Medieval Society in Western Europe

Historians long described European society during the Medieval Age as feudal, a neatly arranged society comprised of lords, peasants, and churchmen. More recent historical research has revealed a society much more complicated than previously explained. It still represented a decentralized society composed of regional political and economic interests who often conflicted with one another.

Following the collapse of the Carolingian dynasty, Counts and other European nobles took responsibility for maintaining order and repelling invasions in their own territories. Most nobles owed at least nominal allegiance to a higher authority, often a king descended from the Carolingian dynasty. The allegiance was often in name only, as noblemen collected taxes, operated courts and administered legal affairs, mobilized armies and enhanced their own authority at the expense of the king or higher lord. These same nobles had others operating under them, often known as retainers, who pledged to support the higher noblemen in exchange for a grant of land, or some other form of remuneration, such as the right to income from a mill, or rents from a village. Sometimes, but not often, it involved payment of money. The grants enabled the retainers to spend time fighting on behalf of the lord rather than cultivating food or providing for their families. It also allowed them to maintain horses and acquire military equipment and armor, which was often very expensive. In exchange for grants of land or other income producing property; the retainer promised loyalty and obedience to the lord, as well as to fight on his behalf when called upon to do so.

The entire structure of grant and loyalty was based on Germanic custom, in which military leaders swore oaths of allegiance to their superiors. The traditional Germanic system was based on unquestioned loyalty; this is in contrast to Roman tradition which was based on law and legal obligation. Grants of land, etc. were made in the course of a somewhat solemn ceremony known as homage and fealty. The lesser nobleman would bow before the higher lord and promise loyalty ("fealty") after which the higher lord would bestow upon him lands or other property. He normally did so by placing in the lesser noblemanís hands a small clump of soil. The higher nobleman was known as the Lord, the lesser nobleman was the Vassal. The Vassal was obligated to provide military service for the Lord, typically forty days per year. He was also obligated to pay certain taxes to the Lord, as well as fight on his behalf. A vassal could on occasion assert his independence from his overlord; but he had to be prepared to defend himself in such an instance from the lordís armies, which often consisted of other retainers who had remained loyal.

The entire arrangement became an incredibly complicated and entangled web of relationships based on pledges of loyalty. A lord might have several vassals (retainers); but himself be the vassal of a still higher lord. In one instance, the King of England declared himself the vassal of the King of France in exchange for lands in France. This strange relationship was the primary cause of the Hundred Years War. Also, having incurred the wrath of the Pope and lacking the support of his nobles, King John of England declared himself the Vassal of the Pope, and all of England as the Popeís fief.

The enormous cost involved meant that only noblemen typically owned war horses, although they were later adapted to agricultural use. Similarly, only noblemen owned weapons. They were simply too expensive for common peasants. The French word for knight is Chevalier meaning "horseman."

Although all nobles of military age were necessarily knights, knighthood had to be earned through some exploit involving the use of arms. In the late Middle Ages the son of a noble would serve first as page, then as squire, before being made a knight. Knighthood was conferred by the overlord with the accolade (a blow, usually with the flat of the sword, on the neck or shoulder); in the later Middle Ages, the ceremony was preceded by the religious ceremony of a vigil before an altar. A knight fighting under another's banner was called a knight bachelor; a knight fighting under his own banner was a knight banneret. Knights were ordinarily accompanied in battle by personal attendants (squires and pages) and servants. Some knights had no property of their own, and often sought adventure. They were commonly known as knight errants.

Since peasants did not own weapons; in fact were not allowed to own them, peasant revolts would seem to have been rare in Europe. In fact they did occur from time to time; however peasants were forced to fight using the only weapons at their disposal: farm implements.

The Peace of God and Truce of God: With the cessation of invasions from the North and East, those who had lived in a culture whose very essence was warfare found it difficult to abandon the practice. Noblemen and their retainers knew only one craft; that of fighting. When Viking, Islamic and Magyar invasions ceased, they had no one to fight, but knew nothing else to do; so they fought among themselves. On occasion, knights would wait at crossroads for another knight to pass, whom they would challenge to a fight. In addition to one-on-one skirmishes, noblemen routinely attacked and pillaged towns and villages under the control of other noblemen. Since all knights were noblemen, those who robbed and pillaged were often known as Robber Barons. Peasants and others were often killed with abandon and entire villages burned.

It was an attempt to calm this random violence that led to the institution of the joust, a form of organized warfare in which knights competed against each other for glory. At other times, groups of knights waged mock warfare against each other in an exercise known as a melee. Even though it was presumably for entertainment and diversion, jousts and melees were often violent affairs in which participants were often killed.

The violence of the age was predicted as early as the ninth century by a cleric from Ravenna following the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire: "When after the demise of the Roman Empire of the Franks, various kings shall seat themselves on the august throne; each man will put his trust only in the sword." Plunder and pillaging became acceptable methods of enriching ones self. The violence of the age was exacerbated by the presumed right of one to avenge injury to oneís familyóliterally taking the law into oneís own hands.

Inasmuch as human life was considered transitory, medieval men accepted blood violence with abandon. Displays of physical strength were considered a point of honor. Bishop Burchard of Worms wrote c. 1024, every day murders in the manner of wild beasts are committed among the dependents of St. Peters. They attack each other through drunkenness, through pride, or for no reason at all. In the course of one year, thirty five serfs of St. Peters, completely innocent people, have been killed by other serfs of the church, and the murderers, far from repenting, glory in their crime."

A reaction to this indiscriminate violence developed at the Synod of Charroux in 989 when Bishop Gunbald of Bordeaux in the name of the bishops declared anathema anyone who broke into or robbed a church, or who robbed the poor, or who injured clergymen. The so-called Peace of God extended over much of France, but had little success in other parts of Europe and had no effect whatsoever in England.

The Truce of God was originally promulgated at the Council of Elve in 1027 which forbade fighting from Saturday night to Monday morning on pain of excommunication. (No wars on Sunday). This prohibition worked so well that it was extended from Wednesday night until Monday morning. Later, the Council of Clermont (1095) extended the prohibition during certain seasons of the year, such as from Advent to Epiphany and from Lent to Easter.

In time, retainers (vassals) gained the right to pass their ownership and prerogatives on to their heirs. The result was the establishment of a hereditary noble class in Western Europe that lived off surplus agricultural production in the lands it owned.

Medieval Manors and Serfdom: Decentralization of authority in Western Europe meant fundamental changes for slaves and free peasants. Both Romans and Germans had enslaved other peoples and slavery persisted for several centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire. A substantial portion of the society had also consisted of free peasants who lived on the land, and paid a portion of its produce to their superiors. It was by this means of drawing from the agricultural surplus of their lands that retainers (vassals) could secure the resources needed to maintain their own military and political affairs.

Slaves and free peasants frequently intermarried and worked at the same agricultural tasks as they had during Roman days. Free peasants received protection from the nobleman from invaders or robber barons (generally by fleeing to his fortress) and often received land to cultivate in return for which they pledged labor and obedience. By the seventh century, a new class had developed of people who were neither slave nor free, although they were closer to the former than to the latter. They were known as serfs, (a Middle English term derived from Old French, derived from servus, meaning "slave.") Serfs were not actually slaves, although they were at the bottom of the European social class, and their rights were severely limited.

A serf normally had the right to work certain lands, and to pass that right on to his heirs, but he did not own the land; it belonged to the lord for whom he worked, literally the "landlord." His obligation to the lord included payment of his own harvest; usually in the form of produce (serfs seldom if ever had money.) He was also obligated to work on the landlordís fields, bridges, and roads for typically three days per week, although this number might be increased. Most bridges and roads were privately owned, and the owner charged one for the right to use it. The fee one paid was a toll; The lord needed the labor of the serfs to maintain roads and bridges as these were important sources of income for him. Serfs were not allowed to leave the land for better opportunity, and could not even marry without the landlordís consent, which often involved payment of a fee. Among the strange (and perhaps undignified) rights of the landlord was the Droit Du Seignior, or in German, the Das Recht der ersten Nacht; the right of the landlord to sleep with a young lady before she was given in marriage.

Serf women also worked for the landlord. Quite often, they worked in the fields with their husbands. Children were required to work also as soon as they were able. Education was nonexistent. When not working in the fields, women made cheese, butter, beer, cloth, etc. which was also paid in kind to the landlord and his family. They might keep sheep and cattle and paid a portion of the produce of these animals to the landlord.

A typical serf home might keep one cow, used for production of milk, butter and cheese. Cows were much smaller than modern cattle (about the size of a large dog) and their production was also limited. Pigs were also kept, but were allowed to roam freely through the woods. Serfs seldom dined on any meat other than pork, which was often tough and stringy.

The principal agricultural organization was the Manor, a large estate with fields, meadows, forests, and even lakes. The "lord of the manor," was normally politically and militarily prominent. He and his deputies ruled the manor and provided all necessary legal services. He had the right to settle dispute between serfs and could execute them for serious misconduct. Manors were largely self sufficient with mills, bakeries, breweries, wineries, etc. The few products which could not be obtained from the manor were usually supplied by small markets located near monasteries.

The Economy of Early Medieval Europe: The backbone of European economy during the early Middle Ages was primarily agricultural. The center of agriculture was in the north. Most peasants and serfs used a "three field system" whereby one field was planted with wheat in the spring, one with barley in the fall, and the third left fallow. The fields were rotated so that one field lay fallow at all times. Agricultural production was poor, as plows barely scratched the surface of the soil, and birds carried away much of the seed that was sown. In a good year, agricultural yield was 3:1; that is three seeds for every seed sown. One seed had to be retained for the next yearís crop; so two seeds for every one sold was available for consumption. In a bad year, caused by drought or bad weather, the yield was considerably reduced, and peasants might starve.

An agricultural revolution of the middle ages came about which was largely the result of the use of horses to pull heavy-wheeled plows. The horse was capable of exerting the same pull as an ox, but worked at twice the speed and could thereby till twice the amount of soil as an ox-drawn plow in a day. During earlier times, horses had proven unsuitable for farm work as they were harnessed in a fashion similar to oxen. The resulting pull placed weight on the horseís jugular vein and windpipe which caused it to rear backward violently. As a result, only small weights could dependably be pulled by them, in fact the Theodosian Code of 438 prohibited harnessing a horse to a load greater than 500 kilograms.

The horse became a more suitable draft animal with the introduction of a padded harness which fit across the horseís shoulders rather than its neck. This allowed the horse to pull more efficiently. Additionally, increased iron production led to the introduction of horse shoes which reduced the risk of serious injury.

By far the most important innovation was the heavy-wheeled plow near the end of the tenth century. Its two wheels helped the plowman move easily from field to field and also to regulate the depth of furrows. Since it typically cut a deep furrow, more than one draft animal was often needed; hence teams of two, four or six horses or oxen might be used. Large teams required substantial space to turn around, and as a result, fields become more elongated and longitudinal, rather than the square pattern practiced earlier. Additionally, since few people could afford the cost of a team and plow, cooperative farming developed.

The paucity of agricultural production left little if any surplus to support cities or towns with large populations of craftsmen and merchants. The cities of the old Roman Empire withered, such that medieval Europe was almost exclusively agricultural. All one needed was produced on the manor. Towns were few and sparsely populated, and served only the immediate area near them. A substantial portion of the existing trade was conducted by Norse mariners, descendants of the Vikings, who alternately plundered and traded. They often traded fish and firs from Scandinavia, honey from Poland, wine from France, and beer from the Netherlands. They often traded with the Byzantine and Abbasid empires, and traded products for silver with them. Silver became the principal source of coins in Europe and was an important portion of the economy.

Still, some trade was carried out, most by itinerant peddlers who traveled from one settlement to another. Christian merchants traded with Muslims in Sicily, Spain, and North Africa which allowed food crops from Islamic areas to find their way into European production, including rice, spinach, artichokes, eggplant, lemons and limes. Even so, few serfs benefited from trade. Their diet consisted mostly of porridge (grain boiled in water) with hard bread and occasionally pork or eggs. There were no potatoes or corn. Malnutrition was a common ailment. Conversely, noblemen and their families seldom ate anything but meat and game, primarily as a method of social distinction. This seemingly desirable diet had its drawbacks, however. Without the fiber supplied by grain and vegetables, they often suffered from constipation. With age, excess meat consumption caused many noblemen to suffer from gout, often so bad that they could not walk unassisted.

The population of Europe declined markedly after the collapse of the Roman Empire, primarily due to epidemic diseases, poor diet, and famine. From an estimated population of 36 million in 200 C.E., the population declined to 26 million by 600 C.E. From that point, the population began to grow, and again reached 36 million by the year 1000.

Europe and Christianity: The conversion of Clovis largely ensured that Europe would embrace Roman rather than Arian Christianity. This was an extremely significant development: the adoption of Roman Christianity ensured that Europe would inherit many vestiges of the Roman Empire which had itself embraced Christianity, including the Latin language and the Roman Catholic church.

Charlemagne vigorously pushed for conversion to Christianity by the peoples he conquered, including the Saxons who had been pagan. The conversion to Christianity was especially beneficial to him as it provided him with educated and literate people, including scribes, secretaries and record keepers. The spread of Christianity resulted in the spread of Latin literacy and an explosion of writing in Europe.

For many years, only churchmen could read and write; hence one who wrote, a "Clark" (Clerk) was known by the same title now applied to ministers and priests; they were "clergymen."

Paganism continued in Europe for some time, particularly in Scandinavia. As early as the Council of Nicaea, the Church had attempted to co-opt pagan holidays and convert them into Christian holidays; such as the celebration of Christmas near the Winter solstice; the celebration of Easter just after the Vernal Equinox, and the celebration of "All Hallows Eve the day before All Saints Day.

The Church additionally benefited from a strong Papacy. Early Popes had attempted to work closely with the Eastern Roman Emperors; however by the sixth century, differences in culture and interpretation of church doctrine led the Pope and Archbishop of Constantinople to excommunicate each other in 1054. The two churches have remained separate ever since: The Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church.

Among the most important of the early Popes was Gregory I, (r. 590 Ė 604 C.E) who ensured the survival of Rome when it was attacked by Lombards by mobilizing forces for the defense of the city. He also reasserted authority over church bishops who had been growing increasingly independent by declaring the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) was the ultimate authority in the Church. As a theologian, he emphasized the sacrament of penance, whereby one confesses his sins to a priest and atones for the sin by performing certain penitential acts prescribed by the priest. The practice insured the importance of the church in the daily lives of Europeans. Gregory also vigorously supported missionary activities, as a result of which Anglo-Saxon England became Christian. Gregory was himself a monk, as were many of his missionaries.

The earliest Popes had used their own names; however with the election of Mercurius (Mercury) in 533, the elected Pope chose the name John II, rather than use a pagan name. Some later popes used their own names; however by 1009, it became customary for the Pope to choose a new name.

Monasticism: During the second and third centuries, many devout Christians sought to live apart from society, either as hermits or in closed communes where they devoted themselves to holiness rather than worldly success. This lifestyle became increasingly popular after the legalization of Christianity.

Monasticism was strengthened by the work of St. Benedict of Nursia (480-537 C.E.), the founder of the Benedictine Order, and who wrote a set of regulations known as the Rule. The Rule provided that monks were not to be overly ascetic; but were to lead chaste, celibate lives in poverty and under the absolute authority of the Abbott who supervised the monastery. Monks were to congregate for religious services several times each day and divide the remainder of their time between periods of study, reflection, and manual labor. St. Benedictís sister was a nun, St. Scholastica, provided religious leadership for women in convents. Benedictine Rule was followed in almost every European monastery and convent.

Monasteries became an important element of Medieval European society. They often inherited lands and the serfs attached to them, (so that the donor might achieve salvation) and thus expanded agricultural production. They often cleared forests, drained swamps, and prepared lands for cultivation. They also provided a variety of social services, as had Buddhist monasteries in Asia and charitable foundations in Islamic countries. They provided inns and places of refuge for those who lost their homes due to fire, flood, etc. They also served as orphanages and hospitals; set up schools and were the primary source of education. Some maintained libraries and scriptoria in which classical and philosophical works were copied by hand. Almost all works of Latin literature that have survived have been due to the work of Medieval monks. They also provided secretarial and administrative services which augmented effective government.

Monasteries were often the only source of instruction in Christianity for many people in the countryside; and they thus tended to the spiritual needs of many. They thus became an important element in the instillation of Christian values in Europe.