The Middle Ages in Seven Words (or less)

My wife is “summering” at a law firm in Atlanta, which means that I have found myself making small talk at a distressingly large number of dinners, cocktail hours, and corporate retreats of late. Conversations with lawyers are all pretty much the same. Since they are prestigovores, the initial small talk is taken up with my resume and institutional affiliations. We then proceed on to my dissertation, a complete non-starter, leaving us with half a drink’s worth of conversational space to fill, and more if the event is outside and the ice is melting quickly.

If this is a second or third drink conversation, there’s a good chance that the lawyer is going to confess to me in suitably hushed tones that they aren’t really sure when the Middle Ages were or what qualifies as properly medieval. I tend to respond with an anecdote that I’ve been meaning to blog about, and so here goes:

Last semester there was no room for me to TA in the English department, and after a hard scramble, I ended up in the History department in the Renaissance Italy course. It was actually a much better fit for a medievalist than it sounds, because (depending on who you ask, of course) the Renaissance in Italy kicks off in the middle of the fourteenth century, when the parts of Europe that I study (England and France, mostly) are still classified as medieval.* In fact, as it turned out, one of the main themes that the professor had planned for the course was the difficulty of separating out most of the things we tend to label as “Renaissance” from their “medieval” antecedents.

During a discussion section, I wanted to make the point that, although contemporary popular accounts of the Middle Ages tend to emphasize lawlessness and barbarism, late medieval societies were in fact extremely litigous. Building off a similar exercise we’d done in class with the word “Renaissance,” I asked the students to play a game of free association by giving me any word or concept that they thought of as especially “medieval.”

The first student offered, “knights.”
The second thought for a second and said, “swords.”
The third quickly added, “shields.”
After some delay, the fourth produced, “horses!”

Seeing where this was going, I paused to clarify. “Ok, I think we’ve got knights and the associated paraphernalia thereof pretty well covered. So, other than knights, what do you think of when you hear the word ‘medieval.”

The fifth student said, without irony, “armor.”

Again, I narrowed the scope down to “Medieval things that have nothing to do with knights, their weapons, armor, clothes, or mounts.”

I turned to the sixth student, one of the best in the class, who quickly produced, “peasants.”

Since this was my Friday section, attendence was spotty at best. There was only one student left, who looked me dead in the eye and said, “They took all of them.”

“Knight, sword, shield, horse, armor, peasant… and, that’s it?” I asked.

“They took all of them,” the student said definitively.

Roughly a thousand years of human history boiled down to its essence: knights, things found on or around knights, peasants, and they took all of them. I decided not to go for a second trip around the room.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t tell this story to shame my students–or, rather, I don’t tell it merely to shame my students (who you shouldn’t feel too bad for, since almost all of them left the course with A’s or A-‘s, because, hey, that’s Yale). I tell the story at cocktail parties to lawyers to make them feel better about what they don’t know about the Middle Ages. And I tell it here on my blog, because I’m actually curious about this one. If I had to boil it down to seven, what are the seven things that people ought to know about the Middle Ages?

Judging by my label cloud,** the seven things I associate with the Middle Ages are, roughly: Beowulf, King Arthur, Marginalia, Manuscripts, the Bayeux Tapestry, Popes, and Latin.

If you’re a medievalist, either amateur or academic, consider this a challenge: What are the seven things that people ought to think of when they think of the Middle Ages? “They took all of them” is not an option.

*So, by rights, this should make Chaucer a sort of time-traveler, since, as a young man, he visited Renaissance Italy and then went back to Ye Olde Medieval England to write works inspired by his intellectual successors.
**Counting only medieval concepts and not my ragbag of pop culture obsessions. Otherwise, yes, the Middle Ages consists of Dan Brown, Harry Potter, Angelina Jolie, not boobs, boobs, The Da Vinci Code, and Orlando Bloom.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • supertwist

    I’m not even an amateur medievalist, but who can pass up free-association? My best shot: alchemy, Templars, Magna Carta, Thomas Tallis, commons, city states, Movement of the Free Spirit. I’m not sure all of those are medieval, though… and I can’t really top monkey marginalia or boobs.

  • Star Breaker

    Let’s see…

    Slippers woefully lacking in arch support.

    Room temperature ale.


    Open sewers.

    The black death.

    Marauding viking hordes burning down monasteries containing priceless illuminated manuscripts (ironic, because without Christian scribes, very little Germanic or Scandinavian tales would remain).

    Dirty jokes.

  • Ellira

    Hmm. Castles, war, angry peasants, royal feuds, the printing press, awesome dress sense, the beginning of law as we know it.

    That’s what *I* think of. What people ought to think of should probably be less to do with awesome dress sense.

    Frankly I’m shocked a group of students studying the renaissance know no more about the Middle Ages than knights. I hope you gave them a suitably enlightening lecture after that!

  • The Pedant


    The Crusades.

    The Black Death.

    Medieval bookmaking.

    Heresies and the Inquisition.

    Vikings and who they invaded.

    Italian city trade.

  • Dana Huff

    I might only be an amateur, but I suggest Arthurian legend, The Canterbury Tales, feudalism, the Crusades, the Four Humors and Galenism, the Magna Carta, and Charlemagne.

  • Dr. Virago

    How interesting that your Yale students left out anything to do with the church. Usually my students jump to the “everything was controlled by THE CHURCH” chestnut.

    I actually like your list, but since that’s basically saying “they took them all,” I’ve come up with my own list. Each of these items was either invented or else perfected in the Middle Ages (depending on when you define the start and end of the period) and each had some influence either material or theoretical on life to come:

    the codex (aka the book for non-specialists)

    the stirrup (none of your Yalies came up with *that* chivalric accoutrement, and yet it’s so important!)

    the flying buttress (also doubles as a cool band name)

    the university

    romance (as genre or as practice)

    the parish

    trial by jury

  • Brandon H.

    Just off the top of my head without pondering it (my attempt at free association), here are the 7 “concepts” that I thought of:
    Rise of Vernacular
    Religion(s)/Religious Institutions
    Centralizing governance
    The Black Death

  • Lea

    So, by rights, this should make Chaucer a sort of time-traveler

    I take it as a certainty that the line in the Book of the Duchess where the narrator says “For there is phisicien but oon / That may me hele, but that is doon” is evidence that Chaucer knew Doctor Who.

  • RoodSquirrel

    The Turk

    Other people’s I wish i’d thought of:

    the parish, the book, the English legal system.

    Words that nearly made it but didn’t:

    scholasticism, iconography, faith, crusades, Marco Polo, Stock market, architecture, Hanseatic league, sieges, courtly love … Ok that’s enough!

  • Flying Lily

    1. Monotheism
    2. Class societies
    3. Mysticism
    4. Alchemy
    5. mummery
    6. weird attitudes toward the classical past
    7. hero legends

  • Huw

    Eucharist theology
    black death
    Eleanor of Aquitaine
    Sacking of Constantinople

  • Anonymous Soprano


    The Great Vowel Shift
    Organum (ugh)
    Musica enchiriadis (see: Organum)
    Roman de la Rose
    Writer Feuds

  • Sarah

    This is good practice for someone preparing to be a somewhat mocked undergrad.

    1. Hero sagas
    2. Trebuchets/longships (I’m cheating, but both are equally badass)
    3. Scholasticism
    4. Flying buttresses
    5. October 14th, 1066
    6. Disease
    7. Institutions

  • Michelle

    Well, I’d say some of mine are taken too, but here goes.

    1. European conversion to Christianity
    2. monasticism
    3. plague
    4. King Arthur
    5. age of saints (esp national saints Patrick & Bridget/Ireland, Willibrord/Netherlands, David/Wales, Boniface/Germany etc)
    6. birth of European kingdoms/nations
    7. bards/scops

  • Magica

    I picked my seven before reading the other comments (deliberately), so there’s some redundancy. Come to think of it, there’s some redundancy on my list.

    Divine Right
    The Church

  • Paul

    Three lists:

    1*. Founding of Al-Andalus; Charlemagne; Great Schism (I); Norman Conquest; Crusades; Inquisition; 95 Theses

    2. Monty Python; Time Team; Terry Jones; SCA; Morris Dancing; Early Pratchett; Robin Hood

    3. Malory; Chaucer; Tennyson; Walter Scott; T.H. White; Eco; Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter

    *The Fall of Al-Andalus and the East-West Schism are bookends, but adding them would totally blow the seven words [sic] limit.

  • Pandora

    Oh, excellent game! Here’s the list of what I imagine students actually know about, after they take my courses:

    1) apple pie
    2) anchoresses
    3) cross-dressing
    4) Lollards
    5) East Anglian circular scaffold staging
    6) the trebuchet (I know it’s taken, but it’s Truly Awesome)
    7) Astrolabe (either the tool or Heloise and Abelard’s son — though frankly I prefer the son; like naming your child “High Definition TV.”)

    This comment is coming to you from Leeds, where, at the International Medieval Congress, I am being A Professional Medievalist.

    And yes, mostly what people in general know about “the middle ages” is that there were some knghts, and they fought for The Church and killed peasants, and ate big ol’ honkin’ turkey legs (cause they will have mixed up cartoon versions of Henry VIII chowing down with “the middle ages,” and also will have forgotten or never known that turkeys aren’t indigenous to Europe), and died of the plague.

    When people ask me what I do, and I tell them, they usually say, oh, medieval literature. That’s Shakespeare, right?


  • Got Medieval

    Wow. This amount of response is truly spectacular. I think I’ll tabulate the results and post about that in a few days, so keep them coming.

  • anthromama

    I’m feeling both ill and smug that Yalies couldn’t come up with a better list.

    Like, even a super-basic list like this:

    Black Death
    siege weapons
    romantic love/chivalry
    selling of indulgences

    Or the SCAdian list:


    Or random stuff like:

    the first banks (Templars)
    The Song of Roland
    The Book of kells
    Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
    Gregorian chants
    Chartres cathedral

  • Jonathan Edelstein

    I’m also not a medievalist, but I am a lawyer, and one trained in the English (cum-Anglo-American) common law system at that. My list would thus almost have to include:

    1. The English common-law system (q.v.);
    2. The Magna Carta;
    3. The grand jury;
    4. Law French, the code-switching that just won’t die;
    5. Habeas corpus;
    6. Negligence;
    7. Dower and curtesy (not to mention just about everything else that passed for property and inheritance law until sometime in the last century).

    Lawyers – American ones at least – often know somewhat more about medieval times than they think they do. You just need to find the right reminders.

  • Petrarchan Princess

    1. Romance of the Rose 2. Arthurian Legends 3. Black Plague 4. Chaucer 5. Troubadours 6. City-States 7. Papacy/Crusades

  • Jennifer

    Byzantium, monasticism, Islam, books (literacy, book-making, religions of the word, etc.), The Alexiad, birth of fashion, monkeys.

  • Eaquae Legit

    Textual. Reason. Evolution. Crusade. Dispute. Romance. Authority.

    Textual – We have a lot of texts. They wrote texts.
    Reason – They practically worshipped it.
    Evolution – The “middle ages” were not a static period in any sense.
    Crusade – Not just for Holy Lands! Now with bonus heretic-stomping!
    Dispute – No one agreed on anything. Kings vs. popes, philosophers vs. philosophers, popes vs. anti-popes, Sally the Fishmonger’s wife vs. Joe the Carter… you get the picture.
    Romance – They invented a new genre.
    Authority – It ain’t worth spit if Plato (or later, Aristotle) didn’t say it.

  • Insurditate vero

    Neo-Platonism. Aquinas. Heresy. Reason. Codex. Universities. Monasticism.

    I think everyone’s pretty much covered the reasons as to why these words/concepts should be included in a list of ‘middle age words’. Splendid game, though!

  • The Pastry Pirate

    I got here via the lovely and talented Dr. Virago… loved your anecdote.

    I humbly submit my list as a sub-amateur medievalist with a thing for marzipan, badasses and archery:

    1. Marzipan (Marchpane) makes it to Europe. Huzzah! Sherbet gets there too, but is not nearly as scrumptious. Finally, the Crusaders do something good!

    2. Dominance of the longbow in the West

    3. Dominance of the recurved bow in the East

    4. Chinghiz Khan

    5. Introduction of Chrisitianity and consequent wussification of Vikings

    6. Samarkand, Bukhara and the Silk Road

    7. The burning of the library in Baghdad. Bad Mongols, bad! Also the Mongols’ eradication of the Assassin sect. It was the best of times and the worst of times to be badass.

    As an honorable mention, simply because he got me through many a long and lonely night living in Russia, Brother Cadfael. Just sayin’.

  • kmeghan

    the seven things I associate with the Middle Ages are: the Black Death, Monks, castles, illuminated manuscripts, fashion, war.

  • kmeghan

    oops, forgot one: Cloisters. Sort of important to me.. I’m writing my masters thesis on them.

  • Matt

    I’m more of an early modern guy, but I’ll have a go:
    liturgical year
    chansons de geste
    trade routes
    those silly plague-doctor bird masks
    the Eastern Roman Empire

  • Brendan M

    This comment thread (mostly the groaning about organum) reminds me of a great story (to my mind) from music school.

    I was talking to my stand partner in wind symphony, who was a pretty smart guy, and I asked him about being “funny” on exams. I said I had always wanted to find out what would happen if you were taking some long exam with a lot of questions, and you knew you were acing the exam, and you decided to answer one of the questions with the most obviously incorrect answer as a sort of joke. I had never tried to do it, but my stand partner was the sort who would. So I suggested it to him.

    He did it in music history. He had the question “who wrote the opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District?” The correct answer is Shostakovich, a pretty easy question if you study music history of the 20th century. So instead of answering correctly, he answered “Perotin”. If you know your music history, you know that is pretty much as wrong as you could be.

    Turns out, the TA who was grading it thought this was so funny (and so obviously a joke because all the other answers were correct) that the TA actually gave a bonus point for that answer.

    On a related note, I wish Perotin made a cameo in the Trnasformers movie as Optimus Prime’s great uncle, Optimus Discantor.

  • mad-migy-9

    Well, although I’ve never really spent much time studying the medieval times I’ll put in my two cents anyway. Some of these may be renaissance but anyway:

    1) Spice trade
    2) Tradesman/apprenticeships
    3) Marie-Antoine Carem
    4) first use of firearms
    5) Cathedrals
    6) Gothic architecture
    7) Fall of the large empires

    Well, thats what I would consider middle ages anyway. -Mike-

  • Amy

    I see you’ve got a lot of responses, but since you said to keep them coming, I’ll put in my two cents, and seven words/concepts –

    Oath Swearing
    Medieval Warm Period
    William the Conquerer
    12th Century Renaissance

  • Steven

    Great idea for a post. I love it. Here are my seven:

    1) The Church
    2) The Nobles
    3) The Peasantry
    4) The Crusades
    5) The Black Death
    6) Feudalism
    7) Cathedrals (“Gothic” architecture)


  • smile-my-friend

    This is me trying not to over think this question, therefore most answers will probably relate to me recent classes.
    1. the cult of the saints
    2. monasticism
    3. the Church
    4. church and monastic reform movements
    5. the rise of the “university”
    6. the rise of the “state”
    7. the rise of the “city”

  • Ornithophobe

    Whenever I think of the word “serf” I think of some poor sod with a rope around his ankle tethered to a field, directing a horse pulling a heavy plow. “Tied to the land” is a bad way to explain serfdom to a very literal child.

    I can’t do it in ten words, so have ten ideas. Courtly Love. Feudalism. Black Death. Vikings. Crusades. The Great Vowel Shift.

  • elisa0984

    The Bubonic Plague’s best tour cities, transition from cathedral schools to universities, Cordoba, El Cid, tapestries, dry grasses on floor, frightful lack of tomato sauce.

  • Shiv

    Magna carta, common law, chancery, law of actions, trusts, and Robin Hood.


    I’m a lawyer. I spend a lot of time in the Middle ages looking at land law.


  • K

    I’m an amateur Medievalist working on a professional career but my initial thoughts are:

    1. Fasting
    2. Beguines
    3. Saints
    4. Mysticism/Visions
    5. Peasants
    6. Ale
    7. 4th Lateran Council

  • Phyllis

    Hey Carl,

    Since we lawyers are navel-gazers, and (as you point out) the Middle Ages were so litigious, I have a Anglo-centric legal list for you:

    1. The Church (not least because it ran a lot of courts)
    2. Assize of Clarendon (1166) (beginning of the medieval jury and arguably the most important legal reform of Henry II)
    3. feudalism
    4. writs
    5. seisin
    6. Alfred the Great
    7. Henry II

  • The Dean

    Michael the Scot who traveled to Toledo and Sicily in 1220 and translated the most important ancient works of knowledge of Aristotle etc from the Arabic copies into Latin and brought the Western world out of the Dark Ages creating the foundation of the Renaissance.
    One of the defining moments from one of the most important peoiple in the history of our civilisation.
    He deserves more study and full credit for several texts not previously attributed to him.

  • Elly

    On a related note, what about common words or phrases that have medieval origins? Like “red-letter days” and “blue ribbon.”

  • Bethanne

    I’m working on a book about the medieval world (which Got Medieval will no doubt cut to ribbons sometime in the future), so even though it’s December and the thread is from July, I’ll post my own list:

    Ivor the Boneless (talk about working despite a disability!)
    Queen Maude
    the seneschal
    The Little Warm Period
    the curracle

  • Catanea

    Ceba, Vi, Carbó, Xai, Farina, Espelmes, Sopa.
    okay, in English, but it sounds wrong:
    Onions, Wine, Charcoal, Sheep, Flour, Candles, Potage.
    nope, it needs distilling.
    Damn. I really wanted Linen, but it’s not important enough.

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