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Life in a Medieval Town

#Life in a Medieval Town

What was life like in a medieval town? Read some stories of daily life from a fourteenth-century chronicler in Germany.

Located in western Germany, the town of Limburg an der Lahn has a history going back to the ninth century. A notary named Tilman von Wolfhagen wrote a chronicle from this town and often noted the local events. Here are a few excerpts from his work:

Counting the population in 1336

Moreover at this time the town and folk of Limburg stood in very great honour and prosperity in population and in wealth; for all the lanes and corners were full of folk and goods; and, when they took the field, the citizens were counted at more than two thousand folk well armed with breastplates and harness and all appurtenances; and those who took communion at Easter were counted more than eight thousand folk.

A bad fire in 1342

In the year that men counted 1342, on St Boniface’s day (June 5th), almost half the city was burnt down.

Men sing a song in 1359

In this year men sang and piped this song:

God give him a year of blight
Who made me to a nun.
Who bade me put this tunic white
And coal-black mantle on!
And must I be a nun in truth.
All against my will?

A Murder in 1367

At the time of oat-harvest in this year, on the eve of St Peter ad Vincula (August 1st), and in the Castle of Dern, a Freiherr von Dern stabbed Junker Johann, son of the Count of Dietz, so that he died on the spot. And he was a young man of less than thirty years and of goodly length, and had a long face with a lofty nose and smooth hair plaited in a long tail, as was the fashion of that time. And the said Johann would have been Count of Dietz if he had lived; but it came into other hands, as is written here below.

The said Freiherr was named Friedrich, a stout knight of fifty years, and was a right Freiherr born of all his four ancestors. And he was cast into prison in the castle of Dern and brought to Dietz; and Count Gerhart, Junker Johann’s brother, held a Court at Reckenforst; and the aforesaid Freiherr was beheaded and buried forthwith among the Franciscan Friars of Limburg. Wherefore think before you strike; for Solomon says: Fremens ira nulli parcit which is being interpreted: “Grim anger leaves no man free. Thus Solomon does counsel you.”

Limburg today – photo by Bernhard Queisser / Wikimedia Commons

The Leper and his songs in 1374

Moreover at this time, some five or six years before, there was on the Main a Franciscan Friar who was driven out from among the people, for he was unclean (with leprosy). He made the best songs and carols in the world, both words and melodies, wherein there lived not his like in Rhineland or in these parts. And, whatsoever he sang, all men sang it gladly after him; all masters, pipers, and other minstrels followed his songs and words. It was he who made that song:

Far from the village am I banned,
All doors are closed to wretched me!
Unfaith, unfaith is all I see
On every hand.

And that other:

May, May! thy merry day
Quickens me to joyous life.
Tell me, what has this to say?

And this again:

Unfaith has made her sport with me!

The Hair Style of 1384

In this year it came to pass that lords, knights, and squires wore short hair and crowns cut over the ears like lay-brethren; and so also did burghers in general and the common folk and peasants after the fashion of the rest.

A False Bishop in 1386

In these days was a Franciscan Friar of Brabant, Jacob by name. He bare himself as though he were a Bishop Suffragan, and had forged letters thereof; yet was he no bishop. This man went far and wide throughout the bishoprics of Mainz and Trier, and had consecrated and ordained more than three thousand acolytes, subdeacons, deacons, and priests, who must needs now let themselves all be ordained afresh; and men called them all Jacobites, after the name of this aforesaid rascal Jacob.

This same Jacob I esteem more wicked than Judas who betrayed and sold Christ the Son of God; for the treason of Judas was made a balm and a salvation for the seed of men; but this other treason was a ruin and destruction to Christendom; for he caused mere layfolk to sing and read masses, whom men deemed to be priests, and yet were they none. For, whensoever men weened that they held up the Body of our Lord (Communion), then they held up a simulacrum, so that men called upon and adored an idol, and many foul matters thus befell, which I cannot here write.

Wherefore thou shalt know the man’s form and his face; for I have oftentimes seen him. He was a slender man of even length, dark under the eyes, with a long face and a long sharp pointed nose; and his cheeks were somewhat ruddy, and he writhed with his body and bowed up and down in great courtesy. And he came to an evil end when he was caught in this matter; and that was no more than justice.

A child born with a deformity in 1394

Moreover at this time a child was born in Niderbrechen in the bishopric of Trier, that had lower limbs of a man and shapen in the upper parts somewhat like a toad. And this was a punishment from God; for, when men asked the woman whether she bare a child, she answered thereunto that she bare a toad; and such was her answer at every time.

This translation is from Life in the Middle Ages, selected and translated by G.G. Coulton. You can read this book at

Top Image: Limburg depicted in 1655 – from Topographia Hassiae – Wikimedia Commons

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