Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies

I confess that I didn’t get as much out of this book as I did the previous book in this series that I read, Life in a Medieval Castle. There were several times I wanted to stop reading this book and say “please tell me about life in a medieval city?” For instance there was an entire chapter on how a cathedral was built which went into technical aspects and science, but didn’t talk much at all about the people who actually built the cathedral. I was quite impressed with the first half of this book, but the last several chapters I got very little from.

Let’s talk about some of what we can learn from this book, however. We start off well, discussing the fact that cities were really born in the middle ages, and were not hitting their stride until 1250 or so. Of course, there were cities in the Roman Empire but by the 5th century, those had declined. We learn that the Vikings were instrumental in city building because if they plundered more than they could carry, they often sold it to anyone with the money to buy it, so larger cities profited off of their less fortunate neighbors (11).

The number one danger in a city was fire, which was more likely to spread as the density of houses and shops grew higher. The water supply was limited, which made putting out a fire difficult.

There was a wide variety of economic classes in a city. A poor family may inhabit one room of a house they share with other families while a rich family may inhabit four floors of a house and live in relative comfort. Of course, it is 13th century comfort, which few 21st century citizens would recognize as comfort. One comfort a burgher would have is a bright and colorful wardrobe in reds, blues, greens, and yellows. These garments would be trimmed and lined with fur (40). Cosmetics were frowned on by the church, but nearly everyone who could afford them, male and female, used them (46).

People do not care exactly what time it is, but rather care how much daylight is left. This time is told by the bells of the cathedral ringing on a schedule, every 3 hours. Monastaries and churches may have water clocks or sundials, but the average person does not bother themselves about time.

Well to do women know how to read, write, and often, speak Latin on top of more feminine tasks such as sewing or embroidery or playing the lute. While women are not allowed to go to university, neither are the vast majority of men. Women work outside the house at a wide variety of tasks including teaching, midwifery, laundry, crafts, and many women work alongside their husbands at whatever profession their husband works in. Wife beating, however, is common (55).

An old superstition holds that when twins are born, the woman had intercourse with two men. This is particularly unfortunate in an age when adultery is punishable by death. Assuming only one child is born, well to do women rarely nurse their own children. The wetnurse is chosen with care because personality traits are thought to be transferred through the milk.

There are rarely legal records kept, and if age must be ascertained for legal purposes at any point in someone’s life, the testimony of the midwife, godparents, and priest who did the baptism will be taken into consideration.

As they grow up, children will play with a wide variety of toys including many that we recognize today such as tops, horse shoes, or marbles. Girls have dolls. Adults and children alike play bowling and blindman’s bluff. Swimming and wrestling are popular. Early versions of soccer and tennis exist. Young and old play chess and checkers (62).

Although it is not uncommon, priests frown on marriages purely for financial gain and emphasize consent. A bride must be 12 years old and her groom at least 14. Divorce is impossible and annulment happens only if the marriage can be shown to go against one of the three laws of marriage: age, consent, or consanguinity (68). A widow automatically inherits 1/3rd of her husband’s property if he dies.

Few children are wealthy enough to go to school, but those who do go must copy their own books by hand. Since writing materials are expensive, memorization is important. Theoretically the curriculum consists of seven liberal arts, but rarely are they all taught. They are considered liberal because they are not money makers, and are worthy of a free man. Science is not a large part of the curriculum, and what there is is likely to be less accurate than what is learned by people who actually use the science in their profession. Universities have not kept up with modern science, and instead teach Greek scientists.

There is another half of this book, but it is not nearly as interesting as the first half of the book. Overall, I would suggest this book or at least the first half of it for anyone studying the middle ages.

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