Western Reserve Public Media


In the Middle Ages, there was a definite structure in society. You were born into a class of people and generally stayed in that class for your entire life. Working hard did not change your status. Your clothing, food, marriage, homes, etc., were determined for you. After the rank of king, the hierarchy was the nobles, the knights, the clergy (religious people), the tradesmen and the peasants.


The Church
One of the most unifying elements of the Middle Ages was the Roman Catholic Church. All classes and ranks of people — nobles, peasants and tradesmen — were profoundly affected by the rulings of the church.

The clergy were the religious people of the Middle Ages. Following the pope, in order of rank, there were bishops, priests, monks and nuns. In the latter part of the Middle Ages, the pope, as head of the church, had much influence over the king and total control of the clergy.

In the latter part of the Middle Ages, people were heavily taxed to support the church. In return for their tax money they received the “way to everlasting life” and happiness after leading lives that were often short and hard. Children were taught basic prayers and to go to church every week.

The Roman Catholic Church was the single largest unifying organization in medieval Europe. It touched everyone’s life, no matter what their rank or class or where they lived.


Clergy Ranks and Clothing

  • Bishops were accepted in court and generally lived with the same luxuries as the nobles in the Middle Ages. They wore lavish clothes. They wore hats called miters (a tall hat that looks like a pointed arch). Bishops wore beautiful religious garments that often were jeweled.

  • Priests weren’t rich like the bishops. They were generally the head of a church. They often wore long black gowns.

  • Monks were often scholarly and could read and write in Latin. They wore brown gowns with hoods that often were made of wool. The gown was tied with a rope around the waist. They also often had a long cowl that hung straight down the front and the back. Monks were clean-shaven, but often they shaved a bald spot on the top of their head called a “tonsure” as a symbol of humility.

  • Nuns were very holy and lived in a convent. They generally wore long gowns or tunics of black, grey or white. They were tied around the waist with a cloth or leather belt. Over the tunic was a scapular, which was a long piece of cloth with an opening for their head. It trailed down the front and back of their tunic. Some nuns wore a cross on a chain around their neck. Generally their heads were shaved and covered by a cloth covering called a wimple.



  • Bishops administered to the needs of priests.

  • Priests cared for the spiritual life of people. They administered sacraments, oversaw the life of the manor, absolved men and women of their sins through confession and made pronouncements to the community that were given by the bishops or the pope.

  • Monks lived in monasteries and served as examples of the perfect Christian life. They were scholars who sometimes copied the books of the Bible by hand. (This was before the invention of the printing press.) They also generally worked to support themselves in the monastery by gardening and land management. They also sometimes educated the sons of the nobles.

  • Nuns were very devout and served the people. They sometimes were taught to read and write, but they were not as scholarly as monks. They sometimes did work on manuscripts. Other less-educated nuns did harder work. Many families placed their daughters in convents and the convent was given a dowry for taking them. Older women who became widows were also sent to convents. This was often done so that the woman would have a secure life.


Religious Festivals
The life of the people revolved around the seasons. Planting, harvesting, etc., ruled the working class. Each month there was some type of religious festival. For example, they celebrated St. Valentine’s Day in February with singing, dancing and games. In March, they celebrated Easter by performing mystery plays. All Fools Day was the April festival, where jokes and pranks were the order of the day.


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