#3. Everyone Was a Prude
Casual sex, and even knowledge of how sex works, is a modern invention. During the heavily religious Dark Ages, sex was strictly forbidden outside of marriage, and every single person of consenting age (a term that was very loosely defined back then) led a life that was a never-ending squelch through a pool of their own sexual repression.
You know those really goofy-looking shoes that men wore back then? The extra pointy ones, like something an elf would wear?
We'd still wear those over Heelys.
Well, those points are called poulaines, and apparently they were meant to directly represent the wearer's dong. And in a revelation that will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the intricate relationship between a man and his wang, these points were sometimes so big that dudes couldn't walk up stairs. Good thing they were all wearing those elaborate codpieces to protect their actual dongs when their shoe-dongs tripped them up.
And the sexy didn't stop with their fashion. Prostitution was a big friggin' deal back then. Although technically against the teachings of the church, everyone collectively agreed that if there were no hookers around, men would be out raping, just, everyone, because some of what you've heard about the Middle Ages wasn't a myth. In most medieval cities, prostitution was completely legal yet confined to certain districts and licensed by a town's mayor. The church even got in on this deal and licensed some holy brothels of its very own.
"She'll tickle your schmeckel for only a shekel!"
But let's not leave out the married folk. Since most upper-class marriages were political arrangements and the people getting married didn't necessarily like each other all that much, extramarital affairs were where it was at. And man, did these people get down -- if you've ever watched a show like The Tudors and thought it was all sexed up for a modern audience, you were wrong.
One of the reasons that Eleanor of Aquitaine usurped her husband Henry II was because Henry II apparently had more mistresses than Tiger Woods. Seeing that getting in bed with the king was a good way to get ahead in life, daughters of lower nobility basically became escorts and tried to become the king's favorite mistress, which worked out pretty well for Anne Boleyn when she married Henry VIII and became Queen of England. Worked out pretty well, that is, until she was beheaded for allegedly banging too many people who weren't Henry VIII.
The Bible is very clear that you're only allowed three affairs at a time.
But the whole situation was still bad news for women, right? Because women were basically property back then? Well ...
#2. Women Were Treated as Cattle
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Europe during the Middle Ages is right up there with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the Top 5 Places It Would Suck to Have a Vagina. Women were horribly oppressed and were treated as second-class citizens -- their only responsibilities were to cook, clean, and squeeze out (male) babies on demand.
"Sweetie? You get that new male heir I asked for? It's been like an hour ..."
Up until about 200 years ago, Europe was a largely agricultural society. And the funny thing about back-breaking and often dehumanizing labor is that it has a weird way of equalizing people -- when literally every member of the family is out busting his or her ass every morning just to fend off the very real threat of starvation, gender roles and sexism suddenly don't seem all that important. Thus, when it came to household responsibilities, women and men were equals by default, since the women had to do all the same bullshit their husbands had to do. So should time travel ever become a thing, never tell a medieval peasant woman to go make her husband a sandwich, because she'll probably cackle her plague-breath all up in your face before snapping you in half like a twig.
And the story wasn't much different in the cities. If dad owned a shop or a tavern, his daughters were the ones helping out. Sometimes a daughter would actually take over the family business and run it herself if her father became unable to, something that wouldn't really happen until much later in modern society. Women also generally ran the taverns in the Middle Ages -- in fact, women once ran England's entire beer industry. It's not quite clear when that changed, but we have to assume that at some point men realized they had allowed women to become all powerful by letting them be in charge of both beer and vaginas.
"Well, at least we still have sports ... Oh Christ!"
Women who weren't busy running taverns or growing crops to survive could join a convent, which may not sound all that impressive until you realize that this gave them access to education in a time when that was extremely rare -- nuns could read and write in an age when the most powerful kings couldn't. And if they stuck with it long enough to become the abbess of a convent, they were in a position of power very similar to a male lord -- only, you know, maybe even a little higher, seeing as how they technically reported directly to the King of Kings and all.
#1. Life Was Horrible and Everyone Died Young
Life in the Middle Ages has famously been described as "nasty, brutish, and short." The food sucked, the housing sucked, the work sucked, everything sucked. Luckily, people didn't have to endure all the perpetual suck for long, since they only lived to see 35, tops. Today, if you see a character older than 60 in a movie set in the Middle Ages, he's also a wizard.
"A wizard dies precisely when he means to. Or when the giant eagles show up late."
As for lives being short, while it may be true that the average life expectancy was 35 years, we tend to overlook one very important word there: average. Infant mortality was brutal, since vaccinations against childhood diseases didn't exist yet and medicine was still in its "Here, chew on this root and stick some leeches on your junk" stage. So that skews the average way down. But if a male living in 1500 managed to see his 21st birthday, he was expected to live around 50 more years from that point.
The typical perception of the medieval peasant is someone breaking his back doing nonstop labor for lords who gaveth not a single fuck as to his well-being, but your typical peasant actually worked around eight hours a day, with long breaks for meals and naps. And did you know that peasants got more time off than you do? Sunday was an automatic day off, and when you factor in long vacations at Christmas, Easter, and midsummer, plus all the saints' days (considering the fact that the Catholic church has even more saints than it does scandals), and medieval peasants were on holiday for a good one-third of the year. And since much of that time was accompanied by epic festivals, they spent it getting shitfaced on various varieties of medieval ale. So not only did they work less than you, they also partied harder.
"Hey, you guys coming to the after-orgy?"
And it turns out they weren't exactly living lives of "bare bones subsistence," either. By the late Middle Ages, your average English worker was making around $1,000 a year -- significantly better than people in some of today's poorer nations. And while no one will argue that that level of income would provide lifestyles that would inspire rap song lyrics, it did allow them to afford varied diets, the occasional luxury item, and plenty of ale to cover all the partying they were virtually required to do. Hell, you could get a rap song out of that, right? Quick, what rhymes with "dick shoes"?
For more things you're totally wrong about, check out 6 Things from History Everyone Pictures Incorrectly and The 5 Most Overrated Jobs of All Time.
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