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Middle Ages Words: A Vocabulary

Middle Ages Words: A Vocabulary

The Middle Ages was a period in European history that started after the fall of Roman civilization in 476 CE. For about 1000 years, many violent revolts ensued for economic and territorial reasons. The Middle Ages is also known for its rapid urban and demographic expansion and the restructuring of religious and secular institutions.

Some words from the Middle Ages are still in our vocabulary today. However, terms like fiefdom, Reconquista, and troubadours rarely slip into daily conversation nowadays. Simony was a form of religious corruption, and the Goths were a Germanic tribe. And a keep? That was the safest part of a castle.

If you’re looking to polish your Medieval vernacular (more fancy Middle Age vocabulary), you’ve come to the right place. Let’s look at some interesting terms, people, places, and activities that made the Middle Ages so interesting. 

A Vocabulary List Of The Middle Ages

Creating a comprehensive list of Middle Age vocabulary would be quite an undertaking. The people, armies, and churches involved in the historical events came from all over Europe and spoke different languages. However, we’ll look at some of the most common words and terms related to the Middle Ages next.


An apprentice was an unpaid teenage boy trained by a master in a particular craft or trade. Crafts included masonry, weaving, woodwork, and shoe-making. 


Avignon, a city in France, was where the church was held captive. It was the home of popes for 67 years. 

Battle Of Crécy

The Battle of Crécy was the second major battle during the Hundred Years War. It took place near the village of Crécy in northern France in 1346. A French army led by King Philip IV attempted an attack on the English army led by King Edward III.

However, King Edward III instructed his knights to dismount their horses and form a shield around their archers, positioned in a V-formation. The French crossbowmen retreated and were slaughtered by their knights. The English army defeated the French army during the Battle of Crécy.

Battle Of Legnano

The Battle of Legnano occurred on 29 May 1176 in Northern Italy. The Lombard League, led by Pope Alexander III, was a unified force that defeated the knights of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa of Germany.

Bubonic Plague

The bubonic plague was alternatively known as the Black Death. It was a lethal disease that killed a third of the European population. The disease caused sufferers to get putrid-smelling rashes and flu-like symptoms.

The nursery rhyme Ring Around the Rosie stems from when the Bubonic Plague went through London in 1665. In the nursery rhyme, roses symbolize the rash of the sufferers, and posies were meant to fend off the smell of rotting flesh. “A-tishoo” is synonymous with sneezing, and “we all fall down” symbolizes death.


The term Burgher refers to a social class of town dwellers. Usually, citizens who were burghers owned a piece of land in the town and could be selected as city officials due to their status. Additionally, burghers had a unique legal and economic status that set them apart from others.

Canon Law

Canon Laws were laws pertaining to the church body. Canon laws applied to the behavior of the clergy, religious teachings, morals, and marriages of those in the church.


Canossa is a mountainous area in northern Italy. Here, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV waited for three days for his excommunication to be revoked by Pope Gregory VII. During his time of waiting, Henry VI stood in icy cold conditions barefoot and dressed as a pilgrim.

Carolingian Dynasty

The Carolingian Dynasty was a series of Frankish (German) rulers. The Frankish aristocrats of the Carolingian Dynasty ruled western Europe from 750 to 887 CE.


Castles of the Middle Ages were designed to be defensive fortifications. Kings and lords lived in castles; however, local people would flee to their king or lord’s castle if attacked.


Cathedrals were large and expensive churches. The purpose of cathedrals was to remind people of the church’s teachings and heaven. 


Chivalry refers to the code of behavior and expected attributes of knights. These attributes include bravery, courage, honor, kindness, and loyalty. Also, knights would perform heroic deeds to win a princess’s or worthy woman’s affection.


Clergies are the ordained officials or religious workers of a church. They include ministers, priests, and rabbis. 

Concordat Of Worms

The Concordat of Worms was signed on 23 September 1122 in the city of Worms in Germany. It was an agreement between the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic church set to regulate the procedure of appointing religious officers, i.e., bishops.


A convent is a community where female religious workers (nuns) reside. 


Crusades were the “Holy Wars” between the Catholic church and Muslims. The Catholic church initiated military expeditions against Muslims to gain control over the “Holy Lands” where Jesus lived, specifically Jerusalem (now Israel). These military expeditions took place from 1095 to 1272 CE.

Dominican Order

The Dominicans were members of the Roman Catholic religious order – founded by the Spanish priest Dominic. Pope Honorius III recognized the order in 1216. The Dominican Order emphasized being a scholar of sacred texts and preaching against heresy. As such, many theologians and philosophers emerged during this time. 


An excommunicated person was not allowed to partake in the sacraments of the Catholic church. These people were told they would go to hell due to their excommunication.


Feudalism was a European governmental system of hierarchy in the Middle Ages where royalty had the most power and peasants had the least. The social order of feudalism was kings and lords at the top, followed by nobles, knights, and peasants.


A fief was a portion of land granted to a vassal in return for his steadfast support and service. The vassal was allowed to manage and rule his fief.


Franks were Germanic people and tribes who settled and held power in Gaul. They were led by Clovis, who later brought Christianity to the region.


Gaul was a region that was part of France, Belgium, and Germany. The Asterix comics later popularized it. 


Gothic refers to an architectural style named after the Germanic Tribe called Goths. The style developed in northern France and then spread to the rest of Europe between the 12th and 16th centuries.

Characteristics of Gothic architecture are sculptures, stained glass, pointed arches, and ornate vaulted ceilings. The most famous example of Gothic architecture is Notre Dame in France.

Great Schism

A schism is a split. The Great Schism occurred when two Catholic Popes – one from Rome in Italy and the other from Avignon in France disagreed on matters of the church. As a result, many followers questioned the authority of the church.


A guild was a union of people with the same trade or craft, all residing in the same village, town, or district. Examples of such tradespeople include shoemakers, weavers, bakers, and masons.


Heretics were people who opposed the beliefs and established teachings of a church. Sometimes, the church burned those who committed heresy at the stake.

Holy Land

The Holy Land was where Jesus lived and was also known as Palestine. It is still considered holy to Muslim, Christian, and Jewish people.

Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire was well established by the 10th century CE. It originally consisted of a patchwork of lands throughout Italy and Germany.

Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War lasted from 1337 to 1453. The war resulted from a series of campaigns between France and England to gain control over the French royal throne. 


An inquisition was a process where the Catholic church tried to eliminate heretics, i.e., Muslims and Jews. The longest inquisition was the Spanish Inquisition which lasted more than 200 years. 

Not only was the Spanish Inquisition an attempt to unite Spain, but it was also meant to preserve Catholic Orthodoxy. As a result, about 32,00 heretics were executed during the Spanish Inquisition.


Jerusalem is a holy city for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It is the capital city of what is now Israel.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl, victoriously led the French army in a battle against the English.


A keep was the most fortified portion of a castle. It usually took the form of a large, single tower or bigger fortified building. The keep was the last resort in an attack or siege, where survivors could hide and defend themselves.


A knight was a heavily armored horseman who would fight for his king and protect him. A king would reward his knights with land. 

Lay Investiture

Lay investiture was a way for kings to control the church. Secular kings and other nobles could appoint church officials (bishops and abbots) and grant possessions, titles, and temporal rights through lay investiture.

Lombard League

The Lombard League was an alliance of Pope Alexander III and Italian merchants against Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The Lombard League defeated Frederick I at the Battle of Legnano in 1176.


Lords were men of high status or rank in the Middle Ages. They owned land (fiefs) in return for their loyalty to their king.

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was a list of political rights drawn up by English nobles, limiting the king’s power. King John signed the Magna Carta, relenting some of his monarchal powers. 


A manor was a large piece of land (fief) like a small village. Lords or knights owned manors.


Medieval is a Latin word for Middle Ages. Therefore, you can use the terms interchangeably. 


A monarch is a single, overarching head of state. A monarch can be a king, a queen, or an emperor.


A monastery, or Abby, is a religious area or community where monks live. Many monasteries were built all over Europe during the Middle Ages. They were places where monks could isolate themselves from secular influences and focus on purity and worshiping God.


Monks were religious men who lived in monasteries. They devoted their time to worshiping God, work, prayer, and meditation.


Moors, or Spanish Moors, were a nation of Muslims originally from Africa.


Islamic place of worship.


Muhammad was the founder of Islam, the Muslim religion.


Nuns are female religious workers for the Catholic church.


Orleans was where Joan of Arc defeated the English in the Hundred Years’ War.


A parliament was a group of people elected to be advisors to the kings of England. The parliamentary members would advise on matters of governance in the country.


The Reconquista was the prolonged season of wars between Christian nations against the Spanish Moors. During this time, Christians drove the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain), which the church reclaimed. 


Relics are the remains of famous Christians. Some believed that relics held magical or spiritual powers.


Sacraments were sacred rituals performed in the Roman Catholic church. The seven sacraments include baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination.


Secular refers to worldly or political matters instead of religious or spiritual matters.


A serf was a peasant farmer who worked the lands of a noble. Serfs did not own any land; instead, they worked long and arduous hours and had few rights. 


Simony was the illegal practice of buying or selling spiritual items or positions in the church.

Three Field System

This agricultural system allowed for an increase in food production during the Middle Ages. Only two-thirds of the land was worked at a time, while another third remained fallow for a season.


Tithes were a form of “church tax” where everyone from nobles to peasants paid a tenth of their income to the church as support. The payment could be in the form of money, produce, crops, or animals, and was kept in the church’s tithing barns. 


A tournament was a form of entertainment for onlookers where knights competed in a series of jousting contests to win a prize. 


A troubadour was a traveling performer (musician or poet) who would sing songs about courting (dating) and the chivalrous deeds of the knights.


A vassal was a knight who promised his support and loyalty to a lord. In exchange, the vassal would receive land from the lord.


Vernacular pertains to the everyday language particular to a nation. For example, poets in the Middle Ages sometimes wrote in the vernacular, but strict scholars wrote only in Latin.


Vikings were Scandinavian warriors who attacked and plundered northern European towns and monasteries during the Middle Ages.


The vocabulary of the Middle Ages is extensive and fascinating. Some Middle Age vocabulary is still used today, but many words have faded due to lack of use. Despite the words that have fallen away, many of these battles continue to pervade our current lives. It is interesting to see how things appear to change but still stay the same.