Three Things About Medieval Europe

The world I write in has a whisper of a basis in Medieval Europe, depending on the kingdom in question. I have a history minor and a love of documentaries, so I already knew much of what we know about the period is pretty bunk.

Still, it was intriguing to do a bit more research on certain areas. Seriously. People didn’t suddenly learn to like being clean in the Regency Era. Which leads me to:

1. People Bathed

Yes, they did. Usually, several times a month. No, this isn’t the daily showers we expect in America, but they did bathe far more often than we’re led to believe. Some even believe we bathe too often now, stripping the body of protective oils, which causes the body to produce an excessive amount of oil.

It was also very common practice in Medieval Europe to wash your hands before every meal.

Communal bathing was still a thing for a big chunk of medieval life, at least in places that still had functioning Roman baths. See, Roman was a vast empire, rich, and stable. Maintaining a communal bathhouse wasn’t cheap, and in the feudal system that arose after the fall of Rome, this wasn’t always at the top of the list. Still, where they were maintained, the Roman tradition of communal baths continued for a long time. Right up until the black plague.

Roman bath in England. Yeah, not easy to maintain without an empire behind you.

We also know that the wealthy and middle-classes had bathing tubs that were lined in some sort of fabric. It was so commonplace no one thought to write down what it was, but modern day scholars suspect it was either linen or possible canvas as wet canvas is actually quite good at holding water.


2. People Lived Longer than You Think

We’ve all heard that people in Medieval Europe only lived to 35. Well, that’s true. Sort of. The average age was 35.

What a lot of people forget is that averages can be skewed. And what skewed this average is infant mortality. There were no vaccines in Medieval Europe. Even now, when the flu or whatever virus du jour is infecting everyone, the old and the young are most vulnerable.

From Wikipedia Commons

What this means is that if you were able to survive to age 21, you were looking at, on average, another 50 years of life expectancy. trick was surviving to 21.


3. People Knew Things About Medicine

 Archaeologists recently dug up a medieval site that included medicinal waste products. What they found surprised many. For example, they had potent painkillers and general anesthetics, such as hemlock, henbane, and opium poppy.

They had tormentil, a herb that kills parasites and alleviate diarrhea and internal bleeding.


Quicklime has been found being used as a disinfectant, which it totally is.

While medicine was not making the strides in Medieval Europe it had under the Romans, let’s get back to the fact that there wasn’t a Roman empire anymore than provided stability and wealth.

There are a lot of things about history that are shrouded in myth and misinformation. Not entirely sure why that is. Perhaps we want to feel better about ourselves now.  Perhaps we don’t realize how many advantages we have living in larger countries with stable boarders.

Have you ever come across any historical inaccuracies? What were they? Why do you think they were portrayed that way?


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11 thoughts on “Three Things About Medieval Europe

  1. Well, one of the first historical inaccuracies that comes to mind is “Chain mail was impervious to most weapons, especially arrows.” Fact: Mail is crap against most weapons. It won’t stop a thrust (from arrow, sword, or spear) unless that thrust is rather weak, and it does NOTHING against bludgeoning/blunt force from a mass weapon, which means you could kill someone wearing mail by hitting them with the back side of an ax head and crushing their ribs. Mail does okay against slashes from blades, but that’s all.

    Another, somewhat related inaccuracy: That oft-repeated nonsense about the “blood groove” down the center of a sword blade, supposedly to allow blood from the skewered enemy to flow out around the blade. Fact: It’s actually called a fuller’s groove, and its purpose is to make the blade lighter without making it weaker.

    I could list dozens more inaccuracies in how people usually imagine culture, technology, etc. from medieval Europe, but I don’t think you want me to leave a comment that’s longer than your blog post. 🙂 I do think that, in general, the misconceptions about what people back then knew or had are based on a Victorian-era idea that history is continuous forward progress, and that whatever we have NOW, people in the past must have had less of it, and the further back in time you go, the more “ignorant and uncivilized” people must have been.

  2. The argument I always hear is about the weight of a sword. Fantasy often describes swords so heavy it takes a strong man to wield them. Then modern “experts” jump in with the claim swords didn’t weigh more than a few kilograms. I’m no expert, but there is something romantic (if unrealistic) about a sword so heavy the average person can’t wield it…

    1. Oh crud. I fell for this inaccuracy on swords. Hard. Some documentary I watched said they weighed like 40 pounds. It was on the History Channel. It had to be real. I just did some more research, and I’ll be rewriting.

  3. One of the first misconceptions I had before I studied medieval literature was the concept of bright colors. I always thought people were drab and wore a lot of gray, but fashion could be quite colorful and bright. Great post!

  4. Even though I’m writing fantasy, one of my worlds is based on medieval times and I like to get the details right. I love medieval history. It was pretty much my degree, alongside studying castles! Your points about medicine are so useful, and I’ll look into it in more detail later: At the moment all my characters are using is honey!

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