Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Not Everyone Lived in Castles During the Middle Ages


The Lesson


Detail from the Calendar page for June, the “Book of Hours” ( Les Tres  Riches Heures du Duc de Berry)

Detail from the Calendar page for June, the “Book of Hours” ( Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry)

Credit: From Web Museum, ParisOriginals in Chantilly Museum, Chantilly, France

Many people think of the Middle Ages as a romantic time when gallant knights rescued lovely damsels in distress and everyone lived in castles. But that's only one small facet of the picture. In this lesson, students will learn about the lifestyle of the wealthy elite and then expand their view of medieval society by exploring the lives of the peasants, craftsmen, and monks.

Guiding Questions

  • What was it like to live in Europe during the Middle Ages? What were the major class divisions, and how did people in each of these groups live?
  • How do paintings and tapestries reflect particular aspects of history and culture?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Compare common perceptions of medieval Europe with the realities of life during that period in history
  • List elements of the daily lives of various classes of people living in medieval Europe
  • Appreciate the possibilities of learning about a society through the study of works of art

Preparation Instructions

The historical era known as the Middle Ages covers nearly a thousand years, stretching from the fall of Rome in the 5th century CE through the Renaissance in the 15th century CE. During much of this time fighting and warfare were rampant, and the castle, defended by armies of fearless knights, stood as a bastion of security. Medieval society was organized into a pyramid of feudal relationships, with the king and his nobles at the top and the hard-working peasants comprising the bulk of the population. Those among the peasants who were particularly talented became specialists, such as blacksmiths, fletchers, and coopers. The Middle Ages is also known as the Age of Faith, since the Catholic Church dominated the lives of rich and poor.

This lesson focuses upon several aspects of the lives of both the upper class of medieval society and the commoners -- clothing, daily occupations, dwellings, and leisure activities. Prepare to teach this lesson by reviewing the activities and accessing the websites. Download and duplicate any online materials you will need. You might wish to bookmark specific web pages so that students can access relevant online materials directly. Select sections to be read aloud by students in Activity 2 from The Little Children's Little Book. This material is written in the English spoken during the 15th century, but when read aloud it is not difficult for students to determine its meaning. Select several passages, beginning with line 9, to read and comment upon with your students. For additional background information about the Middle Ages visit Professor Paul Halsall's course on Medieval Europe available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Ideally, the activities in this lesson should be done by the class as a group under your direction, with one or two students at each computer. You will also need access to a chalkboard or whiteboard and/or an overhead projector.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Priests and Monks

Review the types of medieval people studied in Activities 1 and 2. Then ask the students if they can think of group of people who lived during the Middle Ages who have not yet been mentioned. (As a hint, mention that during the Middle Ages most people in Europe were members of the Roman Catholic Church.) Their responses should include priests, monks, friars, and nuns. Explain that in this activity they will be learning about the priests and monks.

Begin group research of this topic by reading together the text found at Religion available through Learner.Org. Now access Village Priest available through Labyrinth. Select a student to read aloud the words of Brother Alawar. Ask what special role the local church played in the lives of the villagers.

Now read about medieval monks at Monks and Nuns available through Learner.Org's Middle Ages. Explain that the eight daily services (or times for prayer) observed by the monks were the same as those referred to in the Book of Hours. Groups of monks lived together in a monastery, which was also known as an abbey. Read about abbeys by accessing the following websites:

Remind the students of the illuminated images they viewed in Activities 1 and 2. Explain that the very earliest illuminated manuscripts were made by the monks. These were copies of the Bible and other religious writings. They were painstakingly written and illustrated on parchment or vellum (skin of a calf or sheep) in a special room in the abbey known as the scriptorium. Go to Manuscripts available through Labyrinth. At the top of the page is a picture of a monk working on a manuscript at his desk in the scriptorium. Notice the shape of his desk, the tools he is using, and the examples of beautifully bound books lying around him. The covers of the manuscripts were often made of wood and leather; the finest ones were encrusted with jewels and carved pieces of ivory. A fine example of a page from a Bible made in a monastery can be viewed at Cutting from a Bible available through Labyrinth. Explain that the first letter in a new section was often enlarged and elaborately decorated, as is true in this case.

The multiple prayer services took place in the church at the abbey, although those monks who were out in the fields simply kneeled and prayed where they were. The words to the prayers were often chanted. To hear an example of a Gregorian chant, access Gregorian Chants available through Labyrinth and click "chants" in second paragraph.


Discuss with the students what they have learned about the monks. Conclude this activity by instructing each student to write a paragraph or two in the first person about a typical day in the life of a monk. They should select names for themselves, ideally those from the Bible (i.e., Brother Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc.) and decide what special tasks he might have been given (i.e., ringing the bells for service, raising honeybees, leading/conducting the chants, bottling and serving the wine, writing or illustrating manuscripts, working in the fields, and so forth.). Girls have the option of pretending to be a monk or a nun. (The lives of the nuns were very similar to those of the brothers.) Use the form available in .pdf format.

Activity 2. Meet the Commoners

After reviewing the topics covered in Activity 1, explain that the wealthy people studied thus far represented only a very small fraction of medieval society. Ask what other types of people lived during the Middle Ages. Who planted and harvested the crops? Who made the tools and weapons? Explain that the peasants and craftsmen comprised the group known as the commoners or common people. They will be the focus of this activity. Begin the group research by reading the second section (Peasant Life) in Feudal Life available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Learner.Org.


You can get a good idea of how the peasants spent their time by viewing the following images from the Book of Hours discussed earlier:

Call upon students to describe the activities in each scene. They should also note the way the peasants are dressed. Compare the peasant attire to that of the nobles. Which seems more comfortable?

The homes of the commoners were small but far from cozy. Read about them by accessing Homes available through Learner.Org and Views of Peasant Houses available through Labyrinth. Point out the various objects in the house depicted at the second site. Ask the students how they would feel about sharing a bedroom with the family cow! Explain that most medieval houses had walls constructed from wattle (woven sticks) and daub (plaster made from mud and straw) and roofs made of thatch.

Not all the peasants worked in the fields. A small percentage had more specialized tasks. Some of these are depicted in the illuminated image The Castle at Work available through Labyrinth. Call upon students to describe the various tasks being performed in this picture. More information about peasant occupations can be found at the following sites also available through Labyrinth:


Stronger readers can be instructed to read about the duties of the steward, reeve, and hayward of a medieval manor by accessing Manorial Management and Organization available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Alternatively, this material can be read aloud by the group under your guidance.

This is a good time for some role-playing. Access "Dialogue Between a Master and His Disciple: On Laborers" available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Medieval Sourcebook. Select students to read aloud each of the parts—master, disciple, plowman, shepherd, oxherd, and fisherman.


Conclude this activity by instructing students to think about the lives of the farmers and the more specialized workers who made up the peasant class. Ask them to choose what sort of work they would like to have done had they been peasants in medieval times. Then instruct them to write a paragraph describing a day in the life of the character they have chosen. This can be in the first person, and it should include references to peasant clothing, housing, and daily chores. A form (The Lives of Farmers and Specialized Workers) is provided for this in .pdf format. Afterwards, have the students read their passages aloud to their classmates.

Activity 3. The Upper Crust

Tell the students that they will be learning about the people who lived during the Middle Ages. Begin the lesson by taking an inventory of what students know about the Middle Ages. Help them to place this period in time. You might mention that the era was given its name by scholars living during the Renaissance, who considered everything that happened between the end of the Roman Empire and their own age as "in the middle." Using a chalkboard or overhead projector, write down the following headings: types of people, clothing, entertainment, and homes. Ask the students what types of people come to mind when they think about the Middle Ages. Most likely they will mention kings and queens, lords and ladies, and knights. Write these down as they are mentioned under the heading "types of people" Now ask how these people dressed. (Appropriate answers include robes, crowns, and suits of armor.) Write these down as they are mentioned under "clothing." Now ask what these people might have done for entertainment. (Answers include hunting, hawking, tournaments, feasting, and playing music.) Write down valid responses under "entertainment." Finally, ask what sorts of dwellings these people lived in. Most likely you will receive a unanimous response—castles! Write castles under "homes."

Explain that the people on this list formed the highest class -- the "upper crust" -- of medieval society. Tell the students that they will visit a number of websites together to learn more about the lives of these people. As they progress, they are to fill in the appropriate sections of the chart below (The Wealthy Elite of Medieval Society). Before continuing, have the students to copy the information you have written down in the appropriate spaces on their charts. Tell them that they are to add at least five pieces of additional descriptive information in each category as they view the websites.


Begin the group research with a look at medieval royalty. Explain that during the Middle Ages the kings of England and France were very powerful. (As a point of interest, the English kings were often named Henry, and the French tended to be named Louis. There were, in fact, 18 kings called Louis!) The kings were often depicted in illustrations of historical manuscripts. Gold was used as well as bright hues of paint, resulting in works of such brilliance and luster that they are known as illuminations. Access Henry III does homage to Saint Louis, available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Labyrinth. In this illumination, Henry III of England is paying homage to Louis IX because part of his English territory lies in France. Point out that Louis's robe is decorated with the fleur de lis (symbol of France), while Henry's robe is embroidered with lions. (The lion and the unicorn appear on the official English Coat of Arms.) Now go to Coronation of Edward III, another illumination available through Labyrinth. The ermine collar of Edward's robe is what we often associate with the royalty of this period. The priest kneeling to the right of Edward appears to be holding a book. Ask the students what book this might be (a Bible) and why it appears in this picture (the king was responsible to the Catholic Church as well as to his countrymen).


Just below the royal family in social status was the nobility. Illuminated images depicting the lives of these people can be found in their family prayer books. These books, known as a Book of Hours, listed the prayers that were recited at certain intervals (or hours) throughout the day, as well as selected psalms, biblical passages, and a colorful calendar. The most famous Book of Hours was created in the 14th century for a French nobleman. It is known as Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry). Access the following images from this book's calendar: a young couple exchanging rings and nobles riding, available through Labyrinth. Point out the elaborate robes and gowns of these very wealthy people as well as their stockings and headwear. Notice that the gown of the nobleman is split so that he can more easily sit astride his horse. Ask the students to describe other aspects of the pictures. For example, what is in the background? Why are there musicians in the first picture? What animals do they see in the second? Explain that the constellations appearing in the heavens relate to the months of the year depicted in the images (April and May). Now go to nobles at a banquet, another illumination from the Book of Hours. Note that two of the men seem to have exchanged stockings—each has one white stocking and one green one! Then focus upon the knights in the background of the picture. Like the elegantly dressed people partaking of the feast, the knights were members of the upper class in medieval society. Whenever a lord's territory was threatened, he would arm himself and lead his kinsmen out the castle gate to battle. Point out that during most of the medieval period a knight's main protection was his armor of chain mail. (Suits of plate armor were a relatively late development.) A photograph of a modern man dressed as a medieval knight can be viewed at Knight on Foot available through Labyrinth. Remind the students to note down information about medieval dress on their charts.


Review with the students the topics you listed on the board at the beginning of the lesson under "entertainment." Bearing these in mind, access Entertainment in the Castle available through Labyrinth. Select a student to read aloud the text. Then ask which forms of entertainment popular in medieval times remain so today—and which are not. Music has offered a pleasant diversion since earliest times. Ask what instruments might have been played during the Middle Ages. (Trumpets and trombones appear in images already viewed in this lesson.) The lute, a pear-shaped stringed instrument, was among the most popular instrument for ballads and other lyrical types of songs. To hear the sound of a lute (accompanied by recorder), listen to this rendition of Greensleeves available through Labyrinth. "Greensleeves" is actually a renaissance-era musical piece, but it will give you a flavor for the sound of the lute.

Tapestries provide another useful record of daily life during the Middle Ages. A tapestry depicting a medieval hunt can be found at Story Weaver available through Learner.Org. Double click on the tapestry to enlarge it. Call upon students to describe what they see. Noblemen often hunted birds and small mammals using trained falcons. This is depicted in nobles hawking, another illumination from the Tres Riches Heures Book of Hours calendar. Ask for comments about this image.

Just as today, dinner parties were festive occasions, and medieval diners were expected to observe their table manners. In particular, they were cautioned not to pick their teeth at the table or to wipe their hands on the tablecloth! A special children's guide to manners written centuries can be accessed at The Little Children's Little Book available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Geoffrey Chaucer Webpage. Call upon students to read aloud several of the sections you selected while preparing this lesson. Ask them to draw comparisons between table manners then and now.

Tournaments were a great source of entertainment for people of all classes, but only the wealthy could afford to participate. A first-hand description by 14th century writer Jean Froissart of a large tournament in England can be found at Grand Tournament at London available through Geoffrey Chaucer Webpage. Read the first two paragraphs aloud slowly. After discussing this information, go to Tournaments and Chivalric Ceremony available through Geoffrey Chaucer Webpage. This is an illumination from a historical text. Note the head apparel of the noble ladies in the audience. Before continuing, remind the students to add new information about entertainment to their charts.


The castle was the home and fortress of king and nobleman alike. Pictures of three famous castles can be viewed through Labyrinth:

After viewing these images, ask the students to name some of the main features of a medieval castle (such as the drawbridge, the ramparts, and the keep). Now access Kids' Castle available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Instruct the students to move the cursor around the picture and to click on the squares to learn about the parts and functions of the castle.

Castles might have been havens against marauding invaders, but they were not very comfortable. Go to Life in a Medieval Castle available through Labyrinth. Call upon students to read the various paragraphs aloud. Discuss the information as you proceed. Then ask what the students consider the best aspects of castle life—and the worst!

Now it's time for a virtual castle tour. Access Ghosts in the Castle available through EDSITEment-reviewed resource National Geographic. Click on the drawbridge and then maximize the image of the castle. Instruct the students to take their own personal tours through the castle by clicking on the mouse, Marcus, who appears in each picture.


Conclude this activity by reminding the students to add information about castles to their charts. When they have completed their charts, they should download and print them and then hand them in.


Now that the students are familiar with the major groups of medieval society, they can each demonstrate their knowledge by playing a specific role. Make a list (on the chalkboard or using the overhead projector) of the social groups studied in this lesson—royalty, the nobles, the knights, the peasants and craftsmen, and the priests and monks. Access Medieval hats available through Learner.Org for a short review activity. Call upon students to guess who wore which hat.

Next, instruct each student to choose a role to play from among the social groups listed. Allow time for the students to make notes about the attire, tasks, dwellings, and other related facts associated with their chosen role. Now ask for a volunteer to stand in the front of the class. Members of the class are to ask him/her the questions below. After all questions have been answered, have the "model" call upon a classmate to guess who he/she is. Then choose someone else to play a role. Questions to ask:

  • What is your most prized possession?
  • What do you usually have for dinner?
  • what are you wearing?
  • what do you do for fun?
  • If you have children, what do you expect them to do every day?
  • What tools or implements do you use, if any?
  • What is your house like?
  • What is worst about your life?
  • What is best about your life?
  • What are your hopes for the future?

The Basics

Time Required

6-8 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > History of Science and Technology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Medieval World (500 CE-1500 CE)
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Visual analysis
  • Suzanne Art (AL)


Activity Worksheets