Tag Archives: History of Social Relationships

The Church in the Middle Ages

This section is about the church and its importance in medieval society.


During the Middle Ages, many Christians went on religious journeys called pilgrimages. Pilgrims travelled to holy places called shrines, which are where saints were buried or sacred objects were kept.

After the murder of Thomas Becket, pilgrims went to Canterbury to pray on his grave. During the long journeys, pilgrims sang songs and told each other stories such as those in the medieval poem, “The Canterbury Tales“.

Holy Days

May Games, 1692

May Games, 1692

The only holidays in Anglo-Norman England were Holy Days, such Christmas Day, May Day and Midsummerís Eve. The villeins went to church on these days, and afterwards a Sports Day was held on the Castle Green, with races, wrestling, jumping, archery and throwing lances. Children danced around the maypole and the grown-ups went to an alehouse such as the Trip to Jerusalem and made merry.

At Christmas everyone went to the manor house for a feast in the hall. There were rough games afterwards, like Hoodman Blind.

In the later part of the Middle Ages, the stories of Robin Hood had become popular and he was incorporated into many festivals including the May Games.

Town Life in the Middle Ages

After the Norman Conquest, towns grew bigger, especially Nottingham. Even so, they were not very large towns, for there were not as many people in England as there are today. The streets were narrow and the houses were built close together.

The Chapel Bar

The Chapel Bar

The Chapel Bar

Around each town there was a thick wall for safety against enemies, and the town gates were locked every night at sunset. The Chapel Bar (pictured here) was the last surviving town gate of Nottingham before it was demolished in the 18th century. Merchants who travelled to Nottingham to sell goods would have to pay money, called a toll, before they were allowed in.

The townsfolk were freemen who had paid their lord a sum of money to be free and they had to look after themselves. They chose a Mayor, who, with the help of his Aldermen, ruled the town. Every town had its own laws and punishments. The Mayor told the people what they must do through the town crier, who called out messages and news at the Market Square.

Streets in Nottingham

The narrow streets in big towns like Nottingham were very dirty. There were cobbles outside the shops, but in the middle of the road was a kind of gutter into which everyone threw their rubbish, even sweepings from the stables, dead dogs and other smelly things. People threw dirty water from upstairs windows, and pigs and chickens wandered in and put of the rubbish looking for food.

Water had to be fetched from the River Trent or drawn up from well in the town. It could also be bought from water-carriers that took it round the streets in carts or buckets. Food was bought from traders or merchants. People working in the same trade usually lived in the same street.


During the Middle Ages, people enjoyed watching plays, which, at first, were acted in the church porch. This was how the priests taught people the Bible stories. Sometimes these religious plays were acted in the Market Square or on a cart that went round the town. They were called Miracle Plays. By the later part of the Middle Ages, stories of Robin Hood had become widespread and many plays and games were based on him.


Two Knights Jousting

Two Knights Jousting

There were often tournaments held in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. The most popular sport at the tournament was jousting. In a joust, two knights charged at each other and each knight tried to knock his opponent to the ground. There was a Marshall, who made sure that everyone played by the rules and didnít cheat.

At a tournament, children and grown-ups also played games, some of which were rather rough. They liked to play football, handball, marbles and tops. They also liked archery and the cruel sport of bear baiting.

Bearward Lane (now Mount Street) in Nottingham was where the town bears were kept in cages, before being taken to the Market Square or castle grounds to be attacked by fierce dogs in front of a crowd of people.

Yeomen in the Middle Ages

The Scotsman Walter Bower wrote of Robin Hood and Little John in the Scotichronicon, a history of Scotland and England written in the 1440s.

The foolish common folk eagerly celebrate the deeds of these men with gawping enthusiasm in comedies and tragedies, and take pleasure in hearing jesters and bards singing (of them) more than in other romances.

This suggests that in the fifteenth century, tales of Robin Hood were entertainment for the common man. Bower was probably referring to the labourers and craftsmen in the towns and villages of Scotland and northern England. There were other forms of entertainment such as cockfights and bull baiting, and archery was a skill shared by all social classes that would practice or compete at the butts.

Village Life in the Middle Ages

Village life would not have been easy in the Middle Ages; rubbish and human waste were simply thrown out of windows onto the streets, and there were frequent outbreaks of typhoid and yellow fever.

The workers earned little, and they had to pay rent to their landlords and taxes to the crown. It is easy to understand how tales of Robin Hood became popular with the common man. This is how he would like to have lived, a carefree life in the forest with a feast every day and money to boot.

The ballads are not concerned with the politics or problems of medieval England, they are adventure stories meant to entertain and amuse. Although there were plays and songs of Robin Hood, it is unlikely that the ballads were ever actually sung, and they may be the expansion of an earlier written tradition, this could have been the ‘rhymes’ of Robin Hood mentioned in Langland’s Piers Plowman of 1377.

Authority Figures in the Middle Ages

Robin Hood has little regard for authority, (apart from the king) his enemies in the Gest include Bishops and Archbishops and the sheriff of Nottingham.

The ballads do not explain why Robin became an outlaw, and his animosity towards the sheriff is taken for granted, although some believe the story of the sheriff of Nottingham may have originally been separate and later added to the legend of Robin Hood.

In the Gest Robin says:

If he be a pore man of my good he shall have some.

This theme would appeal to the common man, but Robin does not rob from the rich to give to the poor.

He gives a loan of four hundred pound to a knight who is in debt to the abbot of St Mary’s York, but later takes eight hundred pound from two monks of the same abbey. When the knight returns to repay his loan, Robin gives him another 400 pound above the initial loan then keeps the rest. The ballads do not show us a real Robin Hood, whose origins are lost in time.

In the Gest, Robin shoots the sheriff of Nottingham then beheads him. In Robin Hood and the Monk, Little John beheads a monk, then Much the Millar’s son does the same to the monk’s little page. The outlaws kill with vigor, and their ruthlessness cannot be overlooked, but Robin and his merry men were still seen as ‘good’ outlaws. In contrast, the Gest tells us that Robin is religious. He hears mass, is devoted to the Virgin Mary, and would never harm a woman. The sheriff’s wife, Sir Richard’s wife, and the prioress of Kirklees are the only women mentioned in the ballads.

Society in the 15th century

In the fifteenth century local society was divided into different groups. First there were the knights, then came the squires, gentlemen, yeomen and husbandmen. Robin Hood, his merry men, and some of the other characters are classed as yeomen. The term ‘yeoman’ is used extensively in the ballads but definition is not easy, as the meaning had changed over the years. Originally, a yeoman could be a farmer or leaseholder with a small income, or an employee of the estate such as a forester or gamekeeper. By the fifteenth century, the term could also apply to a craftsman such as a potter or weaver.