How Much Do You Know about Life in Medieval Europe?

By: John Miller
Image: Ryan Reeves

About This Quiz

Around the 5th century, things changed in a hurry in Europe. After centuries of domination, one political power crumbled to dust, and societies all over the continent began reshaping themselves. Kings and queens took thrones and captured new lands, and they built empires of their own. Common people worked in the fields or learned a trade in order to put food on the table. In this history quiz, we want to see what you really know about life in Medieval Europe.

Medieval Europe took place during what some people call the Middle Ages. But many historians don’t like the term “Middle Ages” because it somehow implies that nothing really happened in these centuries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cities rose and fell, kingdoms warred, and a great sickness fell upon the land. The Middle Ages were packed with memorable events. Do you recall any of them?

Many movies portray Medieval Europe as a fine time, when kings and knights and peasants all carried on in a structured system that made for a good quality of life. That was not always the case. Peasants were nearly slaves, knights were forced to fight battles they didn’t believe in, and kings found themselves set upon by rivals on all sides. What was society really like back then?

Pull on your wool tunic and notch your arrows — do battle with this difficult Medieval Europe quiz. Maybe you’ll understand what life was like in the Middle Ages, or maybe you’ll drink bad water and be done for!

Medieval Europe was a period from about the 5th to the 15th century. It is also known as what?

Medieval Europe was also called the Middle Ages. It was the kid who always got ignored in history class.

The Middle Ages essentially began after what event?

When the Roman Empire fell, the Middle Ages began in Europe. Without the Romans dominating the continent, life changed for everyone.

What was the most powerful institution in Europe during Medieval times?

With the Roman Empire fallen, the Catholic Church stepped into the power vacuum. The church was incredibly powerful in the Middle Ages.

In Medieval Europe, where did most people live?

In this area and time, most people lived in the countryside. By today’s standards they lived exceedingly simple lives.

Normal working people were required to give about _____ of their earnings to the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church required many Europeans to "tithe" 10 percent of their earnings to the church. And yet, the church itself rarely had to pay any sort of real taxes.

Who owned most of the land in Medieval Europe?

Kings were the top landholders in the Middle Ages. They did as they wanted with their property, and no one (save perhaps an invading army) could say otherwise.

What sort of job did most common people perform in the Middle Ages?

Farming was a way of life for most people, and it was backbreaking toil. People worked to eat, and hoped to save enough food for leaner times.

What were "villeins"?

Villeins were essentially peasant farmers who worked the land for a lord. Villeins weren’t exactly slaves ... but they weren’t what you’d call "free," either.

True or false? Could villeins up and leave the land where they worked whenever they felt like it?

The lords who owned the land where the villeins farmed had control over the villeins, who were basically bonded tenants. They definitely couldn’t just leave if they felt like it.

In the 14th century, some wealthy men wore ridiculous shoes with very long _____.

Rich people had some weird fashion tastes in the 14th century. Some wealthy men wore shoes with laughably long toes — so long, in fact, that the toes had to be secured to garters.

What was a "lord of the manor"?

Lords of the manor were often tenants-in-chief, men who controlled land by the grace of a king. The lords of the manor, then, had peasant serfs and villeins who farmed and cared for livestock in exchange for a place to live.

By around the year 1000, which practice had mostly faded in Europe?

Slavery was mostly gone by 1000, in part because the Catholic Church frowned on the practice. However, serfdom was exceedingly prevalent and, in some cases, nearly as awful as slavery.

True or false? Were witch burnings a common event in Medieval Europe?

Movies love to portray witch burnings as a common event ... but it’s not true. Witch burnings weren’t a priority for religious types in the Middle Ages, but they did happen from time to time.

In 1095, the Catholic pope started the Crusades, which were meant to accomplish what?

The Crusades were a holy war in which Christians tried to expel Muslims from the Holy Land in the Middle East. Many common people were dragged into this long-running feud.

What were cities like in the Middle Ages?

Medieval cities were often disgusting places. There was no indoor plumbing, so urban environments were dirty, gross, and crowded.

English servants in the Middle Ages were mostly _____.

The stereotype is that women were servants. In Medieval Europe, though, males were far more common as servants.

What were peasant homes like in the Middle Ages?

Peasants lived in one- to two-room homes and families typically slept in the same room. In many cases, smoke from the hearth often filled the home day and night.

What was the purpose of sumtuary laws?

By the late Middle Ages, many commoners actually had a bit of money and could afford to dress like wealthier folks. But the rich passed sumtuary laws to stop commoners from doing just that — after all, you have to keep "regular" people where they belong.

What was a "kirtle"?

Kirtles were large garments without a waist seam that both men and women wore in the Middle Ages. They were very common for many centuries.

True or false? If you were a servant, were you definitely a low-class peasant?

Not all servants were peasants. Rich people had high-end servants who actually did well for themselves.

True or false? In the Middle Ages, did people have terrible table manners, simply throwing scraps of food and bones on the floor?

Movies and novels would have you believe that medieval people were borderline savages, throwing food and bones all over the place. In reality, they definitely had more table manners than your toddler.

Which time of the year was often hardest for peasants?

By late spring, crops had not yet started growing and winter food stockpiles were often depleted. Unlucky peasants might starve to death.

Knights received land from lords as long as they promised to do what?

Knights were the warrior class. They received bits of land from lords in exchange for their fighting services.

By the end of the 1300s, which type of military force was gaining popularity with the English?

At the end of the 14th century, the English developed an affinity for archers. Well-trained archers could repel enemy infantry from long distances.

True or false? Did commoners drink mostly ale to avoid bad drinking water?

False. It’s a persistent myth that Medieval commoners had to drink ale because drinking water would make them sick. But, you know, beer is still good for you.

What was education like for children in the Middle Ages?

Very few kids went to school in the Middle Ages. Your parents taught you to survive.

Bloodletting was a common medical practice. How did physicians perform this task?

Bloodletting was recommended for many ailments during the Middle Ages. Physicians would use leeches to suck blood from patients.

What was the Black Death?

Around 1350, a terrible plague called the Black Death swept much of the world. By some estimates, an incredible 60 percent of Europe’s people died in just a few years.

Why was common bread gritty (and gross) during the Middle Ages?

Rough millstones created grit that wound up in the bread of commoners. One result? Peoples’ teeth wore down quickly as they munched bread throughout their lives.

The Hundred Years War was fought between England and _____.

From 1337 to 1453, England and France fought the Hundred Years War. Eventually, France won, and England lost control of many of its lands across the English Channel.

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