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Middle Ages: the 16 main characteristics of this historical stage

Middle Ages: the 16 main characteristics of this historical stage

March 1, 2021

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

Of all of them maybe one of the ones that generates the most interest is the Middle Ages . In this article we will briefly review the characteristics of the longest of the ages in history, especially in terms of social and psychological level.


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Delimiting the temporal period: the Middle Ages

We call the Middle Ages the historical period between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, being chronologically located between Ancient and Modern Age. This age of history is the longest of those that have been until now (if we do not consider prehistory), and it is considered that it begins with the fall of the Western Roman Empire (that of Rome) in 476.

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


This long period of time encompasses a large number of events that marked the course of history in one way or another, although the events taken into account have practically the protagonist of European territory and part of Asia. The Middle Ages can also be divided into different periods, being the High Middle Ages (which passed between the fifth and tenth centuries) and the Late Middle Ages (corresponding to the centuries between XI and XV).

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


Although it is probably one of the most reviled times, many authors suggesting the existence of an involution in human development, the truth is that although in many aspects there were important setbacks, different ways of interpreting reality have also arisen and progress has been made in different areas, in spite of doing it with great slowness in comparison with later stages.

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Characteristics of medieval society

The Middle Ages is a stage in which we can observe great divergences in a large number of parameters throughout its course. Also, there are many typical characteristics of this age that with the passage of time they have been changing and evolving (although some of them have remained during modernity and part of the contemporary age, and in fact they have only changed in recent centuries). In this sense, focusing on social aspects and those of a more psychological nature, we can find the following distinctive elements.

1. The religious institution as the nucleus of power

One of the characteristics that probably stands out in this stage is the great power and consideration that religion obtains. Religious beliefs become basic elements in the day to day of the population, as well as a way to keep the population contained and circumscribed to a concrete model of reality. Religious institutions, and specifically the Catholic Church, take on a preponderant role in society, being one of the few classes with access to education and with a political power capable of surpassing that of the nobility, to the point of being a central axis of power in Europe at the time.

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2. A theocentric world

Related to the above, we find a stage in which the world was explained fundamentally from religious concepts, being the reality product of the will and divine creation. This made God at the center of everything, focusing society and much of the philosophical efforts to understand the world through divinity.

3. Fear and obedience to dogmas

Another aspect of great relevance is the existence of a high level of fear in the population, mostly illiterate and with little knowledge regarding the functioning of the universe and the different natural phenomena. This also facilitated the ascription to the only prevailing explanatory model to which they had access, the religious , to the point of reaching attitudes of fanaticism and persecution of that which departed from him ..

The interpretation abounded that the negative aspects of life or diseases were consequences of demonic possessions, sorcery or magic. It is also a time of a high level of distrust of the strange and foreign, especially to what was not understandable.

In the same way, the high level of ignorance at the medical level and the emergence of large epidemics they looked like divine punishments. Another frequent fear was the arrival of the end of time, experiencing the passage of this as something negative and worrying (especially around 1000 AD, due to the interpretation of the Bible).

4. The exacerbation of guilt, sin and virtue

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

5. The Inquisition and the persecution of witchcraft

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

In this last aspect highlights the witch hunt, as something that generated a high level of persecution and suffering to much of the population. A great part of the discomforts, illnesses and catastrophes were associated with the use of magic and witchcraft, often blaming specific sectors of the population or people with marginal characteristics. Also, said persecution was used as a political tool to eliminate opponents and to maintain a tight control of the population.

6. The progress of science and scholasticism

Although in this aspect many people consider that the Middle Ages is a black point in scientific progress, the truth is that although scientific knowledge and its expansion were very slow there were also many advances. Although it is true that in medieval Europe the copy and transcription of the classical figures of antiquity prevailed, research being something secondary and generally linked to the study of zoology or spirituality, should not be ignored the scientific advances of the Arab world and that later they would be introduced little by little.

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

7. Great social differences

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

The peasantry agglutinated the majority of the population , being their minimum or nonexistent rights. Their role was focused on providing and producing food by working the land of their masters, being the working class that actually supported society. The rights of this sector of the population were minimal and were part of the underprivileged, often being abused by other social classes and paying tribute.

The nobles were the highest class, being within the privileged classes and benefiting from special rights. Mostly they did not work, and they used to run land and businesses. They enjoyed positions of power and had access to education. They were also part of the army, usually as top brass. In the feudal period, they were the owners of the land that the peasants worked, these being their vassals. Above them was the king (although during feudalism it was not uncommon for some feudal lords to have greater power than this one).

By last, the clergy also enjoyed a special position . It was also a privileged class, which did not pay taxes and had access to positions of great power. It is the state with the highest level of education of the time.It was not uncommon for families to send one of their children to. Although at first they were dedicated only to prayer and study, they would also eventually dedicate themselves to the work of their lands (with the well-known Ora et labora of the Rule of Saint Benedict).

Another social group that is often ignored when talking about social classes is the one of the slaves . Although they already existed in the Ancient Age, they continued to be seen as little more than properties to be able to use at the whim of their "masters".

8. A position of birth

The social position that each one occupied was determined by their origin and family of birth, with the only exception of the clergy. Someone born of nobles was noble and a child of peasants would be a peasant all his life, not having in principle the possibility of changing the social position. The exception was the clergy, it being possible that those who entered it assumed a higher social status and changed their social status. In fact, among the lower classes used to be one of the only ways to access education .

9. The figure and role of women

Another aspect of great relevance to consider is the role of women in the Middle Ages. This consideration was variable throughout this period, but as a general rule the woman was below the man and was subordinated to him. The idealization of feminine beauty and romanticism also arose, and the literary figure of the "roman courtois" was born.

Likewise, the women of this period had a role and a role centered on the home and reproduction, although in the case of the peasantry they also worked in the field. Socially, the single woman was frowned upon and it was often considered that there were three basic paths: marriage, church or prostitution. As for the married woman, she owed obedience and submission to her husband .

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

10. The treatment of ethnic and religious diversity

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

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

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11. Sex, a taboo

The treatment of sex is also a particular aspect of the Middle Ages. Sex was something that at the official level was socially hidden and that was not talked about. It was seen as something reserved for mere reproduction, and was also very scripted and standardized. Practices such as anal sex were sin of sodomy, for example.

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

With regard to sexual diversity, homosexuality and other behaviors different from heterosexuality was considered an aberration and was officially persecuted especially at the stage where the Inquisition existed, considering the sin of sodomy as serious and being able to bring severe consequences to those who will be accused of such action.

12. Cultural creation

Although scientific knowledge was not particularly remarkable at the time, the truth is that cultural creation had great representatives in the Middle Ages. Although in general almost all cultural aspects were centered on religion, in the case of architecture we find great advances through the centuries, born different architectural styles such as Romanesque and Gothic . Music was also important at this time, and literary creation (although exceptions usually worked with pseudonyms).

13. The origins of the bourgeoisie

The majority of the European population lived in the countryside during the Middle Ages. However, during the passage of the centuries little by little and to an increasing extent the number of inhabitants of the villages increased.Also, they began to generate different jobs to the work of the field and that were of great relevance to society, such as merchants and craftsmen.

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

14. Education

Another characteristic aspect of the era is education. It was a minority, being permissible only for the nobility and the clergy in most cases. The methods used did not usually take into account the existence of individual differences in abilities, not adapting the methodology to the students. The contents treated were subject to official dogmas , being the clergy the main one in charge of educating the few who could do it. Mainly a rote-type learning was carried out.

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

15. The treatment of diseases and mental disorders

The disease was in the Middle Ages something extremely feared, being the medical development deficient. In many cases there was a quasi-mystical conception of the functioning of the body , and a simple cold or cut could be deadly. Exploring the interior of a human body was a crime and was harshly persecuted, which meant that many diseases could not be treated or understood.

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

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

Also in this regard stresses that hygienic conditions were minimal, there being a lot of lice, bugs, fleas and creatures with potential to spread various diseases. This generated great plagues, including the black plague .

Special mention deserves the treatment of mental disorders. Initially there was a treatment of charitable nature, but over the centuries were considered certain disorders as demonic possessions or effect of witchcraft, not being strange the presence of exorcisms, torture or even burning at the stake to free the soul of the person of evil spirits.

16. The soul and the body

In this stage, it was considered that the human being was configured by soul and body, including the soul what we now consider mind. Sensations or thoughts were acts of the spirit. Both dualist and monist conceptions coexisted in this regard. It also explores the existence of differences between people at the level of soul characteristics . Emotions, motivation and other relevant aspects for psychology would be worked by authors such as Juan Luis Vives at the end of this age.

Bibliographic references:

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

The Dark Ages...How Dark Were They, Really?: Crash Course World History #14 (March 2021).


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