Welcome back to our series on fitness throughout history! This week we will be discussing the fitness level of societies in the Dark and Middle Ages (476-1400).
When Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer (who was referred to as a Barbarian outside of the walls of Rome) in 476, the official fall of the Roman Empire began. Rome was a hub of intellectual, but mostly physically unfit citizens, and when it fell it marked the beginning of an intellectual standstill. Rome was then carved up by these “barbarian” conquerors, leading to a breakdown in global trade and commerce. Lost to history are many ancient Roman arts and architecture, in part due to the fact that the foreign invaders sacked Roman cities during their take over.
However, these occurrences were beneficial with respect to fitness. With the Fall of the Roman Empire, people moved away from the previously lavish lifestyle of the Romans, in part due to the fact that the tribes from Northern Europe led a lifestyle that was closer to that of a more primitive people. This meant more hunting and gathering, as well as tending to cattle, and therefore more walking and general physical activity. This, in turn, led to a revival of the overall fitness level of society at the time.
Also contributing to a more physical fitness oriented society was the constant state of warfare that gripped Europe after Rome fell. As previously discussed, warfare requires soldiers to have high levels of fitness. Soldiers would train by running trails, sparing, wrestling, and lifting stones (akin to modern day weight lifting).
If you were not a soldier, you were either a serf working the fields (which is extremely physically taxing), a tradesman, a merchant, a gentry, or nobility. Tradesmen got their exercise from practicing their craft- think of a hard working blacksmith that is hammering iron all day, or a woodworker that had to cut all of his wood without power tools. Merchants, due to roads previously maintained by the Roman Empire being in a state of disrepair, were now forced to walk, or if they were lucky, ride a horse, to trade goods.
Gentries, on the other hand, being the wealthiest citizens in that time period other than nobility, and in good social standing, did not get much exercise from daily activities. They did however view exercise as a leisure activity. Generally this consisted of organized activities such as sports. And they knew that moving made them feel good, so in their downtime they often participated in a range of activities including archery, sword fighting, hammer throwing, and wrestling.
You might think that the Nobles were in the worst physical condition because their lives were more lavish than the rest of society, and you would be partially correct in part because they did not have to participate in physical activities for survival. But because any male member of the nobility class was required to carry a sword at all times and know how to use it, they often sparred with each other and consistently practiced sword fighting. Kings often organized hunts which required walking, running, and horseback riding. Noble women were not as physically active as their male counterparts, but they too participated in physical activity. In their leisure time women rode horses, played games, and gardened. They also often participated in Falcony, which is the art of training birds of prey to hunt small game.
We are lucky enough that most of us do not have to have extremely physically taxing jobs in order to survive. But much like the fortunate gentries and nobility of the Middle Ages, we do understand that moving makes us feel good! Not in a million years would we want to go back to the lifestyles that most citizens led during this time period. Mostly people suffered, and physical activity was just a means to survive. HOWEVER, it is paramount to note that even without the science to support it, people at the time knew that there were benefits to remaining active, regardless of your social standing.
Next time you workout, remember how fortunate you are to be able to exercise as a leisure activity (although a good workout rarely feels like what we consider “leisure” these days), and keep in mind all of the benefits you get from being physically active! Men and women in Medieval times knew it felt good, and now we have science to support it!