The Medieval Period stretches from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance, or more precisely from the abdication of the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476, (which marked the advent of the medieval papacy and the coming of the Dark Ages) to the death of Richard III, the last Plantagenet (and last medieval) king in 1485 and the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty in England - or alternatively (for these are necessarily local dates) the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain and the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, or the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and its rebirth as Istambul, or the setting-up of the first printing press in 1450 at Mainz in Germany; to the Renaissance in Italy, the Reformation in the north ...
A thousand years, a millennium, brought to an end, suddenly, by a period of great change.
What was life like in those thousand years? How did it change as the centuries passed? And to what extent did it vary from place to place?
The People Were The Same
As I have observed elsewhere, HF (Historical Fiction) is similar in many ways to SF. The people are the people we know; the setting is (or should be) radically different: it should wake you up, set you free - or at least set the writer free.
In the Middle Ages, people were the same as they are now. Their world view was different. Why? Because their world was different? Not really.
It is an interesting fact that post-catastrophe SF - SF set in a world almost totally destroyed by war or epidemic or pollution or natural disaster - always comes out more or less "medieval". (One of the best examples - not by an SF writer as such, or an HF writer, but as highly recommended as I can make a book - six stars on any scale! - is Russell Hoban's RIDLEY WALKER.)
Take away electricity, and along with it industry, transport, communications. No 'law and order' except on a local scale and by virtue of 'might is right'. No knowledge of anything except that handed down by (a) religious groups (who would surely proliferate); (b) farmers; (c) certain other tradesmen; and (d) healers. We will never go back to classical times, but we could all too easily find ourselves back in the Dark Ages, having to pass again through the Age of Belief, and emerge into the light of the Renaissance as we stumble once more on forgotten knowledge.
That is what life was like. The Fall of the Roman Empire should be seen as a disaster from which it took men hundreds of years to recover.
The Calamitous Fourteenth Century
Things must get worse before they get better, it is said, and they did. Worsening weather, famine, the Black Death, the Hundred Years War: for a detailed look at life in this most difficult of centuries, Barbara Tuchman's book A DISTANT MIRROR: THE CALAMITOUS FOURTEENTH CENTURY cannot be bettered.
For an excellent overall view of life in the period, the best single volume is the HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL LIFE by David Nicolle. It covers not only Western Europe but Eastern Europe, the Muslim World, East and Central Asia, India and South East Asia, under chapter headings such as Domestic Life; The Arts; Country Life; Urban Life and Commerce; Science, Scholarship and Medicine; Law and Punishment; Religion and Belief. And for a look at one pivotal year, dealt with in fascinating detail, I cannot recommend Lacey and Danziger's THE YEAR 1000 too highly: it follows the year through, showing us, month by month, what would have been happening.
And then there is cooking and eating, a major part of life in any period. Maggie Black's THE MEDIEVAL COOKBOOK shows us exactly how people really lived, in their kitchns and dining-rooms, and how to prepare such food today. One of my favourite chapters is "The Goodman of Paris" based on an authentic surviving work in which the middle-aged goodman instructs his fifteen-year-old bride in her domestic duties - including cooking.
For a fascinating view of the east, I recommend Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. Till I read this, I thought I knew something about the Silk Road: after I'd read it, I did.
Another excellent work is Margaret Labarge's Women in Medieval Life, which deals in well-researched detail with every aspect of its subject, from the lives of women at the centre of things - queens and noblewomen - through that of nuns, recluses and mystics, and that of women who toiled, the wives of peasants and tradesmen, to the life led by women on the fringe - witches and prostitutes.