Beginning with the fall of Rome in 476, and ending in the 14th century, with the start of the Renaissance, Europe’s medieval period was far more significant than common monikers like the “Middle Ages” and “Dark Ages” imply.
The period came to a close following centuries of advancements in medicine, technology, literature and art. The architecture of the so-called Middle Ages forever changed European town- and cityscapes, thanks to the soaring spires of newly built cathedrals.
Of course, medieval social structure meant that the lives of the nobility, peasants and everyone in between differed starkly from one another, including what people ate, wore, and how they spent their time.
Ranging from religious art to underwear, these nine everyday objects from the Middle Ages help shed light on this era of overlooked achievements.
1. Exotic Animals
Like the privileged classes of other periods, those living in the Middle Ages wasted no opportunity to flaunt their societal status, power, and prestige through their belongings. In addition to their monetary value, these possessions were especially prized if they were rare, and had to be sourced and transported to them from faraway lands. Along with imported material goods like spices and brightly colored silk, this also included exotic animals, like monkeys, tigers, and tropical birds.
Leonardo da Vinci captured this particular status symbol in his painting "Lady with an Ermine," which dates to around 1489, and depicts a young noblewoman holding a small weasel called an ermine. The fur of these small mammals was used to make garments for the wealthiest members of medieval society, including robes for royalty. “[The painting] offers a glimpse into the opulent material culture and the nobility's connection to the natural world during the medieval period,” explains Liam Davis, an art historian for Art File Magazine.
During the Middle Ages, many women in the lower classes were involved in textile production: a labor-intensive trade that required learning a set of skills, including how to use tools like spindles. According to Davis, paintings depicting scenes from the medieval period, like "The Spinner" by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, underscore the domestic nature of spinning, and its importance during the era.
“[The spindle] highlights the economic contribution of the lower class, particularly women, as they played a central role in supporting their households through their craft,” he explains.
During the Middle Ages, religion and the church were at the center of most people’s lives, regardless of their social class, and the cathedrals and other places of worship of the period reflected that. In addition to the exterior architecture, many churches contained ornate devotional objects, like altarpieces.
“Altarpieces are essentially artworks created specifically to decorate the most sacred part of a church (the altar), and act as a backdrop for the Christian ritual of the Eucharist,” explains Lane Eagles, an assistant teaching professor specializing in medieval history at the University of Washington. “Multimedia installations often including painting, sculpture, wood, marble, silver, gold leaf, gems, and semiprecious stones—expensive materials thought to best reflect the glory of the God and Paradise—altarpieces were perhaps the most important artistic component in any medieval church.”
4. Sewing Needles
Though they didn’t have the same access to education as men, upper-class women of the Middle Ages were often trained in domestic arts like sewing. But their work with textiles differed from that of their lower-class counterparts, down to the tools they used.
“Metal sewing needles were a rarity in medieval times, and would [have] only been owned by the richest of women,” says Andrew Varga, a historian, educator, and author. Meanwhile women who didn’t come from wealthy families typically used needles made from bone, boar bristles, wood, or other natural materials, like antler. “The fact that metal needles were exclusively for the richer [parts] of society reveals that fine metalworking was not very advanced in medieval society,” Varga adds.
Far from being the common household objects they are today, mirrors were precious luxury items in the Middle Ages, likely owned exclusively by upper-class women. “They were symbols of status and wealth, and many depict scenes of love and chivalry, as they were often given as courting gifts,” says Eagles, who specializes in medieval history.
While the backings or covers of these mirrors usually featured intricately carved ivory, the shiny parts were made of highly polished metal, like bronze, tin, or silver.
“Medieval mirrors wouldn’t have been very reflective,” she explains. “Imagine going through your entire life with only a hazy idea of what you look like!”
6. Book of Hours
Books were scarce in the Middle Ages, says Eagles, with literacy rates significantly below those of the modern day, especially among the lower classes. While most people encountered books in church settings—typically in the form of an illustrated manuscript of the Bible—members of wealthy families also had access to texts known as Books of Hours, in their own homes.
“Books of Hours were prayer books that guided the reader through the canonical hours,” says Eagles. “For the nobility, the Book of Hours was a high-end literary genre popularized during this period. Each was personalized for the owner, containing a unique collection of prayers, psalms, other curated religious texts, and images.” There were also smaller, travel-sized copies, designed to be portable.
Though many aspects of medical treatment during the Middle Ages seem perplexing, if not downright cruel to those of us living in the 21st century (we’re looking at you, barber-surgeons), it’s possible to see the path towards modern medicine in others; most notably, in the use of plant-derived remedies. And thanks to manuscripts known as “herbals,” there’s a written record of these botanical treatments.
“Herbals are books that listed plants, [and provided] physical descriptions and illustrations of each, along with their medicinal and culinary uses, as well as their toxicity,” says Erin Campbell, reference librarian at the Lloyd Library and Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, which houses a large collection of materials on topics including botanic medicine and pharmacology, the earliest of which were published at the end of the 15th century.
“Herbals were used by a large swath of the community: anyone caring for the ill, including midwives, barbers, and apothecaries,” Campbell explains. “Early physicians were often also botanists.”
8. Undertunics and Kirtles
According to Eagles, medieval and Renaissance clothing was all about layers, and prior to the mid-14th century, was largely unisex. Two of these layers, the undertunic and kirtle, functioned as underwear of sorts. The undertunic, sometimes referred to as a “tunic,” was a loose-fitting garment typically made of linen or wool, worn directly against the skin. “The undertunic protected the main—usually more expensive outer layer—from absorbing sweat, thus preserving it against the need for constant washing,” she explains. “They were often hemmed at the knee or above.”
Similarly, the kirtle, which was structured like a simple dress with a bodice and skirt, could also be hemmed, laced, or belted to suit a wearer’s taste and body shape, regardless of their gender. “It was worn over an undertunic or similar form of underwear, and sometimes beneath an outer gown, coat, or cloak,” says Eagles. “For wealthy wearers, the fabric was often dyed with organic pigments such as madder or woad, and could be embellished with personalizing adornments such as pins, buttons, or long sleeves.”
9. Pilgrim Badge
Long before a group of Puritan Separatist colonizers crossed the Atlantic Ocean, other European pilgrims embarked on long, frequently dangerous journeys for religious reasons, albeit, in the opposite direction. During the Middle Ages, trips to Christian holy sites—Jerusalem, Rome, and the shrine of St. James the Great at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, in particular—exploded in popularity, according to Eagles. Known as “pilgrimage,” people undertook these treks across the continent to atone for their sins, or seek the intercession of a saint.
“Once travelers made it to a holy site, they would collect a pilgrim badge and pin it to their clothes, wearing it proudly to display their effort,” says Eagles. “These badges were typically made from a thin and malleable copper alloy, making them easy to shape and cheaply mass produce.” Part religious token, part travel souvenir, people of all classes and backgrounds collected pilgrim badges during the Middle Ages. In addition to depicting a particular saint, many pilgrim badges were in the shape of a clamshell: the symbol of St. James, she adds.