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25 Things from Everyday Life in the Middle Ages

If you lived during the Middle Ages, what kind of things would you have? Here is a guide to some of the everyday items that a medieval person would have used or had.

Anvils – one of the instruments typically used by blacksmiths, anvils are heavy blocks of metal. When working with iron or types of metal, the blacksmith would put those pieces on an anvil and use a hammer to hit the piece into shape, creating things like armour, weapons or tools.

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A blacksmith uses an anvil as he works on a helmet, from this 14th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 24364 fol. 61r

Beds – medieval beds would not be as soft as those we use today. It would have a wooden frame, and then a few layers of mattresses – the one on the bottom would be stuffed with straw, the next one filled with wool, and then others with slightly better material like goose feathers. You could also find feather-filled pillows and blankets made of linen or wool.

Sleeping in a bed from this 14th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 6749A, fol. 18r.

Books – Most medieval people would not have had books. Those that did would include priests and monks, the nobility, and other wealthy people. In the Middle East and China (where printing was invented) books would be more widely used. Within medieval Europe, books were typically created using animal skins that could be turned into vellum, which was then sewn together into leather bindings.

Making and reading books in this 15th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5082 réserve, fol. 1r.

Brooches – Before the days of zippers (and even buttons, as they only started to be used in the 13th century), people would use brooches to fasten clothing together. Often made of metal, brooches were often elegantly designed and decorated, looking very much like jewellery. We have many examples of medieval brooches, including those made in Viking Scandinavia to Renaissance Italy.

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This silver brooch was found in England and was probably made in the 9th century. Photo courtesy The Portable Antiquities Scheme / The Trustees of the British Museum

Candles – if you needed light when indoors or at night, you would probably use a candle. During the Middle Ages, there were two kinds of candles: tallow – which was made from sheep fat; and wax – made from beeswax. Wax candles were more expensive because they burned more cleanly.

A priest holding up a candle in this 14th-century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 6 E VII f. 75v

Chairs – Like today, medieval chairs come in all shapes and sizes. Some would be simple stools or benches, while those used as thrones would be much more ornate, often with a high-backing. There was even a folding chair, called a faldestuel.

Sitting in a chair while writing, from a 13th-century manuscript – Cambridge University Library MS O.9.34 fol. 22r

Chamber pots – if you needed to go to the washroom, but didn’t want to leave your bedroom, a medieval person would probably use this portable toilet, often made from metal or ceramics.

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A chamber pot underneath a chair in this 15th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 11973, fol. 138v

Combs – Grooming and beauty would be important to medieval people, and a comb would be an essential tool for that. They were usually made of wood or bone, but we have many examples of those made from ivory.

This comb was made out of ivory in a Paris workshop during the early 14th century. Photo by Valerie McGlinchey / Wikimedia Commons

Fireplaces – for heat and cooking, you would often have an ongoing fire, called a hearth. They would be usually found in the middle of the room, which was the best way to make use of all of its heat. The smoke was supposed to go up through a hole in the roof, but often a medieval room would have a smoky smell. A larger building like a castle would have fireplaces built into the walls.

Keeping warm by a fire in this 14th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 10484, fol. 2v

Hats – both men and women often wore headgear, and there were many varieties and styles. What you were wearing on your head would be a good indication of how wealthy or important you were. Jeffrey Singman writes, ” ordinary women of the period are often shown wearing a simple wrap, probably consisting only of a long rectangle of fabric, either tucked into itself or secured in place with a band wrapped twice around the head.

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Four different hats as shown in this 15th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 190/2, f. 143r

Jars – You always need containers, for storing food or other goods, and pottery was a big business throughout the medieval world. A lot of the surviving art from the Middle Ages is those found on pieces of pottery, including jars, pitchers and decanters.

A potter at work in this early modern manuscript – Stadtbibliothek Nürnberg, Amb. 317b.2°,

Keys – to help lock a door or chest, you would need a key. Made of metal, they are often a lot larger than the modern keys.

A late medieval key, about 77 cm in length – Photo by The Portable Antiquities Scheme / The Trustees of the British Museum

Knives – one object for daily life in the Middle Ages was a small knife, which would be used both as an eating utensil and as an everyday tool. They were typically carried on a person’s belt.

A scribe holding a knife in this 15th-century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 19 C XI f. 27v

Musical instruments – there were many kinds of musical instruments in the Middle Ages – some of the most popular include the lute (a string instrument similar to a guitar) and a horn, which was made from an animal horn. Flutes, recorders and pipe organs were also being used during this period.

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Musical instruments shown in this 11th-century manuscript – Monte Cassino MS Casin 132

Ploughs – one of the most important things to do on a medieval farm was to break the soil on a field so it could be planted with crops. In order to do so, you would need a plough – basically a type of blade that could be dragged through the ground and slice it up as it went by. Typically pulled by animals, you would need a heavier plough to break up tougher soils, like those found in northern Europe.

A team of oxen pulling a plough in this 11th-century manuscript – British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B.V. fol. 3r.

Scales – to properly measure the weight of something, medieval people would use a scale. For example, a merchant would need to know accurately weigh a good that he was buying or selling, and medieval governments often had a lot of regulations for their use.

Using scales in this 14th-century manuscript – UBH Cod. Pal. germ. 848 Codex Manesse fol. 305r

Shields – a medieval soldier often carried a shield – in some cases, this was their only form of protection.  Some styles include the circular wooden shield often associated with Vikings, and a pavise, which was large enough to cover an entire body and would allow an archer or crossbowman to crouch behind it while they prepared their attacks.

This pavise was made in Austria in the second half of the 15th century – photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shoes – these often came in many shapes and styles, and could be made of cloth, leather or even wood (clogs). Towards the later Middle Ages, one style of shoe popular with men were those with very long pointed tips. Apparently, they were painful to wear, as they could cause bunions.

A pair of shoes from the 12th century – Photo by Pflege24 / Wikimedia Commons

Shovels – working as a farmer in the Middle Ages would mean using a few different tools, including the shovel. It’s been used since ancient times, and they are very similar to those you can buy today.

Using a shovel as part of farmwork in this 15th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Latin 9333 fol 49

Spindles – in the process of making clothing, you would need to take wool, flax or cotton and turn them into yarn. Spindles were hand-held and through twisting and turning them, you could collect the cloth. During the Middle Ages, the process was improved when the spinning wheel was invented, which made the process much easier and quicker.

Drop Spindle from Egypt, dating to between 2nd and 7th century – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Swords – one of the most important weapons of the Middle Ages, the sword is essentially a long piece of iron that has been sharpened. They can be found throughout the medieval world, coming in many different sizes and styles.

A sword from Scandinavia, dating to the 10th century – photo courtesy The
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tables – the most common type of table in the Middle Ages was a trestle – they would come in pieces that you would have to set up with two or three supports and then laying a flat board on top of them.

A table displayed in this 15th-century manuscript – BAV Pal. lat. 1989 fol. 229r

Tools – many of the professions in the Middle Ages would need a variety of tools for the job. Everyday items like saws, hammers and chisels would be needed for construction or to make items.

A lady with a mirror and sculptor’s tools, from a 15th-century manuscript – British Library MS Royal 16 G V f. 80

Trencher – When serving someone food in the Middle Ages, you would serve it on other food. A trencher was usually an old slice of bread, round in size, on which you would place the other food. Once the meal was finished, the trencher might be soaked in sauce, and sometimes this would have been given out to the poor.

Washtubs – While only wealthy people would have their own washtubs, public bathhouses could be found in many cities for the general public to use. Made of wood and circular-shaped, a medieval washtub could be large enough for two or more people to sit in, while water would be brought to them. Click here to learn more about bathing in the Middle Ages.

A scene showing a public bath from a 15th-century manuscript – Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5221 réserve, fol. 287r

Further Reading:

Holmes, Urban Tigner, Daily Life in the Twelfth Century: Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckham in London and Paris (University of Wisconsin Press, 1966)

Singman, Jeffrey L., The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe (Sterling, 2013)

Tschen-Emmons, James B., Artifacts from Medieval Europe (ABC-CLIO, 2015)

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