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Medieval Society


A number of medieval sources divided their society into three orders:

oratores: those who pray
bellatores: those who fight
laborares: those who work

I adopt that model here because it provides a convenient starting point and because it serves to emphasize a division that concerned social roles rather than wealth.

The shortcomings of the threefold model become obvious quickly with a little thought. For one thing, it is a picture that is exclusively rural; there is no place for merchants or craftsmen. For another, the model concerns only respectable society, so to speak. It ignores the outlaw, the slave, the disabled, and it ignores social outcasts such as the Jews or the gypsies. All these people had a place in medieval society and I shall try to take account of them in various places in this treatment.

Oratores: Those Who Pray


A priest held a special place within the Church. Only a priest could administer the sacraments, was subject to special Church law and was generally exempt from secular law, and gained his special status through a special ceremony. All this served to set priests apart from society and make them a separate order.

Within the priesthood was a tremendous range of social standing. A village priest might be only a local village boy who was sent off to a monastery to learn his duties, as poor as his parishoners. On the other hand, a bishop was also a priest, and he might be the son of a nobleman, wealthy and powerful. A priest might be illiterate, though literacy was higher in the clergy than in the general population.

As was the case with the other two orders, then, there was nothing intrinsic to the order of priesthood that says anything about their economic or political position. But the priestly order was the most prestigious of the three orders, for they were closest to God. For this reason, the priest within any given community normally had a higher standing than the other members of that community.

This is one reason why anti-clerical sentiment was so bitter. When priests fell from grace, they were criticized vehemently, having farther to fall. Priests were supposed to behave better than the normal run of humanity and were not permitted to have the foibles of the laity. They did have them, of course, and so incurred the wrath of the less privileged.


A monk was a layman who sought to live a Christian life by entering a monastery and leaving the ordinary world behind. Monks took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience; they were set apart from the rest of the world, even from the secular clergy, and were in theory at least among the most holy and venerated in medieval society.

The reality, in this as in the other elements of medieval society, was far more complex than this, and far more interesting.

Early monasteries Monks appeared very early in Christian history, but the early instances were what we would call hermits. They appear first in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire; people would go off into the desert (following the example of Christ) to seek God. They lived on minimum of worldly comforts, were celibate, fasted often, and scourged themselves. A famous early example was St. Simon the Stylite, lived atop a pillar for years.

The early monks lived alone, but the reputation of some for holiness caused other seekers to come to them for guidance and inspiration. Some of these imitated the saint and themselves became hermits. Whole colonies of hermits developed in this way, and communities began to form.

St. Pachomius (290-346) of Egypt was the first to try to organize these ad-hoc communities in a more formal way. He wrote a Rule to guide those who would live a monastic life that was followed by thousands of monks throughout the eastern Empire. The Rule stated that monks must obey their superiors and stressed the importance of manual labor. The Rule also established that any suprlus accumulated by the community must be distributed to the poor.

St. Basil (ca. 360) emphasized the virtues of communal living. His Rule had the monks not only live together in the same area but take common meals and engage in common prayers. He de-emphasized personal acts of asceticism and again emphasized manual labor.

Monasticism came to the West in the 4th century, with St. Athanasius (ca. 340), St. Martin of Tours (316-397), and St. John Cassian (360-432). It took its final medieval form with St. Benedict of Nursia (480-543), the real founder of western monasticism.

St. Benedict wrote the Holy Rule for monks--becomes known as the Benedictine Rule. Those who follow it are Benedictine monks, and this order still exists to this day. The classical ideals of moderation and stability inform this work; there is no heroic asceticism here, only a hard and disciplined life. The ideals of the Benedictine Rule are chastity, poverty, obedience, and stability. The aim of the monastic life is to bury one's will in the life of the monastery.

Benedictine Monasticism

The monastery was governed by the abbot, who served as holy father. He was elected by the monks and had absolute power over them. No monk could leave the monastery without his permission. The abbot, in turn, was responsible to the local bishop.

Each monastery had its own lands to support it. Early on, the lands were worked by the monks themselves, but by the central Middle Ages most of the farm work was performed by serfs. Many who entered the monasteries were of noble blood and could not farm, not that they would want to.

Daily Routine Each day was divided into phases of work and prayer. The work included tending gardens, overseeing the business of the monastery, doing various housekeeping and maintenance chores, and other types of ordinary work. In addition, during the early Middle Ages, monks began to take on other activities, the most notable of which was the copying of books. Working in the scriptorium became an important part of monastic labor.

Importance of prayer This was the opus dei, the "work of God", that accompanied the work of man. St. Benedict wrote "let nothing be preferred to the service of God" - prayer was to take first priority.

Benedictine monks prayed in common seven times a day, including once in the dead of night and again at daybreak. Additionally, there were numerous other opportunities for private prayer.

They typically prayed for others: for the salvation of the world, for relief and mercy for the poor, for protection from the barbarians. Most especially, they prayed for the salvation of those who had donated to the monastery. In fact, the regular offering of such prayers was sometimes a condition of the original donation.



A friar was a special kind of monk, one that almost contradicts the very idea of monasticism: a monk who lives in the world rather than trying to withdraw from it. This somewhat odd notion worked primarily because of the personality of the founders: St. Dominic and St. Francis.

The term "friar" is not a very precise one. It normally applies to either a Dominican or a Franciscan monk, though some lesser orders also followed their ideals. In original spirit, Dominicans and Franciscans were similar. They both re-emphasized the apostolic ideal of poverty, and they both strongly urged the ideal of service. After the death of the founders, however, these two orders developed along different lines.

The Dominicans dedicated themselves to fighting heresy. Toward this end, they armed themselves with deep learning and became the great Christian scholars of the later Middle Ages. They were preachers and teachers.

Bellatores: Those Who Fight

The bellatores were the knights of the Middle Ages. Most people have an image of knights that comes from the very end of the Middle Ages: the knight in shining armor (that is, in plate mail), who fights bravely for his lady fair, who is chivalrous and courteous and noble. That is a stereotype, of course, useful mainly to Hollywood producers and the writers of romance novels. The reality was more complex and not nearly as attractive.

Knighthood is a somewhat slippery concept, and one that developed over the centuries. A knight was first and foremost a mounted warrior -- that was his origin and that was his primary role in society. In the early Middle Ages, just about anyone who fought on horseback might be called a knight, even if he were but a lowly commoner.

By Charlemagne's day, a specialized type of mounted warrior had emerged -- one who wore armor, who wielded a lance in addition to the usual sword or mace, and whose specialty was the massed cavalry charge. The Franks were the real originators of this sort of fighter, but the institution spread elsewhere. Increasingly, over the tenth and eleventh centuries, the aristocracy of Europe and the mounted warriors of Europe merged into a single group.

By the twelfth century, the process was pretty much complete. No one could be a knight who was not also a nobleman, and all noblemen were expected to be knights (unless they entered the Church). The other elements were in place, as well: the fief, the stone castle, sophisticated armor and high-quality steel weapons.

What sort of world did the knight live in? What sort of fellow was he? The images that spring to mind most readily are the castles, tournaments, and the swords and armor of a knight. Other aspects of knighthood, however, are equally interesting and important. Their beliefs and values, for example, differed markedly from our own. The pattern of their daily life was likewise notably different.

The knight began to lose his military superiority with the development of trained infantry in the 14th century. Once field artillery and hand guns came into use, the armored knight was merely a relic (16th century). The institution was so deeply ingrained, however, that it persisted for many centuries. The aristocrats continued to fight on horseback, and in many countries laws were passed that forbid anyone but a gentleman to carry a sword. And nobles still wore suits of armor, highly-decorated works of art they were, for parades and fine occasions. But not to the battlefield.


Our English word "knight" comes from the German knecht, which means man (as in: he's one of my men) or servant. The German word for knight is Ritter, which means "rider" or "horseman". The French word, chevalier has the same meaning.

Castles: Motte and Bailey

The typical castle of Europe prior to the 11th century--that is, the castle that predominated for fully half of the Middle Ages-- is called by the English the motte and bailey. The type occurs all across Europe, however, in non-Christian as well as Christian areas.

A motte and bailey fortress consists of a circular ditch dug perhaps 10 feet deep and 30 feet across, with wooden palisades at the edge of the ditch. This might be dug around a low hill, but could be constructed even on flat land, for the dirt removed from the ditch was placed in a mound in the center. Palisades were built around the mound as well.

At the top of the mound stood a wooden tower. Other areas within the ditch might be also enclosed with their own ditch and wall.

The mound was the motte, the other areas were baileys. The lord lived in the motte, while the baileys held stables and other outbuildings.

Motte and bailey construction was used throughout the Middle Ages. It was simple and cheap to build, so we find them continuing in poorer regions long after stone castles were being built by the wealthy.

A motte and bailey castle was proof against the depredations of wild animals, so the lord's horses and hounds would be safe. It served to protect against any sudden attack by enemies. It could even withstand more serious attacks, for the ditch broke up any sort of charge, the walls gave the advantage to defenders, and one usually only had to hold out long enough for help to arrive.

It may seem that such a structure was vulnerable to fire, and indeed it was, but the enemy had to get close enough to start a blaze and had to protect the fire long enough for it to burn through the heavy logs. No mean feat.

Siege artillery was not effective in the West until the 12th century at the earliest, so defenders did not have to worry from that quarter either. In short, the motte and bailey castle was reasonably effective and was supplanted only when stone castles came along.

Castles: Origin and Spread

Stone castles appear first in northern France in the 10th century. The earliest examples are nothing more than a single tower with few windows and only one door (which was usually ten feet or more above ground level and reached by steps that could be dismantled in case of attack).

The French called this a donjon. It rarely stood alone, but was instead the chief strong point within a larger fortress of wood. The donjon was not originally designed to be a dwelling; it was a place to make a last stand, when all else had fallen.

It proved enormously effective. No one in tenth century Europe had the weapons or engineering skill to take a stone fortress, and the architecture spread across western Europe in the 11th century. William the Conqueror built stone castles all over England to secure his conquest, and other great lords did the same elsewhere.

The great era of castle building began in the twelfth century and lasted for three hundred years. By 1100, stone had found its way through most of the fortress complex. Walls, towers, church and residence were all stone, castles grew quite large in some cases and held entire communities.

As siege techniques improved, so did construction techniques, and the stone castle remained nearly invincible. The central Middle Ages saw a kind of arms race between the builders of castles and their attackers.

At the same time, castle construction was quite flexible, and castles of many types were built. Some were still little more than single towers, though made more livable. Some were designed to be entirely self-contained, while others were urban fortifications surrounded by shops and markets.

A castle was still an expensive building and one that required skilled craftsmen. Lesser nobles contented themselves with manor houses; only the greater lords could afford castles, which in turn helped secure their grip on the upper reaches of society.


Two knights sit atop their chargers at either end of the lists, fully armored. At a signal, they lower their lances and charge at one another. This is the usual view of a tournament, but it is actually only one aspect, called the joust, and rather a late- comer at that.

Tournaments are almost as old as knighthood itself, but early examples were nothing like the formal encounters of the later Middle Ages. The earliest tournaments consisted of nothing more than the melegravee.

The Melegravee In a melegravee, two groups of knights assemble across an open field. At a signal, both parties ride at each other and fight anyone who comes within range. The principal goals were to exercise one's fighting skills, to knock the other fellow around, to capture somebody and hold them for ransom, and to have a generally jolly time.

There were roped-off areas for repairing armor and resting. The melèe could last for hours, and there needed to be a place for the tired and injured to retire. A similar area existed for prisoners captured in the battles.

A melèe was, in fact, rehearsal for war. Within the context of the overall combat, individuals and small groups operated for specific goals. Great deeds would be remembered. And, perhaps most importantly, a doughty knight stood a reasonable chance of gaining some ransom.

A typical ransom might be the payment of a suit of armor or a horse. If the captured knight could not raise his ransom on the spot, he might be released on his word (parole) to return to his estates and raise the money.

The melèe was immensely popular and the dangers were quite real. In the heat of combat, tempers flared; and an open field was an ideal place to settle old scores. Knights were injured and even killed in these encounters: but of course: only in real combat could glory be won.

A melèe was a great opportunity for winning a reputation, and the encounters were often heavily attended by young knights. The event itself would be sponsored by a great lord, who might also host festivities before and after.

A melèe had its social disadvantages, however. It could be embarassing for a powerful duke to be unhorsed by some foreigner upstart, and unduly dangerous as well. Some of the nobles began arranging smaller engagements and even individual combat. By the later 11th century we see this develop into the joust.

Jousting A joust was combat between two nobles. They rode at each other with lances or other weapon of choice. Early on, this was no more than a prelude to the general event, fought on the same field as the melèe, but by the 13th century it had developed its own set of rules and traditions and its own place within the overall tourney.

The joust was held in the morning, with the melèe in the afternoon. Some of these events were quite ambitious, so the jousting might occur on one day with the melèe on the following day. They usually managed to work the melèe in as the grand finale.

The various nobles set up their tents and arranged the individual combats among themselves. A special jousting area, called the lists, was built and here the combatants met. The goal was usually simply to unhorse the opponent, though combat on foot might also follow. The joust became the premier event of a tourney, for it was a chance for everyone's attention to be focused on a handful of heroes.

Tournaments were great favorites among the knights, especially among younger sons and landless knights. By the thirteen century tournaments were widespread and regular, and some knights went from one to the next almost like a rodeo circuit. It was possible to make a living at these affairs.

Decline of Tournaments The Church condemned the whole tournament business, of course, and from quite early. Bishops were to forbid them and to punish those who ignored the sanctions. But the proclamations had little effect.

Practical considerations weighed more heavily; most prominent of these was the risk of injury. By the late 13th century, blunted lances begin to appear. The melèe played an shrinking role while at the same time social functions such as entertainment and feasting played a greater role. Ladies were first allowed to attend and then expected to attend.

By the fourteenth century, tournaments had acquired most of the elements you see in a Hollywood movie: the tents, the viewing stands, the lists where the jousting could be contained and easily viewed, the prizes offered by the ladies. The tournament of the late Middle Ages was a social event more than a martial event. There were even tournaments in cities!

Tournaments continued to be popular all through the Middle Ages and even beyond. King Henry of France was killed in a joust in 165? -- the tourney was still combat and still a risky affair.

Knightly Values

PROWESS A knight had to fight well. This meant having the ability to accomplish all sorts of physical feats, plus having a knowledge of arms and armor.
  • Skill in the use of arms A true knight was a good judge of weapons. He could use above all the sword, the shield and the lance, although the mace was also popular, in various forms. To maintain this skill required constant practice.
    The knight was also knowledgeable about armor. He had his preference as to design, various types, and even manufacturers. Regional styles developed, so that, by the end of the Middle Ages, armor was distinctly Italian or French or English.
  • Physical Strength To wield these weapons and bear the armor required tremendous physical strength. There were no weight training programs, only practice in the sense of scrimmaging--the repeated actual use of arms.
    Thus, when no wars were afoot, knights held games known as tournaments. They also went hunting, which provided practice in riding, use of spears, teamwork, and which also simply afforded physical exercise.
  • An example A 15thc source, writing of M. Boucicaut, the Marshal of France, said that the knight could turn a somersault when fully armed (except for his helmet), and when completely armed could vault onto a horse or climb the underside of a scaling ladder using his hands alone. And 15thc armor was heavy indeed.
  • Personal Bravery The true knight could not fear pain or death, or at least could not show his fear or allow it to interfere with his function as a warrior. Bravery meant above all placing one's own body in jeopardy for the sake of one's lord. It meant charging into a mass of armed men even though outnumbered, trusting in God and one's right arm.
    It did not mean having to fight peasants, however; bravery only covered fighting one's equals. In fact, attacking peasants was not combat at all, properly speaking. It peasants got in the way, they should get back out of the way; if they resisted, then they should be killed. Killing peasants brought neither glory nor shame.
    All men--that is, all knights--wished to be esteemed men of prowess. "Be preux" said the lord when dubbing a new knight, by which he meant the new knight should exhibit the qualities listed above.
HONOR The honor of a knight was of great importance to him, to be furthered when possible and defended when necessary.
  • A knight's honor was the measure of his standing among his peers; it was also what set him apart from the common rabble around him. It marked the gentle man from the common man.
  • The knight's honor was as real as his castles and he would defend both to the last drop of blood. Honor was perhaps more important, for a castle could be rebuilt, but a stain on one's honor was difficult to remove.
LIBERALITY Gentilesse is reared in the house of largesse.
  • Knightly society was a gift-giving society. A lord was expected to give gifts to his followers. These were not only gifts in our sense, but gifts in the sense of honors shown, privileges granted, and wartime plunder shared. Vassals gave gifts to their lords, upon the occasion of visits, upon marriages and knighting ceremonies, at tournaments, and so on. There were also symbolic gifts that recognized and reiterated the lord-vassal relationship: a piece of earth and two horses every year, or some such.
  • Gifts were exchanged to seal alliances and friendships. Gifts were exchanged among friends. Gifts were sent to accompany embassies and messengers. And all were scaled to suit the honor and nobility of the recipient.
  • Most knights had no use for a man who lived within his means, for that implied a miserly accounting. The nobility liked to imagine that they were above such matters and that a preoccupation with such mean concerns was characteristic of merchants and townsmen.
  • Since gifts were a recognition of friendship and nobility, how could a true knight quibble over cost? No, knights admired the man who had bankrupted himself with giving, for that was the true spirit of liberality. As the historian Sidney Painter said, "Long after prowess and loyalty had lost their peculiar applicability to men of high birth, a complete disregard of caution in the use of money was considered the mark of a nobleman." The biographer of William Marshal (13th century) put it this way: "gentillesse is reared in the house of largesse."
GLORY Glory and plunder were the prizes of battle, and every knight sought them.
  • Glory is akin to our notion of fame, but it has a distinctly martial tone to it. Glory meant prestige, for one's self and for one's family, but that prestige was won through deeds done in combat. Glory could also be won by pious donations or other public acts, but warfare was by far the most important source.
  • Glory was the public testimony of one's prowess. Glory could be won at tournaments or in war; the more prestigious the event, the more opportunity for winning glory. The phrase itself is telling: glory was a prize won on the battlefield, like plunder.
  • It was therefore important for a knight to have opportunities for winning glory. The battle itself might go either way, but the individual knight would be satisfied only if he had his chance at glory. This was one more factor in undermining discipline on the battlefield.
  • Fighting for glory did not preclude taking every opportunity for making a profit. Indeed, carrying off great piles of loot was itself a glorious act. Plunder showed the depths of the enemy's defeat, and at the same time enabled the knight to distribute gifts to his followers and comrades.
  • How did a knight become famous?

    • Through story and song. This meant through the troubadors and minstrels who wandered from court to court. Also through word of mouth among his peers. But if he wanted lasting fame, then only story and song would do.
    • By the high Middle Ages the written word was another source of lasting glory, and biographies were commissioned, often by sons for their illustrious fathers.
LOYALTY Fealty was paramount, and oath-breaking the worst form of behavior. A true knight was the one who stayed true, to his lord, his church and his word.
  • Loyalty to one's lord came before everything. A man could be forgiven much, but to betray one's sworn lord was the worst crime a knight could commit.
  • Everything in knightly society depended upon the reliability of a knight's sworn oath. That's why the giving of an oath was considered sufficient evidence in a court of law. When a lord made war on one of his vassals, or a vassal rebelled against his lord, one reason nearly always cited was that the other party had broken faith--had betrayed the trust.
  • The language indicates how deeply this sentiment ran in knightly society. Among the various terms used to describe the followers of a lord was vassi dominici--the vassals of the lord. The French word was mesnie and an older Latin word was comitatus. We can translate these words as "the boys", or "gang" or "band". But another term used was truste--that is to say, "the trusted ones".
  • In a society that was illiterate, as knightly society was, written contracts counted for nothing. The saying ran that, "with pen and ink, one can say anything." Only an oath taken before peers was worth anything. Still, when we look at the historical record, we see betrayals on every hand. Does this mean that all the sworn trusts were a sham? Not at all, for our own society depends on written contracts, notwithstanding the fact that such contracts are sometimes broken. Moreover, oaths kept were usually not worth recording, for that was the norm.
COURTESY Courtesy meant manners, after a fashion, but it applied only to relations between members of the nobility.
  • To be courteous means to behave as if one were at court, to be courtly. This was an ideal to be better than was usual with knights. In the beginning, it had nothing whatever to do with behavior toward ladies or with what we call manners.
  • Originally, courtesy meant the special consideration one knight showed to another. For example, a knight should always give his noble opponent an even chance, never attacking one who was unarmed.
  • If you defeat a knight, you don't kill him; rather, you release him on his parole, his sworn word, with a promise to pay a ransom. This practice enabled many a knight errant to earn his keep at tournaments.
  • The courteous knight honored brave opponents, recognizing prowess and courage. If a knight captured a great lord, he was expected to treat the man according to his rank. When the English captured King Jean at the Battle of Poitiers, they put him up in fine London quarters, allowed him to attend court functions, and permitted French visitors. That was courteous.
  • Only later, from the 12th century on, courtesy was extended to the ladies and was expanded to the ethic of courtly love. We often use the word chivalry to mean only this, but the word chivalry is merely the French word for "knight" or "knighthood" and embraces all the qualities of that rank.
  • Still later, the impulse of courtly love led to acquisition of the gentle arts, such as singing, dancing and poetry. By the late Middle Ages, we begin to see the transformation of the European aristocracy from knights to gentlemen; that is, a shift from an emphasis on warfare and its attendant skills and virtues, to an emphasis on peaceful pursuits.

Laborares: Those Who Work

Those who pray were the priests; those who fight were the knights; and then there was everybody else. Notice the designation -- laborares. The word does not mean merely to work, it means to labor. To work at some higher calling was operare. Peasants labor, but an educated man produces an opus . . . the English words still carry something of the old tone.

Remember the picture I placed on the home page for this section? It shows the knight and the priest, and with them is a peasant. Peasants were what most people meant when they though of laborares, and peasants made up the great bulk of the population of Europe. There were others, however. In particular, there was one social group that was lumped in with the peasants but didn't belong with them at all. It was a group that became increasingly significant over the course of the central Middle Ages, a group that eventually (long after the Middle Ages were over) came to dominate both the other orders.

This group was the townsmen. Those who dwelt in cities, and especially those who formed the social elite in those cities, were no mere laborers, but neither could they be called noble. It was awkward, to say the least, and the nobility of Europe did what it could to ignore them.


Peasant, serf, yeoman, freeholder -- here as elsewhere, we have to contend first with the words themselves. Medieval sources are not in the least bit consistent in how they use these terms, so my description here is necessarily an amalgamation and an abstraction of usages.

I use the word "peasant" to describe someone who lived in a village or some other rural setting and who was more or less free. A serf is one who lived in the same environment, but who to one degree or another had his freedom restricted by someone else.

Most peasants were farmers, but the word applied also to the village blacksmith or cooper or miller. Serfs, likewise might be farmers but might also be craftsmen. The difference between the two was that the peasant owned his own land, while the serf did not. The serf owed labor duties to his lord, whereas a peasant owed nothing or, more usually, owed some sort of rent.

THE VILLAGE Most Europeans in the Middle Ages lived in villages--communities that consisted of a few hundred people who were primarily engaged in farming. The village was the fundamental social and economic unit of medieval society.

Two types of villages dominated the European countryside: nucleated and dispersed. The former was found in the most fertile areas such as river valleys, and were mainly in northern Europe. A nucleated village was what you probably think of when you picture a village: houses clustered about a village green, with farms surrounding the village and a road running through it, while nearby stands the manor where the lord lives.

The other type of village was also characterized by its physical layout and was determined by the type of soil. Dispersed villages were more common in southern Europe, and any place where the soil was light and sandy.

There were other variations as well, all determined largley by climate and soil. In certain areas, the dominant activity was ranching, in others it was fishing, while elsewhere it might be olive groves or vineyards. But these were always limited in number and scope.

Each village was surrounded by unfenced farmland divided into two equal parts: those lands under cultivation, and those lying fallow. Each field was divided into narrow strips, and each villager held several strips in each field.

In northern Europe, where the soil was heavy, peasants used a heavy plow and teams of four to eight oxen to pull it. Villagers often pooled their animals.

A second type was closed-field farming, found mainly south of the Loire and in the Mediterranean regions in general. Here, land was divided into closed rectangular plots with a biennial rotation of crops. Peasants here used a light scratch plow. Each family was largely independent, with less sharing of resources among the villagers than in the north.

Dispersed settlements were found in regions of poor soil, such as Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the central highlands of France. In these settlements, each household had a small plot of land close by, the "in-field". They grew garden crops, fertilized with manure, and these fields were the more heavily cultivated. They also had open land, the "out-field", which they farmed for a year or two and then abandoned for another patch. The surrounding wasteland was used for grazing.

Even the best peasant in the best year could get no better than a five to one yield, while three to one and even two to one were more common. Grain provided not only bread but drink as well. As much land as possible needed to be under cultivation, but animals need hay, and that requires good land too. Without hay, the oxen can't eat and the peasant can't plow his fields. So other animals were kept to a minimum - less to feed - but this in turn reduced the amount of manure available, which kept yields low. All sowing was broadcast by hand and much of the seed was eaten by birds.

THE TYPICAL FARM Farms varied greatly in size, but perhaps an indicative size was 30 acres, though some had as little as five. In good years you got by, in bad years you starved.

Each house had a garden with a few fruit trees, if they were lucky. Each house had strips in the fields, a share of the hay crop, and the right to graze its animals in the common pasture (these typically were lands unfit for farming).

The local woods provided pasture for the pigs and wood for the fire. Those villages lucky enough to be next to a stream or lake had fishing rights. In short, each house had its own resources, plus a share in the common holdings of the village.

The villagers plowed together, reaped together and threshed together, sharing labor and work animals and tools - it was impossible to do otherwise. Some tasks were handled by specialists, such as the village herdsman who looked after everyone's stock.

Field Systems The earliest technique for farming is known as "slash and burn", which is about what it sounds like. Land in northern Europe was usually overgrown, being either swampy or heavily wooded, but in any case in need of clearing. A family or group of families would move into an area and simply set fire to the forest, burning out a clearing. They would plant and farm for some years, planting the same crops in the same land year after year. Eventually, the soil would become exhausted of nutrients and the family would burn a new clearing. When the whole district had given way, they would move to new lands.

The classical world knew enough to rotate crops, planting only a portion of the land and leaving the other portion to lie fallow for a year. The following year, the fallow land would be planted and the cultivated land would lie fallow. This is the two-field system of crop rotation. It's about all you can get out of the drier lands around the Mediterranean.

Northern Europe, however, has much richer soil and abundant rainfall. During the early Middle Ages, farmers in the north developed a three-field system of rotation, planting one type of crop on a third of the land, another type with a different harvest date on another third, and leaving fallow only one-third instead of one-half the land. The resulting increase in productivity was significant.

Fertilized land, of course, can be farmed much more intensively. Medieval farmers knew about fertilizer, but manure was about the only type known and there wasn't enough of it. It required many animals to produce enough manure to fertilize a field; more animals, in fact, than the field itself could feed. So farmers were never able to keep enough animals to produce fertilizer for their fields. The use of manure was mainly restricted to fertilizing kitchen gardens, if that.

It is not until the early modern era, in the 17th and 18th century, that Europeans understood the chemistry of plants well enough to learn how to use legumes to help nourish the soil. Once that technique was discovered, it became possible to keep certain types of crops and fields under almost continuous cultivation, producing two and three harvests a year. It was this innovation that allowed the first phase of population growth in Europe that in turn helped drive the Industrial Revolution.

The Forest The forest played a vital role in the economy of the village, providing forage for animals and wood for fires and building.

Pigs were an important source of meat for the peasants. Pigs were hardy animals and were cheap to raise, especially since they were half-wild and foraged for themselves in the forest. Acorns were their favorite food and the forests of northern Europe provided the oak trees. The peasants simply turned them out to let them graze; the pigs stayed close to the village because it provided shelter and other food when acorns were not available.

The forest was often off-limits to peasants otherwise. The deer and other creatures that lived among the trees were often the preserve of the duke or the king, and no commoner could hunt there without permission. The story of Robin Hood alludes to this, for Robin initally crossed paths with the Sheriff of Nottingham when he came to the defense of a peasant who had been hunting in the king's forest.

Danger lurked in the forest as well. Wolves lived there, and wild boars and bears. The peasant tended to stay out of the forest unless brought there by need, and he never stayed in the woods after dark. Here again fairy tales illustrate the point. Little Red Riding Hood meets the wolf where? In the forest. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their parents in the forest, a place from which they were not expected to return. Peter pursues the wolf into its forest lair. The woods were a dangerous place, perhaps even magical, and the safe thing to do was to remain in one's village.

ROADS A village was not completely isolated from the rest of the world. Few villages were without a road leading to another village and eventually to a town, and down this road from time to time came visitors.

Day laborers came down the road, looking for work, especially at planting and at harvest. It carried vagabonds, too, who came at all times of the year and who looked only for handouts. If the village were on a route, the road might carry pilgrims. All these brought news from the outside.

One of the more important visitors was the peddlar. This term covers a variety of itinerant merchants who usually worked a particular region. They bought and sold second-hand goods, redistributing them among the villages. They also brought new goods into the village from the neighboring town--spices and fancy cloths, metal goods and trinkets. The peddlar was an especially important source of news, for he knew the region well and could report on events with a local's understanding.

THE MANOR HOUSE The village was ruled from the manor house, where lived the local noble lord. The village belonged to him, as part of his fief, which the baron held from the duke who in turn held from the king. The control of certain parcels of land was in dispute, having been claimed by the local monastery as well.

The baron held a good deal of power over the village. He had the right to hold a court of law and to adminster justice regarding petty theft, cases of assault and so on. His word in these matters was final.

The baron also could demand free labor services from his peasants. Called week work in England, or corveacutee in France, the labor might be helping to build a road, repair a bridge, or clear some land, The number of days per week the lord could ask was fixed.

The lord of the manor had his own farmland that provided food for his own household and perhaps some surplus for sale. Only very poor knights had to work their own land. Normally, the peasants of the village were expected to work the lord's farm in addition to their own plots.

The manor was the source of some benefits. The baron would hunt the wolves and boars and bears that threatened the livestock. In hard times he might be counted on to distribute alms to the poor.

But generally the manor house was a place to fear, or at least to be careful of.

SERFDOM Slavery was widespread in the late Roman Empire, although manumission had freed many. Slavery persisted right through the Middle Ages, but it was rare and was largely confined to the use of household slaves. Agricultural slavery belongs to the Empire, not to the Middle Ages.

The serf is a medieval invention. The word servus meant slave during the Empire, but is also applied in the Middle Ages to a serf. The status of a serf was better than that of slave, for a serf was not chattel -- no one owned him. But he was in various ways tied to a plot of land, and the land was owned by someone else.

A serf was a peasant -- a farmer, usually, but the village blacksmith and miller were often also serfs. They were bound to the place and could not leave without the lord's permission. They also owed work to the lord; normally, they were expected to farm the lords estates as well as their own, owed in addition some portion of their own harvest to the lord, and were further required to perform other labor services upon demand.

Within these constraints, a serf was free. A serf might accumulate personal wealth, and some peasants managed to become comfortable, at least. They could raise what they saw fit on their lands, and sell the surplus at market. And their heirs were guaranteed an inheritances; just as a serf could not leave without the lord's permission, so the lord could not dispossess his serfs without cause.

Serfdom spread generally throughout the West by the 10th century, and the central Middle Ages was its heyday. In the later Middle Ages, however, serfdom began to disappear west of the Rhine even as it spread through eastern Europe. This was one important cause for the deep differences between the society and economy of eastern and western Europe that has lasted down to our own day.

The Towns

TOWN AND COUNTRY Town life was distinct from country life; the two were separate, though interdependent, worlds. There were many manifestations of rural life in the city: gardens, herds of livestock, even farms within the city walls. Yet townsmen saw themselves as distinct from country folk, and country folk viewed the cities with suspicion and envy.

A Steady Job Certain occupations were dishonorable, unehrlich, the Germans called them.

Having a job at all disqualified one from being noble, for the nobility did not labor for a living.

Some jobs were more prestigious than others; thus, some social mobility was gained by apprenticing your son into a profession more respected than your own.

You could behave well, accomplish much, gain wealth, but none of that elevated you in status. Similarly, one could misbehave without loss of estate, although criminal action could involve a loss of estate, for it could lead to being barred by your city and guild.

Marriage was most important path of social mobility.

PATRICIANS The urban nobility of the Middle Ages were often called the "patriciate." You should not confuse this term with the same word as it applies to the Romans. Both refer to an urban noble class, but I don't want you thinking Romans here.

Initially very much separate from the merchant class, medieval patricians in the later middle ages did marry merchants and the two groups mingled somewhat. Having a title was still the pinnacle of the social ladder in a city, so merchants were highly motivated to arrange a match with someone in the nobility.

Political Power
Most of those on the city council were from the patriciate. In many cities, the council was legally restricted to the nobly-born, who also served as diplomats and ambassadors on behalf of their city. Social Power
They dictated fashion and conduct. They often formed clubs: those who belonged were in the patriciate; those who didn't, weren't. They were very much the minority: 2 or 3 percent.

CITIZENSHIP Those who were citizens formed perhaps half the population, though sometimes they were as little as 10 or 15 percent. The citizenry were the skilled tradesmen and the merchants, the economic lifeblood of the city.

They normally formed into guilds, so that guild membership and citizenship went hand in hand.

The citizens annually swore an oath of loyalty to the city.

They fulfilled civic duties: fire brigades, street patrol, manned the walls, city militia. Only citizens were privileged to pay taxes.

The citizens were the real caretakers of the city's prestige and reputation, ethics and the common weal.

OUTSIDERS Among those were usually were not citizens were the clergy. Though they were still privileged and prestigious members of the community. The nobility were sometimes allowed to be citizens, sometimes were required (in Italy) to be citizens, and sometimes were forbidden citizenship.

Others who were not allowed to be citizens were the Jews. They were tolerated usually, persecuted sometimes, but the Jewish communities often fulfilled necessary functions.

And then there were the unehrliche Leute, the people without honor. These included the hangman, gravediggers, and prostitutes. These were all recognized and legitimate professions, but they were socially repugnant and these people were never allowed to be citizens.

PERSONAL FREEDOM Personal freedom was vitally important to anyone who lived in a town and was widely regarded as an essential element of town life. A townsman had to be free from the obligations that bound a peasant, and must be free also from the arbitrary taxation to which a peasant was subject. A merchant, moveover, must be free to move from place to place, while a villein had no right to leave his lord's land.

CIVIC FREEDOM The city itself, as a corporation, had freedom too. The city flourished best when free from feudal lords, though some cities were ruled by bishops or barons. Even so, cities needed to manage their own legal affairs and their own fiscal affairs.

The political history of many cities in the 1100s and 1200s is dominated by their struggles with their feudal overlords, bishop or baron. The final product was often a charter of liberties that spelled out the exemptions and rights the city, and its citizens, would enjoy.

WINNING FREEDOM Cities often bought their freedom by paying their lord for a charter of liberties. Later, as the profits of urban centers became apparent, lords encouraged the founding of cities by granting privileges to some settlement whose growth he hoped to encourage. Character of the charters The charter usually stipulated that everyone living in the town would be free. A widespread custom was that anyone who lived in the town for a year and a day would become free. The Germans had a saying: Stadtluft macht frei: "city air makes one free".

Other elements of city charters might include: Landholding was to be by lease and rent, not by feudal tenure. Freedom from taxation was achieved by fixing limits to what the lord would levy. Freedom from tolls on bridges in the lord's lands; freedom from sales taxes levied by the lord on his other subjects; freedom from the lord's courts -- a burger could be tried only in the courts of his home town; right to their own merchant courts (these were commercial courts, but were sometimes given jurisdiction over low justice - often called pied-poudre, or "pied-powder", which meant "dusty-foot").

town government a provost or mayor council of aldermen sometimes the mayor was appointed by the lord, other times he was elected by the citizens

GUILDS A guild was a sworn association. That's about the only thing that can be said universally; everything after that has to have usually in front of it. So, consider everything that follows to have "typically" or "usually" qualifying the statements.

A guild was a professional association, a drinking club, a charitable society, and an economic agency. The word itself is German, but the Germans don't use it--only the English call a guild a guild; the Germans call it a Zunft.

Guilds were found everywhere in Europe in the Middle Ages, but they were most common in the cities from the twelfth century and later. The older guilds were generally more limited in character, being primarily religious or social in nature. In the towns of the central Middle Ages, however, they increasingly were organized around a trade and this is how they appear in their most common form.

Economic functions The main concern of a guild was the regulation of its trade or craft. No one not a member could sell at retail in the town. A foreign merchant had to sell to a guildsman, who would then re-sell to the citizens. In some cases foreigners were allowed to sell directly, but they had to pay a very heavy tax for the privilege. Foreign merchants were usually limited to one year's stay in the town or less - they could not set up shop permanently.

craft guilds operated on the same principal: no one not a member could manufacture goods or sell such goods within the town walls.

Diversification At first, there was just one guild; very soon, merchant guilds and craft guilds separated. There were usually only one or two merchant guilds, but many craft guilds. In Augsburg, for example, there were 17 guilds in 1350, 38 guilds by 1450, and over 60 guilds by 1550.

In certain crafts there might be a guild for every step in a process. In cloth making, for example, there were spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, and wool merchants.

Craft Guilds Guild rules governed the price and the quality of the goods made, as well as the method of manufacture. The guild controlled how many men could enter the guild.

the career of an artisan An artisan began his career as an apprentice, at age 7 or so. He served with a master; his father signed a contract with the master and the apprentice lived in his home. There he did menial work. The master was obliged to teach him the trade - couldn't use him as a servant. The boy was usually apprenticed to a friend or to a reputable man. The guild set the length of the apprenticeship. When he was of age, the young man, knowing his trade, left the home of his master and went out into the world as a hired hand. He took with him a letter of recommendation from his apprentice master and sought work with other masters. His journeys from town to town is why he was called a journeyman.

As a journeyman he was expected to work for several masters in various towns. In this way he learned different techniques and further refined his skill. Eventually, he would choose a specific town to settle in. He applied to the local guild to be admitted as a master.

The Wanderjahre lasted around seven years, if a fellow were competent and of a good family. The normal expectation was that the journeyman would return to his home town, to become master there.

had to have letters of recommendation from the masters he had served the journeymen eventually formed their own societies, and had hostleries in various cities to house their members - like a union hall A master was a full citizen of a town, and some towns were very picky about their citizens. A master was expected to be a family man, so he had to find a wife. He was expected to be respectable, so he had to have an established business or the means with which to start one. These hurdles alone were enough to keep some men in perpetual journeyman status, forever working in another man's shop.

Beyond these requirements was the master piece. This was a finished product--a shoe, an armoire, a silver salt cellar--that demonstrated skill in the guild's craft. The applicant had guidelines he had to follow regarding materials and time taken. The masters of the guild then inspected the work and decided whether the guild would have a new master.

The guild hall By the late Middle Ages, most guilds had built or had leased a building of their own. These were primarily meeting halls, but they might also serve as storage places. Some were extremely grand, depending on the wealth of the guild.

MERCHANTS These, too, were organized into guilds. Even here, there was a world of difference between those who bought and sold locally, and those who dealt in regional or internation markets.

Local Merchants and Retailers druggists, fishmongers, peddlars of all types, dealers in second-hand goods. These typically bought locally or from local wholesalers and sold only to the town and environs.

The Great Merchants These specialized in long-distance trade and often engaged also in finance. Social functions of Guilds When a member died, his fellows would bury him and care for his widow and children. When he was sick, they would help; if he became destitute, they would help. Even if he were imprisoned, the guild might come to his aid.

They also participated as a guild in city festivals.

Cultural functions Contributed as a guild to the local churches; sponsored religious festivals, and performed charitable acts such as visiting the sick and prisoners. Wealthier guilds built chapels.

CULTURAL LIFE OF THE CITIES FESTIVALS AND OTHER RECREATION Every guild participated in the city parades, which occurred on several religious holidays throughout the year. Celebrated the founding day or the day of some great victory or the patron saint's day.

The charivari let off steam. Festival included other things like the horse races of Siena or the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Gambling and drinking were big. Every guild had its club night. Bathhouses were popular for socializing.

HIGH CULTURE The great cathedrals were here The Renaissance occurred exclusively in the cities The universities were here

THE GEMEINDENUTZ Solidarity among the citizenry Everything was for the common weal, at least officially

DOMESTIC POLITICS THE CITY COUNCIL Composed of the leading families Later of the leading guilds

MAYORS AND OTHER RULERS Sometimes elected Also could be a bishop A royal appointee, like in France or a podestÉ

THE URBAN REVOLTS OF THE 14TH CENTURY Ciompi revolt Augsburg's gemutlich revolution


  • Became a major factor in European history in the later Middle Ages
  • Had their own political forms and their own culture
  • Were strongest in Germany and Italy, two countries with weak or non-existent kings

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Copyright 1999, Ellis L. Knox This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.