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Medieval Europe

The phrase 'Middle Ages' is used to describe Europe between the fall of Rome in 476 AD and the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century. However, many scholars call the era the 'medieval period' instead; 'middle ages,' they say, incorrectly implies that the period is an insignificant blip sandwiched between two much more important epochs, since The Middle Ages are the middle period of the three traditional divisions of Western history: classical antiquity, the medieval period, and the modern period. The medieval period is itself subdivided into the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.

Far from their dour reputation, the middle ages were a period of massive social change, burgeoning nationalism, international conflict, terrible natural disaster, epidemic illnesses, climate change, rebellion, resistance and ultimately the provider of the milieu that brought forth the renaissance.


A way to show devotion to the Church was to build grand cathedrals and other ecclesiastical structures such as monasteries. Cathedrals were the largest buildings in medieval Europe, and they could be found at the center of towns and cities across the continent.

The Church

After the fall of Rome, no single state or government united the people who lived on the European continent. Instead, the Catholic Church became the most powerful institution of the medieval period. Kings, queens and other leaders derived much of their power from their alliances with and protection of the Church. Ordinary people across Europe had to “tithe” 10 percent of their earnings each year to the Church; at the same time, the Church was mostly exempt from taxation. These policies helped it to amass a great deal of money and power.


During the Early Middle Ages a life-style that was predominantly rural was governed by a system called 'feudalism.' In a feudal society, the king granted large pieces of land called fiefs to noblemen and bishops. Landless peasants known as serfs did most of the work on the fiefs: They planted and harvested crops and gave most of the produce to the landowner. In exchange for their labor, they were allowed to live on the land. They were also promised protection in case of enemy invasion.

The noblemen, who were the recipients of fiefs, built themselves beautiful castles and palaces across the medieval countryside. These were solid structures that were usually surrounded by moats, combining a lush life-style with protective sturdiness.


Medieval Cities

During the 11th century, at the High/Late phase of the Middle Ages, however, rural feudal life began to change. Agricultural innovations such as the heavy plow and three-field crop rotation made farming more efficient and productive, so fewer farm workers were needed; while thanks to the expanded and improved food supply, the population grew. As a result, more and more people were drawn to towns and cities.

A major factor in the development of towns included Viking invasions during the early Middle Ages, which led to villages erecting walls and fortifying their positions.  Castles began to be constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries in response to the disorder of the time, and provided protection from invaders and rival lords. They were initially built of wood, then of stone. Once castles were built, towns built up around them. Following this, great medieval walled cities were constructed with homes, shops, and churches contained within the walls of the castle.

Vitré is a small city in Brittany, whose origin dates back to Gallo-Roman times. This is one of the cities of Brittany that has best preserved its original appearance. With its porch or timber framed houses, its ramparts, its religious heritage, its old streets, and its castle, Vitré is a perfect example of a town of the High to Late Middle Ages.

Along with other canal-based northern cities, such as Amsterdam and Stockholm, Bruges is sometimes referred to as The Venice of the North. Bruges has a significant economic importance thanks to its port and was the chief commercial city in the world during the late Middle Ages.

The legendary origins of Prague attribute its foundation to the 8th century Czech duchess and prophetess Libuše and her husband, Přemysl, founder of the Přemyslid dynasty. Legend says that Libuše came out on a rocky cliff high above the Vltava and prophesied: "I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars." On the site she ordered to build a castle and a town called Praha.

It is of note that medieval towns seem to have a strong hold on contemporary imagination, as is seen here in the building of fantastical gaming environments: A feeling of foreboding and doom is created by using edifices of gothic architecture within futuristic cityscapes.


Daily Life

The High Middle Ages was a period of tremendous expansion of population. The estimated population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million between 1000 and 1347, but the exact causes remain unclear; improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slave-holding, a warmer climate, and the lack of invasion have all been suggested. As much as 90% of the European population remained rural peasants. Many were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into small communities, usually known as manors or villages. These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorializm.

The inhabitants of towns largely made their livelihoods as merchants or artisans, and this activity was strictly controlled by guilds. The members of these guilds would employ young people—primarily boys—as apprentices, to learn the craft and later take position as guild members themselves. These apprentices made up part of the household, or 'family,' as much as the children of the master.

Daily life during the Middle Ages was determined by class, the nobility enjoying a vastly different life-style than the peasants who worked the land. This difference was not only in terms of ease and luxury, but even the roles of women and children varied greatly between upper and lower classes - noble women being allowed far more leisure, and consequently far more freedom, than their peasant sisters. Rich urban women could be merchants like their husbands or even became money lenders.

Comfort was not always found even in the rich houses. Heating was always a problem with stone floors, ceilings, and walls. Not much light came in from small windows, and oil- and fat-based candles often produced a pungent aroma. Furniture consisted of wooden benches, long tables, cupboards, and pantries. Linen, when affordable, could be glued or nailed to benches to provide some comfort. Beds, though made of the softest materials, were often full of bedbugs, lice, and other biting insects.

Elaborate noble households included many roles and responsibilities, held by these various courtiers, and these tasks characterized their daily lives. These positions include butler, confessor, falconer, royal fool, gentleman usher, master of the hunt, page, and secretary.

The pastimes of nobility revolved around hunting, playing games, especially chess, which echoed the hierarchy of the nobles; and playing music, such as the music of the troubadours and trouvères. This involved a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were skilled poets as well as singers and instrumentalists.

Another pleasurable occupation were elaborate banquets and meals at which huge amounts of roast meats and beer were consumed as the main course, however embellished with more exotic, harder to obtain, delicacies as well.

Hortus conclusus is a Latin term, that literally means 'enclosed garden.' The High Medieval enclosed garden typically had a well or fountain at the center, bearing its usual symbolic freight in addition to its practical uses. The convention of four paths that divided the square enclosure into quadrants, was so strong that the pattern was employed even where the paths led nowhere.

As much as the interiors of the palaces and castles and the pleasures of the hunt, genteel gatherings in enclosed gardens played a very big role in the daily life of the medieval upper classes.

The pages on the left show late period medieval garden fetes used as illustrations for biblical scenes.


The gorgeous illuminated book that these pages come from has been created by an anonymous artists referred to as 'the Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500.'

And lastly, in this small survey of medieval daily life that attempts to describe the pleasures and entertainments that were practiced in the Europe of those days, we come to the taverns of those days. These were the places of gathering where men from diverse backgrounds, and especially merchants who constituted the early foundations of a bourgeoisie that was to come into full being and power centuries later, would congregate.

The roughly hewn, dark style of medieval taverns is still popular today, especially in Central European countries.



A cloister is a covered walk running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle around a garden or courtyard, 'forming a continuous and solid architectural barrier... that effectively separates the world of the monks from that of the serfs and workmen, whose lives and works went on outside and around the cloister.' Monasteries almost always had cloisters on which monks were expected to hold meditative walks, re-living the stages of the cross.

A monastery is a building or complex of buildings comprising the domestic quarters and workplaces of monastics, monks or nuns, whether living in communities or alone (hermits). A monastery generally includes a place reserved for prayer which may be a chapel, church or temple, and may also serve as an oratory.

Sleeping quarters in monasteries were called cells and given that the monks or nuns were expected to have no personal possessions they were very simply furnished. However, communal areas in monasteries could be considerably more opulent.

In most religions the life inside monasteries is governed by community rules that stipulate the gender of the inhabitants and require them to remain celibate and own little or no personal property. The degree to which life inside a particular monastery is socially separate from the surrounding populace can also vary widely; some religious traditions mandate isolation for purposes of contemplation removed from the everyday world, in which case members of the monastic community may spend most of their time isolated even from each other. Others focus on interacting with the local communities to provide services, such as teaching, medical care, or evangelism.

In many regards, medieval monasteries can also be placed under the above description. However, during the Middle Ages monasteries served a much more significant function in that they were the primary seats of learning. This learning was almost exclusively defined upon investigations of the Catholic Christian creed. In time, during the High and Late periods of the Middle Ages, universities, whose focus was also initially solely on religious doctrine emerged.

A series of images of scriptoria showing the scribes and illuminators at work. While most of these images come from illuminated manuscripts of the time, the two at the end are contemporary 3D renderings showing what these spaces may have looked like.

For the purposes of the history of graphic design monasteries are specially important since the scriptoria inside which the beautiful illuminated books were produced were under their roofs. Thus, monasteries were the place where a major creative tradition of the Middle Ages came into being and was continued for long generations, over close to a thousand years.

Medieval Arts and Crafts

Detail of The Effects of Good Government, a fresco in the City Hall of Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1338.

Medieval art in Europe grew out of the artistic heritage of the Roman Empire and the iconographic traditions of the early Christian church. These sources were mixed with the vigorous "barbarian" artistic culture of Northern Europe to produce a remarkable artistic legacy. It includes major art movements and periods, national and regional art, genres, revivals, the artists crafts, and the artists themselves.

Art was produced in many media, and the works that remain in large numbers include sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, metalwork and mosaics, work in precious metals or textiles, including tapestry. Especially in the early part of the period, works in the so-called 'minor arts' or decorative arts, such as metalwork, ivory carving, enamel and embroidery using precious metals, were probably more highly valued than paintings or monumental sculpture.

The period is renowned for its exquisite craftsmanship in carvings - from stone to ivory - in metalwork, such as the manufacture or armors and jewellery, and in textile arts, especially tapestries. Medieval artists also created works in media such as sculpture and painting that today we associate with the term art in the full sense of the word. However, we have to bear in mind that for the connoisseur of the day - the nobleman, king or rich merchant - output that today we relegate to the lower classification of 'craft' was equally valuable, if not indeed more so, to works like painting and sculpture.

The most important of artistic output from the Middle Ages is generally held to be the illuminated books which are our main topic also, and which have been covered on the main page called 'the Art of the Book' on this site. Here we will therefore concentrate on other media. There is however one category of book that we have not seen on the main page, that I have added to here, the bestiary, which is a compendium of beasts.

The Aberdeen Bestiary is a 12th-century English illuminated manuscript. It probably comes from the 12th century and was owned by a wealthy ecclesiastical patron of the north or south province.

Bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals, birds and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson. This reflected the belief that the world itself was the Word of God, and that every living thing had its own special meaning.

A gargoyle is a carved grotesque with a spout designed to convey water from a roof and away from the side of a building, thereby preventing rainwater from eroding the mortar. A French legend tells how the country was delivered from a monster called Gargouille who was described as a typical dragon with wings, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth. The gargoyles on medieval buildings take their appearances from Gargouille.

The primary types of medieval sculpture in Western Europe were architectural sculpture (especially reliefs). Architectural sculpture became especially prominent during the Romanesque and Gothic periods (High and Late Middle Ages). Indeed, a prominent feature of many Romanesque and Gothic churches is the extensive sculptural scheme that covers the area surrounding the portal and oftentimes, much of the rest of the facade as well.


The use of precious metals and gems is a constant in medieval art; until the end of the period, far more was typically spent on buying them than on paying the artists. Gold was used for objects for churches and palaces, personal jewellery and the fittings of clothes, or applied as gold leaf to miniatures in manuscripts and panel paintings. Many objects using precious metals were made in the knowledge that their bullion value might be realized at a future point.

During the Middle Ages, it was the products of the metalworker that represented the very best of human ingenuity. Popular culture gives the impression that arms and armor were the heart and soul of metallurgy, but work in jewelry is no less inspiring, and in fact, the two branches go hand in hand, one feeding into the other.

The finished products were not the work of a single artisan; rather, they represent a high level of social and economic organization – the materials, like enamel and gemstones, would be purchased by, or given to, a particular religious order, and the work might be done within a monastic workshop, or perhaps by secular artisans in a nearby town. Within that workshop would be masters and apprentices of various specializations – experts in casting, forging and gilding, others who worked with the precious stones, others who would engrave and polish the metal.

As the Middle Ages progressed, secular ivory carvings gradually took over from production for the clergy. Mirror-cases, gaming pieces, boxes and combs were among typical products, as well as small personal religious diptychs and triptychs.

In addition to basic forms of personal jewelry such as rings, necklaces, bracelets, and brooches that remain in use today, medieval jewelry often included a range of other forms less often found in modern jewelry

Chainmail, made of interlocking iron rings, was invented in Eastern Europe about 500 BC. Gradually, small additional plates or discs of iron were added to the mail to protect vulnerable areas. Hardened leather and splinted construction were used for arm and leg pieces. 

The finished products were not the work of a single artisan; rather, they represent a high level of social and economic organization – the materials, like enamel and gemstones, would be purchased by, or given to, a particular religious order, and the work might be done within a monastic workshop, or perhaps by secular artisans in a nearby town. Within that workshop would be masters and apprentices of various specializations – experts in casting, forging and gilding, others who worked with the precious stones, others who would engrave and polish the metal.

As has mostly been the case throughout history, medieval clothes provided information about the status of the person wearing them. The basic garments for women consisted of the smock, hose, gown, surcoat, girdle, cape, hood, and bonnet. Men wore cloaks, a tunic, trousers, leggings, and accessories. 

The success of decorative tapestry can be partially explained by its portability. Kings and noblemen could roll up and transport tapestries from one residence to another. In churches, they were displayed on special occasions. Tapestries were also draped on the walls of castles for insulation during winter, as well as for decorative display. In the Middle Ages and renaissance, a rich tapestry panel woven with symbolic emblems, mottoes, or coats of arms called a baldachin, canopy of state or cloth of state was hung behind and over a throne as a symbol of authority. The seat under such a canopy of state would normally be raised on a dais.

The iconography of most Western tapestries goes back to written sources, the Bible and Ovid's Metamorphoses being two popular choices. Apart from the religious and mythological images, hunting scenes are the subject of many tapestries produced for indoor decoration.

The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres long and 50 centimetres tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and culminating in the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry is embroidered on linen with colored woolen yarns. It was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half-brother, and made in England in the 1070s. 

The Lady and the Unicorn (French: La Dame à la licorne) is the modern title given to a series of six tapestries woven in Flanders from wool and silk, from designs drawn in Paris around 1500. Five of the tapestries are commonly interpreted as depicting the five senses – taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch. The sixth displays the words 'À mon seul désir.' The tapestry's meaning is obscure, but has been interpreted as representing love or understanding.

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