Daily Life in the Middle Ages: An Annotated Bibliography for Teachers

Dr. Alan Lupack, Curator of the Robbins Library, MEDIEVAL WOODCUT: LIBRARY
University of Rochester, presents

Library Resources on Medieval Topics

Guest Columnist:
Ryan Harper
University of Rochester

Daily life in any era is notoriously difficult to pin down, mainly because histories are built upon records, often written, and while important names and dates and major events usually find their way into contemporary records, the details of daily life in any particular time and place, particularly for those of less-powerful folk, are often so mundane that they are passed over with little, if any, comment.  This is particularly true when dealing with the medieval era, as the sorts of written records one would look to for details of daily life are generally nonexistent — there are no illustrated catalogues advertising the latest peasant fashions in 1373, no Better Homes and Gardens guides for building a small cottage, and few recipe books predating the fifteenth century.

This last may come as a surprise, but we are talking about a different time and place, and must adjust our thinking.  We must consider that the bulk of the population is not literate, and thus would have no use for recipe books. Also, they do not have access to the variety of foods and tools and preparation techniques we moderns take for granted.  Finally, and most importantly, why would they need a book to tell them how to do what they do every day?  The two most basic cooking processes in medieval England, baking bread and brewing beer, are so universal that there’s no need to write down any recipes — if you didn’t know how to do them, someone close to you did, and thus could show you (or, better yet, do it for you). And if they did decide to write it down, what exactly would they be able to tell us?   This is, after all, a time before thermometers, oven timers, hydrometers (for the brewers), or a practical universal system of weights and measures.  The medieval recipes that do exist tend to describe more exotic or upscale dishes, and they tend be maddening to the modern cook — it takes a specialist historian, in many cases, to hazard a fair guess as to how much of what goes where for how long at what temperature.  We get as much, or more, information about everyday cookery from medieval middens as we do from written medieval records.

Much the same situation exists for other elements of daily life — what people wore, where they lived, how they dealt with common problems, even how many of them viewed their social position or religion — the more mundane a question, the less likely it is that any more than perhaps a few writers recorded a direct answer.  Fortunately, much can be found indirectly, through particular references and casual comments in legal records, contracts, and other writings, through archaeological evidence, and through surviving images or manuscript illuminations.  There’s a great body of data from which historians can infer a great deal about the daily life of medieval Europeans in different places and eras, and much of this information, if brought into a classroom environment, can offer a useful way into the study of other eras — starting with questions like “what did peasants eat?” or “where would a merchant live?” is much more immediate and relevant than “who was king of England in 1350?” because all students eat and live somewhere, but few, if any, are likely to become a king.

Unfortunately, much of what’s available to the instructor focuses on the kind of big-event history that is concerned with names and dates, so the intent of this bibliography is to introduce and assess some sources that would allow instructors to move beyond the big-event history and into the often fascinating small-event details. This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive bibliography; rather it focuses on materials that are, for the most part, relatively recent, accessible, and inexpensive — the kind one might find at a large bookstore or through an online outlet.  These resources are of varying quality, so each entry includes a recommendation along with the description.

Books for Instructors

As instructors, we all know that an extra bit of background knowledge never hurts, and that it’s always useful to keep abreast of common or popular notions that students might bring to our classrooms, so that we can be prepared for whatever questions or assumptions they throw at us. This is particularly true when dealing with the Middle Ages, an era that is commonly both denigrated and romanticized in books, movies, video games, Renaissance fairs, and the like, and often in ways that play very fast and loose with any sense of historical truth.  If students draw on popular culture and conventional wisdom  for their own conceptions, it’s likely that much of what they think they know about the Middle Ages is, at best, not particularly accurate, and at worst, just plain wrong. Given this situation, here are a couple of texts that focus directly on this kind of confusion, and could be of great interest to an instructor working to overcome erroneous assumptions.

Misconceptions About the Middle Ages. Edited by Stephen J. Harris and Byron L. Grigsby. New York and London: Routledge, 2008.

This volume is a series of thirty short essays — written and collected by medieval scholars for a more general readership — each of which tackles and debunks a particular popular misconception about the Middle Ages.  Essay titles include “Medieval Monks: Funnier Than You Thought,” “The Medieval Sense of Self,” and “Shakespeare Did Not Write in Old English.” The essays themselves are only a few pages long, and include both a bibliography and suggestions for further reading, and they are generally quite readable, so they could be very useful in a high-school setting for initiating classroom discussion or introducing students to research topics. In any case, it could serve as very interesting and informative preparatory reading for teachers of any grade-level. It is more expensive than many of the other texts in this bibliography, but may be available through a local library or loan program.  Highly Recommended.

Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths. Pernoud, Regine.  Translated by Anne Englund Nash. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.

Another deliberate mythbuster of a book, this volume systematically addresses numerous misconceptions about the Middle Ages from a French perspective. Pernoud was a medieval historian of long professional experience when she published this volume in 1977. Nash’s translation introduced this entertaining and informative text to an Anglophone audience in 2000, and it is still well worth reading thirty-odd years after initial publication.   She takes as her baseline the schoolbooks and popular notions of 1970s France, but many of the conceptions she’s counteracting are still with us today.  Shot through with the dry wit of its author, this is not as heavy a read as one might expect from an aged and distinguished scholar — it has its footnotes, but it has its sly jokes as well. Overall, in fact, it’s the sort of book one might have some trouble putting down. Recommended.

Books for Younger Students

There are a fair number of texts (and other materials) covering the Middle Ages intended for younger students, which I am defining here as K-6 (while a great range of ages and abilities are represented here, each text’s suitability can vary as well, depending on the student, so I’m not making any further distinction). Unfortunately, a great deal of this material is not particularly useful, most often because it grossly misrepresents the era, through a combination of cultural bias and plain inaccuracy. Many also seem to talk down to kids and needlessly oversimplify the material. That being said, there are some excellent resources out there that offer an accurate and complex picture of life in the Middle Ages in ways that early readers and younger students should be able to manage.  The entries below should give some sense of the range of quality available, and give instructors some sense of the elements to look for (and avoid) when selecting material for younger students.

Everyday Life: Middle Ages. Hazen, Walter A.. Tucson, AZ: Good Year Books, 2006)

Though informative and relatively accurate, this book, labeled for grades 6-8, still leaves a bit to be desired. While not nearly as bad as some books for younger students, there’s still a bit of chronological snobbery throughout, and perhaps a bit more of a focus on the gross and/or shocking than is necessary.   The volume does not actively denigrate the Middle Ages, however, and points out some of the “good” things that happened during the period (though these “good” bits come across more as isolated elements), but one gets the impression that the author simply doesn’t like the period all that much.  In itself, this is manageable, but the big disappointment here is in the “cross-curricular activities” element — the volume is packed with activities, many of which don’t come across as very creative or useful in a classroom situation unless one is actively looking for busy work.  Though organized around established pedagogical methods like Venn diagrams, context clues, inference exercises, and grammatical exercises, the activities fall a bit flat in general, and tend towards the fill-in-the-blank.  Some aren’t even particularly medieval in their focus — one actually asks students about Lord Snootvile’s diet, specifically regarding cholesterol and his supposed hypertension.  There are better sources out there for this age group, particularly if one takes both the information and activities at face value. In the hands of a good and knowledgeable instructor, however, this book could be a good starting point, so long as one is willing to question the text, fill in gaps, and adapt the exercises to better use. Recommended with Strong Reservations.

Everyday Life in Viking Times. Martell, Hazel Mary. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.

This book discusses not only what daily life was like, but how we know what we know about it — an element which many volumes about the Middle Ages leave out.  In this case, the focus is more archaeological than documentary, which works well in a book for younger readers, as it allows the incorporation of a large number of artifact photographs and descriptions, as well as illustrated depictions of daily life. This is a straightforward volume which presents the era and culture with little in the way of judgment or cultural bias. It does not gloss over the less-savory aspects of life — Viking raids and slave-taking, for example, are discussed — but neither does it depict the Vikings as backward barbarians.  Overall, the information is accurate and accessible, without being oversimplified. This is an excellent elementary introduction to the period.  What personal and cultural gaps are left (due to the focus on artifacts) can be filled in by the instructor, in a manner appropriate to the class.  Highly Recommended.

How Would You Survive in the Middle Ages? Macdonald, Fiona, Mark Peppe, and David Salaria. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts, 1995.

Fiona MacDonald and Co. know their stuff, and have created a well-organized, nicely illustrated introduction to the Middle Ages for younger readers. The information is accurate, and the volume as a whole neither demonizes nor romanticizes the era significantly.  It is organized around the question posed in the title, and subdivides content into further, second-person questions — “what would you eat?” and “where would you live?” for example — and each double-page-spread answers one of these large questions with a brief general statement and includes a series of sidebars, illustrations, and insets that discuss or demonstrate different aspects of the question at hand and how the answer might differ depending on class, gender, time period, and so on.  There are also timelines, introductory material, a glossary, and guiding questions in each lower corner which offer the reader the option of moving through the book according to their own interests.  Highly Recommended, and well-suited for classroom use.

Kids in the Medieval World. Johnson, Sheri. Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 2009.

This short volume for young readers is similar in format to Kids in the Middle Ages (see below) but is not quite as informative.  It is also a little more invested in actively exoticizing the period, and dwells perhaps a bit overmuch (given the brevity of the work as a whole) on the gross and gruesome.  In terms of diet, for example, very little is actually said about the food itself — “They ate a lot of bread.  They also ate cheese and butter.” — but the authors find space to say that people ate with their fingers instead of forks, and that parents pre-chewed food for their babies.  The book includes a blanket statement about kids’ lives getting better when the Middle Ages come to an end, and the final image conjured by the volume is that of a doctor tasting urine as part of the diagnostic process.  There’s some good stuff in here, but there are certainly better books for young readers on the subject. Not Recommended.

Kids in the Middle Ages. Wroble, Lisa A.. New York: Powerkids Press, 2004.

This short volume is a good, plain introduction to medieval daily life for young students. It consists of a series of short, large-print paragraphs, each devoted to a particular topic and faced with an illustration (most drawn from period sources) that depicts the same.  Most of these sections, including “eating,” “clothing,” and “farming,” address daily-life topics, many from the perspective of Simon, a peasant boy.  The book also contains a glossary, and information on the publisher’s supplementary website. Overall, while there are a couple of inaccuracies, there’s also a lot of good foundational information here, in a simple and approachable package, for young readers to tackle alone or for a class recitation. Recommended.

Knights and Castles: 50 Hands-on Activities to Experience the Middle Ages. Hart, Avery and Paul Mantell.  Charlotte, VT: Williamson Publishing, 1998.

This book is an excellent example of what anyone with a serious interest in introducing younger students to other historical eras should avoid. This volume takes a rather smug Renaissance/Enlightenment-oriented view of Western history, and represents the Middle Ages as a “troubled” time of “extremes and opposites” that show, among other things, that “without the bright light of learning, people can make terrible mistakes.” The Middle Ages represented here is one that began when the glories of the Roman Empire disappeared overnight (“with a mighty thunk!”), and came to an end when the printing press made books “available to one and all,” and thus gave knowledge to the common people, who then “began to take part in politics and the shaping of society.”   The European Middle Ages were hardly an idyllic time, but this volume actively denigrates and exoticizes the era, and not only presents a series of biased half-truths and oversimplifications but even promulgates a disturbing number of flat-out falsehoods (like the idea that medievals thought the world was flat—a long-discredited nineteenth-century fabrication).  The activities offered are fairly trite and obvious, and a halfway creative instructor could come up with the same or better with a bit of thought.  Somehow this book managed to win several book awards, which in itself is somewhat disheartening. Not Recommended.

Middle Ages for the Classroom. Burnett, Eric and Joey DeStefanis. New York: Writer’s Club Press, 2002.

On the inside title page of this volume, one finds this disclaimer: “Any resemblance to actual people and events is purely coincidental. This is a work of fiction.” While this statement may be a legal technicality, it isn’t too far off as a description of the contents, which certainly do not follow from the title itself. This book, which consists mainly of a series of short plays followed by a fairy tale writing tutorial and workshop for students, not only offers little in terms of information on medieval daily life, but offers a view of the Middle Ages heavily tinged by both chronological snobbery and pure medieval fantasy.  This is another text in which the lights go out (literally, in the playscript) when Rome falls, and “discovery and learning” don’t reappear until the Renaissance.  The first plays are creditable rendering of the sword in the stone and the quest of the white hart episodes from Malory, but this, of course, is not exactly an accurate description of medieval life. Overall, depictions of historical events are oversimplified and played for laughs, and the second group of plays centers on a peasant girl who is given a magical belt by a wizard that allows her to change places with a noble boy and become a lord, only to be found out. Here again the focus is more on clever repartee and anachronistic humor than actual history. That there is a section on writing fairy tales speaks for itself. This is quite a fun and fantastical volume, so much so that the historical elements which would support the volume’s title are often lost or mangled in the telling. Do not judge this book by its cover — it might be an excellent resource for a drama or creative writing class (the fairy tale tutorial looks quite good), but has no place in a history classroom, particularly when the topic is medieval daily life.  Not Recommended.

Books for Middle and High School Students

The range of texts available to middle and high school students generally parallels that available to adult readers — indeed once a student reaches high school and achieves the associated levels of literacy and reading comprehension, one need make little distinction (except perhaps in terms of content) between the categories of student and non-specialist adult. With this in mind, I have selected the texts below based on availability and intellectual accessibility. I have tried to leave out the weightier scholarly tomes when possible, focusing instead on works that are accessible to the non-specialist without sacrificing scholarly rigor. Again the quality of material varies widely, but for reasons of space I have here focused, for the most part, on useful and higher quality books, rather than considering the many texts which are better avoided.

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne. Butt, John J. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Daily Life in the Age of Charlemagne is not exactly what one might expect of the title, particularly if one is familiar with the Daily Life in Chaucer’s England volume of the same Greenwood Press series. While the Chaucer volume is directed toward activities and processes of daily life, explained and contextualized with re-creation in mind, the Charlemagne volume is more a general overview of an era, with relatively little direct discussion of day-to-day life and no recipes, game rules or other more interactive material.  That being said, this is a good sourcebook for general cultural, political, religious and military organization of the era, though the discussion of the common folk leaves much to be desired — Butt seems to be a historian of the “nasty, brutish and short” school of thought regarding medieval life, and his very brief and highly generalized discussion of the commons as starving, superstitious, and scared of the dark smacks a bit of the chronologically arrogant notion that Europe in the “Dark Ages” was simply languishing in misery, waiting for the great rebirth that was still centuries away. That major caveat aside, there is much good information here, and it would serve as a useful sourcebook for the era, but it does not quite live up to its title.  Recommended with Strong Reservations.

Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England. Crawford, Sally.  Westport, CT: Greenwood World Publishing, 2009.

Another title in Greenwood’s Daily Life series, this volume is impeccably scholarly, but unfortunately might be rather heavy going for high-school students. Here you will find a comprehensive and well-documented discussion of Anglo-Saxon daily life prepared by a noted historian, but none of the recipes, game-rules, clothing patterns, and other interactive materials which appear in some of the other Daily Life books listed in this bibliography.  Excellent for research, but probably a little dense for regular reading. Recommended with Some Reservations.

Daily Life in Chaucer’s England. Singman, Jeffrey L. and Will McLean. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995; second edition Jeffrey L. Singman and Will Mclean, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009)

The first edition of this volume, published in 1995, is particularly focused on re-enactment, or, as the authors call it, “living history.”  The volume is based on (or at least inspired by) a 1991 manual first produced by members of the University Medieval and Renaissance Association of Toronto in order to assist in the recreation of “the atmosphere of an evening at a London inn in 1391,” and the present volume contains a fair amount of the kind of practical how-to information one might expect from such a genealogy — there are clothing patterns, recipes, rules for games, sheet music and so on throughout the book, along with a generous amount of historical information, both general and specific, which provides some context.  Though ostensibly focused on life in England during the latter half of the fourteenth century (Chaucer’s time and place, hence the title), the book draws on a fairly broad range of materials, mostly English but some Continental, of both contemporary and later vintage. It has chapters devoted to medieval cycles of life and time, living environments, clothing, arms and armor, food, and recreation. While some of the how-to elements might take a bit of work — the clothing patterns, for example, must be reproduced to scale from small diagrams — and the list of suppliers in the back is likely a bit outdated by now, this is still a fascinating and fairly useful volume for those interested in hosting a medieval event or otherwise recreating aspects of later medieval English life. The second edition, released in 2009, is reorganized and expanded, but the core information and intent of the work remains the same. One notable update is the addition of an appendix on digitally accessible resources. Highly Recommended (either edition)

Daily Life in Medieval Europe. Singman, Jeffrey L.. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Much like Singman’s earlier volume, Daily Life in Chaucer’s England, this volume is meant to be an introductory text with an emphasis on living history.  Thus, again like the earlier volume, this book contains a number of interactive materials including games, recipes and songs.  Some of the material is common to both volumes, as might be expected, but this is hardly a reprise of Singman’s earlier work, as his scope is a bit wider here and he’s dealing with a larger portion of Europe over a longer time-span (1100-1300). Overall he handles the material well as he moves between the general and the specific.  Singman covers medieval society in general — political and material life, for example — but he also devotes chapters to the kinds of lives people lived according to the spaces they called home — village, castle, monastery, and town — which is a useful way of organizing the study, given that the mundanities which comprise daily life can vary from one kind of place to another.  He also discusses medieval conceptions of time and space, and presents a calendar of medieval feasts and holy days. Overall, this is an excellent text — informative, comprehensive, very readable, and clearly and effectively organized. Highly Recommended.

Daily Life in Medieval Times. Gies, Frances and Joseph. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 1999.

This volume is a large, illustrated, omnibus edition of three popular histories by the authors: Life in a Medieval Castle (first published 1974), Life in a Medieval Village(first published 1990), and Life in a Medieval City (first published 1969). The histories themselves offer a fair amount of general background and contextual information but are primarily focused each on a particular place — the castle in question is Chepstow Castle in Wales, the village is the English village of Elton, and the city is the French city of Troyes.  The authors do not focus on daily life per se, but much of each section is devoted to the manner in which life was lived in each particular place, so there is a fair amount of information of interest to a student of daily life.  Very information-heavy but also very readable, these volumes are an entertaining, informative, and relatively easily accessible introduction to life as lived in these particular places in the Middle Ages.  Recommended.

Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Newman Paul B. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

Newman’s first line, “life in the Middle Ages bore very little resemblance to its depictions in movies, novels, and the ever-growing number of Renaissance festivals featuring ‘medieval’ entertainments,” effectively introduces the main focus of this very informative, entertaining, and readable book. Newman writes about his subject with popular conceptions of the medieval firmly in mind, and often starts practical discussions of what was with brief sketches of what is often imagined to have been — a very useful approach which gives the reader and the scholar a point of common connection.  Newman’s book is organized by general topics — “Eating and Cooking,” Cleaning,” “Fighting” and so on — and each chapter is divided by subject into short logical subsections which rarely run beyond a page or two. Scholarly without being dry, Daily Life in the Middle Ages is not only a good read, but is well suited for use in a classroom environment. Highly Recommended.

Daily Life of the Vikings. Wolf, Kirsten. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

This volume is a sourcebook for life in Scandinavia, from about 700 to 1100. Wolf is a literary scholar, rather than a historian or archaeologist, but despite her modest protestations this has no negative impact on her work — it might, in fact, improve it, as she is particularly conscientious in her discussions of source material, and in her clear explanations of the logic by which particular conclusions are drawn from partial or indirect evidence.  She divides her volume into particular aspects of life — domestic, economic, material, religious, and so on — and includes a number of illustrations/diagrams that could be useful in a classroom setting.  It’s a bit of a heavy read, but worthwhile nonetheless, particularly if used as a research resource by older students. Recommended.

Everyday Life in Medieval Times. Rowling, Marjorie. New York: Dorset Press, 1987.

This older work (first published 1968) is another that doesn’t quite deliver what the title promises.  While it offers a broad-ranging smorgasbord of anecdotal material related to life in Europe during the medieval era, it doesn’t really offer much practical on-the-ground information for the student of daily life.  This is in part because Rowling’s subject is itself so broad (it isn’t region or period-specfic), which prevents too much practical discussion of aspects of life that changed greatly throughout the period. Her extensive use of contemporary anecdote also, perhaps counter-intuitively, hinders practical discussion, largely because such rapid-fire references cannot be properly contextualized, and thus a one-off example appears to be a standard occurrence — for example, two brief references to courtly love give the erroneous impression that the love-courts and debates of imaginative literature were in fact acted out regularly by real people in all seriousness. This situation is repeated throughout — while the references themselves are not wrong, they are often presented in a manner that gives a reader the wrong idea about everyday medieval life. This is an interesting read, and a trove of brief references to primary materials, but it’s more an anecdotal overview than a sustained discussion of everyday life. Not Recommended.

Food and Feast in Medieval England. Hammond, Peter. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2005.

Food — specifically when one considers its production and distribution as well as its preparation, and consumption — is a huge part of daily life, and Hammond’s book is a useful introduction to all aspects of food in Medieval England. The “Feast” of the title occupies an appropriately small space in the volume (only one chapter) while the bulk of the volume is devoted to everyday aspects of food for different social classes in different places. Hammond covers production, distribution, nutrition, and table manners as well as diet, he draws upon medieval sources and records as well as modern scholarly works throughout the volume, and the scholarly superstructure of notes and bibliography is useful and informative without being too heavy for a casual reader.  Recommended.

How They Lived 55 B.C.-1485. Hassall, W.O.. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

This older volume (first published 1962) is essentially a collection of primary materials, specifically short pieces and extracts drawn from contemporary sources and arranged by topic.  There are 27 main categories bearing names like “crops,” “towns,” “home life” and “health,” each of which consists of a series of briefly-introduced vignettes introduced by topic.  For example, under “home life” is an entry for “handmaid” which includes two short excerpts on the subject, one from a thirteenth-century scholarly work, and another from a tenth-century legal text.  The vignettes are drawn from a broad range of materials — including chronicles, legal records, and literary works, among others — from a broad range of periods.  Overall it’s a very entertaining book to flip through, but the range, breadth, and brevity of the entries limits it classroom value. It’s still worth a look, however, since so much primary material is presented — so long as one recognizes that it’s more a hodge-podge of interesting entries than a sustained or focused study of daily life in early England. Recommended with Reservations.

Life on the English Manor: 1150-1400. Bennett, H.S.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937.

This is an older volume (first published in 1937), that nonetheless remains an interesting and influential read, and, consequently, remains in print.  Much of the information found herein can be found in other, more recent (and often more accurate) sources, but the volume is worth checking out if for no other reason than the prologue, in which Bennet offers us an imagined week in the life of a peasant,  John.  In this narrative, Bennett writes of work, food, church, and legal and social interactions and obligations in the manorial village of Belcombe in June 1320.  Written from the perspective of a historian with long experience studying the era, this short narrative is much more realistic and accurate than most of the medievalist fictions one usually comes across.  It has its flaws, certainly — it could be argued that Bennett’s picture of peasant life is a bit more rosy than is fair — but overall it’s an evocative, easy-to-read piece that could be quite useful as a short introduction to the daily life of a peasant in medieval England.  Recommended with Reservations.

Living and Dining in Medieval Paris. Crossley-Holland, Nicole. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996.

This volume is a historical study which is based on the Menagier de Paris, a fourteenth century housekeeping guide written by a husband for his young wife (Tania Bayard’s Medieval Home Companion, a translation of the Menagier, is also included in this bibliography).  Essentially a companion volume, this study of later fourteenth-century Parisian domestic life is directly cross-referenced to and interacts with the Menagierand offers a great deal of contextual information of immediate interest to readers of that work.  Despite its specific relationship with a particular text, however, there is much here for those interested in medieval domestic economy, and as a whole the book is well worth reading on its own.  The tone is scholarly and detail-oriented, with the endnotes, appendices, citations and the general academic weight one might expect of a university press offering, but overall it is an interesting and engaging, if sometimes heavy, read.  Recommended.

Medieval Home Companion. Translated and Edited by Tania Bayard. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

This is a recent translation of a book known as the Le Menagier de Paris, written near the end of the fourteenth century by an elderly man for his young wife. It contains a wealth of information about various topics relating to a well-to-do woman’s life in medieval Paris, including sections on the expectations of a wife, household management, and gardening, among others.  Bayard’s translation is very smooth and readable, and the presentation is straightforward, without much in the way of scholarly appendages.  It is a stand-alone volume, but study could be bolstered by selections from Living and Dining in Medieval Paris, which offers a great deal of contextual information with specific reference to the Menagier.  Overall, this is a fascinating and very readable primary text, which offers students a great deal of insight into the responsibilities and concerns of a medieval woman, as explained by a medieval man — at the very least, it should be an excellent conversation-starter in the classroom.  Highly Recommended.

Science and Technology in Medieval European Life. Wigelsworth, Jeffrey R.. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

As anyone with internet access and a cellphone can attest, much of the matter and structure of modern daily life is intimately tied to and influenced by technology. This is equally true for other eras, and in this volume Wigelsworth gives us a far-ranging introductory discussion of both medieval technology and scientific thought. This is an informative book that generally takes medieval science and technology on its own terms and within its own contexts, acknowledging and working against the common biases and assumptions which treat the conceptions of “science” and “medieval” as mutually exclusive.  The volume is organized into subject-oriented chapters covering different aspects of life such as communication, transportation, warfare and medicine, and offers a particularly notable chapter on the medieval relationship between science and religion (not nearly so antagonistic as we are often led to believe).  It’s intended as a reference for college-age students, and the prose is scholarly in tone and presentation, but it’s not too heavy going, all in all, and could be an excellent research resource for a high school classroom. Recommended.

Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. Jones, Terry and Alan Ereira. London: BBC Books, 2004.

Both a television series (available on DVD) and a printed volume share this title, and both cover much of the same material in the two different formats, so I will deal with them here together.  Jones, perhaps best known for his work as a member of the Monty Python crew, is something of a serious amateur historian with a strong interest in the Middle Ages, and he has done a series of historical documentaries (with companion volumes) for the BBC, including Barbarians, The Crusades, and, of course, Medieval Lives.  Both the series and the book are organized by type, with episodes (or chapters) devoted to peasant, minstrel, outlaw, monk, philosopher, knight, damsel, and king.  Though Jones’ scholarship is serious, his presentation is not, and he approaches his subject matter with the sort of playful sense of humor one would expect from a former Python.  There is much useful information, in both the series and the book, about various aspects of daily life in medieval England, presented along with enough contextual information to make it understandable. The book is highly readable and entertaining, the television episodes are fun to watch, and the information presented not only is fairly accurate and evenhanded, but also directly addresses common misconceptions.  Highly Recommended.

Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Mortimer, Ian. London: Bodley Head, 2008.

Good general overview, written by a medieval historian, and offering a great deal of useful information related to daily life in later medieval England.  Alas, while the book itself is rather thick (341 pp. with notes, index and bibliography), the “guidebook” aspect of this volume is a bit thin — while the concept of a modern person touring England in 1377 (the year which anchors the “guide”) is an intriguing one, this gimmick, while used to good effect at some points, gives way to standard historical overview for very long stretches. This is really a solid and interesting resource, with much relating to daily life, and it’s recommended for that reason, but don’t be fooled by the title — while there are a few interesting second-person descriptions and discussions, gimmicky sidebars, and color plates, this is, by and large, a plain-text history rather than a guidebook.  Recommended.

Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages. Kenyon, Sherrilyn. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1995.

This is, as the title suggests, a resource for writers of historical fiction.  As such, it offers a fair amount of general information on everyday life and its social contexts in medieval Europe, as well as a number of subject-related timelines, glossaries and the like. It is divided into short essays on aspects of everyday life (food, economy, etc.), as well as contextual material related to social rank and heraldry, notable places, religious activity, and so on. Most of the essays are fairly short, many contain bulleted lists of important terms, names or events, and all include a short list of resources for further research.  For the most part, this is a reliable volume, though it tends (given its format) to oversimplify and generalize, and there are a few common misconceptions that slip through (the idea that spices were commonly used to disguise rotten meat, for example, is a bit past its own sell-by date — spices were generally far too valuable for such usage, and in any case medievals weren’t able to stomach rotten meat any better than we are today).  It isn’t necessarily the best stand-alone text, but many of the lists, timelines and glossaries, as well as the recommended resources, could be very useful in a classroom setting, as they present a large variety of information in brief, easily digestible formats. Recommended with Some Reservations.

Sourcebooks on Non-European Cultures

The Middle Ages is an essentially European construct, and thus to refer to a Middle Ages for non-European cultures is a bit awkward and often inaccurate.  All the same, Europe did not exist in a vacuum, and the idea of Europe as Medieval Christendom is defined as much by contact and interaction with the non-Christian, both internal and external, as it is by its own seeming unity.  The two most prominent “others” for the medieval Europeans were Jews and Muslims, and so any consideration of daily life in the European Middle Ages would be incomplete without some discussion of the daily lives of the Jews and Muslims with which a fair number of Europeans had some contact, and of which many more had some awareness.  To this end, I am including the publication information for two recent volumes, one for each group, from the Greenwood Press’s generally solid “Daily Life Through History” Series.

Daily Life of Jews in the Middle Ages. Roth, Norman.  Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World. Lindsay, James E.. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Useful How-To Guides

While few are likely to try to build a castle, make a suit of armor, or stage a tournament as part of a school project, there are some aspects of medieval daily life that can be recreated on a smaller scale in a classroom environment or for a school event.  Medieval clothing, popular entertainments, and, particularly, food could be easily incorporated into classroom activities. Here are a few sources that offer practical information on cooking and recreating other aspects of the Middle Ages today.

Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks. Hieatt, Constance B., Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler. Second Edition. Toronto: Un iversity of Toronto Press, 1996.

This cookbook is an excellent one-volume introduction to practical medieval cookery in the modern kitchen.  The volume begins with an introduction explaining, in brief, the general social and cultural contexts of medieval English cuisine, followed up with a discussion of the methods by which the authors have recreated the recipes which make up the bulk of the volume.  There are 142 recipes included, covering a range of dishes from hors d’oeuvres to main courses to desserts and subtleties, and in selecting these recipes the authors have tried to balance common dishes with more exotic ones.  Each recipe begins with a transcription/translation of an original (with sources properly noted), followed by a version that uses modern ingredients, equivalents, and preparation techniques. There are also some sample menus listed, for those who are interested in recreating a medieval meal in its entirety.  This book is academically well-grounded but geared more for the cook than the historian, and is therefore an excellent primer for anyone who wants to see what it might have been like to sit down to a medieval meal. Highly Recommended.

Take a Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection of 15th Century Recipes. Renfrow, Cindy. Second Edition. Self-Published, 1998.

This 2-volume behemoth by food historian Cindy Renfrow is essentially a translation (from the Middle English) of a large number of recipes from several 15th-century manuscripts. Volume one consists of transcribed original recipes for particular dishes alongside both direct translations and a composite recipe standardized for modern cooks. Volume two is more of a scholar’s text, as it consists of originals and translations without the modern equivalents.  There are more than 100 recipes in volume one, and there is a section in volume two offering advice on attempting medieval recipes conversions in the modern kitchen.  This is a fun one, both scholarly and practical, and it appears to offer, for the most part, different recipes than those in Pleyn Delit. Recommended.

Tastes of Anglo-Saxon England. Savelli, Mary. Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2002.

This slim volume offers a fair number of recipes for several different kinds of dishes (breads, soups and sauces, salads, main courses, desserts) reconstructed from manuscript and other evidence (there are no extant Anglo-Saxon cookbooks). There is a short introduction offering a little bit of background on the period, as well as a discussion of the author’s methods. The recipes themselves are often presented with a bit of introductory discussion, explaining what inspired it and what role such a dish may have played in Anglo-Saxon culture.  Recommended.

Daily Life in Chaucer’s England

See full entry above

Performing Medieval Narrative Today

See full entry below

Popular Stories, Novels, Movies, and Other Fictional Works

Due to the overwhelming number of medieval-setting fictional works of various kinds, there is neither space nor time enough here to include them in this bibliography; however, because the number of such works is so great, this bibliography would be incomplete without at least some discussion of the category. So here it is …

By and large, popular narrative representations of the Middle Ages tend to be woefully inaccurate in many ways, but particularly in regards to daily life and all its artifactual and interactive minutiae. This inaccuracy is, of course, a pitfall one might expect when one realizes that the main intention of almost any storyteller is to engage with and entertain a contemporary audience, and thus the concerns, expectations, and assumptions of that audience will tend to drive the narrative, regardless of historical realities.  In essence, this means that the Middle Ages (or any other historical period) in popular fiction often serves as little more than an exotic backdrop against which our own modern narrative and cultural assumptions and expectations are measured — these stories aren’t really about them or then, but about us and now, and thus any sense of history will often be turned to this purpose.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — authors and filmmakers are not primarily historians, nor should their imaginative works necessarily be hampered by historical reality — but in practical terms, this leaves us with numerous stories which tend to depict the daily life of the Middle Ages in terms both universal and extreme. The distinction of time and place, for example, tends to be loose at best, and often becomes a composite “Middle Ages” which presents weapons, dress, armor, food, music, daily activities and such in ways that might be hundreds of years or thousands of miles out of sync. Also, a large proportion of narratives depicts the Middle Ages as either a time of squalor, corruption, ignorance and cruelty, or a time of grand, noble, faithful, romantic simplicity (neither of which is particularly accurate).  In sum, when one reads a book or watches a film or plays a video game set in the Middle Ages, it’s best to be very skeptical about the depictions of medieval daily life therein, and in a classroom setting, one should be prepared for students to bring with them to class the most outlandish conceptions of medieval life drawn from these same sources.

Web Resources

Performing Medieval Narrative Today (www.nyu.edu/projects/mednar/index.php  [REVISED BY C.L.R. 7/23/2016]: http://mednar.org/)

Storytelling and performance are important components of social interaction in daily life, in the Middle Ages as now (we may have generally replaced the scops and troubadours with televisions and iPods,but  the basic impetus remains the same). This website is an archive of video clips of performances of medieval texts. There are perhaps several dozen performances, many of them amateur productions (think scholars with cameras), though some professional clips (notably portions of Benjamin Bagby’s Beowulf) are available as well. Many are spoken/recited, and some involve musical instruments. The clips are accessed through a database of drop-down menus, which can be searched by instrument, title, performer, descriptor, and language, among others.  It also includes a section on using the website in a classroom environment. It’s definitely worth a look, and it may offer some useful ideas about introducing students to this pre-screen era. Recommended.

History for Kids (www.historyforkids.org)

This website has a section for medieval Europe, and though it is very general (lots of big-event history) there’s still some easily accessible information about some aspects of daily life.  It’s not a very deep resource overall (and it seems to be directly tied in to Amazon book-sales pages), but it could be a place for younger students to start. Recommended with Some Reservations.

BBC Channel Four’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval Britain (http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/guide12/index.html)

This is another very general, overview sort of website, but even so it is a much more informative and comprehensive website than historyforkids.org (though the BBC does seem to be aimed at a more general audience, not exclusively children). As far as daily life is concerned, there’s not a lot of such detail here, but it can serve as a quick and easily-accessible way to answer general questions and establish a general context for more specific discussions of medieval daily life. Recommended.

Modern Novels set in the Middle Ages–a bibliography presented by the Medieval Studies Program at the University of Oregon (http://www.uoregon.edu/~midages/novels.shtml)

This is exactly what it appears to be — a categorized listing of a large number of modern novels set in the Middle Ages.  Categories include “General Novels,” “Novels about King Arthur and the Round Table,” “Young Adult Novels,” and “Medieval Mystery Novels,” among others.  A fun resource, but caveat emptor — while some list entries include brief synopses, the books are not evaluated in any qualitative way.  The list is devoted to medieval settings, not to the accurate representation of those settings, and should be considered in those terms (particularly in the classroom).  Recommended, with Strong Reservations


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VII, Issue 1, Spring 2009
http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/F09/daily.php

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies