Lectures for A Medieval Survey
Lynn H. Nelson
Love Poetry and Social Change
1100 - 1350
By the year 1000, things began to change. The Vikings and Magyars
converted to Christianity and their raids ceased. The Caliphate of Cordoba
disintegrated into several warring states, and the Saracen raiders were
virtually driven from the sea. The feudal aristocracy, that order of fighting
land-holders, had fulfilled its function and successfully defended Europe.
There was now no justification for the prestige and privilege it enjoyed nor
for its control of so much wealth. In the following centuries, the
aristocracy diminished in size and evolved into an hereditary
1. DECLINE OF THE LESSER NOBILITY
A. EFFECTS OF THE REVIVAL OF COMMERCE AND TRADE
The feudal aristocracy, whose wealth was based upon land, fared poorly in
the new money economy that began to arise around 1000
The peasants found a cash market for their surplus production in supplying
consumer goods, mostly food, and manufacturing materials -- such as flax,
wool, goose down, plant and animal dyes, straw, wood -- to the cities and
towns. There was a limited variety of things that they could buy with their
earnings, and so many arranged with their lord to change the labor services
they owed him or her into cash payments. Such an arrangement -- the opposite
of "hiring" -- is usually known as "commutation".
INFLATION AND LONG-TERM LEASES
The problem with that was that the value of money kept decreasing -- or
prices kept rising, if you prefer to look at it that way. More precious
metals were converted into coin, increasing the actual amount of money in
circulation, and that money changed hands more rapidly, increasing the amount
of effective money in circulation.
(This may be confusing. Money usually acts like other things. Diamonds are
valuable because they are rare. If there were suddenly twice as many diamonds
available, their value would drop by 50%. "Effective" currency works a bit
differently. If everyone in the world had one dollar and bought one thing
with their money each day, and each one earned a dollar from selling
something to someone else, daily income would be one dollar. But if everyone
bought and sold something in the morning, and took their dollar and did the
same thing in the afternoon, daily income would be two dollars. The faster
money changes hands, the more of it there is "in effect.")
At any rate, the real value of the noble's rent income dwindled steadily. Why
didn't they renegotiate? Well, the maximum life of a lease in our economy is
generally figured at 99 years. In the Middle Ages, it was seven generations,
or about 230 years. Tradition made it difficult for the nobles to alter the
terms of their leases, and many knightly families with small holdings
eventually didn't have enough income to maintain their station, and simply
dropped out of the aristocracy. What did such knight do? Well, many became
mercenary soldiers, some married merchants' daughters, a number became
salaried servants of the king or some rich lord.
ADVANCES IN MILITARY TECHNOLOGY
This sort of thing continued. New and expensive types of armor, the use of
Toledo and Damascus steel for weapons, better (and more expensive) horses,
and a number of other things made it necessary for the noble who wanted to
stay a fighting man to spend a lot more money to outfit himself. Where did he
get the money?
Stop and consider. The lords had depended on their peasant's labor to till
the manor's demesne land and now they no longer controlled those labor
services. They used hired labor, but wages rose along with the prices of
everything else, and it was eventually not possible to make a profit from the
demesne land using hired labor, so they leased it out to their peasants. This
only prolonged matters, since these rents, too, dwindled in value over
Then, too, the greater cost of going to war, and the power of mercenary
soldiers, archers, crossbowmen, and other infantry specialists, reduced the
mounted aristocracy's pre-eminence on the battlefield. They were not fitted
for the new kind of warfare developing, and so lost the prestige they had
enjoyed as great warriors.
MIDDLE-CLASS WEALTH AND STATUS
Meanwhile the merchants were becoming wealthier and more powerful. Between
1070 and 1130, the middle-class inhabitants of many towns rebelled to gain
independence from the feudal system and to hold some independent political
power. The monarchs tended to ally with the middle class, and used members of
the middle class as advisors, accountants, lawyers, and the like. They grew
in prestige and were often advanced to the nobility by their royal masters.
This "nobility of the gown" took most of the power and prestige that the old
fighting aristocracy had enjoyed.
Generally speaking, a money economy coupled with inflation impoverishes
those who depend upon a fixed income, such as rents. The income produced by
the land was insufficient to support the entire feudal aristocracy, and the
class split into an upper nobility -- magnates -- and a lower
nobility. In the year 1100, England could have put 5,000 armored knights in
the field, so they say, and in 1400, there were only about 400 noble families
left. Forty of these families were magnates, and the others were trying to
reach that status of wealth and influence.
B. THE RISE OF THE MONARCHIES
The rise of strong monarchies in England, France, Aragon, Castile, and
strong counts and dukes in other areas, such as Burgundy, was also a factor
in the transformation of the feudal aristocracy. The central governments
wanted to unify their states by eliminating independent powers such as the
Church and aristocracy, intervening between the monarch and subject.
SUPREMACY OF ROYAL COURTS
The monarchies centralized their power by weakening the manorial courts
controlled by the local aristocracy. In England, for example, this was
accomplished through a series of important developments.
a) Local laws and customs were collected and regularized as a series of
principles known as English Common Law. This became the law enforced
in royal courts and supplanted the local customs enforced by the feudal
b) Royal officials and judges, such as the sheriffs, justices of the
peace, travelling justices were established or strengthened to administer
and enforce law at the local level.
c) A series of courts of appeal were established so that a person
could always appeal a decision from a local court all the way up to the
END OF PRIVATE CASTLES AND ARMIES
The monarchs forbade the building of private castles and the raising of
private armies. This was difficult to enforce, but the more or less
professional royal armies and, later, the use of gunpowder, allowed the kings
to concentrate all military power in royal hands.
EMERGENCE OF PROFESSIONAL ADMINISTRATORS
We have already noted how professional administrators, often drawn from
the middle class and trained in the new universities, displaced the feudal
aristocrats as royal counsellors. This not only weakened the nobility, but
strengthened the monarchs by providing them with full-time and efficient
ROYAL CONTROL OF WARDSHIP
There was a limited amount of land belonging to the noble families, and
the monarchs were able to use their right of wardship to exercise some
control over these properties. When a noble died leaving a widow, an heiress,
or minor heirs, the kings became the guardian of the widow and/or children
and took the income of the property until it was passed on to heir or
As guardian of the widow or inheriting daughter(s), the king could arrange
for their remarriage. Since this was the greatest chance for an impoverished
knight to acquire an estate, many such aristocrats followed the court and did
whatever they could to gain the king's favor and perhaps the hand and land of
an heiress. They practiced the arts of being charming and became known as
courtiers. As an example, William Marshall, one of the greatest
English lords of the period 1190-1220, was the captain of a winning royal
tournament team and was finally rewarded with the hand of the very wealthy
Duchess of Pembroke.
C. SCUTAGE AND THE NEW ARMIES
We've mentioned this earlier, but it would be worthwhile to consider how
changes in warfare affected the feudal aristocracy.
The typical feudal vassal had served his lord a maximum of thirty days a
year and brought some of his garrison as an infantry force. None of these men
were necessarily well-trained or disciplined since they were only part-time
warriors. Great lords and kings began relying on mercenaries, or hired
soldiers who would fight as long as they were paid and could collect booty.
They soon replaced the feudal levies for various reasons.
The campaign season began to grow longer than the thirty days of service
the feudal vassals owed. This was partly due to larger forces being employed,
partly due to the fact that besieging castles was a slow process, and partly
because opponents began playing for time, hoping that the other side's
vassals would go home while their own still had some service still
The lords and kings gained the longer military service they needed by
hiring mercenary armies, who were, in any event, better trained and equipped
for real warfare (and more experienced) that the typical feudal vassal. In
addition, longer campaigns and the increasing importance of siege operations
made warfare much more complicated, and experienced -- professional --
military commanders were needed.
NEW WEAPONS - PIKE, CROSSBOW, LONGBOW
Trained and disciplined infantry forces were reasserting their superiority
over cavalry. Armored knights were now vulnerable on the battlefield to
defeat by relatively inexpensive archers and pikemen. The vassals were not
only expensive to maintain, but of little use among the other forces that
composed the new armies.
The only problem was how to pay for these new forces. At first, the
government encouraged its feudal vassals to stay at home and pay
scutage ("shield tax"), a traditional payment made by a vassal who
could not appear for battle and intended to be used to hire a substitute. By
the 14th century, in England, vassals were expected to pay regular scutage
whether they reported for battle or not. It had become a tax upon the feudal
aristocracy that was used to finance the new armies that were displacing
SUMMARY OF SECTIONS A, B, AND C
By about 1200, the feudal aristocracy has lost its pre-eminence in
land-ownership, wealth, display, fighting, legal administration, and advisory
capacities. The aristocracy began to split into two groups: the great lords,
about one percent of the aristocracy and the rest. The aristocracy no longer
performed a function and needed a new justification for its privileges and
2.INFLUENCES UPON ARISTOCRATIC THOUGHT AND
A. THE NEED TO ADAPT TO REMAINING PATHS OF
1. COURT LIFE
As we noted above, the vassals had to adapt to court life, to capture the
favor of the king, in essence, to become court favorites, to have a chance of
marrying an heiress, gaining an estate, and perhaps rising into the class of
magnates. This meant that hunting, the nobles' favorite sport, was turned
into an art form by the addition of elaborate terminology, rules, and
ceremonial ways of basic things. Women were also more important in the court
than outside it, and the courtier had to be able to charm these women by
being able to tell stories, sing songs, play games, and flirt. All of these
activities developed their own language and elaborate rules of behavior. A
courtier was often the product of constant training and education between the
ages of seven and sixteen.
2. THE TOURNAMENT
The tournament evolved from rough and ready fighting games that the feudal
aristocrats had played to keep in training for battle. Rules and regulations
were developed, and entrance requirements were set to ensure that no one but
nobles could compete.
The tournament served a number of purposes. They were gala events held to
entertain the members of the court and they were pageants to impress the
commoners. Most people are impressed with the tournaments shown in motion
pictures and assume that this is all they were. For the participants, they
were often much more.
The participants were often poor knights who were just trying to get ahead.
There were banquets and social gatherings before and after the actual
jousting, and the knights had an opportunity to meet the magnates and court
officials and perhaps gain a patron who would provide him with money and
influence at court. In any event, they got several free meals.
The tournament itself was very much of a gamble. The winner in a joust won
the horse and armor of the man he had defeated and could sell them for enough
to support himself until the next tournament. If the poor knight lost, he
lost his horse and armor. If he didn't have a patron, he could no longer
participate in tournaments and had lost his chance of advancing through that
means. Many losers ended up as mercenary soldiers, and some killed
themselves. Tournaments were not exactly fun and games for the participants,
who were hoping to catch the eye of some lord or lady. Patronage was a
road to success, and they hoped to find a patron.
B. THE TROUBADOUR TRADITION
We mentioned that women were more important in courtly
life than elsewhere. Attempts to impress influential women gave rise to the
Troubadour Tradition and the concept of Romantic Love.
The troubadour movement arose first in the South of France, and Duke William
of Aquitaine was the first reported practitioner. The troubadours were nobles
who composed music and lyrics to be sung and played at court by their
servants, called minstrels or jongleurs. Lyric poetry had not
been common in Western Europe for three centuries, and the songs were about
how the composer has fallen desperately and hopelessly in love with a women
above his station whom he cannot hope will reciprocate his affection.
The poetic forms and music was quite complex, and
the theory of male-female relationships elaborate and artificial. It seems to
have been based upon the view of Plato that love is caused by a single
soul being split in half in heaven and one half placed in the body of a man
and the other in that of a woman. When the two souls sense the nearness of
each other, said Plato, they seek to re-unite. Does that seem strange?
Consider the old song,
Darling, you and I have a guardian angel, on high, with nothing to do
But to give to me and to give to you love forever true.
Each soul has one guardian angel, so the song supposes that the lovers
share a single soul. We still talk of "soul-mates," so we still make the same
assumptions within our concept of romantic love.
This poetical and musical gave rise to a social movement as courts
throughout Europe turned the theory of troubadour love poetry into patterns
of behavior. Elaborate and artificial codes arose to govern the relationships
between men and women. These were based upon the old feudal relationship in
large part. The lover swore to serve his beloved in much the same way and
following a ceremonial similar to that of the oath of homage and fealty. The
lover would fight in tournaments for the favor of his lady and defend her
honor against the entire world. Books were composed about courts of
love, in which men would tell tales of love to a group of women, and the
women would then judge whether the lover had acted properly. This sort of
thing reached its height with the long and complex Romance of the Rose
(Roman de la Rose).
Behind this, of course, were some less edifying factors operating. The
troubadour hope that the object of his poetry would be flattered by the
attention and would either pay him herself or influence her husband to extend
patronage to the poet. Even more basic was the contention that only the
noble-born had the sensitivity needed to be in love in this manner. The
troubadour movement, with its elaborate manners and language, was another way
of keeping the commoners and middle class in an inferior position.
Like the tournaments, the troubadours were kept going by "largesse," or
extreme generosity (the word "generous" originally mean "nobly-born). The
magnates and other high nobles affirmed their status by generosity -- to
other nobles, not to the poor who needed it. They gave both money and
patronage, and courtiers, tournament fighters, and troubadours were all only
impoverished nobles scrambling to gain the support of some rich man or
C. INFLUENCE OF THE CHURCH
The Church generally disliked the tournament, which they saw as a waste of
knightly energy that could be put to better use fighting the Muslims. They
disliked the troubadour movement not just because the nobles did not practice
romantic love only as theory, but because the emphasis upon such love
diverted attention away from love of God. As Dorothy Parker wrote,
He who loves his love o'er well
will gaze in Helen's eyes
But he whose love is dry and wise
shall see John Knox in Paradise
If you don't get the point, look it up. Anyway, the Church and society
responded, probably unconsciously, to the threat posed by this noble
The Cult of Mary
Mary had been venerated for centuries, but her figure began to change from
Mary, Mother of God to that of Mary, Queen of Heaven, and was offered as a
substitute for the real women whose praises the troubadours had been writing
an their jongleurs singing. She received the name of "Or Lady," and a frenzy
of cathedral-building in her name ensued.
Symbolism of Arms
The clergy began to participate in and influence the ceremonies of
knighthood, elaborating them and endowing them with mystic and spiritual
All of these elaborate codes of behavior slowly grew more organized. Under
the influence of the clergy, many acts were treated as allegory or symbols
with a deeper spiritual meaning. The Romance of the Rose is basically a
manual of how to seduce and be seduced in a "genteel" way, but it was soon
interpreted as an allegory of the soul's striving to achieve salvation.
The Church took an active role in the transformation of the feudal
D. THE ROLE OF THE MONARCHS
The monarchs supported a code of conduct and status in which they were
clearly superior and which would make the aristocracy dependent upon them,
and often took a leading role in the development of this code. Royal
masters of ceremonies defined and wrote down how one as supposed to
act, and enforced such behavior in their role of organizing court activities.
The royal heralds took up the job of maintaining the genealogical records by
which a person had to prove his claim to noble status, and they developed the
elaborate practice of heraldry or blazonry as signs for nobles
to display in proof of their noble descent.
The monarchs set high standards of dress and conduct, sponsored expensive
tournaments, established non-fighting orders of knight-hood (Orders of the
Golden Fleece, Bath, Garter, Santiago, Aviz, etc.). They also kept the game
going by favoring the most "courtly" with heiresses. Games do not go on long
unless there are winners.
3.THE EMERGENCE OF CHIVALRY
All of these influences combined in an elaborate and artificial code of
behavior known as chivalry. This code governed almost every aspect of
aristocratic life -- hunting, hawking, jousting, playing games, telling
stories, singing songs, making love, social ceremony, terms of address,and
virtually everything else. Learning this code was the labor of a lifetime,
and the children of the aristocracy began to do so at the age of five.
The chivalric skills of the aristocracy contributed little of nothing to
society. Nevertheless, the aristocracy, monarchs, church, and intellectuals
convinced most people that chivalry was the highest expression of secular
In addition, they held that only those of "gentle birth" were capable of the
emotions and deportment required by chivalric society.
4. THE RESULT
The feudal aristocracy in the year 1100 had been a fighting order of
land-owners, defending local territories and maintaining law and order within
them. Their position and prestige depended upon their accomplishments, and
their ranks were open to anyone of sufficient ability.
By 1250, the feudal aristocracy had ceased to exist and had been replaced by
an hereditary nobility who performed little service to society at large and
claimed their privileges and status by right of birth.