Monday, January 23, 2017

Surviving A Long Winter in Medieval Europe

“Peasant Breaking Bread “published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.

Since we are now in the end of January, I thought I would discuss how people lived in Medieval Europe during the winter.

First, you must remember I am writing in generic places and not one specific location.  The winters vary dramatically from region to region.  Imagine living in January on the coast of Italy, and compare that to living at the same time in Sweden. We will examine the places where it is relatively cold during the winters.

Let us look at the peasants and how they survived winters.  Survival would be a task for them, for not having enough supplies or warmth, could mean death for you and your family.

We would assume they might have fireplaces in their homes. What we perceive as a fireplace did not originate until around the 12th centuries, and was rare. Even when they became more popular, they were reserved for royalty and the wealthy.

Large fires were made in fire pits in the center of the house. This meant the house was constantly filled with smoke. This smoke must have been a constant irritant to those who were inside the home.\

For anyone who has lived in a rural area, we know barns are rarely if ever heated.  This is because animals like cows and horses give off tremendous heat from their bodies.  To utilize this heat, peasants homes were built alongside the barn, the animal’s bodies would warm the inside of the living area.

The peasants’ livestock was vital to their survival. In the fall, they had to make a hard decision. They needed to anticipate how hard, and long winter would be. They needed to kill of their excess livestock; this would allow them to feed the others during a winter.  If they underestimated the winter, they would starve.  If they overestimated, they might not have enough livestock for breading in the spring.

The butchered livestock meat would be smoked or jerked and prepared for the winter. This meat would be eaten more during the winter to help maintain body temperature.

Pottage was the staple diet of a peasant. This was a type of stew made with vegetables and grains.  Many items over the winter would be thrown in as a supplement to the pottage.  Fruits picked and stored in a cellar in the fall would also be added.  It was important for them to cook the fruits, for at this time it was though eating fresh fruit was unhealthy.

Another way for the peasants to fight off the cold was clothing. Wool was a very popular cloth and many winter clothing such as sweaters, pants and scarfs were made of it.  This is also very itchy, so most wore linen garments underneath.

Large beds were also utilized during the medieval period. This allowed numerous people to share their body heat with each other.  Peasants work was less during winter than other times of the year, so many might of simply stayed in bed for much of this period.

W.A.Rusho is a Professional Wrestler, Amateur Historian an Author.  You may contact him at his website or via email


  1. I still love a big wool sweater and fireplace on a cold winter's day! Glad I don't HAVE to have them, though.

  2. For once, I am familiar with the majority of info in one of your posts! Haha. I remember reading a lot of this daily stuff on medieval times when it came to teaching my Arthurian Lore unit. I can't imagine being so close to barnyard animals, but anything helps when it comes to trying to stay warm.

  3. Surviving winter sounds very touch in medieval times. At the same time, poor people seemed very organised and made preparations for surviving the winter.

  4. Really interesting William. I was having flashbacks while reading about the cold because our electricity went out during an ice storm last month and I've never been so cold in my life! The point about fireplaces was an eyeopener as well, it seems like they've always been around. Great read, thanks William!

    1. It was the chimney more than anything else that led to the fireplace. Romans used to just put wood underneath their marble floors and burnt them. When chimneys became available, still not what we thought of as fireplace. Imagine the exhaust hood over your stove, this was similar to early fireplaces in the 13th century and beyond.

  5. Winter in the medieval times sound harsh. How awful for people to have to make the decision to kill their livestock in order to have enough to eat.

  6. Fascinating post, William! There was a series done in Canada called Pioneer Quest that showed us how difficult life was for Prairie peasants who settled Canada in the late 1800's. Some of your examples reminded me of that, like getting that wool clothing damp, and then not being able to dry it as the wood was wet and they couldn't light a fire. We are so fortunate for the conveniences of modern life.

  7. If we were now in Medieval Europe we would not only find the winter cold but have to convert to Christianity and cope with the Black Death. I'll pass:-)

  8. Thanks for the post William. The situations described sound absolutely brutal if peasants weren't prepared to take necessary actions.

  9. I agree William, it seems to be on the pretty harsh side. Thank you sharing the post and providing us with the information regarding the period.

  10. What an interesting post! I can't imagine what life in the winter would have been like for peasants of that time.

  11. Wow! That was very educational. I can't imagine living alongside the animals for heat. The smell and noise had to be horrific. We sure do have it easy now!