Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Were the Middle Ages that Terrible? (Quora)

Assorted retorts from yahoo boards and elsewhere : Medical Middle Ages : Cancer and Salerno Diet (quora) · Middle Ages on Quora (non Medical) · Φιλολoγικά/Philologica : Were the Middle Ages that Terrible? (Quora)

Seven answers out of ten:

Why were the middle ages so terrible? How did people manage?


Kevin Chiu,
Learned history from reading and games
Answered Sat
Nope. That has to be one of the biggest misconceptions about European history still prevalent today.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire wasn’t a catastrophe which set technological and societal progress back by a thousand years. Life wasn’t worse in the Middle Ages compared to that during the Roman Empire. The Middle Ages were actually superior to Early Modern Europe in some ways. I’ll try to disprove some of the commonly held misconceptions about the Middle Ages.

Low life expectancy

Studies show that in the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was 30–40 years. That piece of data is very misleading. The life expectancy was dragged down by high infant mortality rates caused by disease. The average adult life expectancy was in the 60s or 70s.

Terrible hygiene

A lot of people believe this because many hygiene facilities present in the Roman Empire such as aqueducts and baths were not present in the Middle Ages. That is incorrect. Most cities had public bathhouses which originated from or were inspired by Roman baths (they were called stewes in England). Everyone could afford to take at least a weekly bath. Smelling good and being clean was considered the correct etiquette. Everyone washed their hands before meals and brushed their teeth regularly. People did stop going to bathhouses during the Black Death because they rightly feared getting infected.

A medieval bathhouse

The Church burned thousands of women accused of being “witches” and suppressed science

This is very wrong. The mass witch-hunts occurred in the 16th-17th century, which is in Early Modern Europe, not in the Middle Ages. The Inquisition, though started in the mid-13th Century, did not inflict widespread persecution on Western European Jews and Muslims until after the Middle Ages. The Church normally did not suppress science. In fact, the Catholic Church was the main sponsor of scientific development and was valuable in preserving several Roman and Greek works. You can find a list of technological advancements from Medieval Europe in here:

Medieval technology - Wikipedia

People had to drink alcohol because water was dirty

No. Although beer and wine were the common beverage, it was because the common knowledge in the Middle Ages was that alcoholic beverages promoted good health. People still drank water from time to time. People also knew how to tell between clean water and dirty water. Water was added to wine to dilute it, disproving this myth entirely.

The Middle Ages were filled with famine

The Middle Ages actually produced much more food that the Roman Empire ever did in their western provinces. Agricultural innovations, warmer climate, and the rise of feudalism increased crop yields to levels never seen before. It was the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War that decreased the peasant population to tend to farms, causing the myths of great famines in the Middle Ages.

Most of the terrible things that happened in the Middle Ages were outside of their control. The Black Death, Mongol invasion, Vikings, etc. Urban development stalled after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire because there simply wasn’t enough manpower or population to sustain the Roman urban culture. Feudalism also suddenly seemed to be the best idea. War was bad, but most periods of history were equally if not more violent. Massacres of heretics and non-Christians were not a normal occurrence. That is why events such as the massacre of the Jewish Rhineland population and the Albigensian Crusade are so unique and notable.

Eric Wang
Sat · 5 upvotes including Kevin Chiu
One little thing: most people didn’t know how to tell contaminated water from clean water until germ theory was fully accepted. This is best shown in the miasma theory of disease which persisted even long after the Renaissance. Often contamination and disease-causing water can’t be identified by looking at it.

Lawrence Caga
Medieval people knew how to distinguish between contaminated and clean water, they mostly smelled or tasted it. Look at the comments to this answer as well.

Tim O'Neill's answer to Did all of Europe during the Middle Ages really not realize that boiling water made it safe? Did an entire continent for hundreds of years really not realize that they could have just boiled the water and drank it?

Dennis O'Leary
Sat · 2 upvotes including Kevin Chiu
An excellent summary! We might also point out that, under Church auspices, the great European universities were established. The myth of rowdy, lecherous Medieval priests actually refers to typical college boys who joined the Dominican order to get a subsidized college education. The process of granting degrees at medieval colleges was substantially the same as today, with the sames grades of degree, culminating in doctor.

AJ Granderson
Your answer may be applicable to the Middle Ages. I don’t think it would apply to the Dark Ages, roughly 400–1000 AD. Yes, I know academics don’t like the term, but that was a DARK time. Nothing of permanence was built, the lack of Pax Romana meant free ground for the Vikings, the people forgot how to build roads of Roman quality, or aqueducts, etc.

Stuart Burgess
There is also a tendency to look at the 1000-year middle ages as one period, probably stemming from the dark ages perception of this period. It wasn’t and your messaging is anecdotal sometimes reserved for the late middle ages and sometimes relevant to the early middle ages, as modernisation spread and in some case adversely affected the people. For example, it is true that people benefited from better farming than the Roman period as the feudalism system got on a roll. It essentially meant the farmers in the country were producing more than they needed; however, this necessitated breaking the feast/famine cycle in the underlying crop management of the day, which changed with crop rotation strategies. This change didn’t happen until later in the middle ages and adaptation was even longer in coming. The industrial revolution was a result of the agriculture revolution of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The other point worth making is that the urbanisation, linked to people being able to do something other than farming for a livelihood, was very late in coming too. The average person from the 1000′s would agree with you some of your points on hygiene and health; however, as the population of towns became cities, without talking about the black death, urban dwellers had a much rougher life than their countryside equivalents once they hit a critical mass. The black death decimated the cities because they were unhealthy hovels (and beyond their control only out of ignorance) whilst the countryside was spared in comparison.

Sebastian J. Paez
Sat · 1 upvote from Kevin Chiu
I am so thankful for this answer, my lord!

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
“Studies show that in the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was 30–40 years. That piece of data is very misleading. The life expectancy was dragged down by high infant mortality rates caused by disease.”

While I independently agree for 60–70 for normal people and 50–60 for royalty, I wonder how the high child mortality dragging life expectancy down that far is documented.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
“Everyone washed their hands before meals and brushed their teeth regularly.”

Medieval tooth brushes have been found?

Or descriptions of rubbing teeth with fingers and perhaps salt?

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
"Although beer and wine were the common beverage, it was because the common knowledge in the Middle Ages was that alcoholic beverages promoted good health."

High calory intake and high proteine intake are good for avoiding or quickly curing infections.

And beer and wine and cider were more accessible than fresh apple juice the year round. (I was accidentally spelling it "apple Jews" ... an idea for a hieroglyphic or logo?)

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
"War was bad, but most periods of history were equally if not more violent."

I saw a statistic of European death in % due to wars

1200-1300 c. 12 %
1300-1400 (don't recall, but higher than previous, lower than following)
1400-1500 even higher (25-30%?)
1500-1600 somewhat lower
1600-1700 c. 40 %?
1700-1800 somewhat lower
1800-1900 even lower
1900-2000 bloodier than any previous (45 % or just 40 and I misrecalled the one for 1600-1700?)

Mylène Truchon
Sat · 1 upvote
I know someone who completed a master degree in Medieval history, so I guess he was a reliable source (I hope so). He once published an article on Facebook about the fact most workers in the Middle Ages had more vacations than us. Funny.


Helena Schrader
PhD History, University of Hamburg
Answered Sun
Kevin Chiu’s answer is excellent, I would simply like to add that there is also a popular misconception about women being “chattels” in the Middle Ages. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Women had a much higher status, as well as higher levels of education and economic empowerment in the Middle Ages than in the so-called “Renaissance” and thereafter right up to the 20th century. An excellent source, detailing and presented a wealth of specific examples, is Regine Pernoud’s book “Women in the Days of the Cathedrals,” originally published in French by the Univ. of Paris press, but now available in English.

For those who want a shorter summary see:

Chattels - Or What Medieval Women were NOT

Good stuff here.


Hector Mac
Strategy Consultant at Government of the United Kingdom (2003-present)
Answered Sun
The Middle Ages aren’t the worst epoch in modern history. The Dark Ages is a misnomer based on 19th Century historians painting this historical period as a time when the Roman armies retreated from European and Asian / African countries, and the civilising, unifying influence of the Pax Romana and the sophistication, technical prowess and trading empire of the Romans was on the wane before completely disappearing. These catastrophic events were said to undermine European economies and political systems, and were compounded by major outbreaks of the Black Death which disseminated the European social structure in the middle ages and ruined the economy by killing off one third of the European population.

The tragedy of the plague and its dramatic impact on the medieval world is an uncontested fact. However, the adverse effects of this series of outbreaks and the sudden and complete decline of Roman rule and civilisation have been grossly exaggerated.

The Roman Empire did decline and fall, but more gradually; and its influence and innovations lived on in various forms in the different royal courts and political systems that superseded the Empire. The influence of Roman civilisation and Latin culture did not suddenly disappear leaving barbaric regimes fighting violent battles amongst themselves for hegemony in Europe, and illiterate backward peasants eking out a living in an increasingly insecure and dangerous world.

I will list what I consider to be the main features of the European Middle Ages which demonstrate that it wasn’t such a terrible time to be alive.

  • Whilst the Black Death did undoubtedly kill off one third of the European population and cause severe labour shortages resulting in much farmland reverting back to wilderness, it also created significant opportunities which shaped the modern world:

  • The shortage of labour created a market for labour and a wage based economy on a large scale for the first time in Europe. Peasants were able for the first time to sell their labour and helped create a monetary economy. This was further developed by the evolution of feudalism, from a direct feudal relationship involving prescribed services in kind by clients to their overlord, patron, to a monetary based system where clients (knights, yeoman etc) were no longer in a position to offer their services to bring in their Lord’s harvest etc and instead compensated their Lord for their lack of service with money. As a result the first banks and widespread money supply appeared for the first time in Europe (initially in Northern Italy), which together with the nascent financial markets and monetarisation of the economy set the foundations for modern capitalism and our current financial systems.

  • The Church retained a large part of the knowledge of the classical world. The Dark Ages were mistaken assumed to be a period when the light of the Ancient World’s knowledge was lost. This is plainly wrong. It continued to burn brightly in monasteries throughout Europe. The dramatic influence of the Renaissance, when supposedly Europe rediscovered the Ancient World’s knowledge, is inaccurate and overstated. There were at least two major Renaissance eras, the first being in the 12th Century right in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages.

  • The Renaissance periods were informed as much by contact - through trade and the Moors in Spain - with the Arab world as it was by the Catholic Church. The Arab world in the 11th and 12th Centuries represented the medieval world’s great flowering of the liberal and humanist arts, with poets and artists from Persia, and scientists and engineers from Egypt, referencing the Ancient’s art forms and creating something new. More so than the Church, the flourishing of the Arts in the Arab world preserved the texts and treatises of the Ancient philosophers and kickstarted the 12th Century Renaissance.

  • The Catholic Church and the monasteries were however responsible for the establishment of the world’s first universities in Paris and elsewhere. The theme of Courtly Love and Chivalry transformed medieval society and civilised and disciplined the world of warfare and politics. Certain notable women, such as Christine de Pisan, not only furthered the Arts but also documented for the first time the female perspective in Europe. Equality and human rights progressed further than they had under the Roman Empire; and industry and business not constrained by the use of slaves innovated and invented new technologies and processes. Notably the sophistication of trading ships and the improvements in Cartology expanded the known world and strengthened the influence of European civilisation and set the roots for late 16h Century birth of imperialism and colonialism. Improvements in glass grinding led to the first proper telescopes and the mapping of the cosmos. Medieval alchemy led to an understanding of chemical properties and directly contributed to the birth of the sciences.

  • Not everything was great,… obviously. Aside from the Black Death, repeated incursions of Mongol Hordes disseminated the European countryside and peasantry. Barbarism, frequent social violence (it’s remarkable how social violence was been a major safety issue and cause of early death right up until the late 18th Century), tyranny and disease continued to afflict the medieval world. But equally it should be remembered that the growth in superstition and fear of witchcraft, the increase in torture and the growth in warcrimes following the abandonment of Chivalry, and the subjugation and mass killings of native peoples in the Americas and Africa, all happened not in the Middle Ages but in the Early Modern Period.

  • I hope this goes some way to providing you with a true picture of the ‘awful’ Middle Ages.

Michael Jacobs
You at one point refer to, “the 12th Century right in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages.” If that’s how you’re defining “dark ages,” fine, but I have always considered the term “dark ages” to refer mostly to the FIRST millennium of the Common Era, as Rome’s influence receded from the areas of its former Western Empire, and as the gradual crumbling of the existing legal structure of Roman law left law enforcement in the hands of sometimes competent, sometimes feckless locals. By the time of Aquinas and the Scholastics (are they the instigator of that 12th-century First Renaissance you mentioned, re-discovering Aristotle from Islamic sources?), the “dark ages” had been over for quite some time, as I would define them — ending probably with the rise of Charlemagne, and the defeat of the Spanish Moors’ attempted invasion of what would become France, along with the first inklings of re-centralization of political power and resurgence of inter-city travel and trade which that permitted.


Morton Gelt
software architect, history buff
Answered Sep 16
Not really. There was a “golden” time in Western Europe (11th-mid 13th centuries) prior to plague and little ice age that lasted a couple of hundred years. Medieval universities were set up. Ideas of learning started to spread. Trade increased, agriculture yields jumped everywhere from England to France to Kievan Rus. Infection diseases were not as common as what would happen a bit later. It all brought in increase in population in the West that overrun the supplies and by the mid 13 century quality of life fall, which last until 1350s.

That golden age ended with the little ice age (1300), nomads (mongol and turk invasions), crops failure, and finally the great plague.

Kjell Andersson
Answered Sat
The Middle Ages were followed by the Early Modern era, a period when modern nation states were founded. History has been written by people loyal to their nation states. They had good reasons to trash talk the Middle Ages. It was done to make to get their Nations States to look better. History has also been written be many atheists who hate Christianity. Some have been Protestant who hated Catholicism.

It all worked to give the Middle Ages a bad reputation. Do not believe them. Christianity, Catholicism and The Middle Ages are a lot better then they are depicted as by people who hate them.

Alan Sloan
Those BEAUTIFUL cathedrals took some making and the workmen must have been very intelligent. The wages of a carpenter for two/three days would cover the week's food (it's 25 years since I researched this) but I imagine tools and clothing were expensive. Housing was elementary for working people, mainly, thatch, mud and sticks. Thise houses dissolved and melted back into the landscape they came from. The big medieval houses typically found around the Cathedrals were for the very wealthy so their high quality was not typical.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
“Housing was elementary for working people, mainly, thatch, mud and sticks.”

Possibly, but if it was warm, what’s bad with that?


Haitham Ali
Answered Sun
They were terribe in Europe. Not so in the Islamic world, maybe you haven't read much about it. While Europe was in its dark ages the Islamic world was in its golden age.

Islamic Golden Age - Wikipedia

For an insight into this world, read about the travels of Ibn Battuta.

Ibn Battuta - Wikipedia

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
“They were terribe in Europe.”

Where do you get that from?

“While Europe was in its dark ages”

Where do you get that from?

William Andersson
It really wasn’t all that horrible in Europe though, it’s been greatly exxagerated. Perhaps you should the other answers here, dispelling myths is always good.

Haitham Ali
What we learned in school was that sewage was running in the streets, sickness was rife, poverty, no tangible scientific advancement, witch-hunting….

I'll have a read

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
"sewage was running in the streets"

It is called a gutter. You still have those between main part of road and trottoir and this means rain helps the cleaning.

In Paris it rains about 1 day in 2.

"sickness was rife,"

We actually got both plague and leprosy from the east. And apart from those, we were fairly healthy.


Christ said, "the poor ye have always with/among you". There is poverty now.

If anything, the poor have a harder time now, since more looked down on (for instance, by immigrant Muslims)

"no tangible scientific advancement,"

If you or anyone in your family is wearing glasses, the irony is glaring. Glasses to correct eye-sight were invented by Roger Bacon in 1268 or before writing the book that year, after studying Al-Hazen (one of yours, btw).


More of it in Early Modern Age, actually.

And one witch cult in Germany seems to have practised Satanism and Abortion, Muslims would have killed them too.

Comment deleted

Haitham Ali
That's utterly ridiculous. Read man. I may not know about Europe during the “dark ages” except what I learned in school but even a simple Google search will show you the golden age lived in the Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic states, you can see in southern Spain until today the marvels of engineering that still stand, and you can thank the Islamic preservation and advancement of knowledge for sparking the Renaissance.

The islamic world was so powerful even English minted coins of the time bore the seal “no God but Allah, Mohammed his messenger”. Offa Rex, Anglo-Saxon King

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
Looking up the Offa Rex reference:

"The coin shown in the image was minted by the Anglo-Saxon King Offa Rex (757-796 C.E.). It was discovered in 1841 C.E., and is displayed in the British Museum. This coin is an imitation of Muslim dinar in circulation during the eighth century."

There seems to have been found exactly one coin, it is in the British museum.

You have not shown any real evidence Offa of Mercia actually became a Muslim. Offa could have found a Muslim dinar, tried to remint it, and given up.

"Read man. I may not know about Europe during the “dark ages” except what I learned in school but even a simple Google search will show you the golden age lived in the Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic states, you can see in southern Spain until today the marvels of engineering that still stand,"

Not denying Muslims had technology.

"and you can thank the Islamic preservation and advancement of knowledge for sparking the Renaissance."

Which one of them?

A certain Medieval Renaissance started out with high reliance of Arabic texts of Aristotle, and it remained a student of Averroes, Avicenna, Al-Hazen even after getting access to good Greek texts of Aristotle, from Byzantium.

As to what you usually call "the Renaissance" it had very little to do with Arabic texts, more with even more Greek ones, and with indigenous ingenuity. By then some technology, in fine arts at least, had equalled and surpassed Muslim technology.

Steve Huck
The Islamic world is a psycho, mass murdering serial killer and sometimes Europe does stupid things to try and appease them, like minting coins, or today, accepting ISIS ‘refugees’.


Alex Richardson
studied at Bennington, NE
Answered Sep 16
Life had always sucked.

Ancient Rome had hundreds of thousands of people packed like sardines. Living conditions were accordingly not great.

The Romans enslaved people and burned entire cities to the ground.

Life had always sucked.

The main reason that the early medieval ages are so villainized is because they postponed Western centralization.

The western world had for some time been undergoing centralization that reached its apex with the Roman Empire:

Urbanization (see Ancient Rome) also reached a peak.

However, with the Migration Period, massive decentralization and deurbanization occurred.

It was no longer really safe to live in an open city anymore, with invasions and whatnot, which provided the impetus for manorialism, where people lived in rural fortified villages.

Usually, they made a deal with the land owner to live there. This evolved into feudalism.

This all caused a flight from the cities, where lots of trade happened. That and constant war caused trade and communication routes in the Empire to collapse.

In all, this meant that a 6th century Italian peasant was less in tune with regional happenings than a 2nd century one.

Eventually though, this deurbanization reversed, and here we are now:

So naturally the Early Medieval Ages are seen as a step back in terms of societal progress.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
“However, with the Migration Period, massive decentralization and deurbanization occurred.”

Not so massive as to actually interrupt cities.

Jacob Bieker
Oct 1 · 1 upvote
True, but, as a Roman, at least you could take a good, safe bath in a communal bathhouse and go home to write a memoir without worrying about having your town razed by Muslim raiders or berserkers. At least if you were rich and/or lived well inside the borders of the Empire.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Just now
Most of the latter part of Middle Ages, you could that too.

In the manorial system, you probably took baths more privately.

Dennis James Slade
Oct 4
THE DESTRUCTION of the once great and powerful empire was devastating…..and the struggle for survival was in the forefront of the Romans at the time. Life and advantages began to disappear. The actual of fleeing from the city of Rome, was not completely understood…that life was totally vulnerable, and it continued for centuries. Therefore it is rightly named….Dark Ages as the beginning of the European Middle Ages. The struggle for survival will continue for throughout the Dark Ages. Somehow, and little by little—-Prosperity brought on the High Middle Ages….but that was about 500 years later.

Tom Guelcher
Oct 20
It doesn't matter the age you live in. Some will be unhappy and some won't. To say the Middle Ages were an unpleasant time is to say any age is an unpleasant time. Life is what you make it. Even if you were consigned as a slave and had to work 18 hours a day, it's what you make it. You could have a beautiful wife, lovely children, take pride in your duties and work, have a good relationship with your master, other workers. In short, it could be a happy life regardless of the circumstances.

Thomas Knowles
Sep 19
I’ve needed a word like ‘manorialism’ for a while now - thanks!

Haroun Lord
Sep 21 · 2 upvotes
“life had always sucked”

this would make a good title for History books.

Martin Lacika
Sep 22
or a youtube video

Lloyd Blunden
Sep 30
Love this answer. Vivid and concise. Wish it were 100 times longer.

John Bell
Oct 1
You're forgetting the influx/ importance of the topplers of the Roman Empire; a. Christianity b. The Vandals, Visigoths i.e. barbarians from the north. When i was in university, years ago, we were taught that the end of the Roman Empire was marked by the 1st emperor who was actually an adopted visigoth or barbarian who assimilated into the the Roman Senate or somehow into their political structure. I would guess about 400AD. Or 1617 BP.

Ancient times, but the Romans were great engineers, look at all their structures still standing, from the Midwest to Italy to England, and the coast of N.Africa , let alone the roads.

Thomas Berthil Lund Jørgensen
Sep 17 · 2 upvotes
Actually living standards for ordinary folks were by and large, better during the Medieval Ages, than during the height of the Roman Empire. This is implied by forensics of bones from said periods. Of course such methods are marked by a significant uncertainty, but it “seems” that the average living expectations during the Roman Empire, were as low as 25 years (huge child mortality, huge mortality among women giving birth) and even as low as 17 years for slaves. In the Medieval period, it has calculated (again of course with great uncertainty) that the average life span was around 35 years or more…! Better odds during the Medieval period for most people and better standards of living : Better nutrition, better clothing, better care of sick and elderly through the social network of the Church and its monasteries, better hygiene even…the Romans and Greeks were not as advanced in personal hygiene as they are often attributed…it was mostly only among the social elite, that hygiene was good ! The Medieval period were of course “tough living” compared to modern day society, but so were life in antiquity ! The Medieval period has a unfairly bad reputation !

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