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Medieval World: Daily Life

Resources to support the Year 8 Humanities Unit: Medieval world - The Middle Ages

Daily Life in The Middle Ages

Weblink:  What Was it Really Like to Live in the Middle Ages?

Comprehensive Interactive guide covering these topics : 

Medieval Life

Peasants In The Middle Ages  

Peasants in the Middle Ages strived hard to earn their bread and butter. They were completely dependent on agriculture for their survival. They were aware of the natural and man-made disasters so they developed a tendency to collect food for the consequent year. Peasants in the Middle Ages worked hard day and night, for long hours, in rain or hot summer to accumulate enough amount of food for their families.

The peasants also played other roles rather than farmers such as the blacksmiths, millers and tavern owners. Overall the peasants in the middles ages were the backbone of the society. A few of them had land of their own and few of them were provided leased land by wealthy land lords. The farmers worked hard day and night to produce food, provided food and paid taxes. Farmers had leisure time too by taking rests on Sundays. They celebrated marriages, births and feasts on holidays as well as attended church and Sabbath day. 

Peasants normally resided in undersized towns or nearby the landlord’s mansion. The average peasants in Middle Ages lived in cottages constructed using stone, mud, wood and thatch to cover the roof. There were little or no furniture in their houses. They had dirt floors in their houses, few furnishings such as table, stool or may be a trunk to keep clothes. Most of the peasants houses contained grains and other agricultural products stored in rooms. The beds used by these peasants were generally made up of sacks of straw. A few peasants in the wealthy category owned wooden beds and iron pots. Kitchen used to be separate or common with the bedroom in most of the houses. Windows and doors were not common in all houses. In name of windows, there were only slits without glasses and doors were made of wood. Only a few of the peasants were able to use gates made up of iron or any other material.



Medieval textiles

Medieval Textiles


Many modern people think that clothes in the Middle Ages were drab, grey-brown things. Archaeological finds of clothing or textiles, rare as they are, often seem to support this: they all look brown.

This brown-ness is deceptive, though. Medieval people enjoyed colours, and dyeing textiles has been done since at least the Bronze Age. Modern methods are getting better and better at detecting colouring substances from plants and animals in medieval textile finds, too.

So we do know for sure that medieval fabrics, including those used for garments, were dyed. Literary sources indicate that bright, clear colours were most highly prized . These colours are easiest to achieve on animal fibres such as wool and silk, while linen can be very hard to dye in a bright, saturated colour. On wool, however, a huge spectrum of colours can be dyed.

The typical dyeing procedure used for most plant- or insect-based dyes consists of two steps: mordanting and dyeing. During mordanting, the textile is treated with metal salts such as alum (which contains aluminium). The metal salts bind themselves to the fibres; during the next step, the dyeing step, the colouring substances from the plants in turn bind to the metal.

Alum was the most common mordant, as it helps produce clear and bright colours. Mordanting with iron, for example, typically results in murkier shades that shift towards green or brown tones. Reseda luteola (dyer’s weld) will only produce a clear yellow on alum, while on an iron mordant, it will dye a shade of olive-green.

This is also true for other plants that produce other shades. Apart from the mordanting agent, many other factors can influence the outcome of the dyeing: water quality and water impurities, other additives, concentration of the colourant in the plant, heat and duration of the dyeing process, even the material that the dyeing pots are made of can have an impact on what shade will be the end result. This also means that even if we are able to identify the plant used to dye an archaeological textile find, we still don’t know what colour it was. We only know the colour range it may have belonged to, and that range can be quite wide. Most plants that yield a yellow colour can be used to dye yellow ranging into green and brown shades down to a deep brown, for instance; reds can range from pink or orange hues to reddish-browns or almost black colours.

Are you wondering why blue was not mentioned yet? There is only one plant native to Europe that will yield a blue dye, and that is Isatis tinctoria – dyer’s woad. The woad plant needs special handling, though. Its colourant, indigo, is not a mordant dye but a vat dye. It needs to undergo a chemical reduction before it can bind to the fibre, turning it from blue into a yellowish-green substance. Once the textile is pulled out of the dye bath, the oxygen in the air reacts with the dyestuff, turning it blue almost instantly. Several cycles of immersion and oxydation will result in a deeper, darker blue, while just one or two dips result in a lighter shade. Woad, being a vat dye, will also work nicely on linen, hemp or other plant fibres, as opposed to most mordant dyes.

Woad blue, dyed on top of naturally brown sheep’s wool, will also result in a spectacular shade of black with a blueish sheen. Dyed on top of yellow, woad will change it into the most vivid and brilliant green, clearer in hue than the greens achieved with single-plant mordanting dyes. And finally, if used in combination with madder (Rubia tinctorum), the prime plant for red dye, it can even be used to fake purple. True purple, derived from a mollusc caught in the Mediterranean, was only accessible for the super-rich, as hundreds or even thousands of these sea snails are necessary to produce enough dye for even a bit of cloth. More affordable, but still quite expensive, were the insect dyes kermes and cochenille, both used for shades of red – cochenille more towards the pink hues, kermes more towards true red shades.

The range of colours available for the wealthy was thus almost unlimited. Literary texts speak of grass-green, sky-blue, blood-red and coal-black textiles. From light hues to bright saturated colours to subdued tones, dyed on top of naturally coloured wools, something to add a splash of colour would have been available to suit every purse. When we imagine how people in the Middle Ages dressed themselves or decorated their home with blankets, cushions and other domestic textiles, we should thus replace the drab and brown hues before our mind’s eye with colours from light and bright to subdued… but definitely full of colour.

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