The Middle Ages in Europe

Authors: Sara Patricia Chavarria and Catharine Niuzzo Honaman

Time: 4 days
Photocopy Handouts 1-3 (a class set only)
Photocopy Handout 4 (for each student)
Print Overhead 1
Materials: Overhead 1 – Hierarchy of the Middle Ages
Handout 1 – Readings on life in the Middle Ages
Handout 2 – Readings on life in the Middle Ages
Handout 3 – Readings on life in the Middle Ages
Handout 4 – Matrix
Teacher Aide 1– Feudal Society
A transparency map on the overhead depicting western Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East
Computer Room


In this Explore/Explain lesson, students will investigate what life was like during the Middle Ages in Europe for the Nobles, Merchants, and Serfs. In doing so they will understand the economic and political feudal system as well as how these people lived, what conditions of their lifestyle made them particularly susceptible to disease, and the role of trade in the spread of one specific contagion, the Plague. By the end of the lesson, the students will make a more concrete connection between the Plague and the conditions that made its’ epidemic proportions during the 14th century possible.

Students will be able to:

i. Research the Middle Ages and fill in a matrix of relevant information to document their research.
ii. Write an exploratory essay showing the relationship between the occurrence of the Black Plague during the Middle Ages using all of their compiled research materials.

National Council for History in the Schools:

Historical Thinking Standards

  • Standard 3E: Analyze cause-and-effect relationships and multiple causations, including the importance of the individual, the influence of ideas, and the role of chance.
  • Standard 4B: Obtain historical data.
  • Standard 4C: Interrogate historical data.
  • Standard 4D: Identify the gaps in the available records, marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place, and construct a sound historical interpretation.

World History Standards

  • Era 4 Standard 4B: The student understands the coalescence of political and social order in Europe.
  • Era 5 Standard 2A: The student understands feudalism and the growth of centralized monarchies and city-states in Europe.

Teacher Background
Read Handouts 1-3: Readings on life in the Middle Ages, Handout 4: the matrix about living conditions for the different segments of society and the Teacher Aid 1 about Feudal society in order to gain a basic understanding of this time period.

Related and Resource Websites
Handout 1: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1986/3/86.03.03.x.html#f
Handout 2: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/middleages/peasant.html
Handout 3: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/history/middleages/merchant.html



Day 1:

1. Ask the students to quickly jot down what they think life in the Middle Ages was like. How did men and women interact? What did daily life entail? What were people’s main concerns? Then have the students write down what they think their sources of information about the Middle Ages have come from? For example, have they learned about the Middle Ages from certain books, movies, and/or television shows?

2. After the students have had a few minutes to reflect and write down their ideas, hold a class discussion in which they share their impressions of typical life in the Middle Ages. Most probably, many overly romanticized images of dainty damsels and chivalrous knights will be brought up as the norm for life back then. From where have the students received their strongest impressions of medieval life? Historical fiction and overly idealized movies are often the source of their information. We tend to take our reality and dress it up in medieval clothes for the movies, forgetting about just how harsh life really was back then. Hopefully, some of the students will remember what they learned about the difficulties of life in the Middle Ages from their social studies classes in middle school. In the class discussion contrast the factual information that students bring up with the fanciful contrivances of Hollywood and romance novelists.

3. Life in the Middle Ages was terribly difficult. Most people struggled to survive on a daily basis, living in a rather rigid political/social system that was based on feudalism. To make sure that all the students are starting on the same page have them define the following terms using their textbooks. (Allow 10 – 15 minutes.)

- Middle Ages
- Feudal system
- vassals
- manor/manoralism
- serfs
- towns

4. After students have found these definitions, use an overhead to write down all the correct definitions and important ideas related to each term. (Use the Teacher Aid 1 to fully address the different terms.) Emphasize the strict divisions in the social order and how the absence of independent action or personal choice in feudalism controlled people’s lives. We have a very fluid society today, especially in the United States, and when studying the Middle Ages in Europe, we must always remember that life was conducted under a completely different set of values, rules, and conditions.

Day 2:

5. So what were these completely different set of values, rules, and conditions under which people in the medieval world lived? Society was generally divided up into clergy, nobility, peasants, and the newly emerging merchant class. We will not go into the life of the clergy in this lesson except to emphasize that religion had an overarching impact on all aspects of daily life, most prominently in creating the model of loyalty and subservience to one’s superiors. Even the king was subservient to God and loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. No one could do as he or she pleased. Obligation informed all aspects of life.

6. Yet there were many differences in the lives of the nobility, the peasants/serfs, and the merchants. Today will be spent doing research in the library to find out what the conditions of daily life were.

7. Take the students to the library or have the librarian bring a set of books on the Middle Ages to the room.

8. Have students work in groups of three. Each group will receive a set of readings to peruse. (Handouts 1-3). Students will read their materials and fill in Handout 4. 9. Each student will receive a copy of Handout 4. They should also use their textbooks to accomplish the task. If the textbook and readings are not enough, encourage them to look for books and encyclopedias that relate to medieval life while in the library.

Day 3:

1. Students will now explore the movement of trade during the Middle Ages.

2. On the board or overhead write: How did trade items move from place to place? Ask the students to generate ideas about this. Help them to come up with the following modes of transportation: boats (oceans, rivers), caravans (animal drawn carts) and road networks

3. Now ask the students to use their textbooks’ notes from language arts, and the library resources to help them trace the route that any typical commodity of medieval trade would have taken to get from the point of origin to its destination. Have the students work in groups of three and have each group choose a different commodity to describe the methods of transportation. Then have the students share their ideas in a class discussion. During this discussion you will need a transparency map up on the overhead depicting Western Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East so that students can show the class the trade route they are describing and by what means of transportation the goods would have been conveyed on each leg of the journey. (This activity echoes what is being learned in the language arts class this week and students should be able to synthesize ideas and information learned in the Trade Routes unit in language arts with the lesson in today’s class.)

4. Students will take notes during discussion about what was being transported during the Middle Ages, and how it was moved from its point of origin to its destination.

Day 4:

5. Reserve computer room for this day’s work. Having compiled information during the previous three days on the lifestyle of people in the Middle Ages and how goods were transported, have students explain in a two-page essay why they think the Plague hit Europe so hard in the 14th century (1300’s).

6. On an overhead, display the four guiding questions for them to use in writing their essay:

a. What role did trade play in the spread of the Plague? How was the
Plague spread?
b. What role did waste disposal practices play in the spread of the Plague?
c. What role did wealth play in who got the Plague?
d. What role did famine and climate play in spreading the Plague?

End the lesson by posing the following question: Is trade still a harbinger of disease today?

If the essay is not finished in class, students may complete it at home to turn in the next day.

Embedded Assessment

Class note taking, class discussion/participation, the matrix and the questions on the Middle Ages are all valuable gauges of student learning in this lesson. The essay is the most formal piece of work that the students will produce for this lesson and represents their ability to analyze a sophisticated set of conditions and their ability to synthesize information from multiple sources to present a coherent picture of a complex problem.

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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