Common aspects of medieval society

What do we mean by ‘medieval'?

The word ‘medieval' refers to ‘the Middle Ages', the period from c.500 to c.1500. This era lies between the achievements of the ancient classical world and the new ways of thinking which came with the Renaissance in Europe.

One church

The medieval era is also a period before the protestant Reformation. Since the sixteenth-century Reformation there have been various different types of Christianity co-existing and sometimes conflicting in the world. However, medieval Europe was a wide community of one catholic (universal) Church, referred to as Christendom.

There were many conflicts within the Church, most importantly during Chaucer's lifetime in the reform movement inspired by John Wyclif. Contemporaries throughout Europe were also appalled by the spectacle of two rival popes (conflicts between factions in the Church had led to one Pope at Avignon and a rival in Rome).

Francis of AssisiHowever, the peoples of Europe still had a sense of being a unified community:

  • Religious life was relatively similar in France, Germany and Britain, since the Church's organisation throughout Europe was structured around dioceses and parishes, with bishops, priests and monks, friars and nuns, shared doctrines and a shared Latin Mass
  • Secular rulers exercised power over their subjects, but always (in theory at least) under the higher rule of the Church and the pope
  • Latin, the language of the Church, was also the universal language of learning throughout Europe.

Modes of learning

Printing did not come to England till the second half of the fifteenth century. Since books had to be written by hand, they were less common and more expensive to produce, owned only by a few. Instead, people's knowledge came much more from:

  • The spoken word, whether in sermons, plays, or from the oral performance of writings—including works like Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
  • The visual, such as paintings and drama. Most of the surfaces in churches were richly painted with scenes from the Bible and Christian doctrine.


Until around 1300, learning and education was primarily under the control of the Church and conducted in Latin: most books were written in Latin and educated people often conversed or debated in Latin. Nevertheless, English was used for quite a range of texts from Anglo-Saxon times onwards and French (Norman French) was often the language for works of information or devotion designed for the laity, after the Norman Conquest.

However, from around 1300 onwards (the late medieval period), there developed increasing use of vernacular languages all over Europe—Italian, French, English, Spanish and so on—for literature and even for learned books. This increase in English books meant that speakers of ‘the common tongue' could begin to enter areas of intellectual life previously dominated by educated clerics.

There developed a growing number of literate, usually upper-class, laymen and women, who became increasingly confident, expressing interest in religious issues. This went hand in hand with greater numbers of serious books in the vernacular on both religious and secular subjects.

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