The world has come a long way with regard to hygiene. From cutlery to private bathrooms, we often do not realize how good things are in these modern times. Back in Medieval Europe and even across the world, grooming habits were, in many ways, disgusting.
Imagine having to share a bathroom with your entire community or washing your clothes with urine! If the thought is making your skin crawl then brace up. By the time you’re done reading this list of disturbing health practices, you’ll never look at the seemingly whimsical era of chivalry called the Middle Ages the same way (ever) again.
Terrifying Medical Procedures
In their defense, doctors in Medieval Times did their best with the knowledge and equipment available to them. However, the procedures they often carried out easily bring to mind scenes from horror movies. One of these common and risky procedures is called “trepanning,” and it was meant to treat patients with various mental and physical illnesses, for example, epilepsy.
Basically, trepanning involved drilling a hole into a patient’s skull in order to expose the brain’s outer membrane. Usually performed without anesthetics, it was meant to relieve the brain of increased pressure. But a lot of times patients died from the procedure. Fortunately, medicine has advanced beyond that gruesome practice.
Taking a Bath Could Make You Dirtier
A relaxing way to end a long day is having a refreshing warm bath and feeling the water wash the dirt and stress away. What we may take for granted now was a luxury back in the Middle Ages. Coupled with widespread poor hygiene, taking a bath wasn’t always going to make you clean. In the more populated areas, most of the common folks had to bathe in a public bathhouse which just about anyone could pop into.
As you can imagine, the public bathroom was constantly filling up with the combined dirt of the lower class, who seldom got a good wash and who regularly worked in filthy conditions. It may not seem like the right place to get cleaned up, but since bath water had to be shared, they didn’t exactly have many options.
When the Fear of Going to the Dentist Was Valid
Nowadays, many kids and even adults get jitters when it’s time to go to the dentist. But back in the Middle Ages, such fears would have been completely understood. It wasn't until the 19th century before the toothbrush as we know it today was invented. In other words, people’s teeth were oftentimes in deplorable conditions.
As a matter of fact, a common way people got their teeth cleaned was by simply rinsing out their mouths with water or some other liquid and wiping them with a rag. That’s why tooth rot was common. What was the treatment? Tooth extraction, but not as you know it. Their local dentist would force out the rotten tooth without first using anesthetics to block the pain. So, let’s be thankful for the little blessings of modern life, such as toothpaste!
Getting a Shot Was Sometimes Dangerous
We may not like getting a shot from our doctor but we bear the pain because we know it’s for our own benefit. In Medieval times, however, people had valid reasons to be scared of a doctor’s needle. Until the mid-1800s, health professionals weren’t aware of the importance of sterilizing their materials.
Not a lot was known about bacteria, not to mention how to treat a variety of infections. Hence, doctors went about their day without knowing it was vital for them to disinfect their needles and other surgical tools before prodding their patients with them. Then there was also the issue of doctors, like almost everyone else back then, not regularly washing their hands. Unsurprisingly, many medical procedures didn’t have the success rates they have today.
People Washed Their Clothes in Urine
In the Middle Ages, urine was used for several different purposes - a lot of them quite disturbing. To begin with, pee was believed to have antiseptic properties, so although not a common practice, it was used to clean people’s wounds. But that’s not all.
Surprisingly, urine wasn’t only used for cleaning wounds but also for cleaning people's clothes! Mixing their urine with ash, lye, and green grapes, they would use the resultant “cleaning substance” as a detergent. Add to the fact that clothes weren’t frequently washed back in those days and we could say there were a lot of people strutting around town smelling like pee.
There were a number of truly shocking procedures popularly carried out in Medieval Europe, and bloodletting was one of them. Back then, it was a standard and a common practice for treating various ailments, such as smallpox and cancer. Bloodletting was performed by draining out amounts of blood from an individual’s body. And as you might be thinking, it sometimes ended in tragedy.
People believed that just by removing the infected blood from the patient, they would, in turn, get cured of their ailment. Doctors of the time even used leeches as a less gruesome way of extracting the blood. Thankfully, as medicine evolved, it became known that bloodletting was not only dangerous but, in most cases, an ineffective practice.
Cataract Ops With a Big Needle
Here’s another absolutely outlandish procedure that was commonly performed in the medieval period. When a person was diagnosed with cataracts, a horrifying operation would be carried out on them, hoping it would restore their sight. But considering all the bizarre things we’ve heard until this point, we shouldn’t be so surprised at this one.
A doctor would take a needle, unsterilized of course, and push down the patient’s lens, right into the eyeball. This technique was called “couching,” and it worked - kind of. The results were poor at best. In some cases, the sight would be restored to some extent, depending on the doctor's skill level. But a lot of times, the lack of sterilization would cause the eye to become inflamed. Understandably, this procedure has since been replaced.
The Pre-Fork Era
Forks became a household staple over the course of many centuries. For some time in the Middle Ages, people ate their food with their hands instead. Granted there are particular foods we still eat today using our hands, such as hamburgers and pizzas, in those days, coupled with poor hygiene, it was far more unsanitary.
Because people seldom washed their hands and soap wasn’t copious in those days, it was fairly easy for them to contaminate their own food. It wasn’t helpful either that many of the lower class were constantly working with animals. This is just one of the numerous reasons why diseases spread so quickly in the Dark Ages.
Not All Waters Are Swim-Worthy
The picture that pops into our heads when we think of castles is this towering and magnificent structure surrounded by large bodies of water called moats. Essentially, moats served two purposes: to amplify the aesthetic beauty of the castle and also serve as a line of defense in protecting its aristocratic occupants from invaders.
But if you were to dive into the depths of these moats, you’d discover something far from charming. A lot of kingdoms back then used their moats as a type of sewer into which waste such as human excreta and other foul substances were flushed. Would you be able to resist the urge to take a dip?
They Had Dirty Floors
We have so many cleaning products at our disposal nowadays that people from the Middle Ages would have been envious of. Their floor cleaning routines back then didn’t always result in tidier floors, considering the materials used. Long before Clorox and Swiffer, peasants commonly used rushes - marsh plants strewn on the floor as a covering and filter for dirt of all kinds imaginable.
Although rushes helped to some extent, they also had unpleasant drawbacks. If they weren’t frequently changed, they would end up harboring all sorts of garbage underneath, including vomit and dog poop. Sadly, the modern vacuum cleaner, or even electricity, wasn’t invented until centuries later.
The World’s Most Disgusting Job
Caution: what we’re about to talk about is wrong in so many ways. In special cases, a routine as simple as going to the bathroom during the Middle Ages could be an extravagant affair. Kings had a special servant whose role was to assist in their toileting needs. This servant followed the king around at all times, carrying a chamber pot, towels, and water and cleaned him up as needed.
These assistants were called “The Groom of the King’s Closestool.” And that’s not all about them and their roles. The most astonishing part of this gross job was that it was actually a position of high repute, with perks like high pay and the king’s old clothes. The role was also a launching pad to more honorable positions within the royal court.
Public Bathrooms Were Way Too Public
Public toilets are still very much in use today, with many of them present at sporting events, rock concerts, and other large-scale events. But in medieval times, the kind of public toilets they had would make the ones we have today look like luxury suites. The sight of them would probably make you sick to your stomach.
They were complicated in many ways. Looking like large porta-potties, these lavatories were situated right in the middle of busy cities, lacked plumbing, and were positioned on top of a cesspit which held the waste of all and sundry for days. Of course, this posed several health risks, but there was also the issue of privacy. There were no partitions, so people had to “go” right in view of everyone. Who knows? That could just be how a few friendships began.
And so Were Private Bathrooms
The absence of plumbing in the Middle Ages posed an issue for everyone who needed to use the loo. For people living in close quarters, they solved this problem by using chamber pots. As a matter of fact, they would slide the pots under their beds and retrieve them if they needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. That’s not the worst of it.
There was the putrid smell that persisted in the air and the obnoxious way the waste from the pots was disposed of. When it was time to empty the pots, folks would just walk over to their window and throw the contents out into the streets! Now that's one way to spread diseases around.
The Lower Class Did Not Shave
If you strolled around an average Middle Age town, odds are that the majority of the men would have disheveled beards. Despite the fact that they could have access to makeshift baths from time to time, shavers were inexistent. And there’s more.
Peradventure a person had access to some sort of shaving, mirrors back then were made with black glass and not of much use. The only solution to getting a good shave was at a barber, which the peasants could not afford. Taking into account the poor hygiene of Medieval Times, you can imagine all the dirt, crumbs, and bugs that inhabited the average commoner’s beard.
A Not so Good Night’s Sleep
For those who weren’t part of the royal family or upper class (to be realistic, this meant a majority of the people), a pleasant night’s sleep after a long, hard day at work was practically impossible. And the old bales of straw they used as bedding, which rarely got changed, was partly the cause.
Apart from that, the people of that era had awfully poor hygiene. So it’s understandable how easily their straw beds accumulated dust and dirt. To crown it all, using straw as bedding was practically an open invitation for pests, like flies and fleas, to invade their homes.
A Disgusting Baldness Cure
A lot of bald men these days would try almost anything to have their hair flourishing again. It wasn’t much different back in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, many of the options we have nowadays to restore hair loss weren’t available back then, so men had to try all manners of “cures” in hopes of getting their beloved hair back.
There was this strange idea that the optimal cure for baldness was a mixture of chicken, lye, ashes, and pigeon droppings. The people would rub this godawful concoction on their heads in an attempt to stimulate hair growth. It took a while for people to realize that the idea was actually ridiculous and quite unsanitary.
They Wiped With Their Hands
Granted, we’ve talked so much about the bathroom already, but isn’t that the best place to practice good personal hygiene? Regarding how folks in the Middle Ages cleaned up after a trip to the toilet, toilet paper hadn’t been invented yet. So how did they cope? There were a couple of interesting methods they employed.
The wealthy used sheep’s wool, but the poor who couldn’t afford it had to get creative. Peasants resorted to using old rags, moss, or leaves. However, another common technique was to simply wipe using their hands. Now add that to the fact that soap was non-existent, not to mention clean water. In fact, one cannot truly fathom how obnoxious the smell was.
It Was a Filth Fest When It Rained
Because of the way peasants were hurtling their chamber pot contents out into the streets, the common area had already been corrupted to start with. But when it began raining, what was previously repulsive evolved to something a whole lot worse.
Urban dwellers had rainwater ditches in place to prevent flooding, but they weren’t advanced yet, so flooding still happened anyway. Because of this, the overflowing water would soak up all the trash and grime that had been dumped in the street, resulting in a sea of rubbish that also contained human excrement. Still daydreaming about exploring this era using a time machine?
Diseases Were Almost Unavoidable
This isn’t so much of a surprise considering all the numerous unhealthy realities of everyday life and the terribly poor personal hygiene habits of medieval times. But truly, infections and plagues were widespread and proved difficult to cure. Before the world saw advancements in drugs, vaccines, and medical procedures, many people were suffered severely.
From people spending their entire days working in the fields and practically living in filth, to not regularly taking sufficient baths and sharing all types of bacteria and viruses, pathogens had all they needed to spread around fast. One of the worst pandemics in history was the Black Death, which was responsible for killing hundreds of millions of people, wiping out between one and two-thirds of the population of Europe alone.
Lice are no respecter of social status. And back in Medieval times, they invaded the bodies of the rich and poor alike. These minuscule critters would eventually become so discomforting and irritating that many people resorted to shaving their heads just to avoid them. This was partly why many folks back then chose to wear wigs.
Although the wigs likely stopped the itching, lice still harbored them. This posed a big issue during mealtime, as the cooties would often fall out of the wig and land right on their meal! But the upside to this unfortunate occurrence was that it made some people learn the habit of removing their wigs when it was mealtime. Good thinking!
A Soothing Potion for Childbirth
To manage the agony of labor and childbirth - already an extremely dangerous process due to the poor hygiene of doctors - women in medieval times used some bizarre methods. Some expectant mothers applied a special potion to their own thighs, a mixture composed of rosewater and eagle’s dung.
It’s unclear whether the mixture was effective or not but, fortunately, such methods are no longer used. Medicine has improved dramatically since the Middle Ages and other tested and safer methods to relieve the pain have been discovered. Given that hygiene has generally improved around the world and over the centuries, it’s clear why childbirths have become a lot more successful.
River Thames' Trash Problem
Although most places reeked, the River Thames ranked amongst the worst places to visit in Medieval England. Today it’s a popular international attraction, but back then it was simply everyone’s favorite dumping ground for all their rubbish. And this habit continued long after the Middle Ages.
Butchers, particularly, liked discarding their rotten meat in the Thames, which led to one bridge over the river earning the name “Butcher’s Bridge.” It was common to see blood splashed on its banks. Ultimately, a law was passed prohibiting anyone from dumping waste into the now-iconic river - the early days of environmentalism.
The Disturbing Reason Canopy Beds Were Invented
Canopy beds are no longer in vogue, and if we’re lucky enough to spot one, the main reason they came to be is concealed by their opulent exterior. The reality brings to light just how prevalent poor hygiene was around the world during Medieval times. The bed’s raised top was created to protect the person sleeping from things dropping through the home’s ceiling.
Many homes back then had holes in their ceilings or at least had a shaky foundation. This totally flips the perspective when you consider the extravagant canopy beds you find in old films. They generally project a royal lifestyle, yet the truth is far harder to grasp.
There Were Poisonous Beauty Rituals
During the 15th and 17th centuries, a certain plant called Belladonna was popularly used by women to enhance their beauty. The word “Belladonna” actually means “beautiful lady” in Italian, and this herb was believed to add a fair radiance to women’s skin. But the word also had another sinister translation.
Belladonna also means “nightshade,” and the plant earned the name “deadly nightshade” due to its highly poisonous properties. When ingested, it induced hallucinations and caused stomach ulcers and many other harmful infections. But this didn’t stop women from using it anyway. Besides dilating their pupils, they also artfully used Belladonna to redden their cheeks. Just don’t let it get anywhere near your mouth!
A Toxic Charm
A lot of medieval characters are depicted with a chalk-white color on their faces. There’s a deadly reason behind this. It wasn’t just because having tanned skin was associated with peasants who were exposed to the sun while toiling outside in the fields all day. One of the greatest promoters of white makeup was none other than Queen Elizabeth I of England. Commonfolk believed she applied it to her face to boost her beauty - and it became a fad soon after.
The problem with using it, however, was that it was toxic. Although it effectively concealed the blemishes that plagued women’s faces (no thanks to the high rate of diseases during that era), it was also damaging their health. It made them terribly sick, with symptoms including dry skin and stomach aches. Even the Queen is said to have used this unconventional concealer to hide her chickenpox scars.
Here's What People Did On Their Free Time in the Middle Ages
It’s the weekend, and there is a wide range of things we can spend our free time doing. From sports to entertainment, mini vacations, seeing friends and personal hobbies, we all have our favorite things to do on our time away from our jobs and responsibilities to blow off some steam. Now we’ve got it quite easy in this day and age, having ample technology, entertainment options and a whole host of activities we can choose from. With that in mind, think back to Medieval times, where life was hard and peasants worked intensely to earn their small keep.
Of course, they too had time away from their labors, with usually Sundays off and special church holidays or weeks off for events, weddings, and births. Not to mention the afternoons and evenings and in between their work.
With the hard nature of their back-bending physical work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, that urge to take part in relaxing and fun activities was definitely present. But just how did they spend their free time?
Well, it was much less about Netflix and chilling, and a little more based on some intense and dangerous games and activities, some ritualistic and others enforced ‘leisure’ by the king, as well as completely random ways to spend time with the community.
Amazing Archery Backed by the King
Of course, medieval times were bountiful in archery. This era was so serious about this skill that a law was passed that made all men between 15 and 60 years old have to train every week so they maintain their skills. During the famous 100 Years War in the middle ages, peasants were often called to fight, making it vital for people to have experience in archery from their youth. In England in 1252, there was an Archery Law that required each and every lower-class male to have skills in using a bow and arrow.
Every village had a designated space to practice, known as a ‘butt.’ That noble imagery of a knight with bow and arrows is actually less of what we would have seen back in the day, where they generally donned swords and shiny armor and battled on top of mighty horses. Instead, it was much more common to see the peasant folk on foot with their wooden bow and arrow doing the hard work.
Because of this importance of archery, many other sports that began to become popular among the peasants were outlawed. Even playing football became a crime, and those who played outside of the regulations were punished in prison. Kings were very intent on ensuring that men were always fit for a fight, needing them to be ready for battle whenever it called, rather than brushing up on their sporting skills in football.
Edward IV even banned the game of cricket in 1477 as he learned that it was beginning to get in the way of the weekly archery drills. It seems that all the hard work paid off, as the Battle of Crecy in 1346 saw England defeating the French with their humble peasant archers leading the fight. It’s been documented that England lost only 50 men, and the French soldiers who died were estimated to be around 2000.
They Were Quite Good at Being ‘Cheap Drunks’
When a season or day is done for the peasant’s working life, there wasn’t so much to do to wind down and relax (besides all the active sports), so getting drunk became a much-loved and extremely regular occurrence. It was an accessible and easy thing for people to do, and staying entertained in getting rightly drunk was affordable for even the lowliest peasants.
Up until the late-medieval time, alcohol wasn’t produced in large quantities in peasant households, and the homebrew that was created was quite weak. Stronger drinks were often reserved for the upper classes for a long time. The nobility in England drank ale that monks created and sold to them, as well as different forms of wine. Even though the peasants harvested the grapes, they rarely got to taste the finished product.
Then from 1500 onwards, things changed and distilling alcohol became a popular thing all across medieval Europe. The leftovers from Farmer's market was distilled and sold in small batches the next year. Still, not all peasants could afford to buy the potent and clear spirits that were made, but most found a way to get their hands on some and try it out.
Historians say that drinking was a big part of everyday peasant life, though the regular idea that many people may still have about their past in drinking weak beer to save their health from dirty water is actually inaccurate. Most villages that peasants lived in had access to clean water, and the weak beer that people know about was consumed, but mostly to relax at home after a hard days work. It’s been said that the village widows were the ones making the homebrew, and the strong stuff was brought and sold to the villagers by those local monks when the church needed extra funds.
Church Was a Big Social Event
Religion in the middle ages - Christianity - was a big deal. We get a glimpse of this already in how we saw the village and noble life interact with the church, and that’s even shown to us who don’t know history so well in all of the movies based in the medieval times. Whether you’re a peasant, a nobleman or even the King, the church dominated the daily life and undertakings of each person. Major events like births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals were, of course, held by the Church, as well as other yearly events like certain times in the cycle of growing and harvesting crops.
Going to Church on a weekly bases was central to almost every community across all Medieval Europe. It’s not just from necessity and obligation that they went, either. It was also the case that people really enjoyed their weekly church visit. This offered a nice break from routine and work, as well as Sunday church a very social event. Meeting with friends and relaxing with some local potent brew of ‘church-ale’ was something most people looked forward to.
So this was not only a religious duty, but a leisure occasion for peasants. Some people even took the effort to walk for many hours just to get to a cathedral and visit the holy sites. The architecture and interior of the big buildings were a delight for peasants to witness, especially since it would be a big contrast to the environment of their humble homes. Here they could also take part in reading hearings, choral music and communicating with people from all over. Sometimes there was even a ‘mystery play’ happening as a theatrical showing of a story from the bible.
Even though peasants were poor folk, they gave a portion of their income always to the church, and were proud of their contributions to the holy buildings that they could know that their hard earned money helped to fund. The passionately religious peasants would also go to Canterbury, Jerusalem or Roma, among other places, on pilgrimage, to take a journey that was at once deeply spiritual, and very enjoyable for the people of this time.
They Loved a Good Nap - To Make Up for The Night’s Rest
Nowadays the average 8-hour sleep we know and have been prescribed was definitely not part of the peasants' everyday life. It’s been documented that most peasants would actually only sleep for about four hours, twice a day between sunset and sunrise. This happened as many people would get up pray special prayers that were only to be done in the middle of the night, or even go out and visit friends and family during the evening before returning to their home for a second round of sleep.
This meant that when they had the chance during the day, peasants enjoyed a good daytime nap. Especially when the summer months hit, work in the field was laborous and very long, and waking with the sunrise means that they could work a little while, take a breakfast break, work some more, have some lunch, and then take a leisurely afternoon nap.
Even though the field work was intense and strong, historians say that it was often done at quite a nice pace - not having to do a massive amount each day, so the peasants would take their time in their work. This is the same as the rest of the pace of life during this era, as free time was ample, even though work was still regular.
Many accounts we have come across in history are a little biased, however, written by clergy members of nobles who condemned the peasants as being lazy and slow, which seems to be more expressing their opinion and view, rather than historically accounting the truth of the pace of life.
Travelling Minstrel Shows Were a Delight
Theatre productions were all the rage in Medieval times, and peasants would hungrily await the travelling shows since they wouldn’t be able to afford travelling to the cities and towns were plays were showing. Travelling performers - known at the time as ‘minstrels’ would sometimes come and visit different villages to show their talents. This may even be one of the only times that a peasant could really enjoy a live show, and it was a highlight of their year. The village generally wouldn’t be able to actually afford the services of the performer, which meant that there were different types of performers that would come.
The Middle Ages had minstrels that were employed by royalty or nobles to be entertainers of the court, and there were also minstrels that made their own living by the good hand of others. These self-funded performers were known as ‘wandering minstrels.’ At taverns was where they sometimes made money by advertising their services to see who may be interested first, and then putting on a show for a small fee. Food, shelter and even other goods were exchanged for the performers talents when there was no money to offer them, also.
Some parts of Europe at the time saw minstrels as respected professionals in their craft. In 1469, for example, King Edward IV created a law that required minstrels to be a part of a guild of professional in their own area, ensuring that skilled entertainers were known by their place in a guild. There were performers who recited poems, juggled, performed magic, danced, were clowns, fire eaters or even a combination of many of the above skills.
The most popular entertainers among the peasant people were the singers and story tellers. Bandit and outlaw stories were a big favorite, and as the minstrels travelled through English villagers of the Medieval times, legends such as Robin Hood, were spread. Hero-tales were something the peasants were drawn to always, as it was very well received when they were given acknowledgment through stories which were based on giving to the less fortunate.
Medieval Soccer Among the Peasants - A Much Loved Sport
Football (or Soccer) these days is one of the most widely followed and played sports around the world, and this much loved game was also a popular activity back in the middle ages too. Take what you know of football away, however, as this game that peasants played in their free time was quite a bit different - and more brutal!
It’s known as ‘folk football’ and it wasn’t for the faint of heart. There wasn’t a proper field and there was no set numbers of players. Essentially, if it was a good day, there could be hundreds of players at once. Think less about community ‘teams’ and more entire towns taking part. The ball, a blown up pigs bladder, was aimed at the other villiage’s church, which could even mean that the goals were many miles apart, depending on who was playing each other. Violence was a big (and encouraged) part of the game, and injuries, as well as death in some cases, were normal.
The popularity and intense nature of the sport even had kings in England and France attempt to ban it. This was less about the safety element, we might add, and more to do with the fact that people were taking so much time playing the deadly game, rather than practicing other activities, like archery, that could serve their country if war came. Hey, maybe they could bring a ball to the battlefield, instead. Seems to work pretty well for the brutal aggressive types.
In England in 1363, King Edward II ordered that anyone who were playing soccer and caught doing so would be imprisoned immediately. Later on in the 19th century, the end of this form of Medieval Football came, as the game started to transition to be a more well received, safer, and organised game that we would recognise today.
Intimacy Was a Free and Easy Way to Have Fun
One of the most common and well-loved leisure activities of peasants was actually being intimate and connecting with one another. Sex was an integral part of life, with married couples often starting a family straight away, not just to expand their family in sharing life with beautiful kids, but also because it was always handy to have some more workers available for their farming, house upkeep and food gathering. Mortality rates were very high in these days, with little health care available and very humble conditions, so that often meant that couples tried to have as many kids as they could, just in case.
Historical records seem to focus much more on noble and royal sex lives, rather than the peasant experience of intimacy in their communities, though the educated reasoning all points to the fact that these communities sure were ‘close.’ Most people lived in small, one-room houses with parents and children sleeping all together. Historians guess that parents would ask the kids to go out, play, collect firewood, and find their alone time this way. Though it could be just as true that sex was much more open and less taboo than modern days, so it could even be the case that parents would have sex even while the kids were asleep next to them.
Church records are generally what have survived most, with priests and clergy stating many times a warning to anyone who was taking part in sex before marriage. Though historians still estimate that 1 in 3 brides were actually pregnant when they were getting married, so clearly, the church’s warnings weren’t always taken into account. Illegitimate babies were also something that happened quite a bit, and were probably actually born when noblemen or lords asserted their right to take the peasants virginity who was living and working on his own land.
Peasant’s Got a Chance to Experience a Treat Beyond Poverty When They Were Named ‘Lord of Misrule. ’
Peasants were the lowest class of all people - a fact we’d all know already. Though for one very lucky person for one very special day in December, that could change. England had a special day dedicated to treating a peasant as if he were a lord, and this happened all across the nation in villages, towns and settlements. The chosen man would be able to live it up for the entire day, before going back to his regular life.
The Lord of the manner would be the one to choose the Lord of Misrule most of the time, though the royal household also took part in this in the lead up to Christmas, as well as sometimes the church choosing the lowliest bishop or a young priest to be in ‘charge’ for the day. When the person was chosen, they’d dress up in a costume of colourful fabrics with bells on their legs and arms, and they’d dance around the village making their way to church for mass. The Lord of Misrule could order a feast for his fellow peasants, so that this time was also a special time for the lowest class to drink and eat like they never would usually.
With the puritan evolution of the Middle Ages, this tradition became less common, and eventually vanished due to all involved stopping, or in some cases, it being banned. King Henry VIII of England was the one to ban the Lord of Misrule in 1541, even though later on Queen Mary I decided to bring it back in. Later still, Queen Elizabeth, I banned it yet again. During the European Enlightenment era, it was completely wiped out, and even forgotten about until historians took some effort to uncover past traditions. As a nod to the old days, some small villages across Europe do their own spin on the day.
Village Weddings Were a Week Long Occasion
The noble people in the Medieval times spent a great deal of time, money and energy preparing for lavish wedding celebrations. Not only did weddings in this time serve to mark the special day of union, they were also forms of political unions which could get a little more complex and even heated in the pairings that happened and the events that followed. When it came to peasant weddings, however, they were a little more simple. That didn’t discount from the big celebration it was - peasant weddings were still super special and often the event of the year for the whole community.
The church never used to play a big role in Medieval weddings, with no actually proper procession occurring. If a couple declared that they were to be married, then they automatically were married simply from their own decleration. Exchanging their vows in front of the community was enough, with no priest usually required at all. There had been rumors in history that peasant couples needed a local nobleman blessing for the wedding, but that wasn’t the case. Also what seems to be more of gossip, rather than history, was that the local Lord supposedly had the right to have the first night spent with the virgin bride, though it seems that this was bred from the Victorian era, and wasn’t true of the Middle Ages.
All the way until the 12th Century, marriages among peasants were called ‘secular’ unions. This means that they didn’t have to be consummated to be a valid pairing together. Though after this era, leading into the 13th Century, it was then a social obligation and ritual of the union to have it be consummated to be a real marriage. This meant that after the vows were said and done, the couple would often immediately return to their home and their marriage was made legitimate through sex.
It’s been said that the village found much entertainment through this fact, and the newlyweds got busy, the peasants shouted ‘tips’ and other fun advice to the couple, or even sing songs to encourage them alone. Drinking and dancing was also very big for these wedding celebrations - it seems that not much has changed since those times for most of us now! In many cases, the village wedding party lasted for days on end, only until the peasants needed to get back to their farm duties.
Ice Skating for Travel and Fun, Even for the Peasants
We can only imagine how tough winter would have been for peasants of the Middle Ages, with the poor housing structures and clothing which didn’t support freezing conditions, many people often died from the cold in the cooler months because of sickness. The lack of farming work available also made it hard for peasants to keep steady in supporting themselves and their family, though it did give them some free time to have a little fun while they could. Historical evidence shows that when the ponds froze over, the peasants took their ice skates outside and braved the cold for this rare time of year.
The Middle Age documented research saw an unearthing of different kinds of very simple and primitive ice skates, which were often made form leather shoes and sandals with a animal bone that has been carved in a certain way and attached to the bottom. The oily surface of the animal bones is what made the skates have that ability to glide on the ice.
Because of how they were made, it meant that the skating itself was done at a very slow pace, but that didn’t stop the thrill of gliding across the pond. Even though they were used also for practical travel purposes, it was known also as a pastime leisure activity.
The frozen ponds, and in some cases, small rivers, was where the fun happened. There were even games created, like competing to see how could make the best figure 8 in the ice, as well as using sticks for ski poles to make them faster and sometimes even race with each other. This evidence has been found in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as England, so right across Europe, they were having their fun in the wintertime.
Later, the Netherlands upgraded their skates and made metal blades by the 14th Century, to completely transform ice skating to be totally leisurely on a new level. That meant though that only people who had a good income could actually afford the skates, which made ice skating more of an upper class activity. At the start of the Early Modern period, ice skating began to be a fully recognised sport with certain rules, styles and traditions.
Storytelling Served Also as News Reporting for Peasants
Peasants were quite independent folk, being able to keep them entertained among themselves. The Kings were the ones to afford paying for the theatre troupes, clowns, music and feasts to keep himself comfortable, though the peasants had a much different experience in enlisting entertainment through little or no money.
Hence all the games and activities you’ve already read about above. The villages made a big deal about being able to scrape together some funds to pay a wandering minstrel for their talents (rather than the entertainer that may be employed by the nobility for the entertainment of the village - which was much more rare). This was why there was such a big focus on storytelling, because sharing stories, gossip, and news about the outside world beyond their township was a very rare occurrence.
Storytellers were a kind of minstrel. They’d travel to different villages making a living by showing up unannounced and after some time, beginning their show. Some legends that were told were well known and familiar among the town folk, and others were totally new with different tales and poems, which was very exciting for peasants to hear, kind of like how a new blockbuster comes out nowadays and the fuss it can create! Often their payment was food and drink, and sometimes even a lady to have for the evening.
It was’t all just for entertainment’s sake, the stories were also like a news report in some ways. Peasants often never left their own village or close surrounding areas, so if something changed in their nation, the king married or died, if the country was at war or anything else happened, the storyteller was often the one to share this news with them.
Bob for the Apples to Find Your Lover
British peasants in the Medieval times made a fun game out of apple eating, beyond plucking them from the trees. We enjoy thinking about the creativity that would have sparked this idea for a game… who came up with the idea of shoving your face in water to get an apple with your mouth (most times, unsuccessfully). The extra benefit with this one too was that they got a face wash at the same time.
This was more than just a game, however. It actually became a ritual for courting, adding a romantic element to it. Since peasants didn’t yet have Tinder and other social media to scope out and hook their mate, they found connection in a very different and creative pursuit instead. The game went like this: Apple that were left over from the harvest were collected, and then the apples were assigned to each of the names of available men in the village, so that an interested woman could spend her energy half drowning her way to pluck the lucky man out of the bucket. It was said that the first successful apple grab meant that the pair were destined for one another. If two battempts was what it took, they may date, but probably wouldn’t work out. Three bites meant that chances weren’t looking good for them. An extra twist on this is that there wasn’t actually apple eating once you retrieved it. The women put the apple under their pillow and drifted to a sleep which invited dreams of their apple-matched man that evening.
Across Europe, courting with lovers was quite similar. Men and women could publicly date and meet in markets, church events or even in the fields working. The men usually were the ones to woo the woman with gifts, even peasant’s found things to offer their desired woman. Food, clothes, handmade objects and other offerings were often really all it took (as well as some nice behaviour, of course) to snatch up a woman to make his wife.
Medieval Bowling Wasn’t So Different to What We Know Now
Although bowling alleys weren’t a thing yet in the Middle Ages, there were still quite a lot of games centered around knowing things over will balls in the same sort of manner. This leisure activity was easy to organise, fun for everyone, safe and free to play. All of this makes it the perfect game for peasants to take part in on their time off from work.
Skittles was what this games was initially known as in it’s first conception, with the earliest mention of the game in history in Europe was back in the third century. Monks would use their long sticks - known as staffs - to attempt to knock over stones that were standing. After some time, a similar game emerged from this that was opened to regular fold, beyond the church. This let villiagers take part in knocking down pin-like objects using another big pin-like object. This then shifted to using balls instead of the big pin to knock the others down, and voila - the game is very similar to the bowling we know today.
Nobility who played this game had ninepin sets - which were harder to come by, as well as an indoor court or room dedicated to their bowling. In his Westminster Palace, King Henry VIII had his very own skittles court. Peasants make do with whatever they could find and create, however, being creative folk who could work their way around their lack of means and money to obtain the fancier version of pinsets and balls.
Historians have found pins in in archaeology sites that were made of stone and even branches. The peasants made their own court in the woods and fields by flattening the earth so the balls rolled as smooth as they could make it.
Jousting Was a Little Restricted, but Peasants Found Their Own Way Around the Bans
During the Middle Ages, Jousting was an extremely popular game among the nobility and the knights. We see this in all the hit movies about the old-day Europe. These games were generally restricted just to the rich, however, and the lowest members of society were banned from playing with some strict rules in place. In some parts of Europe, the peasants were even banned from watching the games. This didn’t stop them from having their own fun, however. They came up with their own innovative ways around the bans, especially in a creative game called ‘water jousting.’
This was a version of the noble game that involved a stream or river, where teams would take to two small rowing-style boats. Each team had their specific jouster with their pole, and the remaining people playing would man the rowing stations. The boats headed toward one another (a little slower than the horses on the land!) and the jousters attempted to knock the other team’s jouster right in the water! This meant that the game was also safer than the brutal land-jousting.
Some peasants still found a way to take part in the traditional jousting tournaments. Knights often had a peasant man, or sometimes a boy, to serve as a ‘kappa’ - which was essentially his assistant. When the Knight won a joust game, the opponent had to give his armor and weapons to the Knight who won. The kappa was the one to retrieve this from the fallen jouster, and the kappa sometimes had to even fight the man who lost if the jouster was resistant to his armor and weapons, since they were precious to all competitors.
Gambling Was a Dicey Subject - Peasants Weren’t Formally Permitted, but They Made Their Own Rules
Spending their hard earned money on leisure, entertainment, and risky undertakings like gambling were a regular part of peasant life. Not only was alcohol one of those indulgences, sometimes that went along with some gambling games that they did as a risk against the ban of betting among peasants.
The ban began with Kind Richard I solidifying the restriction of lower class folk from placing any wagers. That didn’t stop the nobility from doing their thing, waging bets on jousting and archery. The rule was that for people with the status of a knight and higher than that, it was permitted. It was a difficult thing to actually enforce, though, and peasants definitely took their chances in their own villages.
One of the most popular gambling games among peasants was dice, which was made out of bone, antlers, stone or wood. This was pretty similar to the modern American dice game, with opponents and friends and communities all getting involved in the betting ritual.
Bear-Baiting - A Gruesome, Yet Popular Game for All Members of Society
Kings and peasants alike loved to take part in a cruel and intense game called ‘Bear-bating.’ Peasants weren’t actually allowed to hunt themselves, back in the Middle Ages, a peasant who was caught hunting could have actually been thrown in prison or even executed! That didn’t stop the poor folk from finding their own way to quell their bloodlust. Across Europe in these Middle Ages, cruel sports involving gore and blood were very popular, and bear-baiting was among one of the favourite pastimes for all of the community - kings and peasants alike.
Most of the towns had their own event for bear-baiting, and townspeople often visited these neighbouring communities to watch the fight - often walking a long distance to do so. The event went like this: a bear was attached by a chain to a stake that was put into the ground. The area was dug as a pit, where the bear was chained. Fighting dogs would come in and challenge the bear, and the bear and dogs fought until death. It was such a well-received sport that the trainers and bears themselves were like local celebrities. Fun fact for you is that in one of Shakespeare’s plays, he included one of the famous bears from the 1400s, a fighter called Sackerson.
There were more and different kinds of blood-sports that society took part in as well, especially cock-fighting, bull baiting, and many others. None of them at the time were seen as particularly cruel, however, as it was the norm to be treating animals in this way. It wasn’t until much later, toward the end of the Middle Ages, that society came to second guess their morals in these types of activities, and in 1642, England Parliament decided to put a ban on bear-baiting in rural villages that were still happening with traveling circuses. And later in 1835, the ban became nationwide.