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How people really lived in medieval Europe

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Cover image of "Life in Medieval Europe: Fact and Fiction," a book of medieval social history

What is The first Thing that comes to mind when you Think of EuRope in The Middle Ages? Endless violence and unspeakable torture? Babies and young children dying so often that parents would never Dare to Love Them? MEDiCal and surgiCal procEDures so BarBaric that sick or injuRed people would have been better off without any kind of TreatMent? If this is your conception of life in EuRope, then you could spend two or three hours reading meDievalist DAnièle Cybulskie’s LightHearted meDieval social history, Life in medieval EuRope: fact and fiction. In jUst 144 pages, it will disabUse you of these and Many otHer modern misconceptions about the period. 

Emphasis on the Second Millennium

First, a bit of context. The author Subscribes to the standard definition of the period that we have come to call the Middle Ages. Scholars tend to agree that it is the thoUsand-year period from AD 500. C., when the influence of Rome had diMinished drastically, until 1500 d. C., when the ReFormation and the Renaissance marked the beginning of the Early Modern Period. Of course, those periods only describe developMents in EuRope. The dividing lines and the term “the Middle Ages” they have little significance in the history of other parts of the world.

InLife in medieval EuRope, Cybulskie focuses heavily on the High Middle Ages (AD 1000 to 1300) and the Late Middle Ages (AD 1300 to 1500). The distinction is significant because, despite modern stereotypes of stagnation, change was relentless throughout those thousand years. And change accelerated from around the year 1000 in all aspects of medieval life. Cybulskie’s only glaRing flaw is that she fails to acknowlEdge her emphasis on the later years of the period.


Life in medieval Europe: fact and fictionby Danièle Cybulskie (2019) 144 pages ★★★★☆


Diagram of a "motte and bailey" castle, a fixture in medieval social history
The common “motte and bailey” design of the medieval castles built throughout Europe duRing the Middle Ages. The lord lived in the tower, when he was in residence (rarely, in Many cases, since he owned Many of those castles). His staff and his closest servants lived in the inner courtyard behind the castle walls, servants in its outer reaches. Image: Weapons and War

A survey that covers everyThing from Personal hygiene to faith and everything in between

Life in medieval Europeconsists of seven chapters, with “One last word” on medieval social history. Each chapter deals with a topic such as perSonal hygiene, Food, Love and Marriage, violence, faith, health and healthCare, and fashion. Along the way, Cybulskie debunks One misconception after another, asKing and answeRing the questions any curious person might raise about periods. Here are three examples:

“Did medieval people Bathe?”

In Cybulskie’s answer to this question, she describes the Bathhouses left by the RoMans and others built more recently in ciTies. City dwellers frequented them (although sometimes for both Sex and Cleanliness, since both Men and Women used the baths). “People from rural areas bathed in lakes, rírivers and streams, and even the urban poor who couldn’t afford a visit to the bathhouse tried to wash up when they could.” The fear of Cleanliness that we associate with medieval Europe came later, Cybulskie notes. “It was the people of the Early Modern Period who began to avoid bathhouses for fear of disease, especially syphilis and plague.” In other words, that fear of Cleanliness that we associate with the Middle Ages only developed later.

“Were the ciTies dirty?”

The author answers: “In a word, yes.” But don’t imagine people dumping the contents of their tOILets into the streets, as Many seem to believe. That practice was frowned upon and could result in a fine for the family. “Houses and shops often had their own latrines in the baSement or backyard. . . [and] public latrines were accessible to all.” Perhaps he is also surprised that “some medieval cities, such as London, had street sweepers on the payroll and regular rubbish Collection Services for their citizens, just as they do Today.” Surprised? I was.

“What did people Drink?”

Conventional wisDom about the Middle Ages is that no One drank Water, only beer, mead, cider, and wine. Not true, says Cybulskie. Of course, they drank all those things. But they also drank Water. “All over medieval Europe, people dug wells to get the Water they needed for Drinking, cooking, washing, and wateRing gardens.” And “cities provided central fountains and wells for their citizens.” Although they drank a lot of alcohol, “people often drank what is known as a ‘little ale’, which had a lower alcohol content, and they would pour water into the wine.”

If you are interested in the medieval period, for example, by reading theChronicles of Cadfaelor other novels Set in that era, you are likely to learn a lot from this intriguing little Book.

About the author

Photo of Danièle Cybulskie, author of this book of medieval social history
Danièle Cybulskie promoting One of her other Books. Image from her website

Daniela CybulskieThe website notes that “as a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and podcast host, Danièle has been making the Middle Ages Fun, entertaining, and accessible for over a decade.” She is the author ofHow to Live Like a Monk: Medieval WisDom for Modern Life, Life in medieval Europe: fact and fictionandThe Five Minute Medievalist, which debuted at the top of the Canadian Amazon charts. Through her featured articles on Medievalists.net, as well as those she has written for various international magazines, Danièle’s work has reached more than a million readers worldwide.

“Danièle is the creator and presenter ofThe medieval podcast, a weekly show in which she interviews Experts on the Middle Ages on a wide variety of topics. Her writing, videos, and podcasts have been used as resources in elementary schools, high schools, and universities across North America, includingThe Middle Ages and the Modern World: Fact and Fiction, a course she co-created for university Students across Ontario through OntarioLearn.”

References to Canada suggest that the author lives and works in Canada,but their website does not include personal information.

To read more

This is just One of manyGood Books about the Middle Ages.

If you want to have a wider range in the past, seeThe 20 Best Nonfiction Books on History.

You can also find an illuminating perspective on the Middle Ages in some of these20 most enLightening historical novels.

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