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France in the Middle Ages

France in the Middle Ages

Are you wondering what France was like in the Middle Ages? Although many people know French history well, starting with the French Revolution, there are more interesting parts of French history that changed society as we know it. So, what was happening in France during the Middle Ages?

Life in the Middle Ages in France wasn’t easy. The 100 years war meant that the country was divided, and the life expectancy was short. The feudal system led to over-taxation, and the bubonic plague killed thousands of Frenchmen. The Great Schism also divided the people, and revolts were common. 

Many things in France in the Middle Ages changed how we view society, war, and disease today. I will take you through all the significant events to help you understand what life was like in France during the Middle Ages. I’ll also discuss how the social classes worked during this time

What Was France Like In The Middle Ages?

A lot was going on in France and Europe during the Middle Ages. People were fighting for land and power. Many conflicts arose between France and England as each political power tried to gain control over the larger area we now know as France. 

France was also in conflict with the Roman Catholic church, as the French monarchy wanted a French pope subject to the king’s rules. At the same time, the Roman Catholics claimed that the church was above the king. 

The Bubonic plague also appeared during the Middle Ages and France, like the rest of Europe, suffered tremendous loss of life to the disease. The Middle Ages Also saw the decline of the feudal system in France, which had been the standing order for decades before. 

In a sense, the Middle Ages set the stage for France as we know it today. The Middle Ages changed almost every sector of the French way of life. To understand how these changes came about, we must consider what significant events occurred in France during the Middle Ages. 

Then, we must also consider how the social classes worked before the Middle Ages and how they changed during this period. In a sense, you can say that the Middle Ages probably brought about some of the first revolutions in France. Although they weren’t as prominent or radical as those that came later. 

But before we can discuss what happened in France during the Middle Ages, we must first establish when the Middle Ages were. When we speak about the Middle Ages, we typically refer to the period between the 9th and 15th centuries [2]. 

Most of the events discussed regarding France in the Middle Ages took place between the 11th and 13th centuries, right in the heart of the Middle Ages. So, let’s consider some of the most significant events that took place in France during the Middle Ages to better understand what life was like at this time. 

Major Events In France In The Middle Ages

Since the Middle Ages stretched over such an extended period, it’s difficult to discuss every event during this time. However, three significant events changed the lives of the French forever. 

These events brought about significant changes in France’s church, politics, and social classes, which is why we must discuss them. The three major events I’m referring to are:

  • The bubonic plague
  • The 100 years’ war
  • The great schism

These events affected everyone in France at the time and brought about many changes in society. Let’s consider each of these events in more detail so you can see how they affected life in France during the Middle Ages. 

1. Black Death (Bubonic Plague)

The first bubonic plague took place in the Middle Ages. Also called the black death, the bubonic plague originated somewhere in Asia. It was transported to Europe via rats, mice, and fleas stowed away on ships and horse carts. 

The bubonic plague first entered France through Marseilles in 1347 [5]. Unfortunately, long-distance communication was not yet established, and there was no way to inform the rest of France about the plague brought on the ships. 

The plague first hit the port cities and then moved inland. While much of Europe was severely affected by the bubonic plague, France was one of the worst places hit by the black death. Thousands of people died, and scientists now estimate that nearly half of Europe’s population died within a few years from this disease [6]. 

Unlike many other pandemics, the bubonic plague affected people from all social classes equally, as the hygiene and understanding of contagions were poorly understood at the time. So, after the bubonic plague finally passed, France’s population significantly decreased. 

2. The 100 Years’ War

Another major event that took place in France in the Middle Ages was the 100 years’ war. As I mentioned earlier, France and England constantly battled for territory and power in the Middle Ages. Much of what is known today as France belonged to the English throne at the time. 

The 100 years’ war was fought between 1337 and 1453 [3]. The war started when King Edward III attacked France to take back land “stolen” from the English throne. France was a greatly divided country at the time, with many dukes claiming to have nearly as much power as the king himself. 

These dukes assembled their armies (mainly consisting of peasants and farmers on their land) to fight the invading English armies. Several notable battles were fought during the 100 years’ war, including the battle of Agincourt, the battle of Sluys, and the battle of Poitiers. 

Considering that war took the lives of many, the French population further decreased, as those who survived the bubonic plague were forced to fight in these wars. 

3. The Great Schism

Yet another significant event that took place during the Middle Ages in France was the Great Schism. The Great Schism occurred between 1378 and 1417 and involved Europe and the entire Christian and Roman Catholic community [1]. 

The Great Schism was when there were two (or supposedly three at one time) official popes selected as heads of the Catholic church. 

France decided to challenge the pope appointed in Rome, as they felt that this pope was placed in the position unjustly. Instead, the French king at the time, King Charles VII, decided to nominate a French pope. This idea did not go over well with the rest of Europe, as they felt the king had too much power over the pope.

There was a general power struggle between the Kings of Europe and the church at this time [6]. The kings felt they were the supreme powers and could tax the church to empower the kingdom. But, of course, the church thought they were above the king and should not be subjected to taxation. 

The Catholic church had already lost face before this time, as their reaction to the bubonic plague shocked and disappointed many. Eventually, a single pope was elected, and order was restored to some extent. 

These three significant events affected all of Europe, but they especially affected the French. What followed from these events was a shift in the social classes in France, which is what we will discuss next. 

Social Classes In France In The Middle Ages

An interesting shift occurred in France in the Middle Ages between the social classes. France saw the decline of the feudal system at this time. The feudal system was where a duke or rich landowner essentially owned everyone living on his property. 

He also taxed his servants and could order them to battle. The duke also saw himself as a kind of equal to the king and often placed his wants above that of the king. Towards the Middle Ages’ end, the number of dukes had decreased significantly, and they were appointed by the king. They were the king’s servants but still owned land and taxed their subjects. 

A few reasons brought about this change of heart during the Middle Ages. The most significant factor was the declining population. Because of the war and bubonic plague, far fewer people were left in France. This meant that peasants, farmers, and laborers were suddenly in much higher demand. 

They demanded that the dukes grant them the freedom to own land and work wherever they wanted, as they knew their services and skill were much more valuable after the plague. As a result, artisans and laborers started revolting in cities, demanding better pay and work environments [6]. 

While the true fall of feudalism only happened much later, during the French revolution, the events of the Middle Ages may have set that precedent. The peasants were more valuable than the dukes for the first time, and they knew it. 

As you can see, the Middle Ages brought about many hardships and changes in France. I don’t know if I’d say that people were better off after the Middle Ages than before, but they started to realize their worth in society. 

Regardless, life was hard in France during the Middle Ages; the average life expectancy was only 45, and half of all children died before the age of 10 [4]. So, life in the Middle Ages in France was no laughing matter. If the plague didn’t get you, war just might have. 


France saw many historical events in the Middle Ages. The bubonic plague, the 100 years’ war, and the Great Schism changed people’s lives and thoughts. Peasants began fighting for freedom after the plague, and they realized that they were in greater demand than before. 



Headering courtesy: Horace Vernet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons