Do You Know the Meaning of These Medieval Words?


By: William J. Wright

6 Min Quiz

Image: Pali Rao / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

The Middle Ages conjures images of gallant knights and fair damsels, and it's one of the most fascinating periods in world history. Despite the romantic associations drawn from legend and influencing generations of fantasists, the era stretching from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance was far from an Arthurian paradise. With a peasantry under the thrall of a feudal system that was slavery in all but name, futile holy crusades, a culture dominated by religious oppression and the scourge of a near-apocalyptic pandemic in the form of the bubonic plague, there's little wonder that the medieval period is also known as the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, the image of the chivalrous knight in shining armor is too much for the imagination to resist. From that romantic vision springs our love affair with all things medieval; it's inspired everything from theme restaurants based around knightly tournaments to popular fantasy books and TV shows like "Game of Thrones."

In this quiz, we'll take a look at a variety of medieval words. Some will be no doubt familiar, but rest assured, you'll find many linguistic challenges across a wide range of topics here some that might stump even the legendary Merlin himself. So, if you're a medieval scholar or just a dedicated devotee of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," we're throwing down the gauntlet and issuing a challenge (don't worry, it doesn't involve a shrubbery): Do you know the meaning of these medieval words?

Even the lowliest serf should be able to answer this one. Can you name the chivalrous men you might find around King Arthur's table?

The image of the knight in shining armor is iconic to the Middle Ages. Serving at the behest of royalty, knights were typically armored, mounted soldiers of lower nobility. A bishop or other religious figure usually bestowed their title.


If a drawbridge goes up too quickly, you might yourself floating in one these. Can you name this medieval word?

A moat is a deep, broad ditch surrounding a fortification like a castle. Moats could be dry but were often filled with water as an initial defensive measure against attack. Moats also served as sewers or decoration.


This construction of iron and wood was an effective way of sealing a gateway or other portal. Can you name it?

A portcullis is a heavy door of iron and wood latticework. Sliding vertically in its frame, the portcullis could be quickly raised or lowered with an internal wench. They were an essential defensive feature of many medieval structures and were were often employed in pairs to trap potential invaders.


Can you name the early type of armor that was eventually replaced by platemail?

Consisting of small, interlinking rings of metal, chainmail (or more simply mail) was a type of armor popular from the third century B.C. to the Middle Ages. It was eventually supplanted by the more effective plate armor that most people associate with the classic image of the medieval knight.


Can you name the dangerous medieval sport that featured knights on horseback?

Largely associated with the pageantry and courtly traditions of the late medieval period, jousting was a popular but dangerous sport. Jousting was a game of nerves and martial prowess and involved two mounted knights charging at each other with blunted lances. The knight who remained on horseback won.


If a medieval builder failed to include this, they might find their cathedral reduced to a pile of rubble. Can you identify this architectural feature?

A buttress is a stone support built to shore up a wall and lend extra support to a roof. Buttresses are common of features of Gothic architecture, and many cathedrals employed flying buttresses which were constructed as elaborate, sweeping arches that extended from the man structure.


This favorite medieval beverage was made by fermenting honey with water. Can you name this drink?

Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey and water. Hops, spices, fruit and botanicals may also be added. It's sometimes called honey wine. Recipes for mead vary greatly between cultures with the alcohol content of the beverage, varying from around 4% to over 20% by volume.


If you weren't royalty, this was the next best thing to be under feudalism. Can you name this word?

Vassals were persons who had sworn an oath and paid homage or provided military service to a noble in exchange for the use of land or other privileges. These feudal tenants included knights and others who were subordinate to a lord, king or other landowning noble.


Can you name this medieval word that referred to a large inner tower or a lord's private domain?

Also called a keep, a donjon is a large, often central tower located within the walls of a castle. More broadly, a donjon may also refer to any private domain or domicile of a lord or noble.


Who would you need to see if you were looking for a new pair shoes in the Middle Ages?

Not to be confused with a cobbler (who is a repairer of shoes), a cordwainer is a craftsperson who makes new shoes with previously unused fine leather. If you needed shoes for your horse, you'd need to see a blacksmith!


Can you identify the medieval word that refers to a lawman's jurisdiction?

A bailiwick is the jurisdiction of a bailiff. Although we're familiar with modern bailiffs as officials who maintain order in a court of law, bailiffs were once the agents who carries out the orders of sheriffs. Bailiwick is now often used to indicate one's purview or area of expertise.


Can you name the title of rank that is above a baron but below a duke?

As a nobleman in medieval England, Earl was the highest rank that could be attained without a claim to royal lineage. It was previously known as "ealdorman." An earl is the third rank of Peerage above viscount and baron but below baron and marquess.


Which word might one use instead of "later" in the Middle Ages?

From Old English meaning "in one," anon first came into the lexicon in the 11th century. The definition of anon is flexible in that it can mean either "soon" or at a future time depending on the context.


Can you name the specialized arrowhead that was a medieval archer's best friend in battle?

Although it has come to refer to a dagger or other pointed tool for piercing material such as leather, the bodkin or bodkin point is a specialized arrowhead put to deadly use by medieval archers. Long and sharp, the bodkin was designed to concentrate the force of the arrow to penetrate armor.


Which of these words is a medieval exclamation you would you use to get someone's attention?

Hark is a verb used to tell someone to listen or pay close attention. Some familiar usages of hark include the Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and Shakespeare's "Hark! Hark! The lark at heaven's gate sings."


If you accuse someone of being a cutpurse, what are you calling them?

Calling someone a cutpurse is a colorful way of accusing one of (usually) petty thievery. It's most often applied to the act of picking pockets, but being a cutpurse refers to the literal cutting of purses and pockets from the securing strap worn at the girdle.


What is one expressing when using the word "gramercy"?

Gramercy is an expression of gratitude. It's from the Middle English "gramerci," which is in turn derived from the Old French "grant merci." The word literally means "great thanks." Additionally, gramercy may be used as an interjection to express strong emotion or surprise.


This heavy siege engine from the 12th century uses a counterweight to cause a swinging arm to throw a projectile. Can you identify this medieval weapon?

The trebuchet is a formidable variety of catapult that uses a long, swinging arm to launch a projectile like a large stone or incendiary object. In an early form of biological warfare, the rotting bodies of dead animals could also be used. The use of gunpowder led to the decline of the trebuchet.


What is a piece of land given to someone by a lord in exchange for a service?

One of the perks of being a vassal was the stewardship of a fief. Granted in exchange for a service useful to a king or other noble, such as the martial skills of a knight, a fief included land and peasants employed to cultivate it.


A knight in battle would definitely need this piece of plate armor to protect his otherwise vulnerable throat from blades and arrows. What is it?

A bevor is a solid or segmented piece of plate armor that covers the jaw and neck. Often worn with a helmet called a sallet and a steel collar known as a gorget, the bevor was an essential and often lifesaving component in a knight's battlefield dress.


In medieval England, what word would you use to preface a polite request?

Prithee is an alteration of the phrase "(I) pray thee." Used an interjection, the word usually prefaces a wish or polite request. Interestingly, the original phrase was used to express contempt for the addressee before its usage was refined to its more popular, and more polite, form.


Can you name the medieval dish made of pounded poultry boiled with rice?

Not to be confused with the more modern sweet dessert of the same name, blancmanger, or blank-manager, was a popular chicken dish of the Middle Ages. Made with pounded poultry boiled with rice, almond milk and honey, medieval blancmanger can style be found on the menus of coronation feasts.


Who would a noble hire if he needed a clerk or accountant?

Not to be confused with a scribe whose duty was to merely copy text, a scrivener had to be capable of producing original texts. Where as scribes may have very well been unable to read the texts they were duplicating, a scrivener was literate and also versed in mathematics.


If you weren't careful, you might find yourself on the wrong side of this dagger often carried by highwaymen and robbers. Can you name this weapon?

The baselard is a short sword or dagger made specifically for thrusting. Comprised of an I-shaped grip and a short, diamond-sectioned blade, the baselard was a favorite weapon among the less-savory members of medieval society. 14th-century German law forbade carrying the baselard within a city.


Which of the following is a medieval word meaning "to break an oath"?

Specifically meaning "to make a lair of oneself under oath," forswear in the medieval sense is a catchall term for a variety of bad behavior from lying to cheating. In its modern usage, much of the negative connotations of the word have faded; it's used mainly to express strong renunciation.


Can you name the piece of land given to a cleric in exchange for his services?

Sort of an ecclesiastical equivalent to a fief, a glebe (or glebe-land) was granted by a lord to provide for the support of a priest. In addition to cultivated land, the glebe included a parsonage or rectory to shelter the clergyman. Glebe comes from the Latin "glaeba," meaning "land" or "soil."


Can you name the defensive opening in a castle wall that's wider on the inside to facilitate the use of archers?

Also called an arrowslit or a balistraria, a loop is a narrow opening in a fortified wall to allow for the use and defense of archers. Behind each slit was an alcove invisible from the outside allowing a bowman room to apply his deadly trade.


Which of the following is not a piece of armor?

A garderobe is a room located in a castle usually adjoining a larger chamber. Originally, a garderobe was a small storehouse for the storing of valuables. However, the widest usage is as a castle toilet. Garderobes generally contained a simple hole leading to a cesspit or a moat.


Can you name the fee a villager would be required to pay to a lord if their daughter married a man from another village?

Labor and allegiance were of prime importance to the ruling class in medieval England. Hence, a lord would levy a merchet on a villager whose daughter married outside of his sphere of influence as recompense for the loss of a worker.


What is an arquebus?

A forerunner to the rifle, the arquebus was a smooth-bore matchlock firearm that came into use in Europe in the 15th century. Usually fired from a supporting rest or tripod, the arquebus was a formidable weapon in the hands of a soldier called an arquebusier.


What might you call a corrupt or greedy person in the Middle Ages?

This medieval insult comes from the Belgian city of Ghent. Meaning "liver-eater," levereter is used to describe a person who is so morally corrupt and greedy as to deprive proper nourishment from the needy.


If you were going up against a knight in plate armor, you would probably want to take along one of these. Can you name this medieval blade?

The estoc is a deadly longsword with no cutting blade but an extremely sharp point. Made for attacking the joints of plate armor, the estoc's blade was of a shape that did not allow for a cutting edge but facilitated great rigidity. A haberdine, however, is a fish and is mostly useless in combat.


This hairstyle was characteristic of medieval monks. Can you name it?

The tonsure should be a familiar hairstyle to anyone acquainted with the legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Easily recognizable as Friar Tuck's distinctive haircut, the tonsure is the bare area shaved in the crown of a monk's head as a sign of devotion and humility.


What is the medieval term indicating the amount of land that could be plowed by a single ox over the course of one year?

Basically having the same meaning as the Danish word "oxgang," a bovate was a somewhat variable term describing a unit of land for agricultural use. While broadly defined as the amount of land that could be ploughed by one ox in a year, a bovate averaged around 20 English acres.


Which word means "labor performed by a serf in exchange for the use of a lord's land"?

Corvée is essentially unpaid labor done in tribute to a noble. Ostensibly for the use a lord's land, corvee labor amounted to little more than slavery under feudal law. Serfs were bonded to land rather than owned by a lord. So, if a tract was sold, the serfs were included in the deal.


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