12 facts most people don't know about medieval Europe

History and Historical European Martial Arts in the Codex Martialis

12 facts most people don't know about medieval Europe

Postby Galloglaich » Sun May 21, 2017 10:04 pm

The following applies to "Late Medieval Central Europe" and can be validated with primary source data from what are now Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, northern Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Sweden. Generalized statements about "medieval people" or "medieval cities" below apply to these specific areas and from the dates roughly 1350-1550. For sake of brevity and clarity for the reader this is only being stated once in the beginning rather than over and over again in the text.

1) Medieval people were relatively clean - much cleaner than people in later periods.
Every city had bath-houses, which were for both men and women. Men and women bathed together in the nude on a routine basis. Even the poorest people bathed at least once a week. Some towns even paid for poor people to have baths so they wouldn't be walking around stinking up the place (partly because they thought that bad smells caused disease).

Contrary to popular belief people didn't use pepper to disguise the taste of rotten meat and didn't drink beer because water was contaminated. Food and water safety were tightly regulated and even poor people could afford fresh food except during famines or a siege or some other emergency. Breweries in particular actually required exceptionally clean water to make beer out of, and most breweries were either directly tied into the city water system or built on the site of cold springs.

Brewers guilds actually instigated the creation of some of the first public water systems in some Late Medieval towns.

2) Medieval people were not puritanical or repressed
For example, most medieval towns had city-regulated prostitution, with regular doctors visits for the sex-workers and so on. Nudity was not considered particularly vulgar. Premarital sex was neither uncommon nor cause for panic, particularly in Northern Europe. In some places, notably in several towns in Italy, homosexuality was commonplace and more or less out in the open. The Victorian era of the 19th Century, and even most of the 20th, was far more rigid about such issues. Carnival in medieval times was every bit as rowdy and wild as it is in Venice, Rio, or New Orleans today, and that was only one of several wild festivals which took place throughout the year.

3)There was a large middle class
About half of the population of the larger towns, and as much as a third of the population of the wealthier rural areas consisted of common people who owned their own homes and businesses, had disposable income, had leisure time, and were able to accumulate wealth. Social mobility was fairly high, particularly in the towns, and slavery or serfdom were rare. In the towns the middle class was made up of merchants, artisans, and professionals, while in the countryside it was made up of the gentry, the armed yeomanry, and the wealthier peasants. Even poor artisans could afford weapons and armor, a young journeyman in a typical town, with a half-citizenship, was required to own body armor and military-grade weapons as a requirement for citizenship status.


4) It was a machine age
Urban artisans relied on the labor-saving capabilities of machines, especially water-wheels and to a lesser extent wind-mills, as well as machinery such as gears, pumps, cam shafts and cam sliders and so on, to do the drudgery inherent in making metal artifacts, building houses and ships, grinding grain into flour for bread, manufacturing paper and so forth. Thanks to these machines, handful of medieval artisans could create more weapons, ships, or buildings of better quality than 100 Roman slaves.

5) There were many democratic institutions and societies
The voting citizenry of the largest and most prosperous medieval towns consisted of both merchants and artisans, as much as 60 percent of the male population in some towns, as little as 10 percent in some others. The average rate of 'suffrage' however (the number of people with the right to vote) was higher than in Early Colonial USA. In rural areas village leaders were typically elected, as were the leaders of large clans. Mercenary companies elected their own leaders. The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was elected albeit only by 7 wealthy princes. The Kings of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary were elected by thousands of eligible voters. Switzerland was made up of multiple city-states and peasant clans most of whom had elected leadership.

University students even elected their professors in some of the major schools of the day, such as the University of Bologna.

6) Women were not universally repressed
Women generally had rights and were able to run businesses, own property, conduct lawsuits, defend themselves if necessary and lead independent lives if they had the werewithal. Women made up about 15-20 percent of the craft guild membership (i.e. guild masters and aldermen) and also operated between 25 -35 percent of mercantile businesses (more or less depending on the specific time and place) based on modern analysis such as surviving commenda contracts. Female nobles led troops in battle and defended castles and other fortifications. Female abbesses and lay-mystics could wield real power, and female scholars wrote books which were widely read (one in particular wrote explicitly feminist books). Women could even fight to defend their honor or in war if they chose to, though unlike men they were not obligated to do so.

7) Medieval people were educated and literate
Nearly every town of medium size or larger had its own secular public schools as well as schools run by the Church, and most cities offered free education covering reading and writing, geometry and arithmetic for girls up to age 10, and boys up to age 12. Exceptional students could be sponsored for secondary school and / or University, as could students with wealthy parents who could pay. Literacy was near universal in the more urbanized areas such as Northern Italy, Flanders, the Baltic Coast, Southern Germany and much of the Rhineland.

8) Knights in Shining armor knew what a gun was
Not necessarily intimidated by a 'boom stick'. Plate armor arose at least partly in reaction to firearms. Firearms were commonplace in Europe from the late 13th Century onward, at first mainly in sieges. By the time of Boccaccio (mid 14th Century) they were widespread enough so as to seem prosaic (per Boccaccio). Sophisticated field guns and firearms moved into the open field in the early 15th Century and stimulated the development of tempered steel armor.

9) Witches were not commonly burned or persecuted
Witch trials were rare in the medieval period and did not become commonplace until the second half of the 16th Century. Many people were openly non-religious. Magic was considered mostly harmless superstition and was not generally classified as heresy.

10) Medieval people traveled widely
Even common artisans traveled as far as hundreds or thousands of miles during their journeymen years. Merchants from Latin Europe had permanent bases in the Crimea, in North Africa and the Middle East, and as far away as China by the early 14th Century

11 Medieval people were not necessarily under the thumb of powerful aristocrats or priests
Most of the larger cities in Central Europe were Free Cities or City-States which were autonomous and self-governed. Their walls, wealth, and armed militias were sufficient to fend off large armies and they routinely defied Popes, Kings and Emperors when they disagreed with them. Much of Europe in the late medieval period was effectively something like a failed State situation, in which towns, regional leaders known as 'princes', Church leaders known as prelates, and certain clans were strong - but where there was little if any centralized authority.

But this did not lead to economic hardship. To the contrary: This was the fertile ground from which the Renaissance grew.

12 They had their own martial arts
Sophisticated martial arts systems covering sword fighting and the use of various weapons, but also unarmed fighting, boxing and grappling similar to Jujitsu were widely taught and practiced in medieval Europe. There were distinct German and Italian 'schools'. There were a variety of famous fencing masters, many of whom published books which are still in existence today, and there were special martial arts societies or guilds, some of whom had violent rivalries with one another. The martial arts was used both 'in earnest' in private duels, streetfights and on the battlefield, but also as part of warlike sports, which were popular and paid large cash prizes to the winners.
Last edited by Galloglaich on Fri May 26, 2017 4:30 pm, edited 19 times in total.
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6 facts most people don't know about medieval Europe

Postby Galloglaich » Sun May 21, 2017 10:15 pm

Seven things that more sophisticated people don't know about medieval Europe

1) Origins of language
Language of course trails back into pre-history. But the high to late medieval period (12th-15th Centuries) saw the rise of the written language of the vernacular of the Latinized European cultures, i.e. what we call today English, Italian, German, Polish, French, and so on. What we call Manuscript Culture and Late Manuscript culture defined many of the norms of these languages both as they were written and spoken. A fairly small number of important authors during this period, most of them part of the Scholastic or Humanist movement, basically invented spelling and a good deal of the grammar in these languages. Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante collectively invented a substantial portion of the Italian language in the 13th-14th Centuries, just like people like Chaucer and Jean Wycliff did in English. Their reasons for the decisions they made in establishing these norms are very interesting if you want to understand not just basic etymology but the theoretical structure of the language you speak, read, write and think in today; or in how to make changes to it for your own purposes in the manner of poets or propagandists. Or to understand how they can affect you. You should look here.


2) Progress is not an inevitable or steady march
The notion of the inevitability of progress is shown to be false by studying this period. Culture and technology advanced rapidly from the High to Late medieval period but then declined rapidly in the Early Modern. It also showed both positive and negative trends within the medieval period - culture, economic and political life not only goes up and down but it goes sideways and in spirals.

3) Art History
if you are interested in Art history, it is worth pointing out that the Art history of the Late Medieval period that we now call "the Renaissance" is grossly simplified in our modern analysis. Almost every art movement of the Modern and Early Modern periods, and some from the Post Modern, existed in the Late Medieval. As Salvador Dali once said when he witnessed the work of a certain 15th Century painter: "We invented nothing". Surrealism, Dada, Art Deco and Art Nouveau, Impressionism, Expressionism and so on were explored in the Late Medieval Reniassance, and not just in Italy and Flanders, but also in the Slavic areas and parts of Germany. Visually just looking at the breadth of this work is stunning.

The origins of modern music and the development of musical theory and musical notation, which developed into Baroque and then Classical music, were being invented in this period as well and all the tendrils, theories and belief systems which were put together to create it all. If you are interested in music or want to play with it, this is a very rich and rewarding place to look.

4) Politics and Culture
The notions of politics and of the Left and Right that we live with today are also shown to be stiflingly limited when you look at the medieval world. You can find anarchism, socialism, fascism, democracy, hippies, punks; Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Churchil, Malcom X, Stalin and Ghandi all in various local places in medieval Europe. Plus many more systems recognizable today (and some which we have no categories or definitions for that I know of), thought through, described, and developed in living laboratories which can be studied over time, in some cases studied over centuries. More importantly you can find them both as worked out on a theoretical level and then deployed as intentional political experiments, but you can also find them developing organically.

The categories we use today also clearly don't work when looking at this period. Ruthless city states practiced elements of what we call today socialism - free schools, what would today be considered lavish public infrastructure, paying pensions for the poor and so forth. Similarly, management of wildlife, forests, water quality and so on. Not for the reasons that fit in modern political theories but for totally different reasons. This can probably give us new ways to look at some of the issues of social organization where our current political systems have either run out of steam or are locked into irresolvable conflict with one another.

Things like sexuality were also very fluid in this period and were handled in wildly different ways from place to place. Medieval Florence for example was arguably more liberal than modern San Francisco when it came to sexuality. The social effects of different mores and public policies can be studied.

5) Technology and engineering change course
Achievements in technology and engineering in this period are consistently underestimated even by educated modern scholars. A construction like the Strasbourg Cathedral while possible today, would not be achievable by a city of the size of medieval Strasbourg when it was built, with a population of roughly 20,000 people. Many of the conventions of architecture we assume to be natural laws today were developed from Greek, Roman, Arab and Persian sources into something new in the 12th-15th Centuries. Same with Chemistry and Mathematics. In fact it's hard to think of a science or technological practice which doesn't basically get re-invented during this period. The trends we follow today originate in the medieval world and were built upon in subsequent centuries, mostly in a few dozen small cities. Once again, looking at how they came to the decisions which laid the basis for modern life is very rewarding to the intellectually curious.

6) Western Culture is much more integrated with Muslim Culture than we realize
The intellectual basis of Latinized Europe was heavily influenced by Arab, Persian and Moorish writers, who themselves were adherents of Roman and (especially) Greek philosophers. The Arabs did not just give us transcriptions of Greek books however, they built upon the Greek ideas and mixed in their own. It was this mixture that became the basis for the European Scholastic movement, and later Humanism and the Renaissance - not simply the Classical scholars themselves. The intermixture of Muslim with Christian culture was gradually buried over the centuries after the medieval period, for example Hippocrates was retained in the study of Medicine but Avicenna was largely forgotten or erased. But if you want to understand Western medicine you need to also study Avicenna and Galen as the physicians of prior ages did (and as they still do in India and other places).

7) Latinized Medieval culture itself was unique and hugely influential on the whole world
Though considered backward today, and kind of an embarassment, the medieval Europeans invented the University. They figured out how to get to China by land and it was they, and nobody else, who managed to cross the oceans and discover the New World. While Europe was largely a net importer of culture during the High Medieval period, the trend had substantially reversed in the Late Medieval and European technological, cultural and social innovations were being adopted by cultures all over the world. The Ottomans, Chinese, and Japanese adopted the European craft guild system. In the 15th Century European interpretations of chemistry, math, music and architecture became hugely influential in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific Rim - before European ships arrived. The same is true for military technologies the most obvious of which was the vast improvements to gunpowder weapons, which had originated in China, but came back the other way vastly improved in the 15th Century. The dynamism of the High to Late medieval period proved to be a force of immense power and value, recognized by other cultures and key to the development of the European world.

And yet the culture of this period, which created the modern world, has been erased by it.
Last edited by Galloglaich on Thu May 25, 2017 7:58 pm, edited 6 times in total.
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Re: 12 facts most people don't know about medieval Europe

Postby Arkon » Wed May 24, 2017 8:32 pm

Very interesting. Do you know if there were any large scale anarchist communities? And leftist communities in general?
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Re: 12 facts most people don't know about medieval Europe

Postby Galloglaich » Wed May 24, 2017 9:01 pm

Arkon wrote:Very interesting. Do you know if there were any large scale anarchist communities? And leftist communities in general?

One of the most erudite of the historical self-described anarchists, the late 19th / early 20th Century Russian author Pyotor Kropotkin (who also happens to be an excellent source for the medieval world in general, I would consider him about as erudite as Henri Pirenne or Hans Delbruck if you are familiar with them), felt that there were several good examples which he cited in one of his books. I wrote a long post about this and a review of one of his books on Schola Forum a few years ago which you can read here:

http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/phpBB3/vi ... in#p303117

I get into some other examples here
Last edited by Galloglaich on Thu May 25, 2017 7:54 pm, edited 6 times in total.
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Re: 12 facts most people don't know about medieval Europe

Postby Galloglaich » Wed May 24, 2017 9:28 pm

I don't want to give the impression that this was the most common thing, it was just mixed in with everything else.

You also had fascism, the roots of absolute monarchy, theocracies both large and small, traditional tribal societies, nomads, religious zealots, strict authoritarian dictatorships, everything under the sun, all competing and rubbing elbows.
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Re: 12 facts most people don't know about medieval Europe

Postby Galloglaich » Wed May 24, 2017 9:59 pm

This is a short, very rough, and oversimplified century by century timeline of the generalized development of culture, science and technology from the Carolingian period to the Early Modern.

In the 8th-10th Century, Charles Martel, Charlemagne and many of the Frankish warlords, administrators and Clerics of his time wanted to recreate Rome. This period lasted roughly through the 10th Century, to the end or stabilization of the struggles with the barbarians (Vikings plus the Magyars and the Arabs and the Moors). At this same time the Arabs were beginning their Golden Age of discovering and extending the wisdom of the Greeks.

The 11th Century, the time of the establishment of the worlds first ever true University in Bologna, saw the beginning of the decoding of the Roman culture, and the realization that the Greeks were more interesting. The centralized State forged by Charlemagne faltered and fragmented, but towns began to thrive again as urbanism returned to certain areas. The Cistercian order spread the best available technology around Latinized Europe and helped the budding, revitalized urban centers develop into proper towns. Meanwhile the Muslim golden Age was peaking, the Moorish city of Cordoba in what is now Spain had the largest library in the world at this time, with over 400,000 books.

The 12th Century saw the dawn of the seminal translation school in Toledo, the spawning of more Universities (Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge) and other similar efforts throughout Europe. The Latin's discovered the Muslim scholars who had extended and further developed the work left by the Greeks and made the corpus of Classical wisdom their own. That they had made it more practical (for example by discovering acids that could dissolve metal ores). The Latinized Europeans In the Universities became obsessed with Muslim Artistotle 'Gurus' from the Muslim Golden Age like Avicenna, Averroes, Al Kindi, Al Jabir, and so on. But this is also when the Muslim Golden Age is ending as the Seljuk Turks conquer most of the Middle East. In Cordoba, a Moorish ruler had the famous library burned at the behest of radical Muslim clerics.

In the 13th Century as they began to implement the theoretical ideas of Classical auctores like Aristotle and Euclid the Latins realized the limits of both the ancient Greeks and the Arab guru's. This is when the Europeans began to extend and edit the Aristotlean tradition and by extension, their own culture. The process of Pseudepigrapha takes off as mysterious and highly influential anonymous authors like 'pesudo Geber', and 'marcus graecus' began to publish magisterial treaties with innovations the Arabs and the Persians had never seen before. Roger Bacon published the formula for gunpowder and his own gloss on the Pseudo-Aristotelean Secretum Secretorum. Scholasticism was born. The European Machine Age got into full-swing. The cities began to rise - literally, to rival those of other urbanized places in the world.

In the 14th Century they created the written vernacular and began to make radical improvements on the best Arab glosses on the Greek ideas, in the practical world. Machines which were toys to the Greeks and curiosities for the Arabs became literally the engine of the European economy. The Latins put the philosophers ideas into practice, Euclid came alive as the great Cathedrals were raised and the cities became jewels of living art. Humanism was born. The Latin's could now clearly see the limits of what Rome had created. Wood block printing was becoming widespread and the scriptoria (operated largely by laymen such as beguines and bretheren of the common life) followed the paper mill into town after town in Italy and Spain. The first proven paper mill north of the Alps was built in Nuremberg in 1390.

In the 15th Century they surpassed the Muslim world. The Ottomans realized this, began to import Latinized experts. For example they imported a German expert and Latinized journeymen to establish their formidable new heavy armaments industry. In Central Europe, the Renaissance was exploding. The Strasbourg Cathedral, completed in 1439, is taller than the Pyramid at Giza - as a structure it is beyond even the Hajia Sophia, arguably the ultimate architectural accomplishment of the Graeco-Roman world. Gutenburg builds the first moveable type printing press in 1450 in Mainz, and the second in Strasbourg 5 years later. Engineering improvements are spreading into military technology as well. The Latin's figured out a dozen ways to improve the firearm, which had come originally from China in the 13th Century. The Venetian Arsenal was capable of building a ship in a single day and the navy of the city of Venice had 3,000 ships - considerably more than any kingdom or Empire on earth at that time. The Latinized Europeans knew they were now consciously charting a new course, with the Ottomans threatening the Silk Road, the seas would clearly become the new trade routes. They began to make their way down the coast of Africa (Forentine, Venetian and Genoese merchants even made it to Timbuktu in the 15th Century - no European would be back again for another 400 years) and they found the Azores, Canary and Madeira Islands in the 1400-1430's. They thought they had some idea where they were going - China. Until they blundered across a new world.

In the 16th Century due to pressure from the Ottomans cutting off the Silk Road, the Latin mariners found another way to China and discovered the New Word, which also shattered the Latin world and spelled the beginning of the decline of the original Renaissance and the rise of the Atlantic Monarchies, though Renaissance culture still remained powerful for many decades. Power shifted from the city states to the Western princes and the Early modern Age was born.
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