Common Misconceptions About Medieval Town Life

For many of us, our impression of medieval town life goes something like this: cramped and crowded with lots of walls, busy streets, and dirt everywhere. In reality, peasants could sue their lords, fast food was a thing and people enjoyed football, even way back then. They weren’t all just lovers of archery and jousting, and innkeepers weren’t all big burly men with dirty aprons. It was so much different than we’ve been led to believe. Here are five examples of these misconceptions.

1. Citizens Lived Highly Restricted Lives

We often assume that the lives of medieval people, especially the poor ones, were full of restrictions that tied into the property of their lords. The truth was that the majority of peasants had rights that allowed them to take their legal master to court if they were mistreated. Everyone who lived in a town was considered to be a burgess, regardless of their level of wealth or past circumstances. They were also regarded as freemen who were obligated to no one. It was usually the ones in rural areas who lived with limited freedom.

2. The Food Was Bland

Another mistake we make is that medieval food was nothing but bland and boring homegrown vegetables and porridge. Maybe in the countryside, but in towns the food was no more exciting and full of flavor than it is today. But it cost a pretty penny. Merchants from all over Europe docked in what is now modern-day London, selling all sorts of spices – ginger, cumin, cloves, pepper, you name it. Naturally, people incorporated these flavors in their dishes, making their food far from boring!

3. Innkeepers Were Poor

We’ve all seen movies and video games that depicted the medieval innkeeper as a rugged and tough man who had no qualms kicking out an unruly patron. Well, there are a few things wrong with this assumption. First, they weren’t only men: 10-20 percent of innkeepers were women. Secondly, they were quite wealthy and powerful people who held prestigious positions such as merchants, elected officials or members of the clergy. And finally, they sometimes ran other businesses on the side and traded valuable commodities. 

4. Everyone Cooked at Home

It’s all too easy to assume that everyone in the medieval period had a kitchen in their home, much like we do today. But ovens back then were a huge fire risk due to their large size. So what did they do? One, either take their unbaked goods to a baker where they would pay a small fee to have it baked. Or two, buy ready-made foods such as meat pies, wafers, pancakes and hotcakes at local pie shops or bakeries to eat while on the move. 

5. Sports Were All Old-Fashioned

What’s your favorite medieval sport? Is it jousting? Archery? Or maybe it’s soccer. That’s right, soccer was a thing back then, but it was simply known as “ball.” It was similar in many ways to modern day soccer but with some slight differences such as the extremely large teams of 300 to 500 people and the fact that the ball could be propelled with any part of the body, including the hands. It was pretty aggressive too, and there was lots of kicking, punching and fighting just to get the ball. There was even a women’s team where married women would face off against their unmarried counterparts.

 

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