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How Do We Know about the Middle Ages?

By Danièle Cybulskie

No matter which dates you use to define it, the medieval period was a very long time ago. Most of the people who existed during that time lived and died anonymously – at least as far as history is concerned. So how is it that we know anything about this period at all?

Existing Structures

Medieval graffiti from St Nicholas Church, Blakeney. Photo by Matthew Champion, Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Project
Medieval graffiti from St Nicholas Church, Blakeney. Photo by Matthew Champion, Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Project

All over Europe stand pieces of the Middle Ages, from imposing castles and great cathedrals to humble wooden buildings. These are some of the most immediate sources of information that allow us to piece together not only how people lived, but who they were.

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Like the walls of Pompeii, the walls of some rooms of the Tower of London are covered with inscriptions left there by the prisoners who passed through – many on their way to execution. Graffiti left on old buildings (provided it can be accurately dated) gives us hints as to the mental state of the people who lived before us, especially their attitudes toward posterity (after all, why bother etching stone if you don’t plan on others reading it?).

Other features, such as murals and grottos, give us insight into what was aesthetically pleasing, while the structure of the buildings themselves tells us about the size of the people living there, and what their priorities were (security? comfort? practicality?), not to mention their methods of construction and their technology.

Modern Technology

Palamedes projectSpeaking of technology, modern technology has contributed a lot to historical research. Advances in imaging equipment have allowed us to follow buried stone walls and topographical inconsistencies to the point at which we are able to “see” the outlines of past towns and settlements without having to dig them up – something which is greatly appreciated by today’s landowners.

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Similarly, we can now look at old manuscripts and see palimpsests – that is, we can see writing underneath the visible writing on parchment that has been reused. That means we can read two historical documents in one! And let’s not forget how scanners and the Internet have allowed scholars all over the world to learn from each other and trade information, when they would previously have to travel globally to do their research. Modern technology is an historian’s friend.

Historical Documents

Page from the Domesday Book for Warwickshire, including listing of Birmingham
Page from the Domesday Book for Warwickshire, including listing of Birmingham

Although the vast majority of medieval people were, indeed, illiterate, this does not mean that records do not exist. Because the teaching of reading and writing was mainly intended to allow clergy to access holy texts, the writers of the Middle Ages were overwhelmingly churchmen. That being said, the clergy not only recorded information pertinent to clerical matters (such as baptisms and marriages), but they also took care of some legal matters as well, recording their various dealings with the public in terms of fines and punishments, for example. Their skill with the pen led them to be hired as government clerks as well, and the detailed records of regular government business give us clues as to what was fashionable, what was expensive, and what the gap was between rich and poor.

Perhaps the most important of this type of record is the Domesday Book (yes, the “Doomsday Book”) from the late eleventh century, in which William the Conqueror amassed an immense amount of detail about who his new subjects were, where they lived, and what they possessed. Priests and monks, having also been able to read histories left behind by the Romans and Greeks, followed past examples, and wrote down chronicles which include everything from the weather to court gossip.

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Literature

While fiction may not immediately come to mind as a good source of factual historical information, it does provide a lot of information when you read between the lines. Because writers automatically follow the old adage (“write about what you know”) to a point, that means that some of the information found in literature points to how people lived at that time. While I highly doubt people were snatched away to the land of faerie (at least, not regularly), they did indeed ride horses, pitch tents on battlefields, and go on pilgrimages.

Beyond the practical facts to be mined out of literature are the cultural implications of the stories: what were the values implicit in the stories? Who were they for? Who do they feature? And, a question I find extremely interesting: why were certain stories so widely popular?

Amateur Historians and Blind Luck

While “real” archaeologists and “real” historians hate to admit it, many of the important discoveries made since the Middle Ages have been made by amateurs out for fun, or by sheer, dumb luck. Amateur historians, for example, used to wander the banks of the Thames, and in their wanderings discovered many artifacts that would not have been found at conventional archaeological digs, such as children’s toys. People have also been known to stumble upon very well-preserved bodies in bogs, which gives forensic anthropologists a lot to work with. My favourite discoveries, though, are the truly gigantic ones that are simply luck, such as the recent one that yielded all sorts of Anglo-Saxon treasure:

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Staffordshire Hoard
Staffordshire Hoard

While even this wide variety of sources – this being only a limited list – leaves some obvious holes (for example, if most of the writers were clergymen, what were the opinions of secular people?), it allows us to uncover more about the Middle Ages each day. Through a combination of sources, we get a clearer picture of what medieval life was like, and who the people who lived it were. Because of painstaking research, new technology, and, yes, simple luck, this generation has the unique opportunity to become five-minute medievalists at the click of a mouse.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Click here to read more articles from the Five-Minute Medievalist

Top Image: Ruins of a church in Visby, Gotland – photo by Arkland

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