Skip to Content

Nobles in the Middle Ages

Nobles in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages, is a time in history between the collapse of Roman civilization and the start of the Renaissance.

During this time, there were three basic tiers of society, the royals, the nobles, and the peasants. Below I will tell you all about the nobles of the Middle Ages, including how people became nobles, the duties of noblemen and noblewomen, and their daily lives.

Nobles in the Middle Ages could be anyone holding enough wealth, power, or appointment by a royal, and these requirements would change over time. Since nobles held power during this time, they would often be the “caretakers” of an area of land and have duties such as funding and making decisions.

Becoming noble, the life of nobles and the duties of a nobleman or noblewoman changed a lot during the middle ages. However, it isn’t always easy to separate fact from fiction during this period.

Though there are many documents you can find today regarding nobility and how you could become a noble, it is essential to remember that these processes changed, something I will also explain.

How Did Someone Become A Noble In The Middle Ages

How someone became a noble differs substantially depending on the time and place during the Middle Ages. At the start of the Middle Ages, there were much fewer rules and regulations regarding becoming a noble, which is why some believe that someone with enough wealth or power could become a noble. [1]

As time progressed during the Middle Ages, nobles essentially became the middle class of society. They held much more responsibility for their land and the people who stayed and worked in their designated area.

For this reason, it is likely that as the system of nobles developed, people either received nobility as an inheritance or were appointed nobility through the king or other royals.[2]

Though becoming a noble would change as time passed, it is essential to know that by the later end of the Middle Ages, there were many more rules about who was and wasn’t a noble. Many people had their nobility status removed if they did not live “noble lives.”

Many believe that during the Middle Ages, specifically around the High Middle Ages, nobility needed to be proved through a documented timeline.[3]

One example is that at the beginning of the Middle Ages, anyone with enough money to become well-trained and afford the necessary equipment could become a knight.

However, by the High Middle Ages, knighthood could not just be bought but also had the added requirement of being able to show that your ancestors were knights.

It may be that knighthood became more well-regulated because it would better your rank in society and make you a “lower-class” noble. In contrast, before this period, knights weren’t always nobility.

The seemingly most straightforward way to become a noble would be to be a descendant of a noble bloodline. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, some people believed that the noble bloodline could be carried either by the mother or father’s descendants.

However, by the High Middle ages, most accepted that only paternal ancestry counted and would allow you inherited nobility and land. [4]

The Responsibilities And Life Of A Noble In The Middle Ages

As discussed before, nobility and owning land went hand-in-hand, and it was often this land that would allow the nobles to fund their family and lives.

Depending on the type or rank, some nobles would have land to help generate an income and a claim on the lands surrounding their estate, which was often “rented” to the working class of the time. 

Though someone may be a noble during the Middle Ages, it is also critical to note that nobility changed and that you had to live the life of a noble to keep your family status.[5]

Living a noble’s life meant that nobles were expected to show wealth and status and compete with other nobility to a certain extent, but could not do specific jobs such as being a merchant or taking a manual trade.

Because nobles got restricted to working on their estate and doing “noble” jobs, the nobility would often change, and the rank of nobility could get taken from anyone who did not live according to the rules. 

However, the restrictions of what a noble could do to generate funds also affected the status of nobility since some nobles would have to get into debt to keep their lifestyles, and their status would get removed if they could not pay this debt.

Apart from the daily life of maintaining an estate, a noble had other responsibilities to their area and the royals. [6] While ensuring their land got kept in order, noblemen also had to spend a lot of time training in combat since one of the expectations of a noble was to fight for their king if needed. 

In addition to being well-trained, nobles may also need to supply royalty with knights, especially at the start of the Middle Ages. Supplying royals with knights meant that the nobles of an area would have to train and supply both themselves and other young fighters.

While noblemen had a significant amount of responsibility during the Middle Ages, so had the noblewomen of the time. Noblewomen usually had days of events and gatherings meant to increase or maintain the family’s social standing.

However, when the noblemen of the area were away from their estates, no matter the reason, the noblewoman was required to take up the mantle and manage and maintain the area until the noblemen’s return.

This responsibility meant that noblewomen would manage every aspect of the estate at times, including the finances and the working class of the area, also called serfs.

How Would Someone Prove They Were Noble?

Though the title, reach, and how you became noble were more loosely defined at the start of the Middle Ages, by the 1300s, also known as the High Middle Ages, nobility and the title of nobility were nearly impossible to come by. 

Because by the High Middle Ages, nobility mainly got inherited, the nobility became a more closed-off group of noble families, and proving your nobility through a noble bloodline became much more commonplace and sought after.

However, until this point in time, there was little need to be able to prove your heritage, making it hard to prove your nobility at the time.[3]

It is due to the nobles of the Middle Ages that we now use surnames to show which family we belong to since before this time, people had one name. The family name would often derive from the belongings within the family, such as the favorite or most prestigious castle owned and operated by the family.

In addition to the use of surnames that would be able to prove your heritage and line of nobility, many noble families also developed coats or arms.

The coat of arms of a family was a visual representation of the family and their specialties and rank that they would print on a shield or flag. The coat of arms also became a way of proving your nobility, which is why it got shown off in the manner stated above.

Were Knights Nobles?

As briefly mentioned earlier, it used to be the duty of nobles to fight in wars with their kings and to supply the royals with knights for the same purpose.

However, as time progressed, being a knight was also seen as noble, and if you got knighted, you would become a noble and may receive a piece of land along with the new title.

Through the Middle Ages, the roles of knights changed a lot, first being people with some training and the necessary equipment, often provided by nobles, and later becoming a group of people that set a standard and had to follow a set of rules.[8]

One of the ways someone would become a knight is by being rewarded with the noble title as a payment for service to the royals. However, it is essential to note that knights during this time belonged not to the high nobility but lower nobility. 

One of the reasons knights got considered lower nobility is because, though they may have land, they often still lacked the funds to maintain their areas, needing to continue serving the royals and the king for wages to maintain the land they received.


The Middle Ages is a period in history that introduced concepts still in use today, such as family names. Though some of the aspects and lives of the nobles of this time seem strange to us, it is interesting to learn about the lives of nobles and how they received and maintained their titles.

It is also interesting to see that though the life of nobles was better, they were no less complicated than that of commoners.



Header image courtesy: Jan Matejko, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons