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Lectures for A Medieval Survey
Lynn H. Nelson
THE SUNDERING OF SOCIETY
There were 5000 feudal warriors in England in 1100, and only 40 peers (lords) in 1500. The mass of the aristocracy were country knights allied with the middle class of the towns. The reasons for this split were numerous:
Three classes of aristocrats emerged:
There was also an over-elaboration of chivalry into costly fantasies (playing Acadia, paseos de honor, etc) and a popular and fabulous chivalric literature. This process was ended by Miguel Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) and his novel Don Quixote (pronounced doan kee-ho'-tay)
THE MIDDLE CLASS
We have seen that the proto-capitalists began to supplant the artisan guilds with new systems of production: factory and putting-out. This changed the medieval middle class greatly. A cleavage between the greater and lesser guilds took place, and there was sometimes civil war in the medieval towns between the "populo grasso" and "populo minuto." A gap also emerged between the guild masters and the workers, with the result that an urban proletariat emerged, and the modern division between management and labor was born.
After centuries during which the peasantry enjoyed relatively good and improving conditions of life, the mass of the peasantry was pressed into poverty.
As a result of the fifteenth-century recessions, the capitalists began to buy up farmland to produce raw materials for their manufacture (e.g., fields were turned into sheep runs). A grasping aristocracy began to claim many feudal dues that had long been out of date. Proprietors fenced in the lands -- woods, meadows, ponds --that had once been common property of the peasant communities. Communities died, and their inhabitants were either forced into the indigent class or became salaried farm workers.
The fluctuations in population brought about by plagues, wars, and famines on the one hand and a high birth rate on the other also affected the structure of rural society. Land-owners abandoned granting land in exchange for rents and services and turned to employing temporary workers for wages. Abandoned fields were turned into profitable pastures that required little or no labor investment and not reclaimed as arable land when the population rose again. Wages were set low when population was high and labor was cheap, and the social and economic elite passed maximum wage laws when to keep these wages low even when population fell and labor was in short supply. Tenants were evicted and villages levelled to provide compact and larger farms that could be exploited rationally. Generally, a greater reliance was placed upon capital, machinery, and animals than upon human labor.
The peasantry split into two groups, the few who owned land and the many who worked for them. A rural proletariat emerged.
The medieval social ideal had been a stable harmony among disparate classes, and the ideal had been shattered. As the Middle Ages closed, the upper classes were concentrating on the suppression of the lower classes and were concerned with the possibility that the lower classes still felt a sense of fellowship that was international in scope. Although there is no evidence that any such movement existed, nobles and capitalists alike believed in the existence of local groups who were members of a vast lower-class conspiracy known as the bruedershaften ("brotherhoods). This was only one sign of the tensions that underlay European society as it entered the early modern age.
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