common and extremely harsh.
The death penalty in the Middle Ages was not nearly as common or as harsh as it was in the early modern period. In fact, the jury and trial system of today is based on that of the Middle Ages. Execution was reserved only for serious crimes: Murder, treason, and arson. Prior to 1500, hanging was the only form of execution and it was done in public.
Though seldom if ever were warriors hung for acts of murder, rape, and arson following the capture of a city. Also, during the time of the Crusades, it was not uncommon for criminals to be sent off to the Holy Land to fight for the cross as penance for their sins.
3. Dungeons were located in the underground compartments of a castle.
Everyone is quite familiar with the cold, damp, dirty, and dimly lit dungeon where prisoners were kept and tortured. That is the image we have all seen on television and film. In reality, dungeons (from the French word ‘donjon’) were located in the tallest tower of a castle and that is where prisoners were kept.
4. Peasant life was harsh.
Everyone is taught in high school that the life of a peasant in medieval times was less than ideal. According to popular belief, medieval peasants, who worked from dawn to dusk tilling the fields, had little to eat and wore torn and dirty rags. Although peasants worked hard — often harder than the lords whose lands they tilled — they also played hard. They took part in religious and secular festivals; they too danced, drank, played games, and held tournaments.
Although peasants could not afford to wear richly colored silk robes and dresses, they were not confined to old, tattered clothing. Their clothing was plain, but decent and clean. Peasants undoubtedly took the same care for their clothing and personal hygiene as did noblemen and women.
5. The rich ate well while the poor starved.
In medieval times, the rich did indeed eat well, but not at the expense of the poor. While noble families had access to spices and a greater variety of meat, peasants and laymen had fresh porridge, bread, and beer on a daily basis. They also ate an assortment of cured meat, poultry, fruit, and vegetables. Some peasants even had bee hives just so they could sweeten their daily diet with honey.
6. Women were oppressed.
We all know from literature that women – especially those wives and daughters of royalty and nobility — did not have the same amount of freedom as women do today. Noble and royal women were married as early as age 12 or 13 and they had no say in the choosing of their partner. Women were considered the property of their husbands and if they rebuked, belittled, or argued with their husbands, they were given a beating. While this happened in some households, not all women were that badly oppressed.
Noble women brought to their marriage vast estates and large amounts of treasure, two resources that automatically granted them a degree of authority and autonomy. They managed their estates and the people who worked them alongside their husbands. When the men went off to war, which was often the case in medieval Europe, women managed their households alone.
It was also not entirely uncommon for women to fight on the battlefield alongside their male counterparts. Joan of Arc is the most prominent example of a female warrior.
7. Following the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, the crusaders massacred nearly every person who lived in the Holy City.
Modern day apologists for the crusades insist that the Christians slaughtered most, if not all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants following their capture of the Holy City in 1099. This is a myth, yet many people continue to uphold it as a historical truth. There is no denying that the crusaders were violent; they slaughtered about 3,000 people after they took Jerusalem. Although that is a large number, that figure does not represent all of the people who had lived in Jerusalem at that time. Several Muslims and Jews managed to escape. In fact, the crusaders took a great many Jews, and possibly Muslims, as slaves and then had those slaves rebuild Jerusalem.
*I will be writing more in-depth on the Siege of Jerusalem in a later post.