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Culture in the Middle Ages

Culture in the Middle Ages

Would you like to know what culture was like in the Middle Ages? When you think of culture, you immediately wonder how the people lived and what they did in terms of literature and Art. The Middle Ages aren’t as renowned for culture as other periods, but how did the cultural aspect look in the Middle Ages? 

Culture in the Middle Ages was primarily focused on the Christian faith. Many funds were dedicated to the building of grand churches and cathedrals. Literature and Art also flourished during the Middle Ages, especially in Islamic states, where Philosophical texts were the focus of the time. 

Understanding the importance of the cultural changes during the Middle Ages is essential. This guide shares an insight into the culture of the Middle Ages and how different religions and institutions influenced the culture of this period. 

What Was The Cultural Significance Of The Middle Ages?

When you think about periods of great cultural significance, the Middle Ages rarely come to mind. Instead, you may think about the cultures of the Roman and Greek periods before the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Modern eras after that. 

In fact, the Middle Ages are so named because many historians felt that this period (476 – 1400 CE) was void of any true cultural and historical significance [4]. Instead, they feel that the Middle Ages served as a bridge between the ancient and modern worlds. 

But knowing what culture was like and looking at the cultural artifacts of the time tells us a lot about the people of the time. For example, based on the Middle Ages literature, Art, and architecture, we can see where the people were, what they did, and what their doctrines were. 

Of course, most of the cultural artifacts of the Middle Ages are dedicated to the Christian faith and the Roman Catholic church. This proves that the church was a central figure in the Middle Ages. We can also see evidence of Islamic influence in Europe through the architecture and arts. 

This proves that there was an interaction between European and Middle Eastern cultures. This interaction occurred during the Crusades (1095 – 1500) [4]. So even though the Middle Ages wasn’t a period of great focus on culture like the Renaissance, the culture of this time was crucial for the Renaissance to occur. 

Most of the cultural events in the Middle Ages were focused on and dedicated to the church. Many nobles and wealthy people dedicated time and funds to build grand cathedrals and churches. This was to show their devotion to the Roman Catholic faith and secure their spot in heaven [2]. 

Numerous artifacts left over from the Middle Ages show the incredible detail in which artifacts, like sculptures and chests, were created for the church. Most of the artifacts portrayed images from the Bible. They warned the people what would happen if they strayed off the path the Catholic church led them. 

Most of the music was also dedicated to the church. During the Middle Ages, the chants and melodies sung by monks and servants of the church rose in popularity. Aside from religious music, folk songs became popular throughout Europe, too, especially in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain [2].

The Middle Ages was also a time when nobility and honor were highly regarded. Much of the culture, such as folklore and literature, strengthened the idea of chivalry and bravery [1]. When nobles weren’t away fighting for more land or power, they spent a lot of time learning about the church and upholding the church traditions. 

Many paintings depict lavish balls and gatherings that noblemen and women attended during the Middle Ages. These would be times when they played music and shared stories of their triumphs in battle. It’s likely that many legends were born at these parties, some of which we still hear today. 

Where Did People In The Middle Ages Draw Inspiration From?

The Middle Ages is an interesting period in history. While its importance is often overlooked, you must remember that it was during the Middle Ages that the Black Death plague (1347 – 1352) and the Roman Catholic Crusades (1095 – 1500) occurred [4]. 

These events were critical in laying the path for later eras. For example, the black death largely caused the decline of the Roman Catholic church’s power in Europe, which allowed for a new outlook in the early modern period. 

But where did people in the Middle Ages get their inspiration from? Whether it’s in the clothes they wore, the buildings they built, or the sculptures they created, people in the Middle Ages must have drawn inspiration from somewhere. So let’s consider three places where people in the Middle Ages got their inspiration, as is evident in the period’s remains. 

1. Roman Architecture

Colosseum in Rome, Italy.
Colosseum in Rome, Italy

The period before the Middle Ages was the age of the Roman Empire. Therefore, it’s only natural that people in the Middle Ages got a lot of inspiration from this period, especially in terms of architecture. For example, many of the cathedrals built in the Middle Ages were inspired by Roman architecture [4].

You can see this clearly in the high arches, small windows, and thick walls of many cathedrals built at the time. This was, of course, a popular style of building cathedrals, as it gave homage to Rome and the center of the Roman Catholic faith. 

2. Gothic Architecture

Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.

Another big inspiration for Middle Age architecture comes from the Islamic world [4]. Finally, there are several examples of gothic architecture in cathedrals across Europe. Gothic cathedrals have large, stained glass windows and high pointy arches. 

Gothic architecture is proof that people brought home some of the knowledge they gained while traveling or fighting in the crusades. Merchants and crusader knights brought these architectural styles home and adapted them to the Christian world. 

Therefore, the Middle Ages showed clear signs that people were learning from other cultures, and cultural blending had already started to take form at this time. 

3. Islamic Art

Bibi-Khanym Mosque from the old Silk Road in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Bibi-Khanym Mosque from the old Silk Road in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Another way Europeans in the Middle Ages drew inspiration from the Islamic nations in the Middle East was in the Art and decorations used inside cathedrals. Several Cathedrals across Europe feature elaborate Mosaic displays originally from the Middle East. 

This is yet another example where people in the Middle Ages drew inspiration from new countries or areas they visited. Yet despite drawing so much inspiration from Islamic areas for their Art and architecture, Europe did not accept followers of the Muslim faith. There was no space for another religion in Europe during the first half of the Middle Ages. 

What Did Art In The Middle Ages Look Like?

Illuminated manuscripts housed in the 16th-century Ethiopian Orthodox church of Ura Kidane Mehret, Zege Peninsula, Lake Tana, Ethiopia
Illuminated manuscripts housed in the 16th-century Ethiopian Orthodox church of Ura Kidane Mehret, Zege Peninsula, Lake Tana, Ethiopia
Katie Hunt from St Albans, UK, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to architecture, music, and decorations we’ve already discussed, people in the Middle Ages had other ways of expressing their culture through Art. One of the biggest art forms in the Middle Ages was the creation of illuminated manuscripts [2]. 

Although only a small population of Europeans in the Middle Ages were literate, many enjoyed doing Art. As a result, many nobles took to illuminating (painting) manuscripts with detailed images. In a sense, these illuminated manuscripts were the first illustrated books, as the images often portrayed what the story was about. 

Of course, most of these manuscripts were texts from the Bible or the Christian doctrine, meaning that the pictures often portrayed a Christian message or warning. Another art form that developed during the Middle Ages was the Art of literature [1]. 

6th or 7th century Coptic icon of Jesus and an abbot shares in more homely form the anti-realist style of Byzantine iconic art.
6th or 7th-century Coptic icon of Jesus and an abbot shares in more homely form the anti-realist style of Byzantine iconic art.
Louvre Museum, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During the Middle Ages, literate priests and nobles started writing their stories and teachings, which were adopted and developed by others. The sharing of literature gave historians much better insight into what life was like during the Middle Ages and how these people shared their culture and opinions. 

Literature in the Middle Ages focused on two sections – religion and battles. Most people wrote about how to be pious and enjoy the eternal afterlife in heaven, or they shared their experiences of warfare and battles [2]. 

Poetry also started to take form in this time, and legends and folksongs developed further from the poetry. In a sense, Western literary culture began during the Middle Ages, which is why there are so many texts and manuscripts from this time [2].

Why Is Middle Age Culture Overlooked?

Considering the cultural contributions of people during the Middle Ages to society, you may wonder why the Middle Ages are often overlooked in terms of cultural importance in history. The plainest answer is that the Middle Ages were overshadowed by the earlier Roman and later Renaissance periods. 

The Roman period predated the Middle Ages. This was a time of war and great victory, and the Roman Catholic church originated during this time. The Renaissance period, though technically part of the Middle Ages, brought about a lot of cultural reform. Many of the great artists we still recognize today lived in the Renaissance period.

Therefore, it’s less a problem that the Middle Ages was void of any culture and more that people in the Middle Ages didn’t revolutionize Europe’s cultural footprint in any way. Instead, they borrowed bits from other cultures. They copied it to bring us the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals we know from this time. 

The Middle Ages are far more relevant regarding the areas conquered by the Europeans at this time. At the onset of the Middle Ages, the area now known as Europe was much smaller and more divided. But by the end of the Middle Ages and the onset of the Renaissance, the map of Europe looked very similar to how it does today [4]. 

Even though there were some cultural developments in the Middle Ages, this period is more famous for the groundwork it laid for later periods, like the Renaissance, that brought about great economic changes and cultural developments. 


Culture in the Middle Ages wasn’t as celebrated or essential as in later periods. Literature, music, and architecture saw developments in the Middle Ages, but not on the same scale as in the Renaissance and pre-modern eras. 

From the cultural advancements in the Middle Ages, we can clearly see the interaction between Europeans and Islamic people, as is evident in the architecture and interior decorations of the cathedrals of the time.