*** medieval Europe

The Medieval Era

Falconer boy
Figure 1.--Contemprary paintings often have a great deal of highly accurate information. Modern drawings have to be treated with caution. This illustration is 'The Little Falconer' by Felix Moscheles from an 1889 edition of the 'Illustrated London News'. The drawing looks to be set in about the 15th century, perhaps better placed in the Renaissance. Falconry is normaly associated with the nobility. We notice a similar painting by the Dutch artist Wallerant Vaillant, after the passage of the medieval era (17th century).

The Medieval is the longest major era in European history. It is also exceedingly complex. There are, however, some key elements that separate Medieval Europe from the classical civilization of Greece and Rome that it replaced and our modern world today. Life in Medieval Europe was ruder or more primitive than that of Imperial Rome. There were barbarian elements. Society was dominated by a single, militant, and exclusive religion which discouraged or prevented the development of a secular society. The medieval era is generally defined as the period of European history from the fall of Rome (5th century) to the Renaissance (15th century). The Medieval era is often given only limited attention in histories of the West. In fact, the Medieval era by far is the longest period of European history--spanning a millennium. The impact on the Western mind and our modern society was enormous. There were three preeminent cultural influences affecting Medieval Europe. The old civilization of imperial Rome left a powerful cultural footprint. The Church became the dominant influence during much of the Medieval period. The Church provided an ethical dimension that involved moral responsibilities lacking in classical society. The asceticism of the early Church, however, rejected the worldliness of pagan culture. While commonly denigrated as barbarian, the German invaders inculcated concepts of individuality and personal freedom that are today hallmarks of Western civilization. The era was one of religious faith affected by war, famine, and dissease. Constant warfare occurred along with stunning artistic achievement. Nations were formed along with legal codes that laid the bases for our modern democracies, the rule of law, and basic human liberties. HBC has noted references in fairly recent literature to Aries' dual thesis that the medieval period neither had a sense of childhood as a distinct developmental period nor did medieval parents emotionally value their children. HBC hasn't addressed fashion in the eras before the 1500s yet. One thing we can tell you is that specialized boys' clothes did not exist in the 12th century. There was specialized children's clothing in the Roman era, but after the fall of Rome, the convention of specialized boys' clothing appears to have disappeared in Western Europe. Boys after breeching wore the same styles as their fathers. HBC hopes to eventually address earlier historical eras, but it will be some time before this is possible in any detail.

Key Elements

The Medieval is the longest major era in European history. It is also exceedingly complex. There are, however, some key elements that separate Medieval Europe from the classical civilization of Greece and Rome that it replaced and our modern world today. Life in Medieval Europe was ruder or more primitive than that of Imperial Rome. There were barbarian elements. Society was dominated by a single, militant, and exclusive religion which discouraged or prevented the development of a secular society. There was great deference given to authority, both secular and temporal. Experiment and scientific inquiry virtually ceased. Communication between people declined as the Roman ruins fell into disrepair and the decline of centralized rule resulted in the development of small petty principalities.


Warfare was an endemic aspect of life during the long European medieval era. To an extent it defined the era and led to feudal decentralization, althouh historians debate this. Noting appears to the popular mind more than warfare and knights when thinking about the medieval era. The techhnology of medieval warfare declined from the mpre sophisticated technology of later abtiquity the later ancient era. Major technological, cultural, economic and social developments occured gradually over the one mllenium medieval era. And they resulted in a major transformation in the character of warfare and society itself. These changes played a role, first in the devlopment of feudalism and tgen in undermining it. Heavy cavalry in the person of the armored knight came to dominate medival warfare. It was controlled to an extent by the code of chivalry. The feudal system and armored knight gave rise to the desintgration of powerful states into local power centers proteced by castles, a development which was repeated in the Middle East and China. This did not change until gunpowder invented in China resulted un weapons (both firearms anbd artillery) which could penetrate armor anbd castle fortifications. This combined with the quickening of economic life and the reapperance of classical learning led to the Renaisance ending the medieval era.


The Medieval period is a long, complex era in European history between ancient and modern times. Historians vary, but often define it from the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD to the Renaissance of the 15th-16th century. There are many phases of this amazingly complex period, including pre-Christian antecedents, early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic periods. In some areas, especially Spain there was an important Islamic influence. There was a general decline in civilization and this is reflected in the in loss of ability by the medieval artist to depict scenes in classical precision. Some art historians suggest that this is a lessening concern of Christian art with the world. This may well be, but it also reflects a decline in education and training associated with civilization as well as the wealth needed to support sophisticated art. There is also a wide range of media, including wooden and stone free-standing and architectural sculpture to stained glass, metalwork, enamels, ivories, manuscript illuminations (typically tempera and gold leaf on parchment or vellum), oil paintings, tapestries, and others. Medieval art presents a problem for HBC in that it is directly primarily at the glorification of God. Thus domestic scenes and everyday life are not commonly depicted, leaving us relatively few depictions of children. HBC wants to build a list of medieval artists that provide useful images of boys clothing. Our knowledge of artists during this period is very limited at this time. It is an a topic that we hope to be able to address eventually. Here establishing a clear time line concerning medieval art is not a easy matter. A HBC reader writes, for example, "The 16th century was no longer medieval with regard to the official culture, but it�s not that easy. Pieter Breugel was "modern" painter in the sense that HBC wrote. His paintings tend to show late medieval scenes. He painted simple people and showed their clothing. What I understand from his paintings is, that children wore almost the same type of clothing. >


The music of the medieval era is a vast and complex topic in that it encompasses a period of about a millennium from the fall of Rome (5th century AD) to the Renaissance (14th-14th centuries). This was a long period during which Europe underwent enormous change, especially during the late or high medieval era. There were two principal types of music during the medieval era, sacred (Church) and secular music. Most of what we know about medieval music (especially) the Dark Ages is sacred music. Only the church had the institutional capability to create records of music and preserve it for future generations. Church music was dominated by plainsong (chant) for most of the medieval era. Polyphony was invented (12th century), but did not immediately replace plainsong. An important part of church music was produced by choirs. The early church turned away from communal singing and excluded women from singing in the church. Thus boys came to play an important role in sacred music. We have not yet created a page on early boy choirs, but we do have details about boy choirs in the high medieval era. Very little is known about secular music in the Dark Ages. After the fall of Rome the institutions which trained singers and musicians disappeared. And what music continued was based on an oral tradition. It was not recorded on paper and virtually nothing has survived. This began to change by the middle period of the medieval era. Music and dance became an important part of courtly life and musical traditions began to develop as commerce and towns began to grow. Music was important during celebration and festivities. The nobility could afford minstrels and troubadours to entertain them when they wanted. The common people had far fewer opportunities. The troubadour is perhaps the most important purveyor of secular music during the medieval era. By the late medieval era an increasingly sophisticated musical tradition began to grow, especially with the invention of polyphony. And with the invention of notation there was a way of preserving musical works, although the lack of an institutional base means that relatively little secular music has survived.


Passion Plays are medieval dramatizations of Christ's Passion. Traditionally Christ's Passion is seen as the last few day's of Christ's life, the period of intense suffering from the Garden of Gethsemane to his Crucifixion. The medieval passion plays gradually grew in length and commonly included Old Testament scenes as well as the Resurrection. They evolved from the religious fest days and varied in content because of a wide range of local influences. They began to appear in the 10th century in a basic form and had reached their peak of development n the 14th century. There were regional differences as the the style and content. In addition to the cycle plays (based on Biblical stories), there were also Morality Plays (allegorical plays in which personified virtues and vices competed for the soul of man. These medieval dramas are of considerable historic importance because they represent an expression of the fervent religious belief of medieval Europe. They were also the first appearance of formal drama in Europe since classical times. Although the Church had played a role in the evolution of Passion Plays, they were unable to maintain control of these productions which over time became more popular entertainment than religious celebration. Ecclesiastical (Catholic and Protestant) and civil authorities acted to suppress the productions in the 16th century. The Oberammergau Passion Play is the most important one to survive.

Cultural State

Various authors have addressed the problem of defining the medieval era. Some stress that medieval is not only a time period but also a cultural state of the people, a state of consciousness. Jean Gebser wrote a lot about states of consciousness. A German reader writes, "I once was in Nepal and found a medieval atmosphere in one of the smaller towns in the Katmandu Valley. When you walk through such a place with open senses, you feel it!"

Specific Centuries

The medieval era is generally defined as the period of European history from the fall of Rome (5th century) to the Renaissance (15th century). The Medieval era is often given only limited attention in histories of the West. In fact, the Medieval era by far is the longest period of European history--spanning a millennium. The impact on the Western mind and our modern society was enormous. Modern scholarship is increasingly focusing on the so-called Dark Ages which, as a result, has received an historical reappraisal. Many authors object to the term as misleading. Other scholars increasingly see in the so called Dark Ages the foundation for many of the basic beliefs and social institutions of the West. While the era is generally treated as a single era, this millennium long era was extremely diverse. The pace of social change began to quicken in the 12h century. The Christian Church which dominated the Medieval era was, after the fall of Rome, the major force for cultural unity of the West. One notable trend was the endurance of fashion. Before the mass marketing of our modern age, fashions endured for decades if not centuries. Changes in fashion were glacial compared to the coming and going of modern fashions. A real problem when talking about medieval chronology is this: Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300. At that period France, England and Germany were still for two centuries in the Middle Ages.

Cultural Influences

There were three preeminent cultural influences affecting Medieval Europe. The old civilization of imperial Rome left a powerful cultural footprint. The Church became the dominant influence during much of the Medieval period. The Church provided an ethical dimension that involved moral responsibilities lacking in classical society. The asceticism of the early Church, however, rejected the worldliness of pagan culture. While commonly denigrated as barbarian, and often overlooked, the Germanic tribes also left a major cultural imprint. The Germanic invaders inculcated concepts of individuality and personal freedom that are today hallmarks of Western civilization.


Rome was in part a conduit of classical Greek culture to the West. The Romans appropriated much of the culture of Greece after conquering the Greeks in the mid-2nd century BC. This included art, literature, philosophy, and science. But Rome was much more than a conduit, the Romans while never exceeding the Greeks in these areas, developed a remarkable civilization of their own, noted for law, public administration and architecture and road building.

The Church

The Christian Church developed in the Roman Empire. The suppression of Christians was a constant theme during the reigns of many emperors. The early Church fathers (Peter, Paul, and many others) operated in this hostile environment. Finally with Constantine, the Church became the official religion of the Empire. Early Church theologians like Augustine lived at a time that the Church was not only tolerated, but the official religion of the Empire and a religion that acted to suppress other rival creeds. The Church enthused Rome with new ethical concepts which provided individuals moral responsibilities previously lacking. The Church's asceticism, however rejected the worldliness of pagan culture. The Church was thus significantly influenced by the Empire. Much of the Church's organization (pope, cardinal, bishop, etc) was a reflection of how the Roman Empire was organized, although the modern organization of the Church and the primacy of the Pope only developed over time. The political structure of the Empire was reflected in how Christian dioceses were set up. Even before conversion, important local officials (Roman, Celtic, and Germanic) might protect or even endow monasteries and convents seeing it beneficial to have "a powerhouse of prayer" in their territory. [Brown] One remarkable aspect of the triumph of Christianity in Europe was the fact that Christianity was the religion of the defeated Empire, yet it was gradually adopted by the victorious barbarians. The story of medieval conversions is a fascinating one. Actual conversion took many forms. Very few European people were Christianized by conquest. Rather conversion occurred by converting leaders, primarily by persuasion. This process took many forms (missionary zeal, princely fiat, election, and shamanistic vision). Many features of the modern Church were not aspects of the early Church. One of the most important is the cult of the saints. Another is the confessional, initially only practiced by the most deeply pious. One aspects of the confessional was tariffed penances based on penitentials. Surviving medieval penitentials provide a wealth of information to sociologists concerning the intimate details of everyday life. [Brown]

Germanic barbarians

The cultural influence of the Germanic tribes is commonly not pursued in any detail in survey histories of the Western world. This is no doubt due to the cultural flowering of Greece and Rome which draws so much attention. It should be remembered, however, that the Germanic invaders imposed themselves as the aristocratic class throughout most of Western Europe. Thus their influence and vales were of great importance during the medieval era and in the creation of the modern West. Any survey of Western civilization should address this impact. While commonly denigrated as barbarian, the German invaders inculcated concepts of individuality and personal freedom. These ideas are today hallmarks of Western civilization. They also are notably the very ideas that place America and the West in conflict with the 20th century totalitarians (the German NAZIs, Italian Fascists, Japanese militarists, and Soviet Communists) and with Islamic fundamentalists in the 21st century.


Rome estanlished the foundation for medieval Europe at least Western Europe. While it was conquered by pahan Germanic barbrians. The Roman cultural tradition was passed okn through the vessel of the Roman Catholic Church. But Byzantium was a major influence. This influence was conveyed in many ways. Byzabtium through the influence of the Eastrn or Orthodox Church was the major cultural influence in Russia and much of Eastern Europe. And through most of the medieval era, Byzantium was an important state nd involved in European affairs. Because of its location this influence was primarily felt in the east, but in the early mediuval era, Byzabntium plyhed a major role in the eastern Mediterrnean. Besides the political role, Byzantium played a huge militaryrole. Ut helped mitigate German barbaric nfluences in North africa and Italy. And then for centuries it protcted southeastern Europe from Islamic attack. Only with the fall of Constantinople (1453( did the Christain states in soytheastern Europe have to face the full weight of Muslim advancs--at the time the Ottoman Empire. and by yhis time because of the renaissance and the European maritime outreach, Christian Europe began its fatefull rise. Byzantoum also played a incalcuable cultural role. The archives and libraries of Byzantium preserved the hreat work of classical civilization. Some had made their way to the Clophate which stimulsted thought there before the Mongol invasion (14th century). There was little interest in the west, but his changed as the Renaissance progressed. And as the Ottomans pressured Byzantium. Clasical cjolses nd orks began to flood into a now receptive West.

Feudal System

After the fall of Rome, the Feudal system developed in Europe. The Feudalism was an economic, social, and economic system based apportionment of land in exchange for the provision of fealty and service. The system was based on the king granting land to his important noblemen who became barons. These land grants became hereditary. The king also granted land to the Church. These nobles in exchange pledged loyally to the king and to provide soldiers and supplies in time of war. The great nobles in turn divided their fiefdom among lesser lords or knights who became his vassals. This system was based on the labor of the lowest rung of the social order. Most Europeans were peasant farmers working on the land of a Feudal nobleman--the lord of the manner. They did not own their land, but allowed to work it in exchange for a hare of the crop and labor when required. As the Feudal system developed, the peasants or serfs became tied to th land, not allowed to leave it without permission of the lord of the manner. The Feudal system began to weaken in Western Europe by the 16th century, but persisted much longer in Eastern Europe. The serfs in Russia were not legal freed until the 19th century and it was not until the Revolution in the20th century that the still essentially Feudal estates were broken up.


Feudalism was the principal social system of Medieval Europe. It was an era lastingh about a millenium. Fedudalism was more than just an ecomonic system, but a social and political system as well. The great bulk of the opopultion were peasants living on the estates of feudal lords. Within Feudalism the enslaved peasantry gradually evolved from slavery to serfdom. The difference was at first limited, but there were important legal differences. Other ecnomic topics considered here are the Silk Road, Crusades, plague, and the Medieval wool trade, Change was sklow during the medieval era, but it did occur. There were substabntial differences between rthe early- and late-medievaln era. Throughout much of the period, Europe was an economic backwater. Technological advances were in large nmeasure imported from the East through Muslim lands. Only in the klate-medieval era do we begin to ee the oavce of trade and technilogical innovation quicken.

Social Class

The Medieval fashions that we discuss here are to a large extent the fashions of the nobility in the courts of Europe. And these are the styles that are commomly seen in recreations and reenactmnebnts. Today, these styles are re-created and available for Medieval era enthusiasts from HistoricalClorhingRealm.com who have effectively replicated these pieces. Only gradually did commoners like successful merchants acquire the ability to dress fashionably. The fashions worn by nobles and wealthy merchants changed slowly, especially in the early Medieval era. The nobility was a very narrow strata of society. Throughout the Medieval era the vast mass of the population were peasants eking out a subsistence existence in rural areas and rarely venturing more than 50 miles from where they were born. Life for European peasants was very difficult. Few had money to actually purchase their clothing. Cloth was spun and woven by hand in peasant hovels. The principal material was wool. Linen was made from flax, but was expensive. Cotton was unknown in the early Medieval era and after its introduction in the late Medieval era, very expensive as it was imported from the East. Another imported fabric, silk, was also reserved for the wealthy. Even the most basic implements like needles were difficult to obtain and very expensive. Clothes made by peasants at home, because of the effort involved, were made as simply as possible and the fit was thus very loose. There was in the early Medieval era little difference between the dress of the nobility and the peasantry, although the material and workmanship usually differed. As time went by greater and greater differences developed. Fashion changes occurred first with the wealthy and only slowly filtered down to the peasant classes. European peasants primarily wore wool and linen garments. Not only were these the available fabrics, but sumptuary laws were passed restricting what different social classes could wear. English peasants in 1363 were limited to coarse materials, a plain linen girdle, and prohibited from wearing any fur. Peasants made what dyes they used from local roots and flowers which because they often were not strong provided only soft hues to their clothes rather than brightly colored clothes that the nobility often which were made with more refined and expensive dyes. [Crush]


Our information on medieval clothes is still limited. It is not a topic that we have yet addressed in detail. HBC focuses primarily on the modern era beginning with the 16th century. The medieval period covers a period of about 1,000 years, half of the time since the birth of Christ. One might expect that as a result there were great changes in clothing and fashion over this period. Surprisingly there was relatively little change in fashion, especially during the early medieval era. The pace of change quickened in the late-medieval era. We have not yet developed information on many specific garments. One distinctive medieval garment was stockings. They were called "haut de chausse" in France, a country which was very influential in fashion during the medieval era. There is a page on medieval stocking supporters. Assessing children's clothing is somewhat of a misnomer as the concept of childhood as we know it today did not exist at the time. Very young boys wore dresses. Once breeched, however, boys were clothed much like their parents. There was no specially designed children's clothing. Another important factor is that clothing was determined by social class. The peasantry for centuries wore essentially the same clothing. Fashion was a phenomenon of the upper classes. At this time the only work we have done on medieval fashion has been that of page boys. Here page boys can be considered as basically similar to aristocratic boys in general.

Sumptuary Laws

Sumptuary laws were laws controlling personal purchases to prevent extravagance. Commonly in the Medieval era these were laws enacted to prevent commoners such as rich merchants from dressing like the nobility. There was no concern with the nobility dressing extravagantly, although some colors (purple) or furs (ermine) might be reserved to the king or emperor. It was the commoners that were the target of sumptuary laws. These las were designed to perpetuate class and social distinctions and for a variety of economic and political purposes. Thee laws developed especially in the late Medieval era when the economy was expanding and increasing numbers of commoners, especially wealthy merchants, acquired the wealth to purchase fine clothes. With the coming of the Reformation sumptuary Laws with religious motivations appeared.

World Wide Trends

The developments leading to the medieval era did not just affect Europe. e see similar trends thriughout the Eur-Asian core. This inclues the Middle-East, India, and the Far East. While their were major similarities, there were also importnt differences.


The fall of Rome in the 5th-century had profound consequences throughout Europe. The fall of Rome was to also affect the future history of Europe, but the impact varied with both the local populations and the specific Barbarians tribes which gradually spread throughout Europe and the British Isles. The Barbarians did not invade in a huge wave, but in different sized groups of various tribes (Franks, Teutons, Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals, Vikings, and others). Over time the Barbarians and local populations and their cultures merged. Although Roman armies were defeated, the Roman Church would succeed in Christianizing the Barbarians. the Carolingian family had by the mid-8th century deposed the Merovingian dynasty. Charlemagne and his descendants would found many of the major European nations. The barbarian war lords of the 5th the century had emerged as rulers anointed by God, responsible for preserving the Faith as well as the security of his subjects. The dual role invested the king with political, religious, and culture responsibilities. While the Feudal System and Catholic Church dominated Europe a variety of factors made for the development of national differences. Europe even before the Barbarian invasions was split between the Germanic east and the Roman west and south. This cultural divide was to have a profound impact on Europe. Even within the Roman Empire there were many regional differences. While city centers were often Romanized, throughout the Empire rural populations often retained their native languages and cultural distinctness. In addition different ares of Europe were conquered by different Barbarian tribes. Many other factors such as geography and climate caused the development of economic and other cultural differences.

The Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East or Near Eat abd North Africa can be viewed as coherent regionfor the first time during he medieval era. This is because of the Arab outburst from Arabia (7th century BC) abd the rapid conquest and Islamization from Persia west to Morocco and eceb the Iberian Peninsula in Europe. Much of this, at least the area west of Prsia was the Roman Empire. Islamization brought a cimmon religion and culture to the region. And as Byzantium, unlike Rome, did not fall to the Barbaians, there was nevr a colapse of civilization as ocurred in the West--no Dark Age. And with the Arab conquest came a cultural revival. Al Andalus in Spain was for some time the most advanced and tolerant country in Europe. The Caliphate became known as the Golden Age of Islam. The Chrisian crusaders who confronted Islam for the first time were imprssed with the cultural level of the Turks and Arabs. The historical record shows an inverse pattern in the region compared to the West. The Islamic Middle East and North Africa experienced its cultural apogee at the very time Wester Chrisendom was at its nadir--the Dark Ages. Then as Europe began to experience a cultural revival known as the Renaissace (14th cenury), the Islamic world descended into a kind of time warp of cultural stagnation that still exists in some areas. The Ottoman Turks were somewhat different. Photographs taken in the late-19th century show cns that could eaily have been taken centuries earlier, untouched by modern technology. There were several basic areas the need to be consudered, including Persia. the Turks, Arab Lands, Egypt, and North Africa. We see asimilar pattern throughout the region. The relative tolerance of the Arabs under Islam provided a feedom that ignited the culturl billiance of the Caliphte. Thn Islam tuned inward and supressed freedom, controling lives and thought, creating a cultural time warp prevening the movenents like the Renaisance, Reformation, nd Enligtenment that transformed Europe. Ironically we see modern Arabs, and not just the ISIS thugs, carrying signs denouncing freedom while demanding a return to the Caliphate--totaly oblivious to what made the Caliphte great.

Main Indian medieval era

Medieval India witnessed the high point of Hindu civilization on the Indian sub-continent, followed by a succession of Muslim conquests before the arival of the Europeans at the beginning of the modern era. The dates are not well defined. Medieval India was divide along a north-south axis. The Chola dominated the south and the Rajputs in the north. The most important dynasty during the medieval period rose in southern India away from the Indus Valley and Ganges rivers in the north, where civilization first appeared during the ancient era. The Cholas unlike other major dynasties (the Chalukyas, the Pallavas, the Pandyas or the Rashtrakutas) were a native dynasty rather than an invading force. The Deccan region was in chaos. The Deccan Plateau comprises much of southern Asia. The Cholas reduced the Pallavas to the status of minor vassals. The Rashtrakutas had declined, but a resurgent branch of the Chalukya family (the later Chalukyas) became an imortant regionalpower in the western Deccan. The Deccan region was contested by the later Chalukyas, the Yadavas in Devagiri (northern Deccan around Aurangabad), the Kakatiyas of Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) and the Hoysalas of Dorasamudra (Mysore). It was Cholas whould ultimately emerge as unchallenged authorities in the south (900-1100 AD). The Hoysala Empire emerged as the lastbgreat southern empire (10th-14th centuries). The Hoysala were hill people from the western Ghats. As the Chalukyas and Kalachuri kingdoms exausted themselves in constant warfare, the Hoysala gained control of present day Karnataka and parts of the Kaveri River delta in Tamil country (12th century). The Hoysala expanded into modern Karnataka, minor parts of Tamil Nadu and parts of Deccan India. The Hoysala era was important period in the development of Indian art, architecture, and religion. The Empire left largebnumbers of stone temples which survice today. After the death of Harsha the Rajputs rose in northern India. The Rajput period in the north was as in medieval Europe was an age of chivalry and feudalism. The Rajputs constantly warred with each other which impaired their ability to resist Muslim invaders. The Rajputs were thus unable to resist Turkic invaders from Afghanistan from gaining a hold on nothern India where they established the Delhi Sultanate an Islam (13th century). While important empires arose during the medieval era, none suceeded in unifying the subcontinent. This is like the situation in urop, but unlike China wher the Han Chinese unified the country. After the medieval era, the Moguhls came very close to unifying Indiabut ultimatly failed. So it was that only under the British Raj was the subcontinnt unified. Any in modern India today it is the English language and English parlimentary democracy are the only common bonds holding the country together. An element of cultural unification ocurred during the medieval era. Buddhism was effectively destroyed by Hindus, before the Islamic invasions. The Muslim rulers futher supressed Buddhism and introduced a new religious division--Islam.

Medieval China

The fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD was similar in many ways to the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. They were not replaced by strong dynasty, many lasted only brief periods. The collapse of Han rule resulted in almost four centuries of warlord rule. China split into three kingdoms (Wei, Shu, and Wu), but the idea of cultural unity persisted. China never seems to have declined to the same low cultural level as the European Dark Ages. The Medieval Chinese dynasties are some of the least remembered dynasties. While the Han fell, the ideal of the Han and unified rule never perished. Chinese to this day still refer to themselves as the "sons of Han". The short lived Shu Dynasty (589-618 AD) finally unified China again. They were replaced by the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 AD) under whom China regained much of its former power. The writ of the T'ang Emperors extend from the Caspian to the Pacific. Five feeble, short-lived dynasties replaced the T'ang weakened by corruption and rebellion. They were replaced by the Sung Dynasty (960-1280-AD). The Sung are sometimes described as the Augustine Age of China. Writing and printing flourished and libraries appeared.

The Silk Road

The history of the famed Silk Road is one of many instances in which clothing and fabrics have played a major role in human history. The story of the silk road is one of military adventures and conquest, adventuresome explorers, religious pilgrims, and great philosophers. While it is silk which is often, naturally enough, most strongly associated with the silk road, the flow of ideas and religion as an almost unintended aspect of the flow of trade may have been one of the most significant impacts. Of course most of the people who traversed the silk road were not great thinkers, but common tradesmen who transported their merchandise at great risk for the substantial profits that could be made. They moved camel caravans over some of the most hostile terrain on the planet. The Silk Road transversed deserts, mountains and the seemingly endless Central Asian steppe. Some of the great figures of history are associated with the Silk Road, including Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. Merchandise may have moved over the Silk Road as early as the 5th century BC. The Silk Road is believed to have become an established trade route by the 1st century BC and continued to be important until the 16th century when more reliable sea routes were established as a result of the European voyages of discovery.


Just as cotton was at the center of the Industrial Revolution, wool was a key commodity in the Medieval era. Wool was the principal raw material used for textiles in Medieval Europe. It was usually woven to produce cloth, but some was used to produce felt. Wool is produced by sheep. Different breeds produce wool of varying quality. Some sheep have fine silky fleece. Other sheep have a very coarse fleece. High quality cloth required a fine yarn. This required the fleece to be carded, meaning combing with a large iron comb-like tool. The other principal fabric used to produce textiles in Medieval Europe was linen. Linen was produced from flax. Yarn was required to produce textiles. Yarn was produced from raw wool or flax fibers by hand. (The spinning wheels did not appear until the late Medieval era. The raw wool or processed flax was placed on a drop spindle. A drop spindle was fashioned from wood or bone and weighted on the bottom with stone or metal. The yarn was produced by drawing the fiber out from the spindle and twisting it in the process. This was a tedious, labor intensive process, but only after the yarn was fashioned could the production of textiles begin. The next step was to dye the yarn. A variety of natural dyes were used, varying somewhat as the kinds of plants available locally. Some made the dyes themselves, but natural dyes could be purchased in village markets. Some of the common dies were: woad or indigo (blue), weld (yellow), madder(orange and red), Brazil tree (reds), alkanet (lilac), and many other roots, berries, barks and lichens. The yarn was then woven into cloth on hand looms. The woven cloth was then ironed by pressing with a whale bone (baleen) plaque, glass, or stone smoother which had been heated for the purpose. The final process was decoration by braided cords, tapestry, or embroidery. The center of the European wool trade was Flanders and the center of wool production was England.


A medieval page was the first stage of chivalric knighthood. Boys and youths in medieval Europe were used as attendants to persons of rank, usually noble or royal. These boys were chosen from aristocratic or "good" families. The tradition began as boys serving knights as part of their military training and preparation for knighthood themselves. As these pages accompanied the knight they served, they were also present at court and thus had to learn refined manners as well as fighting skills. While thep ages of the middle ages are perhaps best known to us today, the tradition is an ancient ones. There are records of pages in Roman, Persian, and other an ancient civilizations. In medieval times the degree of page was the first stage of chivalric knighthood, preparatory to that of first esquire and then knight. In more recent times it is the latter function they served, being present at ceremonies to attend to royal personages at court. Boys in 18th century red jackets and white knee breeches are often seen at important British royal events accompanied the monarch, they are always boys from aristocratic families. Their selection was considered a great honor. The page boy hair cut comes from these pages, based on a hair style with bangs popular in the medieval era. I am not sure, however, when the term came into vogue.


Guilds or associations of commoners began to achieve some importance in the 11th-12th centuries. European life in the 10th century was dominated by aristocratic rule and the Church. The guilds were organized similarly to feudal society with masters serving as a kind of feudal overlord. At a time before modern nation states, the guild help to order medieval society. There were two major types of guilds, merchant and craft guilds. The most influential were the merchant guilds. They were the first secular challenge to the authority of Europe's feudal order. There were also craft or trade guilds. These were associations in various industries, such as carpenters, weavers, and others. Often the weaving guild was one of the most important as the weaving industry was such a major industry in the medieval world. Guild masters took own boys as apprentices. The masters were responsible for teaching their apprentices the craft. The master provided for their room and board and paid them a small subsistence wage. All these matters such as the payment to the master, wages, and years of apprenticeship were carefully agreed in advance. Apprentices are often associated with the cities, but there were also apprentices in villages as well where boys might earn skills like smithing, milling, and other skills.


Institutions for poor relief appeared in the late middle ages. These institutions included foundling homes, colleges, and hospitals. The best known facility for the care of indigent children that we know of were foundling homes. They were not specifically for orphans. In fact parents often left children they could not care for at these homes. They were established by the Roman Catholic Church during the late Middle Ages as a deterrent to infanticide by destitute parents. Foundling homes were widespread in Southern Europe by the late medieval era. Foundling homes were not orphanages in the modern sense. They were founded to care for infants, to ensure their proper baptism and nursing care. The children were placed with adoptive families as quickly as they could be found. The responsibility for their care then became the responsibility of the adoptive family. Here a great deal depended on the adoptive parents. In some cases the children might come to be treated as actual natural born children. In many families they had as they grew up more the status of indentured servants. Another medieval institution was the college or orphanage to aid poor children. These were foundations that helped to provide basic school or training for poor children. They were not orphanages in the modern sense. Some provided or arranged housing and board for the children, but the emphasis at first was on schooling and often the children had to support themselves, usually through begging. They were not specifically for orphans, but poor children in general. Also they were only for boys. At this times only boys were normally schooled and it was easier to place girls in homes as servants. Institutions like the Spanish Collegios de los Ninos de la Doctrina are examples of these institutions. Period documents note such institutions in several countries (including England, Germany, and Spain). The medieval hospitals some times took in orphans or other indigent children. This was the origins of the English hospital schools. Almshouses also began to appear in the late middle ages and cared for children. These were not especially orphans as often whole families accepted.

Medieval Children in History

We know of quite a few children from medieval Europe. Most of the are future kings, in part because most people gave little attention to peasant children. They generally had no education and had little opportunity in life. We only know of a few peasant children. Some of the future kings we have some good information because they had contemporary portraits done. Portraits done by artists looking back on time often imagine the clothes their subjects wore. Contemporary portraits, however, can be very accurate depictions of clothing.


The material used for wtiting is a neglected subject. The material used affected the transmission of ideas and information. Chrap weriting materil affected who could affod books and scrolls. Expensive material restricted the transmission of ideas. There was not much reason to learn to read and write if writihg material was so expensive tht few people could afford books and scrolls. The material in Mesopotamia was chep--clay tablets, but difficulr to store negause of the thickness and weight. The Eyptian had a better sollutiuon -- thery invented paper made from Nile river reeds--papyrus. Papyrus was a tall reed-like plan. Rgey used strips of the inner stem of the plant in the production of paper. They would make two layers, one horizontal and the other vertical. They then coivered the strips with a linen cloth and apply pressure with a mallet or stones. The would bind together making a single flat sheet to write on, some what similar to how paper is manufctured. The Greeks were traders and got papayris paper from the Egyotains, at first through the Phoenicians. There were aother materials, ncluding parchment, wooden tablets whitened with gypsum, wooden tablets coated with wax, and range pf othervmaterial syhuch as potteruy/shards, stone monuments, and bronzze. The Romans used the same material. The famous Roman scrolls were mostly domne on imoorted papayrus paper. The Chinese invented paper (about 100 BC). It was by far thev cheapest media for writing. It is no accident that China wasam=n ehine fot inventing technology. part of the reason for this is Chuna had a an ideal mediium for transmitting ideas. Chinese paper making for centuries was a state secret. With fall of the Roman Empire (5th century AD), europe lost even papsayrus as a writng medium. Writing was restricted to parchment--a very expendive medium. It made books very expensive. Books were made, in fact some of the most neautiful books ever made -- illuminated books produced by monks after years of tedious work. The production of books in medieval Europe was a demanding undertaking. Lrge flocks of sheep were needed to produce the parchment. This meant the outlay of enormous resources. The production of only one large bible required the skins of about 500 sheep. Producing a library of books was a matter of almost unbelievable effort. Only the very rich could afford books. China could not keep the paper secret for ever. An Arab=Persian Muslim armny defeated Chinese army clashed on the banks of the Talas River in Central Asia (751). It was the first and last clash between Arab and Chinese armies--but settled the religion of Central Asia. Lesser understood is that the Chinese had brought alone paper makers. Sasmarksnd began a center of papermaking which speard throughout the Arab world. Notably learming and technology was much more adbanced in the asrab wiorld than Chrusrendom foir most of the medevil period. The Europeans were not to inteested in paper. Many viewed it ith suspicion because it came from the Muslim world. At it did not solve the problem that the production of a book required the work od sciibes. The laborious work was very costly. This only changed when Johanas Guttemberg profuced a book weih moveable type--printing (1455). Only in the 15th century with the invention of movable type in Germany did the relatively inexpensive publication of books become possible so that they could be widely read. This was one of many developments in the 15th century that signaled the end of the Medieval era. Suddenly there was a low cost way of creating books and spreading ideas in Europe. And both the Chinese and the Arabs could not compete. There are 26 letters in the English alphahbet. (A silent differnr number for other European letters.) There are 50,000 Chinese characters, although most are not commonly used. Arabic is also not easily printed becasuse of the cursive nature of the written language. It is also noable that the transition from the medievasl to the mpdern era occurred about when Guttemberrh began orinting.


Medieval Schools

After the fall of Rome, formal schooling in the West disappeared. The rare vestiges of school were the song schools of the cathedrals and monasteries. The boys chosen at first were taught to prepare them for holy orders. We have only limited information about the clothing for these early choristers. Formal schooling in Europe outside of church schools were rare in Europe until about the 10th century. The great bulk of the population was illiterate. The number of children attending schools was very limited for several more centuries. There were similarities in the development of schools throughout Europe, but the pattern varied significantly in many areas. We have little information at this time about clothing at these early schools. There does appear to have been some uniformity in the clothing worn by the choristers in the early song schools. This appears to have been less common in the secular schools which slowly developed during the second millennium.


One of the major development in the late-medieval period was the opening of universities throughout Western Europe. They played a major in the expansion of knowledge which led to the Renaissance and the modern age. Education was extremely limited in Europe in the early- and even mid-medieval era. At first education was primarily for the clergy, even members of the ruling classes were illiterate. Scholarship and education was at first primarily involved with work on sacred texts (translating, organizing, copying and codifying). There was also some surviving classical works. Education was centered primarily in cathedral and monastery schools. This changed only slowly with the aristocracy eventualy achieving a modicum of learning. They were generally taught by tutors. Important learning centers in the Byzantine Empire survived the fall of Rome. A university at Constantinople was founded (2nd century AD). Other important centers are known to have been located at Alexandria, Antioch, and Athens. The Islamic conquest conquered these areas, except Constantinople (8th century), but the Caliphate set up their own learning centers. Those in Spain were especially influential in Europe. It is difficult to know how important these Byzantine-Islamic centers were, but they surely helped establish the idea of centers for higher education. They were also places in which surviving classical works were collected and translated. The origins of the early universities in Western Europe are not well documented or well understood and in fact varied from place to place. A major step in the early medieval period was the promotion of cathedral and monastery schools as a result of the reforms of Charlemagne. Charlemagne realized that his expanding empire needed the services of a body of well-educated clerks and administrators. His decree and the creation of cathedral schools focused on more than theology was the founding stone of the future universities. They provided the opportunity for clever boys from common families to obtain skills that would make them useful to the Carolingian empire. The next critical individual involved in the development of European universities. was Pope Gregory VII. The Pope issued a papal decree ordering the establishment of cathedral schools responsible for educating the clergy (1079). Such schools existed before Gregory's decree, but it both promoted and regularized the effort. The Pope's decree led to the opening of educational centers. These centers would be the core around many great universities grew. It was not until the end of the 11th century that these universities began to appear. The first true university is believed to be the University of Bologna in Italy (1088). The University of Paris came into existence a few decades later (1119). It was an informal association of various monastery schools and centered at Notre Dame. Colleges began to appear in Oxford (1167-1185). The first college at Cambridge appeared a few decades later (1209). Robert Sorbon founded a theological college (1231). Over time it would grow into the Sorbonne University. The medieval universities developed as "community of scholars" with the authority to confer degrees.

Boy Bishops

A popular custom of the medieval Christian church was the Boy Bishop or Nicholas which became part of the Christmas festival. This custom was very common in countries throughout Europe, including Italy north to Scandinavia and the Hebrides and from Ireland east to Hungary. A boy of the Cathedral choir (and later at schools as well) was elected on Saint Nicholas day (December 12). On the Eve of Feast of the Holy Innocent (December 28) he took with his colleagues possession of the cathedral performing all the ceremonies and offices except mass. Several ecclesiastical councils attempted to abolish or restrain the abuses of the custom, and the Council of Basel prohibited it in 1431. It was however too popular to be easily suppressed. In England it was finally abolished by Elisabeth I. An analogous custom survived until the late 18th century in Germany, were a schoolboy was elected as bishop in honor of St. Gregory the Great, the patron of schools.

The Plague

The medieval plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, was the most catastrophic epidemic in recorded history. The plague is believed to have been brought west from China. Europeans had no resistance to it in much the same way that smallpox brought by Europeans was to ravage Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The plague ravaged Europe from 1347-51. There were also serious subsequent outbreaks as well. The plague often killed whole families, in part because family members could not bring themselves to abandon each other. Villages were devastated. An estimated 1,000 villages were completely destroyed. The plague, however, had a profound impact on Europe beyond the incalculable human pain and suffering of those affected. as strange as it may sound, the plague set in motion cultural and economic trends that played a major role in shaping modern Europe.

The Mongols

The Mongols played an enormously important role in world history. Although a relatively small population, the Mongols established the most extensive empire in history, stretching from Korea to Eastern Europe. Only the Japanese successfully defied the Mongols. The Mongols also conquered and influenced many of the major world powers, China, Russia, Persia, and India. The Mongols defeated the Poles and were set to move into Western Europe. Only the death of their great leader, Geghis Khan prevented this.


The subject of medieval boy's clothing is a complex subject. It is like asking to know how boys were clothed in Muslim countries during the crusades. Hard because Islamic religious doctrine prohibited human imagery out of fear of idolatry which continues to this day. The situation was different in Europe. Medieval European art was primarily religious art. Art was seen as a way of glorifying God. The Church allowed human depictions, but between 800 and 1400, virtually the only child depicted in Christian art was Jesus. The best medium to find boys' clothing is in Northern Europe sculpture in the porch of cathedrals and maybe in stained glassed. And again, at that time children didn't exist as a social class. The eldest in many countries was the heir and other boys were just good to be knights at the condition they can inherit enough money to buy the necessary equipment and a warhorse. This was true for kings, vassals and also farmers. The real significance of boyhood was as a part of a family coat of arms. In the medieval era, painting or sculpture were symbolic with a set of codes which were far from the reality. This is not totally lost in our modern era. Take a film like Bergman "The seventh seal" or the "source ". Which is true in those films? We have some idea from armor, arms, etc. About linen, leather, silk, it is really hard to get a clear idea. And what is represented is not necessarily what was in reality. Realism in art as a copy of reality as Greeks and Romans did was unknown in the middle ages.

The Renaissance

Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. "Renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and describes the cultural and economic changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century. The precise time is difficult to set and of course varied across Europe. The Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300 and gradually spread north. Even so, the indicators that constitute the Renaissance did not reach other areas of Europe 1-2 centuries. It was during the Renaissance that Europe emerged from the Feudal System of the Middle Ages. The stagnant Medieval economy began to expand. The Renaissance was not just a period of economic growth. It was an age of intense cultural ferment. Enormous changes began in artistic, social, scientific, and political endevours. Perhaps of greatest importance was that Europeans began to develop a radically different self image as they moved from a God-centered to a more humanistic outlook.

History Sources

Aries. Centuries of Childhood, English trans (1962).

Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 2nd editioin (Blackwell paperback: 2003), 625p.

Fletcher, Richard. Bloodfeud: Muder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 2003), 231p.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Toleration un Midieval Spain (Little Brown).

Clothing Sources

Here are some excellent books addressing medieval childhood, although treatment of clothing is uneven.

Alexandre-Bidon, Daniele and Didier Lett. Children in the Middle Ages: Fifth-Fifteenth Centuries. Trans. Jody Gladding. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1999.

Crawford, Sally. Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England. Sutton, 1999.

Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Jorgenson Itnyre, Cathy ed. Medieval Family Roles: A Book of Essays. New York: Garland, 1996.

Kline, Dan. University of Alaska Anchorage (is working on a book about medieval children).

Lewis, Katherine J., Noel James Menuge, and Kim M. Phillips, eds. Young Medieval Women. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.


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Created: May 12, 2000
Spell checked: December 1, 2001
Last updated: 2:59 PM 7/16/2021