A number of medieval sources divided their society into three
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
The mound was the motte, the other areas were baileys. The lord
lived in the motte, while the baileys held stables and other
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
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
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
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
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
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.
In a melegravee, two groups of knights assemble across an open
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
There were roped-off areas for repairing armor and resting. The
melèe could last for hours, and there needed to be a place
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
HONOR The honor of a knight was of great importance to him,
to be furthered when possible and defended when necessary.
- 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
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.
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
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
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
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
LIBERALITY Gentilesse is reared in the house of largesse.
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.
GLORY Glory and plunder were the prizes of battle, and every knight sought them.
- 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
- 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."
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
COURTESY Courtesy meant manners, after a fashion, but it
applied only to relations between members of the nobility.
- 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Marriage was most important path of social mobility.
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.
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
They dictated fashion and conduct. They
often formed clubs: those who belonged were in the patriciate;
They were very much the minority: 2 or 3 percent.
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
The citizens were the real caretakers of the city's prestige and
reputation, ethics and the common weal.
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 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.
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,
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
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").
a provost or mayor
council of aldermen
sometimes the mayor was appointed by the lord, other times he was
elected by the citizens
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
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
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.
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
had to have letters of recommendation from the masters he had
the journeymen eventually formed their own societies, and had
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
The great cathedrals were here
The Renaissance occurred exclusively in the cities
The universities were here
Solidarity among the citizenry
Everything was for the common weal, at least officially
THE CITY COUNCIL
Composed of the leading families
Later of the leading guilds
MAYORS AND OTHER RULERS
Also could be a bishop
A royal appointee, like in France
or a podestÉ
THE URBAN REVOLTS OF THE 14TH CENTURY
Augsburg's gemutlich revolution
- Became a major factor in European history in the later
- Had their own political forms and their own culture
- Were strongest in Germany and Italy, two countries with weak or