A glossary of terms related to the study of the Middle Ages.
Abbey: A self-sufficient religious community of either monks or nuns (sometimes both housed separately), run by an abbot or abbess and sometimes subject to a higher secular authority through feudal obligation. Abbots and abbesses occupied posts that were socially and politically as well as spiritually important and powerful. See also Monastery.
ՙAbd: Arabic for “slave,” often seen in proper names combined with other words referring to Allah (“slave of God”), one of his attributes (“servant of the Merciful”), or royalty (“servant of the king”).
Acre: In the Middle Ages, roughly the area that could be plowed in one day.
Adamites: A religious sect, considered heretical, which sought to render humankind able to return to Adam’s state in paradise prior to Original Sin.
Aketon: A shirt stuffed with cotton and worn under a hauberk as padding. See also Hauberk.
Albigensians: Members of the heretical Catharistic sect who lived in and around Albi, France. The Cathars in general held a dualistic belief that matter was evil and thus Christ never took human form. The Albigensians became the target of the anti-Catharistic Albigensian Crusade during the years 1209-1229.
Alderman: From Old English ealdorman (“old” or “parent” man), an Anglo-Saxon office under the king constituting the head of a shire. The office evolved into that of the earl, which eventually became a title of nobility; also, in the towns, heads of merchant guilds or community office were known as aldermen.
Allegory: A story, literary work, or play in which characters in the narrative personify abstract ideas or qualities and so give a second level of meaning to the work, in addition to the surface narrative.
Almoner: An officer who distributed alms to the sick and poor.
Amercement: A fine imposed for a minor offense; imposed in place of harsher punishment and therefore said to be “at the mercy” of the king.
Amir: See Emir.
Anchorite, anchoress: Respectively, a man or woman living a solitary and ascetic religious life, sometimes a cleric attached to a monastery and sometimes an individual living in the wilderness.
Angles: A Germanic people who infiltrated and settled in England during the fifth century and assimilated with local tribes to form the Anglo-Saxons. See also Jutes, Saxons.
Apostate: One who renounces religious orders or other duty, considered a serious breach of faith.
Apostolic succession: The belief that the authority of Jesus Christ passes down from his apostles through the bishops (popes).
Appanage: A large grant of land donated by a ruler to a member of his family, such as a son, along with a title (duke or count) conferring rights to collect taxes.
Apprentice: See Craft.
Archdeacon: Subordinate of a bishop with responsibility for supervising the diocesan clergy and holding ecclesiastical courts within his archdeaconry.
Arianism: The belief of the fourth century Alexandrian priest Arius and his followers, who in the next three hundred years included many Germanic Visigoths and Lombards, that Jesus was the greatest created being but, because he was a creature and not Creator, was therefore not the same as God.
Armet: A closed helmet consisting of the rounded cap of the bascinet with two cheek pieces overlapping at the front when closed. See also Bascinet.
Armor: Protective clothing and gear used during combat and made of a variety of materials such as leather and mail, and including a wide range of pieces. See also Aketon, Armet, Aventail, Bavier, Besagues, Bevor, Bracers, Burgonet, Byrnie, Cabacete, Cerevelliere, Close helmet, Coif, Couter, Cuisses, Gambeson, Gorget, Greaves, Haketon, Haubergeon, Hauberk, Jack, Kettle, Pauldron, Poleyn, Rerebrace, Sabaton, Sallet, Sollerets, Spaudler, Surcoat, Tabard, Vambrace.
Arthurian romance: Literature that includes the legendary King Arthur or his Knights of the Round Table, often referred to as the Matter of Britain. At the core of this literature are the medieval romances that are closely allied with the founding of Britain, including stories about the birth of Arthur, his assumption of the throne (pulling the sword Ex Calibre from the stone in which it was embedded), his love affair with Guinevere and her betrayal with the knight Lancelot, the exploits of the Knights of the Round Table, and stories of Arthur’s downfall at the hands of his illegitimate son Mordred. Arthurian romance is found in the twelfth century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), the twelfth century French romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Layamon’s Brut (c. 1205), the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (fourteenth century), and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), among others.
Assart: As a noun, a piece of wasteland or previously unfarmed forest land that has been cleared or drained and prepared for farming. As a verb, to clear and prepare a piece of land for farming, which was generally illegal without acquiring the appropriate license.
Assize: A broadly applied term referring to any legal procedure, the court, judge, or jury applying that procedure, or a court enactment; generally these were civil and not criminal and related to real estate or market regulations, such as standard weights and measures, or quantities of commodities, such as wine, bread, or ale.
Atheling: The eldest son or heir apparent of an Anglo-Saxon king.
Aventail: A mail garment that hung down from the helmut like a curtain, designed to protect the neck.
Bailey: An outer wall of a castle or the courtyard or a wall surrounding the keep; also, the space between such walls. See also Keep.
Bailiff or bailli: The officer appointed by the landlord of a manor or town who was responsible for collecting rents owed to the landlord and distributing services owed to the tenants. A town might have more than one bailiff with different duties, who together acted as the town’s executive officer reporting to the landlord.
Ballista: A war machine used to hurl large arrows or other missiles. See also Catapult, Trebuchet.
Bard: A minstrel or poet who played an important role in relating the exploits of his lords and people through verse that could be remembered and, later, written down for posterity.
Barony: An administrative division of certain counties or a land grant from the king, overseen by a baron.
Barrow: An earthen burial mound.
Bascinet: An open-faced helmet, either round or pointed and reaching down to the cheeks and neck, used in the fourteenth century.
Bastard: An illegitimate son of a noble or king.
Bastion: A tower projecting from the walls of a castle.
Battlement: A small wall or indented parapet used as a shield for defense.
Bavier: A chin piece used in armor.
Beg or bey: The title of an Ottoman governor.
Beguines or Beghards: In twelfth century and later, particularly in the Low Countries, small groups of devout women (Beguines) or men (Beghards) who lived together for religious purposes but did not take religious vows. They could own property and marry.
Benedictines: A monastic order founded by Saint Benedict. The monks, known as Black Friars for their black habits, took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to Benedictine Rule and their monastery’s abbot. See also Carmelites, Carthusians, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Mendicants.
Benefice or benefit: From the Latin beneficium, land in reward for service. In secular terms, a land awarded to a member of the aristocracy, a bishop, or a monastery in exchange for services. In ecclesiastic terms, an endowed church office that returns revenue.
Benefit of clergy: The exclusion of clerics from the jurisdiction of secular courts. Even minor clerics who committed offenses could be remanded to the authority of the bishop. Clerics accused of offenses proved their status by exhibiting their literacy (reading Scripture, for example); as the ability to read spread during the later Middle Ages, the benefit was abused.
Besagues: Circular plates of armor at the elbow joint and front of the shoulder.
Bestiary: A form of literature, popular from classical times to the Middle Ages, in which animals were used to teach moral lessons or impart knowledge, often Christian doctrine. Examples include Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (sixth century
Bevor: A collar plate covering the lower face.
Bishop: An important and powerful office, held by an ordained priest who was also often a nobleman and an accomplished military leader, with religious authority over an administrative territory called a diocese, as well as legal authority over its clergy, friars, monks, and nuns.
Black Death: The name for the bubonic plague that decimated the population of western Asia and Europe in the mid-fourteenth century.
Black Friars or Monks: See Benedictines, Dominicans.
Bloodfeud: A conflict between families that often extended for generations and usually was instigated by an act of revenge.
Bogomils: A heretical sect that began in the mid-tenth century in Bulgaria, spreading into the Byzantine Empire and west into Europe. Bogomils held the dualistic belief that God had two sons, the good Jesus and the evil Satan.
Bondman: A serf or slave. Bondmen and their families routinely formed part of the package in a grant or transfer of land from one property owner to another—often by name.
Book of hours: A medieval prayer book for the layperson, often small in size to be portable and sometimes beautifully illuminated.
Bordar or bordarii: A type of peasant who occupied a cottage but often one with no farmland; this class was lower than that of villein but higher than that of a cottager. See also Cottager, Serf, Villein.
Borough, burg, burgh, or burh: In Anglo-Saxon England, a planned town designed for military defense or as a political center; the term came to mean any town granted the right of self-government.
Bot: Compensation for damages, penalty fee, amends, reparation. Used in compounds for more precise legal terms, such as cynebot (compensation for killing a king) or manbot (compensation for a crime).
Boyar or bojar: A Bulgarian or Russian member of the landed military aristocracy.
Bracers: Plate armor worn to protect the arms.
Breviary: A book containing the Divine Office (lessons, psalms, and hymns) day by day. See also Divine Office.
Brigandine or brigantine: A material used for light body armor, consisting of metal plates, strips, or scales sewn on or into a thick material such as canvas or leather. See also Jack.
Buckler: A small, round shield used by foot solders to defend themselves against blows in hand-to-hand combat. See also Pavise, Targe.
Buckram: A stiff, heavy linen or cotton fabric.
Buffet: A ceremonial blow administered when a new knight was dubbed.
Bull: An papal letter or document that issued an authoritative statement or policy. Named for the pope’s lead seal, or bulla.
Burgage: In England and Scotland, a property held in “burgage tenure,” that is, a property, usually located in a borough as opposed to a rural area, that normally consisted of a house or living quarters either with or without additional land and was rented to an occupant for money as opposed to service. A burgage could be subdivided to accrue additional rents.
Burgess: In England, a member of a borough community, generally but not always a freeman; later generalized to refer to the more prosperous residents of a town.
Burgher: In German countries, a townsman.
Burgonet: A steel cap with a chin piece common in the sixteenth century.
Burgundians: A Germanic tribe of the eighth through tenth centuries eventually incorporated into the Frankish kingdoms.
Buttress: A projection from a wall for additional support.
Byrnie: A mail shirt that eventually developed into the hauberk. See also Hauberk.
Byzantine Empire: The Eastern Roman Empire, the successor to the Roman Empire after its fall in 476, with the capital at Constantinople; it ended in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.
Cabacete: A tall, narrow helmet of the Spanish infantry in the late fifteenth century; it had a brim that was drawn up to a point at front and rear.
Caliph: From the Arabic kalifah, “successor,” the title of the successors of the Prophet Muḥammad in the Orthodox, Umayyad, ՙAbbāsid, and Fāṭ;imid caliphates. Their status waned with the increasing military powers of regional emirs and sultans.
Canon law: The system of governing the Roman Catholic Church, its bishops, clerics, and laypersons. In the Middle Ages, this influence was pervasive in Europe, not only among the clerics but also, for the laity, in areas that today are generally governed by secular laws regarding marriage, divorce, slander, defamation, inheritance, and other social matters.
Canonical hours: The times of day and night during which specific services were sung or recited: matins, lauds, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline.
Cardinal virtues: Prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, the four classic virtues. See also Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Moral Virtues.
Carmelites: Also known as the White Friars or Monks from the color of their habits, a mendicant order of monks known for study and meditation. See also Benedictines, Carthusians, Cistercians, Franciscans, Mendicants.
Carrack: Large square rigged sailing vessel of Genoese origin, clinker built.
Carthusians: An order of clergy in the late Middle Ages known for their learning and asceticism, living in “charterhouses” in England. See also Benedictines, Carmelites, Cistercians, Franciscans, Mendicants.
Carucage: Tax on plowland. See also Carucate.
Carucate: From caruca, “plow,” a measurement of land equivalent to an area that could be plowed by eight oxen in a year’s time. See also Carucage, Hide.
Cassock: A long, full-length man’s coat and fitted sleeves designed for warmth and sometimes lined with fur. Worn especially by priests and other clerics.
Castellan: The warden or governor of a castle or fortification.
Castle: A fortification with a broad-ranging variety of architectural features designed for safety and defense. See also Bailey, Bastion, Drawbridge, Keep, Moat.
Casuistry: A system of moral theology which takes full account of the circumstances and intentions of penitents and formulates rules for particular cases.
Catapult: Stone-throwing engine, usually employing torsion. See also Ballista, Trebuchet.
Cathars: Members of a heretical sect in southern France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who held a dualistic belief that matter was evil and thus Christ never took human form. See also Albigensians.
Cathedral or cathedral church: The central church in a diocese, the seat of a bishop’s cathedra, or throne.
Catholic Church: From Greek catholicos, meaning “universal,” the name was applied by a group of second century Christians to distinguish themselves from other groups, particularly the Gnostic Christians, and came to be applied to the dominant Church in the Middle Ages which adhered to the ancient creeds: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans.
Cellarer: The monk at a monastery who oversees the food supply and provisions for the community.
Cenobitism: Monastic life in a community as opposed to a monastic life of solitude. See also Eremiticism.
Ceorl: In Anglo-Saxon England, a freeman or free tenant of the lowest rank, who might aspire to become a thegn if he could acquire enough land. See also Thegn or thane.
Cerevelliere: A globular steel cap worn to protect the head during battle, which evolved by the fourteenth century into the Bascient. See also Bascinet.
Cesspits: A form of private latrine, dug in yards behind or even beneath dwellings, built when access to a public latrine was limited or at a distance. When full, their contents would be used as manure or dumped in rivers.
Chamber: The personal quarters or sleeping rooms of a noble or king, overseen by a chamberlain.
Chamberlain: The officer in a royal household responsible for overseeing the king or noble’s chamber and private household.
Chancellor: The head of the Chancery, an officer in a royal household, often a bishop familiar with law, who served as the king’s secretary and was responsible for domestic and foreign affairs.
Chancery: The part of the English government that issued charters, letters, and writs under the Great Seal of England, functioning as the department of interior and defense and often initiating legal action.
Chantry: An endowment or institution endowed to say masses for the souls of the deceased.
Charter: A document issued by a lord or king, addressed to the public, in which was recorded title to property or, in a charter of franchise, freedom from servitude.
Chasuble: A sleeveless mantle worn by a priest.
Chattels: Goods, such as furniture and other personal effects, that could move with their owner; an interest in land was known as chattels real (compare the modern “real estate”).
Chirograph: A record of an agreement or contract between parties, in which the terms were written on one piece of parchment, a wavy line was drawn through the agreement, and then the agreement was cut in half, with one half given to each party. Chirographs prevented forgery by making it clear that two halves of the document were original when it could be demonstrated that their broken lines matched.
Chivalry: The culture and ethic that grew out of the eleventh and twelfth century concept of the noble knight, whose life was devoted to his liege lord, the defense of the weak, and the honor of his lady.
Christendom: Those territories in Europe and beyond occupied primarily by Christians.
Church: When used alone in the context of the Middle Ages, generally capitalized in reference to the universal Catholic Church. Lowercased, a reference to the building or complex that hosted services, including nave, altars, choir, and apse. See also Cathedral.
Church courts: The religious court system that enforced canon law and was overseen by the Church. It had jurisdiction over such matters as marriage, annulment, wills, inheritance, offenses against personal character (defamation, slander), and determinations of heresy or breach of faith.
Cinque Ports: Beginning in the eleventh century, five boroughs located on the English Channel whose barons were granted special privileges for providing ships in time of war.
Cistercians: A branch of the Benedictine monks in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who advocated reform through a strict return to Saint Benedict’s rule. See also Benedictines.
Clerics or clergy: A general term for all members of the Church, including abbots, monks, priests, friars, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and others. See also Benefit of clergy.
Cloister: The covered walkways surrounding a grassy courtyard, lined with arches and looking in toward the courtyard.
Close: An enclosed field or area.
Close helmet: A round-topped helmet attached to neck armor.
Cluny: Founded in Burgundy in 910, one of the most famous monasteries, which by the eleventh century was the headquarters of a series of monasteries across Europe. Among its more famous denizens was Peter Abelard, Odo of Lagery (Pope Urban II), and William of Saint-Thierry.
Codex: A medieval unprinted (manuscript) book, usually made of leaves of parchment sewn together and bound between parchment, wooden, or leather covers, but also in roll and other forms.
Coif: A defensive covering for the head made out of chain mail.
College: In the Middle Ages, an ecclesiastical body with a distinct legal status, separate from a church or monastery, that had an academic or scholarly mission.
Common law: In England, unwritten laws that developed from judicial decisions made in royal courts, based on custom and precedent; these laws eventually became universal and supplanted local statutes and equities. All law in the United States, with the exception of the state of Louisiana, is based on English common law.
Communitas (pl. communitates): Associations or communities such as towns and corporate entities, the basis for corporations.
Commutation: Conversion of labor services into a monetary value.
Constable: From the Latin for “count of the stable,” an office, accompanied by a detailed system of wards or constabularies, that evolved in the century following the Norman Conquest, when French invasion of England was feared. Constables’ duties included local law enforcement, nightwatch, the securing of town gates, and the right to interrogate suspicious characters.
Convent: See Nunnery.
Coroner: An office in England originally charged with keeping track of the Crown’s legal actions (pleas) and, only later, to examine dead bodies to determine cause of death.
Corrody: An annual or lifetime provision of food and shelter, and sometimes also money, in return for service, often to laypersons by a religious house or monastery. The social function of a corrody was in some ways similar to that of a pension.
Corvée: The labor that a serf owed to his lord or the landowner on whose land he made his living.
Coterell: A bondman who held a small plot of land. See also Bondman.
Cottager, cottar, or cotter: A peasant with a cottage but little or no land, the lowest of the peasant class in England. See also Bordar, Serf, Villein.
Council: A meeting of religious leaders; an “ecumenical council” is a meeting of the highest bishops and the pope. See also Synod.
Count: From Latin comes (companion) and Middle French comte, the French or continental equivalent of an earl. The office became a noble title, beneath duke and above baron and knight.
Couter: An elbow guard.
Craft or mistery: A skilled occupation, industry, or trade taught by means of an apprenticeship system whereby the apprentice learned under a master craftsman and worked his way to the top. (The Latin-derived “mistery” referred to mastery.) Craftsmen formed leagues or guilds and were regulated in towns. See also Guild, Journeyman.
Creed: A formal statement of belief, often religious or theological, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.
Crenelation: A battlement at the top of a castle wall or tower formed by crenels (openings) and merlons (solid square or sawtooth parapets between openings), resulting in a notched look. See also Battlement, Parapet.
Crest: The heraldic design on a helmet.
Croft: An enclosed patch of land or garden area adjacent to a cottage and used for pasture or growing crops.
Crop rotation: The agricultural practice, common during the Middle Ages, of dividing land into three strips or areas, of which one was sown with spring crops or grain, one with fall crops or grain, and one left alone, or fallow, to “rejuvenate” soil depleted of its nutrients.
Crusades: The eight military expeditions of Europeans to the Middle East between 1095 and 1271 to defend the Holy Land against Muslim rulers. Derived from the word for “cross,” which became a crest worn by the Christian participants. Later commonly used to signify any Christian war not only to defend but also to prosyletize.
Cubit: A medieval unit of length roughly equal to an arm’s length (about 0.5 meter, or 18 inches).
Cuisses: Plate armor worn to protect the thighs.
Culverin: A relatively lightweight cannon that was mounted on a portable frame and fired small-calibre lead or bronze bullets; a predecessor of the harquebus (early sixteenth century) and of later handguns.
Curate: A priest who could “cure” souls in a particular parish.
Curia: Any court (Latin curia), either ecclesiastical or royal. Often appears with another, definitive word appended, such as “curia regis” (the royal court or king’s court).
Curtain wall: A castle wall enclosing a courtyard or an outer wall of a castle, between towers.
Cymru (pron. CIHM-ree): The Welsh name for the Welsh.
Cynebot: The atonement to the nation for the killing of the king.
Cyrillic: The Slavic alphabet, used in Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, and Russia, essentially introduced in the ninth century by Saints Cyril and Methodius in the form of its predecessor, Old Church Slavonic.
Czar or tsar: A Slavic emperor, a title first used by the medieval Bulgarians and Serbs.
Danegeld: Literally, “Dane gold” or “Dane money,” a tribute in England paid to the Danish rulers and later to other English kings.
Danelaw: The region in England in East Anglia, the East Midlands, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire that was heavily settled by the Danes in the eighth and ninth centuries and under their jurisdiction.
Daub: See Wattle and daub.
Deacon: In the Church, the order below priest, one of the Major Orders. Deacons and archdeacons served the priest in ministering to the parish by helping care for the poor and maintaining the church grounds.
Debenture: A receipt that could be redeemed for money, given for goods or services to the king.
Demesne: In the feudal system, lands reserved solely for the use of the lord or king, unoccupied by tenants, although worked by serfs.
Despot: In the Byzantine Empire, an office second only to emperor, given to a holder of a particular territory.
Devshirme: During the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, a levy of Christian boys, collected for training and recruitment to serve in various parts of the administration, such as the Janissaries or the emperor’s Household. See also Janissaries.
Dextrarius (French destrier): A warhorse.
Diocese: An administrative district of the Church under a bishop’s jurisdiction, which during the early Middle Ages provided a system for political governance in the wake of Roman disintegration.
Dispensation: A license to go outside the law, particularly canon law, which was issued by the pope.
Disseisin: Wrongful dispossession of land.
Distraint: A means of forcing a court appearance by seizing certain of the person’s possessions; also, arrest.
Divine Office: The particular religious service recited by priests at a fixed time of day and once during the night. See also Canonical hours.
Divine right: The concept that God bestowed the right to rule upon kings.
Doge: A ruler of Venice, from the mid-eighth century to the end of the eighteenth. The doges were powerful leaders during the Middle Ages, since Venice was a free state and central trading city.
Domesday Book: The 1086 census of England ordered by King William after the Norman conquest (1066). It recorded properties and their holders, thus enabling the royal government to provide for itself an adequate and consistent income, since officials knew what revenues could be expected from any piece of land. Two volumes, Great Domesday and Little Domesday, covered much of England, with some notable exceptions (London and a few other centers were not covered, for example).
Dominicans: An order of mendicant friars founded by Saint Dominic and sanctioned by Pope Honorius in 1216. They emphasized scholarship and the defeat of heresy. Sometimes known as Black Friars for the color of their habits. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican. See also Benedictines, Carmelites, Carthusians, Cistercians, Franciscans, Mendicants.
Dongjon: See Keep.
Dower: The rights of a bride to property of her husband as a result of their marriage, which was determined either specifically through a gift from the husband after the wedding or by default as a third of the husband’s lands. See also Dowery, Marriage.
Dowery: Land or a fee provided to a nunnery for a new entrant, or goods and money that were offered by a bride’s family to her husband.
Drawbridge: A wooden bridge that could be raised or lowered, often leading to a castle gateway, spanning a moat or trough of water that surrounded the fortification to dissuade entry. See also Moat.
Dream vision: A type of allegory in which the narrator or a character falls asleep and dreams a dream that becomes the framed story. Famous medieval dream visions include the thirteenth century Roman de la Rose, Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), William Langland’s The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman (c. 1362), and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Hous of Fame (1372-1380) and Book of the Duchess (c. 1370). See also Allegory.
Dualism: A worldview that has typified several religions (Gnosticism, Manichaeanism, Bogomils, Cathars), holding that the world is divided and controlled by both good and evil, the material and the spiritual.
Duke: From Roman dux, a governor, especially of a military jurisdiction; later, a member of nobility who was lord over several counties (headed by “counts”), who could pass his title to offspring.
Dungeon: A jail located in a castle tower.
Ealdorman or ealderman: See Alderman.
Earl: Originally an officer who oversaw several shires, with their sheriffs, eventually the most elevated rank of nobility in medieval England that was not of royal blood. See also Ealdorman.
Eire: The name for Ireland in Irish.
Emir or amir: The title of an Islamic commander, loosely a prince, referring to high military officers, provincial governors of the Islamic empire, and rulers who, although technically under the the caliph, were essentially independent (such as the Umayyad emirs of Córdoba during the eighth and ninth centuries).
Enfeoffment: Investiture with dignities or possessions.
Eremiticism: A life of solitude, led by hermits or monks, as opposed to a monastic life lived in community. See also Cenobitism.
Escheat: The right of a feudal lord to lands held by a vassal or serf, if no heirs exist or if the holder commits a crime, treason, or otherwise gives up his right to hold the land.
Essoin: An acceptable excuse for not attending court.
Estates or Three Orders: The three main sectors of society: the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeois or merchant class.
Exchequer: Beginning in the twelfth century, the financial department of England’s royal government.
Excommunication: The official ousting of a member of the Roman Catholic Church from its membership and/or communion with faithful Christians, one of the worst sentences that could befall a Christian during the Middle Ages both socially and legally.
Fair: A regional market held approximately once or twice a year, where a wide variety of both local and imported goods could be purchased.
Falchion: A short, curved sword with a broad blade.
Farce: From the Latin farcire, meaning “to stuff.” Originally an insertion into established Church liturgy in the Middle Ages, “farce” later became the term for specifically comic scenes inserted into early liturgical drama. The term has come to refer to any play that evokes laughter by such low-comedy devices as physical humor, rough wit, and ridiculous and improbable situations and characters.
Fatwa: A legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic legal scholar, or mufti.
Fealty: The obligation of loyalty a vassal owed to his lord, sworn by oath.
Fief: Also known as a fee or holding, the land a lord granted in return for service.
Feudalism: The system of governance in medieval Europe characterized by a landed nobility who had responsibilities to the king, in return for the use of land (fiefs) exploited with the labor of the peasantry (serfs).
Fletcher: An arrow maker.
Flying buttress: An arch carrying the thrust of a roof from the upper part of a wall to a free-standing support.
Forestel: An assault on the king’s highway.
Franchise: See Freedom.
Franciscans: A mendicant order of friars, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi, that emphasized preaching and helped establish early universities. They wore gray and therefore also were known as Gray or Grey Friars. See also Benedictines, Carmelites, Carthusians, Cistercians, Dominicans, Mendicants.
Frankpledge: In Anglo-Saxon England, a small grouping of people (technically ten, but varying in practice) that formed the lowest administrative jurisdiction of governance, responsible for one another’s lawful conduct.
Franks: The Germanic tribe of peoples that settled much of western and central Europe during the sixth and seventh centuries and eventually dominated what is today France, Germany, Switzerland, and northern Italy, giving rise to the Merovingian and Carolingian Dynasties.
Freedom: Rather than the modern concept of personal liberty, a legal status, also called the “franchise” or the “liberty,” acquired from a lord that carried with it specified rights, including some personal freedoms. Often these were accorded to townsmen and sometimes to women. “Franchise” or “liberty” could also refer to the region within which these freeman’s rights were in effect.
Freehold: An estate held for life and often inheritable.
Freeman: A man granted freedom (or the franchise, or liberty), still owing obligations to a lord. See also Freedom.
Freeman of a town: A man who has acquired (by birth, privilege, or payment) membership in a craft guild, allowing him certain rights within the town, such as the free practice of his craft.
Friar: A member of a mendicant (begging) order of preachers, many of which arose during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. See also Benedictines, Carmelites, Carthusians, Cistercians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Mendicants.
Friars Minor: See Franciscans.
Fuqaha: An Islamic scholar learned in jurisprudence. See also ՙUlama.
Furlong: A measurement of distance, roughly 220 yards (200 meters) in length, which corresponded to the average length of a furrow in most fields.
Fyrd: An Anglo-Saxon militia or army.
Gabelle: A tax on salt, a commodity which could be bought only at royal or ducal depots.
Gael: Celtic inhabitants of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, giving rise to the modern word “Gaelic” for the languages spoken by these peoples.
Gambeson: A quilted linen jacket stuffed with flax or rags, worn as a body defense by infantrymen and poor knights.
Garderobe: A latrine or a lavatory located in a castle wall with a chute ending in a pit.
Garth: A piece of enclosed land next to a house, sometimes cloistered.
Geld: Old English for money, payment, tax, or tribute. See also Danegeld.
Gentry: A class consisting of knights, squires, and gentlemen.
Gestum: A portion of food or drink appropriate to a guest.
Gild: See Guild.
Ghazi: Arabic term for an Islamic warrior against unbelievers.
Goliardic poetry: Satiric poetry, originally aimed at the Church and the pope and written by wandering students and renegade clerics in the Middle Ages, later associated with minstrels and loose living. Some of these works were collected during the nineteenth century as the Carmina Burana. In 1884, John Addington compiled a collection titled Wine, Women, and Song.
Gore: A wedge of arable land created by irregularity of terrain and plowing in strips.
Gorget: A piece of plate armor that covers the neck and throat.
Gothic: Anything pertaining to Gothic peoples, but more often denoting a style of European architecture between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries characterized by ornateness, strong vertical lines, and pointed arches.
Grange system: A system of agriculture in Europe, established by monks, which existed outside the feudal manorial system.
Great hall: A building or room in a castle used for the main meeting or dining area.
Greaves: Plate armor for the legs, particularly the lower legs.
Greek fire: An explosive compound that was ignited and hurled into the enemy’s path or stronghold.
Green: A “common” area of lawn or grassland initially used by villagers to graze animals; evolved into the parklike areas that characterize cities today.
Guild: A fraternity or association of skilled craftsmen, usually in a certain industry or art. In the towns where they formed, guilds became important not only economically but also politically.
Hadith: The collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muḥammad, one of the major sources of Islamic law.
Hajj: The pilgrimage to Mecca, required of all Muslims at least once in their lives.
Haketon: A protective leather coat or jacket, reinforced with mail.
Halberd: A polearm with a rear spike and top spike. See also Pole-ax.
Half-timber: A type of construction that typified medieval buildings, with main timbers framing the structure and intevening spaces filled with wattle and daub. See also Wattle and daub.
Hanse: An Old English term connoting commercial use and, applied to merchant guilds, the fee for becoming a member of such a guild. The term gave rise to the name for the Hanseatic League, the association of mercantile towns of northern Germany established in the mid-twelfth century.
Harem: An Arabic term connoting something forbidden or taboo and eventually applied to holy places in Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and elsewhere. Came to be applied to the women’s quarters of a residence.
Haubergeon: A coat of mail that was smaller than a hauberk. See also Hauberk.
Hauberk: A hooded tunic or shirt made of mail and designed to protect the head, arms, and torso down to the knees.
Heptarchy: The seven pre-Viking kingdoms of England: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, and Sussex.
Heresy: A belief, religious doctrine, or policy that contradicted the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church, determined by Church authority and, if held and not repented, subject to severe punishment.
Heretic: A person who held or purveyed heresy.
Hesychasm: Based on a movement introduced to Athos by Gregory of Sinai in the early fourteenth century, a mystical approach to spiritual communion with God that later became associated with social and political movements that led to a civil war within the Byzantine state.
Hide: In England, a measure of land necessary to sustain a household, averaging about 120 acres, on which a tax assessment, also called a hide, was based.
Hijra or hegira: The migration of Muḥammad and his followers to Medina (dated in the Western calendar to 622).
Holy orders: See Major Orders, Minor Orders.
Homage: The formal ceremony of recognition by a tenant that he held the land of a lord and owed him service for it. See also Fealty.
Housbote: A tenant’s right to repair his house using wood from the lord’s estate.
Household: The royal family, servants, and other officials attending an English king, which eventually gave rise to divisions or departments of government such as the chancery, exchequer, and courts of law.
Humanism: Born in fourteenth century Italy, a worldview that places humankind, human values, and human achievements at the center of the universe, as opposed to supernatural or religious worldviews, which see humanity as inferior or intrinsically depraved. Humanism distinguished Renaissance from medieval thought and eventually led to the Reformation, individualism, and the notion that humankind could triumph over nature. As Humanism blossomed, so did science, revealing physical laws that explained natural phenomena and seemed at odds with biblical and theological explanations of the universe. Humanism also was characterized by a return to classic Greek and Latin (pre-Christian) literature.
Humors: In medieval and Renaissance medicine, the humors were the four bodily fluids—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—any excess of which created a distortion or imbalance of personality; by extension, the term came to mean “mood” or “disposition.”
Hundred: In Anglo-Saxon England, a subdivision of a shire that theoretically was about one hundred hides. See also Hide.
Hussites: Followers of John Hus, regarded as heretical by the Church.
Iconoclasm: The destruction of icons, sacred images of Christ or saints. The Iconoclastic Controversy, which divided the eastern and western Church during the eighth and ninth centuries, concerned the policy of the East to destroy such images as idolatrous; in the West such images were revered.
Imam: An Islamic religious and political leader, one of the titles assumed by the caliph and later particularly of the spiritual leaders of the Shīՙites.
Indulgence: A grant of remission of penance for sins, issued by a bishop or the pope, in exchange for an act or, later, a fee.
Infidel: A non-Christian, particularly a Muslim during the Middle Ages.
Interdict: A sentence imposed by the Church on a territory or jurisdiction, prohibiting the administration of the sacraments in order to force adherence to Church doctrine or authority.
Investiture: The act of formally placing a person, such as a bishop, in office. The Investiture Controversy between Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII was waged over the secular emperor’s right to grant such offices versus that of the pope; it resulted in the compromise established in the Concordat of Worms (1107).
Islam: The religion founded by the Prophet Muḥammad, which after his death in 632 resulted in the rapid spread of Islam from Arabia east through Persia, India, and Southeast Asia and west through Africa and southern Spain. The resulting clash of Islamic and Christian cultures contributed to both intellectual advancement and military conflict, particularly during the Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. See also Muslim.
Jack: A thick, protective leather coat, sometimes reinforced with metal studs or plates.
Janissaries: From the Turkish for “new corps,” a corps of troops originally recruited by taking non-Muslim children as slaves of the sultan. The Janissaries played a key role in the rise of the Ottoman Turks during fifteenth century.
Jihad: A holy war waged by Muslims against nonbelievers in Islam, considered in the Middle Ages a duty imposed by holy law.
Jongleur: In medieval France, a wandering minstrel.
Journeyman: A wage worker in a trade guild who has graduated from apprenticeship under a master craftsman and is considered competent in his craft.
Jury: In the Middle Ages, a body of men sworn to give a “true answer” (veredictum or verdict) to a question put before them. The institution took many forms for many purposes and evolved into the court juries familiar today.
Justiciar: In England during the late tenth through early thirteenth centuries, a judicial officer and the king’s surrogate during his absence.
Jutes: A Germanic people originating on the Continent and settling in southeastern England in the fifth century. See also Angles, Saxons.
Keep or dongjon: The part of a castle deemed to be safest, surrounded by the thickest walls or deep within the fortifications, often within a central tower.
Kettle: A type of open-faced helmet worn during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Khan: Beginning in the tenth century, the title of a Turkish, Central Asian, or Mongol ruler who reigned over a group of tribes or territories. Mongol rulers in Persia were known as il-khans (“sous” or “under” khans who ruled under a sovereign).
King: During the Middle Ages in Europe, a lord who ruled a large region and under whom ruled subordinate lords who were, in the feudal system, his vassals and owed him fealty. Through this system developed larger political entities, such as the Holy Roman Empire and eventually the nation-states of Europe. See also Feudalism.
King’s peace: A zone of protection around the king, in which conflict was prohibited and violation of which was a felony. When this zone eventually extended to the king’s entire realm, all criminal matters came under his jurisdiction or were delegated to local courts under the king’s peace.
Knight: A warrior with weapons, armor, and a horse who supported the king; an early professional soldier. Initially not part of the nobility, knights evolved with the rise of chivalry to follow an idealized code of conduct that became associated with their profession. The position of knight became hereditary by the fifteenth century, forming the top rank of the gentry class. See also Gentry.
Knights Hospitallers: An order of monks who ministered to the ill during the Crusades.
Knights Templar (or Templars): A religious-military order founded to protect the Holy Land and its pilgrims.
Laity: Unordained (nonclerical) members of the Church.
Lay: A medieval French lyric narrative poem (French lai), mostly brief and relating stories of courtly love. The lays of the late twelfth century poet Marie de France are considered the epitome of the form, which was imitated by the author of Sir Orfeo, by Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Franklin’s Tale,” and by Thomas Chestre in his Sir Launfal.
Leet court: A lower court with a jurisdiction corresponding to that ot the frankpledge, a “leet” (or ward) being the territory occupied by the frankpledge. Hence, a type of local or town court.
Legate: A representative of the pope.
Leodgeld or leudgeld: See Wergeld.
Liberty: See Freedom.
Liege or liege lord: The main lord to whom a knight owed allegiance.
Liturgical drama: The term refers to plays performed as part of the liturgy of the Church during the Middle Ages and therefore is not invoked for authored works. The origin of these plays was in the tropes or interpolations into the Latin text of the liturgy, which was chanted by the clergy. These interpolations were expanded and eventually developed into independent performances in the vernacular. The performances gradually moved out of the church proper and were performed by members of the laity. While the plays ceased to be liturgical, they continued to deal with religious themes, particularly drawn from the Old and New Testaments. See also Liturgy, Miracle play, Morality play, Mystery play, Passion play.
Liturgy: Church services including public prayers, rituals such as Mass, the Divine Office, and the anointing of kings.
Lollard: A follower of the heretical theology of John Wyclif during the fourteenth century, which emphasized lay preaching of scripture to the masses. Literally meaning “mumbler,” the term was later used disparagingly.
Lombards: A “barbarian” tribe that settled in northern Italy and eventually ruled Rome after its fall in 476.
Madrasa: A school for Muslim learning, often but not always attached to a mosque.
Major Orders: The orders of priest, deacon, and subdeacon. See also Minor Orders.
Mamlūk: In Islamic countries, literally, “owned,” meaning a slave. The term gave its name to a series of sultans of Egypt during the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries.
Manichaeanism: A dualistic religion, based on the teachings of a Persian named Mani, in which light (good) and darkness (evil) were seen as opposing forces. Considered heretical by Christians, in Europe “Manichee” was a disparaging term. See also Dualism.
Manor: A small estate, consisting of roughly 1,000 to 2,000 acres, that was largely self-sufficient and generally held by a knight or other lord, with tenants who worked the land; often included its own manorial court, which regulated land tenure, inheritance, marriage practices, and personal relationships.
Manumission: The process whereby a lord freed a serf.
March: A border area. Barons or lords of such areas became known as “marcher lords,” “marquises” (French), or “margraves” (German).
Marriage: A term originally referring to the lands a bride’s family gave her upon wedding. This union was regulated by manorial law, requiring a license for which a fee was charged. See also Dower, Dowery.
Mayor: The head of a borough, similar to a bailiff except that he was elected by the townsmen and not appointed by the lord of the borough.
Mendicants: Friars and orders of friars, who by virtue of abstaining from owning personal property lived on the charity of others by begging, rather than on land endowments. Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites were mendicant orders of friars. See also Friar.
Minor Orders: Any of the four lower orders—porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte—required for entry into one of the Major Orders. See also Major Orders.
Minstrels: Itinerant musicians, jugglers, acrobats, and other entertainers who often traveled in groups, known as Minnesänger in Germany and troubadours or jongleurs in France.
Miracle play: A religious play dramatizing the lives of the saints and divine miracles. (The term “mystery play” is used to designate plays derived from the Scriptures as opposed to those dealing with saints’ lives.) Miracle plays were originally associated with the celebration of saints’ feast days and with religious processions (particularly the Corpus Christi festival) and were performed in Latin as part of the liturgical services. Later, these plays were expanded, performed in the vernacular, and moved into the streets. Trade guilds were often responsible for the performance of a particular play, so that in time a series of performances by various guilds would create a cycle of plays. See also Liturgical drama, Morality play, Mystery play, Passion play.
Missal: A book containing all parts of the Mass.
Moat or motte: A defensive trench around a castle, sometimes filled with water. See also Drawbridge.
Monarchy: See National monarchy.
Monastery: A place where monks or nuns lived a religious life, frequently including a chapter house, where meetings occurred, as well as sleeping quarters and various other facilities depending on the work of the monastery.
Mongols: A group of steppe peoples who rose to power in Central and East Asia during the thirteenth century under Genghis Khan and reached their height during the reign of Kublai Khan (r. 1260-1294).
Monks and nuns: Men and women, respectively, who surrendered worldly possessions to live a life of prayer, study, charitable works, celibacy, healing, and often poverty. See also Mendicants.
Monophysites: Early Christians who denied that Jesus Christ had human attributes and maintained his unitary divine nature, a doctrine deemed heretical by the Orthodox Church.
Moot: In England, a community gathering incorporating aspects of a town hall meeting and a community or family court.
Morality play: During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, a play containing allegorical figures (often virtues and vices) that are typically involved in the struggle over a person’s soul. The anonymously written Everyman (first extant version 1508) is one of the most famous medieval examples of this form. See also Miracle play, Mystery play, Passion play.
Mortmain: Literally, “dead hand.” Land held by the Church in perpetuity. The term lent its name to an English statute of 1279 that forbade the transfer of land to the Church without regard for the existence of prior rights and obligations.
Mufti: A specialist in Islamic law, not a public official but a private scholar who functioned as a consultant. See also Qadi.
Muslim: A follower of Islam.
Mystery play: The term “mystery play” (derived from the French term mystère) is used to designate plays derived from the Scriptures as opposed to those dealing with saints’ lives (mystery plays). Trade guilds were often responsible for the performance of a particular play, so that in time a series of performances by various guilds would create a cycle of plays. Some examples of subjects derived from Scripture include Christ’s Passion, the Fall of Man, and the story of Noah. This form of dramatic entertainment reached its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. See also Miracle play, Morality play, Passion play.
Mysticism: The practice of many religious faiths, including Christianity and Islam, with an emphasis on the nonrational, spiritual, felt rather than intellectual aspect of religious truth as an emotional or transcendent experience.
National monarchy: A form of government that arose in the thirteenth century in Western Europe; a king and his bureaucracy gained effective control over the loyalty and taxes of their subjects, often at the expense of the church; the most successful medieval national monarchies were those of England and France.
Nobility: Landed lords who had responsibilities to the king, and who in return for the use of land (fiefs) exploited the labor of the peasantry (serfs).
Normans: The northern French people who, led by William the Conqueror, in 1066 conquered the Anglo-Saxon population of England.
Novel disseisin: A writ designed to restore property quickly to an owner recently dispossessed of his land illegally.
Nun: See Monks and nuns.
Nunnery: A convent or monastery for women.
Oligarchy: A form of government in which an organized elite, or small group of lords, controls power to its own benefit.
Ordeal: A means of judging the guilt or innocence of a person by trial. Many different types of ordeal existed in the Middle Ages, from the “ordeal by bread and cheese,” in which an outcome of choking indicated guilt, to more dangerous ordeals, which threatened life. Ironically, death as a result of undergoing an ordeal in some cases proved the accused’s innocence.
Orders: See Major Orders, Minor Orders.
Orthodox Church: In the Byzantine Empire and Slavic countries, The form of Christianity that prevailed, headed by the patriarchs of Constantinople.
Ostrogoths: A group of Gothic peoples who eventually settled in northern Italy.
Ottomans: Turkish rulers of the Islamic world who ruled as sultans from roughly 1281 to 1922. Their conquest of the seat of the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, Constantinople, in 1453 marked their ascendant power.
Oyer and terminer: A commission issued to a panel of justices to hear (oyer) and determine (terminer) individual complaints.
Palatinate: A county or principality ruled by a lord whose rights included those of a king, such as the right to coin money or appoint judges. Also, in Germany, the proper name of a principality during the Middle Ages. The term “palatine” referred to the lord of a palatinate or a resident of the (German) Palatinate.
Palfrey: A riding horse.
Palisade: A strong stake-wood fence built for defense.
Parapet: The wall on top of a fortification or at the outside of a wall walk, designed for defense.
Parchment: A very durable material used, like paper, for writing, made from the skins of sheep or other animals.
Pardoner: A person with a license to sell indulgences (pardons).
Parish: Part of a diocese overseen by a priest, whose residents are termed parishioners. See also Diocese.
Parlement: In France, the highest court of appeal, located in Paris near the Palais de Justice. Also, an English variant spelling of “parliament,” generically meaning a congress or meeting for the purpose of discussing and determining public matters.
Parson: A rector, or head of a parish church.
Parsonage: The house occupied by a parson, rector, or vicar, and therefore sometimes called a rectory or vicarage. See also Rector, Vicar.
Passion play: A play that depicted the life, and particularly the events leading to the death or Passion, of Jesus Christ. Passion plays had their origin in the pagan rites of ancient Egypt and the Near East. In Christian Europe, many medieval plays presented episodes from the life of Christ and are referred to as Passion plays. See also Miracle play, Morality play, Mystery play.
Patriarch: A bishop who headed one of the main patriarchates (dioceses): Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, or Jerusalem.
Pauldron: A piece of curved plate armor worn on the rear shoulder.
Paulicians: A Christian sect, considered heretical, that arose in Armenia and eastern Anatolia and suffered at the hands of the Byzantines.
Pavise: A large shield mounted on a hinged frame for use by those, such as archers and crossbowmen, who could not hold a shield in battle.
Pax Dei (Peace or Truce of God): The policy or movement that attempted to protect noncombatants such as women, the clergy, and the poor from injury during war; violations could be punished by excommunication.
Peace of God: See Pax Dei.
Peer: An equal in rank or social status.
Pelagianism: A doctrine, condemned at the Synod of Orange in 529 as heresy, that denied the transmission of Original Sin and emphasized human endeavor as a means to salvation.
Petition: A formal request or complaint.
Pilgrimage: A journey to a holy place, including Mecca for Muslims and Jerusalem for Christians. Canterbury, England’s holy see, was the destination of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.
Pluralism: The holding of more than one beneficiary or church office at a time by a single cleric, easily and commonly abused during the later Middle Ages.
Pole-ax: A weapon built on a shaft about five feet long, with an ax at one end and a spike or hammer head at the other.
Poleyn: Plate armor that protected the kneecap.
Pope: The head of the Roman Catholic Church, also known as the Bishop of Rome. The pope not only was the highest officer of the most influential institution in Europe during the Middle Ages but also exercised a dominant role in political affairs until at least the Reformation.
Priest: A man holding a clerical office below that of bishop and above that of deacon.
Primogeniture: The system of inheritance, common in the Middle Ages, whereby a father’s estate was passed to his eldest son.
Prior or prioress: Respectively, a male or female head of a priory, a type of monastic house of less importance than a monastery or abbey; also, the second-in-command after an abbot or abbess.
Privy-Seal, Office of the: In England, the office which issued statements and correspondence from the king that were less formal than those that bore the Great Seal and went out of Chancery. See also Chancery.
Pronoia: In the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria, and Serbia a grant or benefict, usually land, in exchange for military service, which reverted to the state upon the recipient’s death rather than being handed down to offspring.
Purveyance: The right of a king to require provision of food and other goods in return for payment.
Qadi: A Muslim judge who administered the holy law of Islam. See also Mufti.
Quadrivium: The standard advanced subjects of study during the Middle Ages—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—undertaken after mastery of the trivium. See also Trivium.
Quintain: A training machine consisting of a rotating dummy with shield, suspended on a tether from a pole, on which were mounted horizontal poles that rotated. Knights used the dummy for target practice while avoiding the rotating arms.
Ramadan: The month in which the Qur՚ān was first revealed, therefore holy to Muslims, who abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse from daybreak until nightfall during this month every year.
Rebeck: A three-stringed musical instrument played with a bow, a predecessor of the fiddle.
Rector: A cleric who is the head of a rectory.
Rectory: A type of parish.
Reeve: A manorial overseer, either appointed or elected, who was responsible for the collection of dues and rents owed by peasants to the king.
Refectory: A hall where monks took their meals together.
Regalia: Royal rights.
Regular clergy: Monks, canons, friars, and other clergy who lived in communities under a rule, as opposed to secular clergy, who worked in the world.
Relic: An object—such as a piece of clothing, a bone, a book, or another personal item—venerated by the faithful for its close association with Jesus or a saint.
Rents: Yearly dues that freeholders paid to hold manorial lands.
Rerebrace: Plate armor for the upper arm.
Reredos: A carved and painted screen behind the altar in a church.
Ridge-and-furrow agriculture: Farming that uses parallel plowed bands of ridges and furrows year after year.
Romance: Originally, a “romance” was any work written in Old French; the medieval romances were prose or verse stories about courtly and chivalric matters, originally sung by troubadours extolling knightly virtues and courtly love (as opposed to epic or heroic exploits). The story often included the knight’s adventures, conflicts in defense of a heroine (women became major and individualized figures in fiction at this time), supernatural beings (dragons, wizards), and sometimes unexplained or magical events. Three subcategories of the medieval romance are the Matter of Britain (including tales of King Arthur and his knights), the Matter of France (Charlemagne), and the Matter of Rome (based on ancient history). See also Arthurian romance.
Romanesque: A style of European architecture typical from the tenth to the late twelfth century on the Continent and in Norman England.
Romania: Not the modern southeast European state but rather the post-fifth century Roman Empire from Byzantine times until the mid-fifteenth century, which expanded and contracted based on Islamic and other incursions.
Rūm: Arabic for Rome, which connoted Europe, the Islamic term for the Byzantine Empire, sometimes including European Christians. After the Seljuk Turks invaded Anatolia, the term still was used for the former Byzantine territories, as in Seljuk Rūm.
Sabaton: Plate armor for the foot.
Sacraments: The sacred acts that conferred grace, of which there were in medieval times seven, including celebration of the Mass.
Saga: Originally applied to medieval Icelandic and other Scandinavian stories of heroic exploits and handed down by oral tradition. The term has come to signify any tale of heroic achievement or great adventure.
Salat: The rituals attending the performance of Islamic prayers, the calls to which were made by a muezzin from a minaret or tower near the mosque.
Sallet: A type of helmet worn in the fifteenth century.
Saltpetre: The explosive compound potassium nitrate, used to make gunpowder.
Sanctuary, right of: The right of a fugitive from justice to take refuge in a church for some days or weeks before being forced to flee.
Saxons: A Germanic people who infiltrated and settled in England during the fifth century and assimilated with local tribes to form the Anglo-Saxons. See also Angles, Jutes.
Sayyid: An Arabian and later Sufi lord or master.
Scale armor: Armor made of small plates of horn or metal, attached to a cloth or leather coat.
Sceat (pl. sceattas): A Saxon silver coin of the late seventh, eighth, and early ninth centuries.
Schism: A formal split in church hierarchy resulting from a procedural disagreement, which during the Middle Ages resulted in the creation of the Greek Orthodox Church (1054) and the Great Schism (1378-1414) or division between those who followed the pope in Rome and those who followed the pope in Avignon.
Scholasticism: Also called Schoolmen, the Scholastics were those philosophers and theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who wished to bring the thought of classical philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato into alignment with Christian doctrine. Famous Scholastics include Peter Abelard, Saint Albertus Magnus, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and John Duns Scotus.
Scutage: Payment to the king in lieu of personal, usually military, service.
Secular clergy: As opposed to regular clergy, clerics who lived in the world rather than in a monastery under rule. See also Regular clergy.
Selion: A strip of arable land in an open field.
Seneschal: The manager or steward of a household or estate, or the chief officer of a lord.
Serf: A peasant, only partly free, bound to work his lord’s land and who must pay a fee or service (corvée) to work that portion of the land that supplies his own livelihood. Serfs included cottagers, smallholders, and villeins. In general, this was the lowest rung of society, working about half the week for the lord and generally bound for life to the soil. See also Bordar, Corvée, Cottager, Feudalism, Villein.
Seven Deadly Sins: The mortal sins recognized by Christians throughout the Middle Ages and later, varying slightly among sources but primarily Pride, Anger, Envy, Covetousness, Gluttony, Lechery (lust), and Sloth (laziness), capitalized here because they were often portrayed allegorically in medieval morality plays as characters.
Seven liberal arts: The subjects that made up the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), the mastery of which was considered necessary for a solid education during the Middle Ages.
Seven Moral Virtues: Seven Christian virtues recognized throughout the Middle Ages and later, varying slightly among sources but primarily Charity, Abstinence, Chastity, Industry, Generosity, Meekness, and Patience, capitalized here because they were often portrayed allegorically in medieval morality plays as characters.
Shambles: An area of a town where butchers dumped offal and other waste products for consumption by dogs and scavengers. Often near a river, the remains generally drained into the town’s water supply.
Shariՙa: Islamic holy law.
Shaykh or sheikh: Arabic for “elder,” referring to a tribal and generally any leader.
Sheriff: The head of a shire, who oversaw both administrative and judicial functions. From the combined terms “shire” and “reeve.” See also Reeve.
Shields: See Buckler, Pavise, Targe.
Shīՙites: A faction of Islam that rivals Sunni or orthodox Islam, founded between 657 and 661 by the fourth caliph, ՙAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, in reaction to fears that Muslims were straying from the original precepts of the Prophet. See also Sunni.
Shire: In England, the generic name for a county, headed by a sheriff (shire reeve).
Shogun: A military dictator in Japan from the late twelfth through the late nineteenth century.
Sicilian school: A group of twelfth and thirteenth century Italian poets (not all from Sicily) who created vernacular love poetry and invented canzones and sonnets. They included Giacomo da Lentini, Guido delle Colonne, Giacomino Pugliese, and Rinaldo d’Aquino. The impact of their poetry—both in form and in theme—would be felt into the seventeenth century in poets such as William Shakespeare.
Siege: An attack on a town or fortification that generally lasted days, weeks, months, or even years, using tactics to wear down the enemy within the fortification by means of repeated assaults or cutting off the enemy from supplies (starvation).
Simony: The buying and selling of church offices or sacraments, widely abused.
Sipahi or spahi: An Ottoman cavalryman who received a grant called a timar.
Sollerets: Armor for the feet.
Sottie: A form of medieval French farce that presented political, religious, or social satire.
Spaudler: Curved plate armor the shoulder, devised in layers to enable movement.
Squire: An assistant to a knight who might also be in training to become a knight.
Subinfeudation: The process of creating subordinate tenancies out of one landholding, which made it possible for a lord’s vassal to develop his own vassals.
Suevi: A barbarian tribe that eventually settled in northern Spain during the fifth century; eventually they were overcome by the Visigoths.
Suffragans: Bishops ordained to conduct services such as ordinations and confirmations but who did not have the power of the bishop over an entire diocese.
Sultan: Beginning in the eleventh century, any political and military ruler of an Islamic state or emirate (as opposed to the caliph, the religious authority of the Islamic state). Used for Ottoman rulers.
Sunnis: Muslims belonging to the dominant or orthodox Islamic majority, thought to have originated in the Prophet Muḥammad’s practice of Islam. See also Shīՙites.
Surcoat: A long garment worn over armor.
Suzerain: Any feudal lord, including the king.
Synod: A meeting or council of church officials.
Tabard: A loose garment, short, open at the side, with side sleeves, and worn by some knights.
Taille: Any tax levied by the king or other lord, often a property tax.
Tallage: Any of a variety of taxes levied on boroughs, towns, tenants of royal estates, generally of an arbitrary, direct, or occasional nature.
Talmud: The rabbinic writings that together form Judaic law.
Tansy: A bitter medicinal herb and the cakes baked using it, consumed often after Lent to purify the body.
Targe: A shield for an infantryman, either round or oval. See also Buckler, Pavise.
Tenure: An interest or a right in land stemming from a lord and often in exchange for military or other service.
Teutonic Knights: A German military order, based in Prussia, Hungary, and Germany, that brought the Baltic region under Catholic control and launched a series of military crusades against peoples who resisted conversion and assimilation.
Thane: See Thegn.
Thegn or thane: Especially in Anglo-Saxon England before 1066, a military retainer of the king or land-holding member of the nobility.
Three Orders: See Estates
Tithe: One-tenth of a person’s income or produce, manditorily given to support the Church or local clergy.
Tonsure: The shaving of the head, the rite attendant upon entering the clergy. The ceremony was also generally applied to giving up one’s life to holy service.
Tourney: A staged combat between knights for show, which sometimes got out of hand. In 1270, the Statute of Arms attempted to regulate the conduct of tourneys.
Trailbaston: In the fourteenth century, special judicial power granted to put down hoodlums or allow broad license to investigate crimes and corruption in a particular area.
Trebuchet: A large weapon or war machine designed to catapult projectile boulders into walls and battlements during siege warfare.
Trivium: Grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics (logic), the fundamental subjects of study during the Middle Ages. See also Quadrivium.
Troubadour: From the eleventh to thirteenth centuries in Provence, Catalonia, and northern Italy, lyric poet-singers who wrote and performed metrically intricate works about courtly love and chivalry. They were very popular, and many became famous. Today they are known chiefly for their role in propagating a concept of love and honor that significantly influence later attitudes toward love and marriage.
Truce of God: See Pax Dei.
Tsar: See Czar.
ՙUlama: An Islamic scholar, specifically in religious subjects. Also, the class of professional religious scholars nearest to the Muslim clergy.
Ultimogeniture: Inheritance by the youngest son. See also Primogeniture.
Usury: Interest charged on a loan, particularly very high interest. The practice was prohibited to Christians, leaving Jews and others exempt from this restriction and opening opportunities for financial services to be offered by those groups.
Vambrace: Plate armor for the forearm.
Vandals: A Germanic tribe that migrated west across southern Europe and settled in northern Africa.
Vassal: A freeman who swears fealty to a lord, pays him homage, and holds land from him, for which he owes military and other services.
Vaulting: An architectural term for the stone arches in a ceiling or roof.
Vicar: A substitute for the parish priest, often distrusted in the Middle Ages as corrupt.
Vices: Faults of character; also, in the allegorical English morality plays, Vice and personifications of particular vices typically appeared as stock characters. See also Seven Deadly Sins.
Villefranche: A town with a charter of franchise. See also Villeneuve.
Villein: The wealthiest class of peasant, who had rights to cultivate several dozen acres of land, although not necessarily located in the same plots. See also Bordar, Cottager, Freeman, Serf.
Villeneuve: A new town established by a franchise. See also Villefranche.
Virtues: See Cardinal virtues, Seven Moral Virtues.
Visigoths: The Germanic tribe that inflicted the earliest damage on Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries; eventually settled in Spain, defeating the Suevi by the late sixth century.
Vows: Promises made by monks and nuns to God, dedicating their lives to Christ. Common vows included vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and silence.
Waldensians: Followers of Peter Waldo, a twelfth century advocate of the apostolic life and a return to the simple type of Christianity reflected in the Gospels, unencumbered with ecclesiastical organization or hierarchical structure. Considered early Protestants, the Waldensians were excommunicated c. 1175.
Ward: A courtyard or bailey. See also Bailey, Keep.
Wattle and daub: A type of construction in which wooden timbers or laths form a frame, between which a mixture of wattles (straw) and daub (mud clay) would be applied as a filling, and sealed over by daub.
Wergeld or wergild: In Anglo-Saxon England, a “blood-price,” or fine paid for killing a man. The fine varied by the rank of the homicide, and all men had a blood-price.
White Friars or Monks: See Carmelites, Cistercians.
Witan or witenagemot: A council composed of nobles and ecclesiastics which advised the Anglo-Saxon Kings of England. By custom it also “elected” or ratified the successor to the throne. Resembles the commune concilium.
Wormwood: A bitter-tasting plant with white or yellow flowers used as an herb to aid digestion.
Writ: Any letter stating an official command, mandate, or order, usually issued by the king, a lord, or other high official. Writs “patent” were for public, for all to read, and “closed” writs were directed privately to individuals.
Yale: An image of a fantastic animal, often combining parts of several different animals, appearing on heralds and coats of arms.
Zanj or zanji: Used by Arab marine traders to refer to “the land of black people.” The people of East Africa. Used loosely to refer to black people in general.