Life in the Middle Ages

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Medieval Cumberland County with Alan Walter

In the next few articles in this column we will be going on a journey, back in time and space. Our destination in time will be the Middle Ages, the years between 1000 and 1400 A.D.

Our destination in space will be medieval Cumberland County in northwest England. This original Cumberland County was established in the 12th century. It no longer exists as a county, having been a recent victim of amalgamation in 1974 with Westmoreland and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire to form the new county of Cumbria.

It seems like “amalgamation” is not a fate unique to our part of the world.

We are making this journey so we can compare our present lives with those of the distant past. Maybe we can then better understand the modern world we live in, and why our lives are the way they are. We are fortunate to have a namesake piece of territory in England to help us in this comparison.

Interestingly, the original Cumberland County, has been described as “a maritime and border county bounded on the west by the Irish Sea and by Scotland to the north.” The county seat, equivalent to our Amherst, was the town of Carlisle which had a population of around two thousand souls in the Middle Ages, about the size of our own Springhill today. The county itself was an earldom, later divided into several baronies. Coincidentally, both the English and Nova Scotian counties are of the same size, around a million acres each.

The Middle Ages is an attractive period to visit for a number of reasons.  Firstly it was a period of dramatic change, sandwiched between the Dark Ages on the earlier side and the Renaissance on the later side. It was also a well-documented period, much more so than the previous centuries.  For myself I find it to be a fascinating, larger than life chunk of time, populated with lords and knights, powerful religious influences, important historical milestones such as the Black Death and the Magna Carta, and featuring a peasantry that we can count as our distant ancestors.

Before we take our journey, we need to put this period in some better time context. The disintegration of the Roman Empire around 480 A.D was followed by 400 years or so of those Dark Ages. It was so-called because the civilised culture created by the Romans in Europe quickly disappeared in terms of reduced literacy, art, commerce, and the emptying out of towns and cities. Paris, for example was reduced by 80 per cent to a little over 20,000 people in that period.

England was later conquered by the Normans in 1066. The rulers of England were replaced with French speaking nobles; relatives and cronies of William the Conqueror, previous known as William the Bastard.  An early form of English was the language of those who were ruled. Interestingly our current vocabulary reflects this fact when we use words for served meat such as beef, pork, and mutton, all of French derivation. By contrast, animals in the care of the local peasantry were named with Anglo-Saxon words such as cow, pig and sheep.

Towards the end of the period we will be visiting, came the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the worldwide deaths of up to 200 million people in the years 1346–53. Depending on the region, it is estimated to have eliminated between 30 and 50 percent of Europe's total population at the time. It took around 150 years for that population to recover in size.

The most interesting aspect of our journey will be the comparison of societies then and now. In our modern world, groups or classes are defined by wealth or income; upper class, middle class, etc. In contrast, the medieval world has been described as consisting of three orders; those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked; in other words, the nobility, the clergy and the peasantry. As a citizen your role in society back then was defined more by what you did, rather than what you owned. To put a positive spin on this arrangement, you could say it had the potential to be a collaborative, harmonious one, with no suggestion of a class struggle. The reality was very different as we will see.

So, in the next article we will examine the nobility, consisting of the lords and knights, and we will look at the challenges they faced to hold on to power and property. The article after that will focus on the church and the clergy and their role in shaping our institutions and culture. Perhaps of most interest to us, we will then examine the life of the peasant class, which represented up to ninety per cent of the population at that time. Finally, we will devote time to the lives of women and children of that period, townspeople, and then attempt to figure out what, if anything, we have learned through this journey.


Alan Walter’s column explores what we can learn from the Middle Ages in England with a bit of focus on the original Cumberland County.


Organizations: Roman Empire, Normans

Geographic location: Cumberland County, England, Middle Ages Westmoreland Lancashire Yorkshire Cumbria Irish Sea Scotland Europe Carlisle Nova Scotian Paris

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