Learn these common medieval terms if you want to go beyond talking like Shakespeare and have some fun with archaic words. A few are still in use, but many of these words and phrases will be unfamiliar to modern English speakers.
Common Medieval Terms and Definitions
Medieval Terms for People and Roles
When it comes to what medieval men and women were called, the answer is complicated. Factors like whether they owned land and had noble blood affected what they were called. These are a few common medieval terms for people:
bailiff - the steward or overseer for a lord
baron - a lord who held land granted from the crown and served on the king’s privy council
bordar - a peasant of middle rank who farmed about 10-20 acres
constable - a man in command of an army
cottar - a lower ranking peasant; someone who lived in a cottage but had no land to farm
duke - a member of the aristocracy with royal blood
earl - the highest title a man without royal blood could earn or inherit
franklin - a medieval term for a peasant who was wealthy
gentry - a class of people just below knights
knight - a man who owed military service to his lord in exchange for his lands
squire - a man with an income that was not a knight
tenant - a man who rented land from the landowner
vassal - a free man who swore his loyalty to a lord
You can see some of these terms used in a real medieval text in this example from The Statute of Laborers, written in 1351:
Provided, that in thus retaining their service, the lords are preferred before others of their bondsmen or their land tenants: so, nevertheless that such lords thus retain as many as shall be necessary and not more; and if any man or woman, being thus sought after in service, will not do this, the fact being proven by two faithful men before the sheriffs or the bailiffs of our lord the king, or the constables of the town where this happens to be done,-straightway through them, or some one of them, he shall be taken and sent to the next jail, and there he shall remain in strict custody until he shall find surety for serving in the aforesaid form.
Medieval Words for Food and Cooking
Food played an important role in medieval life, and there are a number of common terms for breads, stews, and other foods:
caudle - a drink made with heated milk
civet - a spicy or sharply flavored medieval stew
horse bread - bread made not from wheat flour, but from beans and other legumes
muscadine - a type of wine that was very sweet
pandemain - some of the highest quality bread, made from flour that was sifted multiple times
pottage - a soup or stew made in a pot
spartle - the stick the cook would use to stir the pottage during cooking
trencher - round bread that also served as a plate or bowl
You can see one of these terms in use in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer:
When will the gaoler bring us out pottage?
Is there no crumb of bread that you did keep?
Medieval Land Terms and Measurements
There are a number of medieval terms for land and distance measurement, some of which, like “acre,” are still in use today.
acre - still used today to measure land; the amount of land an ox could plough in a single day
appanage - the estate with land belonging to a royal prince
benefice - a land grant given to members of the aristocracy
bovate - approximately 15 acres; the amount of land an ox and plough could keep in cultivation for an entire year
furlong - the length of a furrow from a plough (furrow-long); 220 feet
hide - the area of land necessary to support a family for a year - varied based on land quality; usually about 120 acres
hundred - an area representing 100 hides that made up part of a shire
league - the distance a person could walk in about an hour, which varied between a mile and a half and three miles
waste - land that could not be cultivated or used for farming
You can see one of these terms used in medieval documents, such as Assize of Clarendon, written in 1166:
In the first place the aforesaid king Henry, by thee counsel of all his barons, for the preservation of peace and the observing of justice, has decreed that an inquest shall be made throughout the separate counties, and throughout the separate hundreds, through twelve of the more lawful men of the hundred, and through four of the more lawful men of each township, upon oath that they will speak the truth….
Medieval Greetings and Terms of Endearment
Surprisingly, people have only been using the word “hello” since 1832, according to The History of Early English, but they have been greeting one another for far longer. They have also been expressing their affection in words. These are a few Middle English greetings and medieval terms of endearment:
culver - term of endearment; dove
go thy way - goodbye
good morrow - good day
gramercy - thank you
hale be thou - be healthy
how fare ye’? - how are you?
lambkin - term of endearment; little lamb
mine own heart’s root - term of endearment; the root of my heart
You can see several examples of greetings in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, including this line:
‘Go now thy wey, and speed thee heer-aboute’
Medieval English Is Fascinating and Fun
Whether you’re attending a Renaissance fair, trying to get some context for reading a Middle English text, planning a medieval wedding, or just curious about the customs of your ancestors, learning about common medieval terms is fascinating and fun. For more interesting phrases that are still in use today, take a look at expressions we owe to Shakespeare. Despite writing just after the end of the medieval period, he offers some great vocabulary words that were likely in use during the Middle Ages as well.