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Life in a feudal town
Medieval actors
resplendentposy wrote in little_details
Anyone know any good books or sites for researching life in a town in feudal Europe? My story is fantasy, so it doesn't have to be perfectly historically accurate, but I would like it to have a semblance of feudal Europe. I am specifically focusing on life for the lower classes, though not serfs, people who would live and trade in the town.

I've done some searches on feudalism in general, feudal towns, and orphanages in feudal Europe.

My character grows up in an orphanage, though it seems that most were run by the church, but in my world there is no such church, so it would be run by the government. Does this seem feasible? I've also read that orphans may be apprenticed out to learn a trade. Another thing, does it seem unlikely that children would learn to read and write at an orphanage, especially as members of the lower class?

Edit: Oh, yes, by "government" I was thinking government of the town itself.

Edit: For my story, I'd like there to be a clear division between the nobles and upper class and the lower classes, the townsfolk, merchants, peasants, etc. The ruling class is oppressive through taxes and authoritarian rule. I see a group of knights serving as the nobles' hand and policing the land, as well as guards serving the town itself. I see the town comprised of craftsmen and merchants and likely guilds. My character's mother was a seamstress and his father was a trader who settled into the town, married, and became a drunk.

I'm not sure if literacy would be necessary for my character, so if it's more reasonable for the lower classes to be illiterate, then I think that should work. Otherwise, I may have him, instead of growing up in an orphanage, apprenticed to a trade in which he might learn to read and write. While I originally had him in the orphanage from age 5 to 10, it might make more sense for him to be put to work somewhere. I would like to find more information on medieval orphanages though.

I know that's not a whole lot of information, but can you think of any time periods/places I may be able to narrow my research down to?

I don't have any sites for you, sorry.

They would have learned to read in a church run orphanage probably because they would have been being schooled to enter the clergy. Most people who knew how to read then were wealthy, upper class or members of the church.

I haven't looked at it in awhile, but you might find the book "A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World" helpful. Another thing to keep in mind is that in a feudal society, there isn't much in the way of overarching "government" as we understand it. Institutions like orphanages would be sponsored by individual nobles/families in the absence of a church.

ETA: Also, literacy in western society is pretty much an outgrowth of religion. It's hard to say what society (then or now) would look like at all if you excised the church. Interesting thought. That being said, it's highly unlikely that your orphan learns to read, regardless. It's plausible, maybe, if you have him fostered by an eccentric literate person, assuming there's any sort of literacy in the society in general...

Edited at 2012-04-14 04:43 am (UTC)

Also, there isn't much of a "middle class" in most of Europe during the early Middle Ages. You had middle-ranking officers sworn to serve lords, and higher-end serfs who ran things, but no real independence or places to go besides the manor. Outlaws existed and made such escapes even more precarious.
It was later on that serfs started running away or earning they way to freedom, both to earn a better living and live free away from the more abusive nobles. It was later on merchants and traders and townspeople were manufacturing in more specialized trades and joining guilds, which is what this sounds like.

Yes, this would have to be after the Dark Ages to have a credible middle class.

As others have pointed out, there wouldn't be a central government to speak of -- feudalism is very decentralized (that's a defining feature of it, actually, as I understand it). There might be a king or something similar in title, but in practice any government surrounding him would have little to do with the everyday operations of individual fiefdoms or towns.

Since you're doing away with the church, which was, as I understand it, the major driving force behind what we would now consider public health and social safety net programs (orphanages, hospitals, feeding the poor, etc) you could probably have the slack picked up in whatever way you wanted. In such circumstances, an orphanage might be run by a noble family as part of their responsibility for taking care of the people on their lands, or by the town council, or by a craft guild of some kind (perhaps training all the orphans to be wheelwrights or glassblowers or whatever), or by a concerned citizens' group, or whatever you wanted ...

(Disclaimer: I'm not any sort of history scholar, just an interested amateur.)

A couple of very useful books on everyday medieval life that I have are The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, An Englishman's World and The Good Wife's Guide: A Medieval Household Book.

Since you're doing away with the church, which was, as I understand it, the major driving force behind what we would now consider public health and social safety net programs (orphanages, hospitals, feeding the poor, etc) you could probably have the slack picked up in whatever way you wanted.

Indeed. See the German towns that converted to Protestantism very early, like Wittenberg and Leisnig--their city magistrates decided that the community would pay for their preacher, a new co-ed school, a hospital, and a system of relief for the poor--all things that had previously been covered by Church institutions. They found the funds by instituting a community chest (replacing individual almsgiving), absorbing some former Church property, and starting a new poor tax.

A ruler might set up a hospital / orphanage / whatever. Probably the most famous example of this is the hospital of Quinze-Vingts in Paris, which was founded by Louis IX (later St Louis IX) around 1260. There are lots of books and articles on it, if you run a search at Google Books.

They might, but would they without a church to tell them that such acts would get them to heaven? I think it depends on the spiritual/morality system the writer sets up- a Roman Emperor would concern himself more with public baths than hospitals and pre-Christian Saxon kings were more interested in their own households than charity.

Also: Orphanages in the middle ages were more like "foundling homes" where destitute parents dropped the infant off (in previous centuries most parents of a child they couldn't feed would just kill the child- infanticide was rampant and seen as simply a sad fact of life but like in Venice it was rampant to the point of being called a plague). The kids were farmed out to adoptive parents as early and as quickly as possible. There were also colleges/schools for poor kids but they often didn't support the kids and the kids supported themselves by begging when not in class and was for older kids although I think this was mostly in Spain. Google "Collegios de los Ninos de la Doctrina" and you should find something about that. I think the Germanic states might have had something similar but I've mostly only studied Italy and Spain.

Try phrases like "Hospital school" or the Hospitallers.. and "almhouses" although those were for whole families iirc.

The Kindness of Strangers. The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance by John Boswell
Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance by Nicholas Terpstra - a renaissance orphanage in Florence with a rather interesting orphan-delivery system.

The first orphanages were Christian institutions. Before then, you had things like Athens supporting the fatherless children of those who had died in battle, and the like, but not a physical building to house them.

OMG. The Good Wife's Guide is awesome for anyone intending to write or study daily life in the late 14th century or any time around that. Seriously the book is just awesome (although god knows I pity the poor 15yo girl who got that as a wedding present from her husband because man there's a vote of non-confidence, even if it's hella practical).

does it seem unlikely that children would learn to read and write at an orphanage, especially as members of the lower class?
Considering that most priests and noblemen couldn't read or write...? There were even kings who were illiterate in the early Middle Ages. So... Yes. Excessively. Keep in mind that parchment, quills, even ink was also time consuming and difficult to produce and books were a high-end luxury good - a noble family with three or four books must have been very wealthy indeed.

Orphans were on the whole useless mouths to feed or set out to work as early as possible (like most peasant kids, that would be age 6-ish) either by apprenticeship or (in the case of less-scrupulous places) outright being sold as slaves to be taken off to the east- look up the real stories about the Childrens Crusades if you want nightmares. Some (boys) of course would be taken in and dedicated to the church and those might learn to read- or they might not depending on who they impressed. It's more likely they'd be relegated to scullery work or menial labor. Still, a boy might be recognized as bright and handed a wax tablet to begin learning to scratch out letters. But keep in mind that totally illiterate village priests were common to the point of being ridiculous in the earlier eras- it took a few centuries for anyone to even realize maybe the priests should be able to read the bible too. Think Renaissance-era. Learning to read and write was almost the sole preserve of monks and rulers.

In fact one of the major arguments against the printing press was that "OMFG THE PEASANTS WILL LEARN TO READ!" which is obviously A Terrible Idea, etc. It's also kind of impractical for them to read pre-printing-press because a)books are expensive b)paper/parchment is expensive c)traveling more than 2 miles from home is like a major live event. So what use do most of them have for writing? There are town criers, pictograph signs, no mail system, no daily need for letters. Artisans knew what they made and kept their records in their head or possibly with tally marks and their own personal system. And when you're working full-time from age 6 and dying at 35, when are you going to have the time for education? Remember that you have one day off a week if you're lucky and the holy days and that's pretty much it. The lord will take your taxes in coin or more likely he just takes a certain share of your crops/livestock. And when the king decides to have a war or wants a new castle or whatever there's a new tax and the tax-collectors come around again. And if there is a war and they need men then maybe you or your son or lots of your sons get taken off to be in the army (and they may get paid or they may not, depending entirely on the state of the treasury). The soldiers may even come home someday but likely they'll die off wherever the fighting is because a man in leather with a sword facing a man in mail with a horse is going to lose.

That said you've got more lee-way with fantasy societies but the thing to remember is that feudalism is complicated. If you want to have a rising merchant and tradesman class, check out the Guilds System and keep in mind you're probably going to be parallelinthe g the Late Middle Ages or even the Renaissance. You should probably narrow down the era you want to crib from- 12th century? 14th century?- and also things differ from place to place. Is it a more England or Ireland or France? Italy? Holy Roman Empire? Each one of these time and places have different features regarding property, education, society in general.

It's corny but maybe Netflix or YouTube Terry Jones' Medieval Lives which would help you get some info on lower class professions and possibly a book called The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England- although that one focuses on the 14th century. There's also A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th century if that is the era of the middle ages you're aiming for and it will give you some insight about the events of the era and how it affected everyone so you can keep in mind how the world would shape your fictional country's feudal system.

My suggestion for not having a church is that you'll need some kind of something to take the place of that. The church crowned the king, the church sent relief in case of famine, the church ushered you into the world, married you, saved your soul, buried you. Taking that out of the context of European feudalism leaves a pretty big hole- as long as you have something to plug into it or a way to rearrange matters. In fact the reason there were orphanages was largely due to rich nobles performing acts of church-ordered charity by endowing them or helping the local monastery pay for the kids' upkeep.

The state of most feudal monarchies was not prosperous so have a reason your monarchy can afford orphanages. After all in the feudal eras, the countries spend most of the time fighting one another and the king/crown/treasury is paying for those wars meaning that half the time the king's looking for money already. Also, sorry but in feudal times there is no 'paid for by the government'- there is the local lord who may or may not have money himself for that orphanage. If you are doing a later time then perhaps the orphanage is maintained by a guild? The guilds were made to pool money and act as trade unions and might be able to maintain an orphanage to keep the town's streetkids off the streets.

Anyway, good luck with the research!

Like others have said, a government orphanage would not exist in Europe before the Early Modern period at the very earliest.

You should research things specifically about the rise of towns, which were actually not a feature of what you might call classically "feudal" Europe, but developed over time, alongside the rise of a merchant class. There are some interesting classes where the inhabitants of towns declared their own freedom from the local lords, but I can't remember the names right now. Also look up trade fairs, such as the ones at Champagne in France.

Free cities and Imperial cities. Examples woudl be Basel, Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Regensburg, Cologne and I think Strasbourg. Maybe even Freiburg (or maybe they switched overlord?). And that's still Middle Ages. Later there came more but then you're already moving into Renaissance and Early Modern Time.

For trade and how that was handled you might also try looking at the Hanseatic League who dominated trade in Northern Europe from the 13th century on.

There's also the English model where the king needed cash and would grant a town a charter making them responsible directly to the crown instead of to the local baron or whoever- in return for a very large lump sum of money. But it's been way too long since my English History courses and I can't remember specific towns. The crown got a lot of money that way and because then the crown could take all the town's taxes with no middle management it was a good way to increase income and lessen dependence on the barons. I may be totally bungling all this though because uh, I hated English History >.>

Another route is city-states like in Italy. Although then if you're doing a full-on world-building you are going to have lots and lots of migraines as you try to chart out how many neighbors your city-state has and who double-crosses who and who hates who and which cities are aligned and for how many minutes. Though again Italy was largely shaped by the Papal States and the fact the church ran a huge strip of land as their own country- and the nobles slowly just wandering off and pretending they forgot they owed allegiance to the Vatican, and the Vatican getting pissed off and declaring war, wash rinse repeat (see: Guelphs and Ghibellines also a good model for lots of vicious family feuds mixed in there). Then add in France and the Holy Roman Empire and Spain all trying to sidle in and take over stuff. But you could look up maybe Verona, Tuscany or Lombardy with the old commune system falling into a new system of dynastic powers... Check out Milan and the house of Visconti or Verona under della Scala etc. I love Italian history and it's utterly insane amount of back-stabbing though, but I admit it will cause migraines and requires a mental chart of who is betraying who at any point.

Still if you just want to do a story dealing with one city and the commoners in one city a city-state or a town with a crown charter or Imperial town might be the best option. It does simplify things a bit.

Try using both "medieva

Blast. Computer has a mind of its own.

Try using both "medieval" and "mediaeval" with your search terms.

If you don't want church involvement, have a look at Anglo-Saxon England, where a lot of society developed from its pre-Christian state.

Towns there developed in reaction to the Danish invasions and started out as fortified bases which then collected traders - similar to what had happened with Roman legionary camps. These merchants, increasingly wealthy but not warrior elite, were the foundation of the middle class; this was the norm in Europe generally.

Orphanages and hospitals: look at Greco-Roman society (which managed to shock the translators of the Penguin edition of "Aesop's Fables". There weren't any because people didn't feel the need to help the unfortunate, and indeed thought it morally wrong to help anyone who was not a member of the extended family or likely to return the favour in the future. People did give to beggars but that was about the limit. If a family did take in an unrelated orphan it would be in order to get the maximum amount of work out of them. Abandoned children were "taken up" but they were either taken into the family (which could benefit it) or ended up in brothels.

Literacy: that is one of those things that aren't as obvious as they seem now. A merchant's family would need it for record keeping. If there is an extensive literature the elite would need it, partly to prove that they are the elite. About the only exception from Greco-Roman society was the Hellenistic romances (some very long) and, in medieval societies, other romances. My friend G, a medievalist, did a study of books in medieval libraries and found some very sexy romances that had been passed on by the family that supported the establishment - they had belonged to the previous generation and had fallen out of fashion, and the thinking was, "Monks read books. We'll give the books to them."

If it seems surprising that I'm giving so many recommendations from the pre-medieval world, it's because there wasn't a particularly sharp break; the Classical world merged into the Medieval world via Late Antiquity, with some of the roots of feudalism including the big Roman country estates and the arrangements made for the support of Germanic fighting units. One of the most fascinating characters is Gundobad, King of the Burgundians; he was also a Roman Patrician and had been head of the Roman army in the West, and the ritual for taking service for him would have been recognised by any medieval ruler.

Picking up on government, a lot depended on whether towns were under the direct control of the local ruler (in which case they would be governed by his appointee) or free and independent, In that case they were usually run by a committee of the heads of the major guilds. The free towns in particular were a route out of the feudal system; partly because the death rate in towns tended to be higher than the birth rate, newcomers were welcome and there was often a rule whereby if someone left the land and lived for a year and a day in the town, he would be freed from all his feudal ties. It was a major route to social mobility; incredibly, there is a substratum of truth in the story of Dick Whittington, who ended up as Sir Richard Whittington, a prime example of the medieval middle class.

The guilds, rather than the town as a whole, often did take care of dependents of deceased members but in your society nobody would have any interest in taking care of someone with no ties to them.

In the countryside, a lot would depend on how productive a member of the household a child would be; but since even three year olds could contribute a significant amount, the biggest problem would be children younger than that - whether it would be worth investing resources in bringing up a child that might not even live long enough to make it worthwhile, child mortality figures being what they were. One would do it for one's own offspring, but there would not be much reason to do it for someone else's. This was basically the reason for the church's involvement: nobody else was interested and usually didn't see why they should be.

The Gies write an interesting series about Medieval life, including Lfe in a Medieval Town, Castle, etc, or you might look for A world lit only by Fire, pick up Anglo-Saxon Prose or Anglo-Saxon Poetry which have wills, riddles, discussions with merchants and tradesmen, read the Norse Sagas, or Procopius, or romances, towns founded by the Hansa (Hanseatic League). Towns also changed depending on who took over- the Roman towns had distinctive layouts, overlaid by Germanic or Celtic defensive layouts.
Try here-
or, etc.

In many free towns, which existed indepedent of the feudal system, guilds had communal funds which, among other uses, provided for orphans of guildmembers, including training and apprenticeships, dowries, etc. Parishes had the same responsibilities to people born withing the bounds, and in other areas the communal organizations were clans.
Churches ran basic schools to teach simple reading and reckoning skills necessary for trade, sometimes writing too. Many more people could read than write.
To some extent, raising and training children contributed to the communal assets as labor and sheer numbers.
But worth thinking about- almost all societies have both religion and charity as a virtue, and the children of neighbors/community members will be helped as a community and religious duty, so orphans are often under the care of religious/civic organizations- in Kathmandu the street kids are fed breakfast by one of the temple monks, other times families will take in an orphan who provides extra labor, and several city-states had organizations to help the children of the poor learn a trade, get dowries, etc.

Edited at 2012-04-14 07:58 am (UTC)

I looked up the Gies books, and they look like they might be a good place to start. Thanks.

The Gies books are excellent: Life in a Medieval Town, Life in a Medieval City, and Life in a Medieval Castle have been consolidated into Daily Life in Medieval Times. There's also A Medieval Family: The Pastons of Fifteenth-Century England and Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages.

Also worth reading: The Common Stream: Two Thousand Years of the English Village by Rowland Parker.

Edited at 2012-04-14 03:41 pm (UTC)

I was going to recommend them. Very readable and useful.

I highly recommend "A Time Traveller's Guide to Mediaeval England". It's extremely readable, gives a real sense of what life was really like, and covers a broad range of things, from clothes to culture to laws and money.

Ha, I was just about to recommend this. Seconded ;)

Umpteething "A Time Traveller's Guide to Mediaeval England".

Also you might wanna check out Connie Willis' novel Doomsday Book part of which is set in mediaeval england, Willis knows her onions when it comes to day to day life in that era.

I'll add in the following though:
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Coredon and WIlliams. Which gives you all the background on those "flavour" terms people tend to use without knowing what they mean.

Knight: The Medieval Warrior's (Unofficial) Manual by Michael Prestwich. This is a light hearted, but still accurate, look at what the knights life was actually like including social conventions. its written in a very joke-y "Horrible Histories" style (incidentally, the supposed-kid's book series Horrible Histories is worth checking out on its own, simple, yet stunningly accurate) style, but very well researched.

London Lore: The legends and traditions of the world's most vibrant city. By Steve Roud. Not just confined to the mediaeval period, however, this is a marvellous resource when it comes to the little details of civic life.

1215: The Year of Magna Carta by John Gillingham. This is mediaeval politics, the institutions, how they worked and how they didn't. The nobles, the crown, the church, the guilds, and all the rest. Its the world that required Magna Carta and how it coped with it.

Thirding "A Time Traveler's Guide" and seconding Terry Jones, both the videos on Netflix, and the actual book "medieval lives"

A lot of what I have is more focused on England, but some of it might help. I second (or third) a couple of those recommendations: 1215: The year of the Magna Carta and The Year 1000 by Lacey and Danziger.

If you're looking for quick reads, I would also add:
1066: The year of the Conquest by David Howarth. It's obviously England-specific, but I found it very readable.
The early chapters of A Thousand Years of London Bridge by C. W. Shepherd
Private Life in the Fifteenth Century, edited by Roger Virgoe. This is a collection of letters from one family, with some general information on the time period for reference.

For a good general history, try the Greenwood Press's Daily Life in Medievable Europe. It's fairly broad, so you're not going to get a lot of details of any one time or place, but it'll give you a feel for the time period. It also has some surprising details, especially if you're used to thinking of the medieval period as a black hole of ignorance and filth. :) Longer than the others, but less narrowly focused.

I have A World Lit Only by Fire on my To-Read stack, but I haven't actually picked it up yet, so I can't tell you if it's any good. Of course, all of these will contradict each other in some place or another. That's the fun of history!

Ozark Medieval Castle Guide
Doomesday Book Online
A History of Taxation: Good for figuring out how the money might have flowed to those orphanages. Of course, I'm an accountant, so tax history is interesting to me. It might put you to sleep.

I have A World Lit Only by Fire on my To-Read stack, but I haven't actually picked it up yet, so I can't tell you if it's any good.

It's a fascinating book, very fun to read, but I've seen it criticised because the author tends to make wild generalisations and pass them off as objective, universal fact. So read with caution. Of course if you're writing fantasy, that doesn't matter so much. :)

After I wrote my reply, I actually went and pulled the book off my stack and started reading it. It's easy to read, but my first thought (after reading about a page and a half) is, "Racist much?" I love that everyone not Roman is an evil barbarian. Of course, it's always possible that I'm just grumpy today. :) I'll read at least the first chapter before I give up (or don't).

I suspect whether or not your character learned to read depends mostly on whether or not the people in charge of the orphanage could read. Someone in charge of keeping track of town finances could reasonably be expected to be literate, and might have a few spare hours a week to teach the children letters and numbers. Alternately you could find a reason for every major town to be required to have a scribe present (such as keeping track of crime), who might also be convinced to give the children occasional lessons.

You might also look at the book _Montaillu_ by Emmanual Le Roy Ladurie, which is about a town in southern France in the 14th century and is mostly from the perspective of ordinary people.

omg how did I forget that one? Seconding!

I'd also strongly recommend Christopher Dyer's Making A Living In The Middle Ages - based on Britain, but an excellent book with a lot of details.

One thing you might want to bear in mind with gilds is that they were in general a self-selecting oligarchy. Outsiders found it harder to enter the gild, and would often be banned from carrying out trade if they weren't members. Those from outside the town would be likely to have to pay a higher admission fine than those who had served an apprenticeship in the town, or whose fathers were members. So you need to establish how your character's father arrived, originally set up in business, etc. Apprenticeship required the payment of money to the master, by the child's family and friends, or by a charity, (or the church).

If you have a world without the church (without any religion?) you're going to need to world-build to produce a structure for things like charity, support of the poor, etc. Who does it, how, and why. In the real world, charities run by gilds were often likely to select gild members as beneficiaries rather than the poor in general. So you could have a setup where your character is eligible for his apprenticeship to be paid for by the gild as his father was a member before his death.

Thanks, everyone, for your recommendations!

It's not the most important thing ever, but I recently found this website full of medieval recipes adapted for modern tastes. Thought it was pretty fun, though I haven't tried any of the recipes yet, myself. :) Might give you some good ideas for things your characters would be eating...


The Cadfael series by Ellis Peters have some great descriptions :)