The Middle Ages: the 16 main characteristics of this historical period

The Middle Ages: the 16 main characteristics of this historical period

Human history is rich and complex, full of great achievements and great losses.

The human being has evolved through the times facing a great variety of vicissitudes, learning in his way about the functioning of the world and building different interpretative models of it. There are four great ages in which we can divide history (five if we also consider prehistory): Ancient, Middle, Modern and Contemporary.

Of all of them, perhaps one of the most interesting is the Middle Ages . In this article, we will briefly review the characteristics of the longest age in history, especially on a social and psychological level.

Delimiting the time period: the Middle Ages

We call the Middle Ages the historical period between the 5th and 15th centuries, being chronologically situated between the Ancient and Modern Ages. This age of history is the longest that there has been until now (if we do not consider prehistory), and is considered to begin with the fall of the Western Roman Empire (that of Rome) in 476.

Its end also coincides with the fall of the Byzantine Empire (formerly the Eastern Roman Empire) in 1453, although other authors date its end to the discovery of America (although discovering would not be the exact word as there were already civilisations there) by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

This long period of time encompasses a large number of events that have marked the course of history in one way or another, although the events taken into account are almost all of them in Europe and part of Asia. The Middle Ages can also be divided into different periods, being the High Middle Ages (which ran between the 5th and 10th centuries) and the Low Middle Ages (corresponding to the centuries between the 11th and 15th).

During this stage there have been different advances and setbacks in different areas, being born and dying different institutions, beliefs, cultures and even social classes . Religion plays a fundamental role, as do the different political systems. It is also a time full of warlike conflicts (sponsored by political, religious and economic reasons), such as the Crusades or the Hundred Years’ War.

Although this is probably one of the most vilified periods, suggesting by many authors the existence of an involution in human development, the truth is that although in many aspects there were important setbacks, different ways of interpreting reality also originated and progress was made in different areas, despite being very slow compared to later stages.

Characteristics of medieval society

The Middle Ages is a stage in which we can observe great divergences in a great number of parameters throughout its course. Likewise, there are many typical characteristics of this age that over time have been changing and evolving (although some of them have remained during modernity and part of the contemporary age, and in fact have only changed in the last few centuries).

In this sense, focusing on the social aspects and those of a more psychological nature, we can find the following distinctive elements

1. The religious institution as a nucleus of power

One of the characteristics that probably stands out most from this stage is the great power and consideration that religion gains. Religious beliefs become basic elements in the daily life of the population, as well as a way of keeping the population contained and circumscribed to a concrete model of reality.

Religious institutions, and specifically the Catholic Church, acquire a preponderant role in society, being one of the few classes with access to education and with a political power capable of surpassing that of the nobility, to the point of being a central axis of power in the Europe of the time.

2. A theocentric world

Related to the above, we find a stage in which the world was explained fundamentally from religious concepts, being the reality product of the will and the divine creation. This meant that God was at the centre of everything, with society and a large part of the philosophical efforts focused on understanding the world through the divinity.

3. Fear and obedience to dogmas

Another aspect of great relevance is the existence of a high level of fear among the population, most of which is illiterate and has little knowledge of the functioning of the universe and the different natural phenomena. This also made it easier for them to adhere to the only prevailing explanatory model to which they had access, the religious one , to the point of reaching attitudes of fanaticism and persecution of anything that deviated from it…

It was widely interpreted that negative aspects of life or illness were consequences of demonic possessions, sorcery or magic. It was also a time of a high level of mistrust of the strange and foreign, especially of what was not understandable.

Similarly, the high level of medical ignorance and the emergence of major epidemics were seen as divine punishments. Another frequent fear was the arrival of the end times, with the passage of time being experienced as something negative and worrying (especially around 1000 AD, due to the interpretation of the Bible).

4. The exacerbation of guilt, sin and virtue

Some fundamental concepts that governed the behavior of many during that time are guilt and sin. The fact of committing acts considered contemptible for which they could be punished both in this life and especially after death permeated society. Containment and excessive control generated paranoid attitudes, occultism and persecution . On the other hand, an ideal of the virtuous human being as a model to follow was promoted, in such a way that conduct was very limited.

5. The Inquisition and the Persecution of Witchcraft

Perhaps one of the most hated and feared figures of the Middle Ages is the Inquisition, which is responsible for the persecution of what was considered heresy (such as positions diverging from official dogmas) and witchcraft.

In this last aspect, the witch-hunt stands out as something that generated a great level of persecution and suffering to a large part of the population. Much of the unrest, disease and disaster was associated with the use of magic and sorcery, often blaming specific sectors of the population or people with marginal characteristics. Likewise, this persecution was used as a political tool to eliminate adversaries and to maintain an iron grip on the population.

6. The Progress of Science and Scholasticism

Although in this aspect many people consider the Middle Ages to be a black spot in scientific progress, the truth is that even though scientific knowledge and its expansion was very slow there were also numerous advances.

Although it is true that in medieval Europe the copying and transcription of the classical figures of antiquity prevailed, with research being something secondary and generally linked to the study of zoology or spirituality, the scientific advances characteristic of the Arab world should not be ignored and which would later be introduced little by little.

A particularly relevant aspect is the movement known as Scholasticism, which emerged in the 13th century. This movement united theology with classical philosophy in order to coordinate faith and reason. Although in this relationship faith was always above, the truth is that it allowed the promotion of reasoning and reflection, and from it emerged relevant figures of philosophy such as St. Thomas Aquinas.

7. Great social differences

In addition to religion, another of the great identifying factors of this period is the division into three large social classes (nobility, clergy and peasantry) and the existence of a great difference between the attributions, roles and rights of each of them.

The peasantry brought together the majority of the population , with their rights being minimal or non-existent. Their role was focused on providing and producing food by working the lands of their masters, being the working class that actually supported society. The rights of this sector of the population were minimal and they were part of the underprivileged, often being abused by other social classes and having to pay taxes.

The nobles were the highest class, being within the privileged classes and benefiting from special rights. Most of them didn’t work, and they used to run lands and businesses. They enjoyed positions of power and had access to education. They were also part of the army, usually as high commanders. In the feudal stage, they were the owners of the land that the peasants worked, and they were their vassals. Above them was the king (although during feudalism it was not uncommon for some feudal lords to have greater power than the king).

Finally, the clergy also enjoyed a special position . They were also a privileged class, who did not pay taxes and who had access to positions of great power. It was the most educated class of the time. It was not uncommon for families to send some of their children to . Although at the beginning they dedicated themselves only to prayer and study, with time they would also dedicate themselves to work on their lands (with the well-known Ora et labora of the rule of St. Benedict).

Another social group that is often ignored when talking about social classes is that of slaves . Although they already existed in the Ancient Age, they were still seen as little more than properties to be used at the whim of their “masters”.

8. A birth position

The social position that each one occupied was determined by their origin and family of birth, with the only exception of the clergy. Someone born to nobles was noble and a son of peasants would be a peasant all his life, with no possibility of changing social position in principle.

The exception was the clergy, and it was possible for those who entered it to assume a higher social position and change their social status. In fact, among the lower classes used to be one of the only ways to access education .

9. The figure and role of women

Another aspect of great relevance to take into account is the role of women in the Middle Ages. This consideration was variable throughout this period, but as a rule women were below men and subordinate to them. The idealization of feminine beauty and romanticism also emerged, giving birth to the literary figure of the “roman courtois”.

Likewise, women of this period had a function and role centred on the home and reproduction, although in the case of the peasantry they also worked in the fields. Socially, single women were frowned upon and often considered to have three basic paths: marriage, church or prostitution. As for the married woman, she had to obey and submit to her husband .

However, with the passage of time, great female figures emerged among the nobility and women who dedicated themselves to the Church, many being named saints or having great influence. There were also great queens with an influential role in political life, although often indirectly. During the Inquisition, there was also a greater preponderance of persecution of the figure of the witch, usually lonely women or widows.

10. The treatment of ethnic and religious diversity

As we have mentioned, during the Middle Ages there was a high level of fear and even psychoticism, as well as a great distrust of the strange. This was reflected in the fact that people who did not comply with the standard model of behaviour or their customs or features did not adhere to what was considered normal were persecuted and even attacked.

For example, ethnic minorities were persecuted and treated like animals (people of color, in fact, were mainly slaves). People with religions other than the official one were also persecuted or forced to convert , as in the case of Jews (who were often blamed for diseases and other disasters and attacked and killed in the Jewish quarters). The same was true for the Muslim minority in European territories (although at different periods and territories there was also peaceful coexistence).

11. Sex, a taboo

The treatment of sex is also a particular aspect of the Middle Ages. Sex was something that was officially hidden from society and not talked about. It was seen as something reserved for mere reproduction, and was also highly scripted and standardized. Practices like anal sex were a sin of sodomy, for example.

However, it was common to resort to the services of prostitutes and for men (especially nobles) to have one or more mistresses. Female sexuality was something ignored and not valued , not being its enjoyment something contemplated even by the female sector itself. In them, adultery had severe penalties that could include the sandwich.

As far as sexual diversity is concerned, homosexuality and conduct other than heterosexuality was considered an aberration and was officially persecuted especially at the time of the Inquisition, and the sin of sodomy was considered serious and could have severe consequences for those who were accused of such action.

12. Cultural creation

Although scientific knowledge was not particularly outstanding at the time, the truth is that cultural creation had great representatives in the Middle Ages.

Although in general almost all cultural aspects were centered on religion, in the case of architecture we find great advances through the centuries, with the birth of different architectural styles such as Romanesque and Gothic . Music was also important at this time, as was literary creation (although with some exceptions, pseudonyms were generally used).

13. The origins of the bourgeoisie

The majority of the European population lived in the countryside during the Middle Ages. However, over the centuries the number of inhabitants of the towns gradually increased. Likewise, trades other than farm work began to be generated that were of great importance to society, such as merchants and craftsmen.

These professionals gradually organized themselves into guilds , and with the passage of time would end up generating a new social class: the bourgeoisie. This new class was not among the privileged classes, but it tended to concentrate a large amount of money and would gradually become a basic element of the economy. Unlike the peasants, the bourgeois were much more likely to prosper and change their social position.

14. Education

Another characteristic aspect of the time is education. This was in the minority, being permissible only for the nobility and clergy in most cases. The methods used did not usually take into account the existence of individual differences in abilities, and the methodology was not adapted to the students. The contents dealt with were subordinated to the official dogmas , with the clergy being the main responsible for educating the few who were able to do so. Mainly, a learning process of the memorial type was carried out.

Likewise, the first universities (some of them in our territory) also emerged as such from the monastic schools. Grammar, Medicine or Law were, together with Theology, some of the subjects dealt with.

15. The treatment of mental illness and disorders

The disease was in the Middle Ages something extremely feared, with poor medical development. In many cases there was a quasi-mystical conception of how the body worked , and a simple cold or cut could prove fatal. Exploring the interior of a human body was a crime and was severely persecuted, which made many illnesses untreatable and incomprehensible.

Many other disorders were poorly treated and even the treatment used could make the condition worse. The clearest example is the use of bloodletting or leeches, often used to purify the blood. What was not known was that this also greatly weakened the patient and could make his condition worse and more easily lead to death.

Although medicinal properties of some plants were known, their use was not frequent. In fact, many people with such knowledge were accused and burned or hanged on charges of witchcraft.

Also in this sense, it is worth noting that the hygienic conditions were minimal, with a large number of lice, bugs, fleas and creatures with the potential to spread various diseases. This generated great plagues, including the Black Death .

The treatment of mental disorders deserves a special mention. Initially there was a treatment of charitable character, but with the course of the centuries certain disorders were considered as demonic possessions or effect of witchcraft, not being strange the presence of exorcisms, torture or even burning at the stake to free the person’s soul from evil spirits.

16. The Soul and the Body

At this stage, it was considered that the human being was configured by soul and body, including the soul what we consider mind today. Sensations or thoughts were acts of the spirit.

There were both dualistic and monistic conceptions of this. The existence of differences between people at the level of soul characteristics is also explored . Emotions, motivation and other aspects relevant to psychology would be worked on by authors like Juan Luis Vives at the end of this age.

Bibliographic references:

  • Regales, A. (2004). The current mentality and the medieval mentality in the light of literature. Communications. University of Valladolid.

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