5 Misconceptions About Medieval Life You Probably Have

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Ah, Medieval Europe. A period of knights and lords, tournaments, and plagues. Many films, books, and folk tales are set in this stretch of time, and, unfortunately, most of these have reinforced false information about this era. Here are some common misconceptions about medieval times that you probably think are facts!

1. People died of old age at 30

Medieval old person, enrico dandolo who died aged 98.
Enrico Dandolo, one of the oldest known people of the medieval period, dying at the age of 98 in 1205.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most oft-repeated and misunderstood pieces of information about the Medieval Ages deals with life expectancy. Many sources have indicated that the average life expectancy at birth of a medieval man or woman was 30 years. This has made several people in the modern-day think that this means that their ancestors went through some sort of accelerated aging process, somehow becoming elderly in their late-20s. 

However, this isn’t the case. Many infants and children in the medieval ages died due to malnutrition or disease. This artificially deflated the life expectancy at birth; if one made it out of the dangers of childhood, their life expectancy jumped to around 50 years. Still much younger than the modern era, but a far cry from 30!

2. Being accused of witchcraft was an almost instant death sentence.

Witch burning in Switzerland in Medieval times
The burning of a woman in Willisau, Switzerland, in 1447.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A common trope about the Medieval Ages is the priest rallying the townspeople to “burn the witch”, who inevitably ends up being either a misunderstood elderly woman or a young woman who is pursuing un-womanly ideas. Extreme intolerance such as this has cropped up in medieval depictions from classics such as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to the comedic Monty Python and the Holy Grail

This idea has more in common with the supposedly more “enlightened” Renaissance period than the medieval ages. In the early medieval ages, the Catholic Church’s official line was that witches and witchcraft did not exist. Belief in witches was thought to be no more than local superstition and was fought with preaching. As the Catholic Church’s position became increasingly challenged towards the end of the Medieval Age, it shifted its opinion and, unfortunately, became more aggressive in its witch-hunting efforts.

3. Medieval knights were slowed down by their heavy armor.

Painting of a medieval knight with a sword and shield on a horse.
Medieval Knight, 13th Century.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (a common source of medieval misconceptions in the United States), the hero befuddles an aggressive knight. By not wearing armor, he is able to literally run circles around the knight, who is barely able to move under the weight of his armor. 

While this idea is humorous, there is little support for it in history and it falls apart when thought about in a practical sense. What good would a knight be if his armor rendered him a turtle on the battlefield? Well made plate armor at the height of the Medieval Era weighed less than sixty pounds at its heaviest, distributed across the body of a man who had trained nearly his entire life for war. A knight in plate armor was able to run, climb, and perform other athletic activities with few restrictions.

4. There was a distrust of science

Scientist Roger Bacon.
Medieval scientist, Roger Bacon
Credit: Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

This idea comes from the Renaissance when scholars began labeling the Medieval period as a “Dark Age”. According to them, since the fall of the Roman Empire, there had been little to no scientific progress and even a regression. The people were governed by superstition rather than logic, helped along by the persecution of a Church suspicious of any advancement.

While the early medieval period had seen a dip in scientific knowledge, due to the decline of major cities and the general post-Roman chaos, it had already begun to rebound in the 9th century. Headed by Emperor Charlemagne, Western Europe entered what has been called the Carolingian Renaissance, where scholars rediscovered old texts and new universities and schools were founded. By the 12th century, these universities had developed to the point where lecturers were touring across Europe and visiting different colleges. A far cry from a period of total ignorance!

5.  Women weren’t allowed to have careers

Woman with a career in the medieval period, Christine de Pizan
Professional writer from the Medieval Period, Christine de Pizan.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A common belief about the Medieval Ages is that women were little more than property. Married off at young ages to men they didn’t really know, they were expected to stay at home, have children, and maybe help in the fields. If they didn’t want this life, they could choose to become a nun.

However, this stark dichotomy doesn’t accurately reflect the status of medieval women. In Medieval England, a woman was often a partner in her husband’s business, working alongside him in a forge or craftsman’s shop. If their husband died, it was common for these women to take over and run the business themselves. Many other women found their own niches in the medieval economy. In medieval Yorkshire, women were able to carve out careers in fields from weaving cloth to brewing alcohol; some had careers so successful that they delayed or simply chose not to get married! 

While women were held back in the medieval age in many ways (most unmarried women were not allowed to own property, they had even fewer rights than their male peasant fellows, etc.), the medieval ages were nonetheless more progressive than many have thought. 

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