The Hardships of Living in Medieval Britain

Two people with the plague with characteristic buboes on their bodies.
Medieval people.
Medieval town.
Relgious painting.

The medieval period is a period in history stretching roughly from 500 CE to 1500 CE. In Britain, at this time, most people sustained themselves as farmers, with farm work being busy during spring, summer and fall, when crops had to be sown and harvested and animals had to be tended to. During the cold and dark winter in rural areas, in contrast, work-related activities slowed down a great deal, and there was little to do other than huddle together inside and try to stay warm in order to survive.

In the medieval British towns, which were relatively small, the streets were filled with animals, rubbish and excrement. Clean water was hard to come by and sewage systems were scarce. Because of this, towns and the people who lived in the towns were often dirty, allowing disease to spread easily.

The Black death

One period when disease spread particularly quickly on the British Isles was the mid-14th century, when the Black Death arrived via southern Europe and Asia. Coming in the form of bubonic plague, the Black Death mercilessly caused people to become feverish, cough blood and grow buboes all over their bodies, with no hope of being cured. Quite dishearteningly, this meant that the only thing infected Britons could do was to wait out death in agonizing pain, while at the same time avoiding contact with loved ones lest they should risk becoming terminally ill too.

Altogether, an estimated one third and up to half of Britain’s population died from bubonic plague within just a few years. The death rate, in other words, was sky high, and as the dead bodies were piled up, a great many religious people thought that Judgement Day had come — that God was collectively punishing the human race for its sins by killing them all off one after the other.

A God-fearing people

In whatever way God was or was not involved in the mass death of the mid-14th century, God, in medieval times, was generally believed to be able to both punish and reward people. For this reason, many Brits tried to stay on God’s good side by behaving virtuously towards their perceived divine authorities. This was done through attending church on Sundays, following the teachings of the priests and paying obligatory church tax, all of which gave the Church and the priests great power in society.

Many pregnancies

While the priests, who were always men, had important power in medieval British public life, women, by contrast, did not. The “fairer sex”, for the most part, occupied themselves with doing the household chores and looking after children, leaving little room for societal issues. Women, furthermore, were often pregnant, largely due to there not existing any good forms of contraception, and while children could contribute to families’ income, expecting a newborn was far from always a positive experience. This was because adequate maternal care had not yet been developed, meaning that women would risk their lives both during deliveries and in the postpartum stage every time they gave birth.