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Social Classes in the Middle Ages

Social Classes in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages in Europe is the period dating from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th Century to the reawakening experienced in the Renaissance, which some scholars tell us was in the 14th Century, others in the 15th and 16th Century.

In terms of culture, art, and science, the period is described as stagnant, and the early part, of which little is recorded, was referred to as the Dark Ages. 

Society in the Middle Ages was one of clearly defined social classes. The upper class consisted of the various levels of royalty, the clergy, and nobility, while professionals, merchants, and soldiers made up the middle class and peasants and serfs the lower class.  

The Middle Ages was a period of feudalism, in which the social structure defined the role of each member of society. Those at the top owned all the land, and all below them were termed vassals, who were allowed to live on the land in exchange for their loyalty and their labor.

Even the nobles were vassals of the king, given land as a gift or “fief.” It makes for a fascinating study, so read on.

The Birth Of Social Classes In The Middle Ages

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 CE (CE stands for Common Era and is equivalent to AD), Europe was not as we know it today.

The area we know as western Europe was not made up of self-governing countries but was controlled by the Catholic Church. Royalty and leaders were at the mercy of the Church, and their power depended largely on their allegiance to and the protection of the Church. 

The Upper Class In The Middle Ages  

Medieval king with his queen and knights on guard in castle interior.
Medieval king with his queen and knights on guard

The upper class in the Middle Ages consisted of four tiers:

  • Royalty, being the king, queen, princes, and princesses 
  • The clergy, although considered in some ways divorced from society, wielded immense influence through the Church
  • Nobility, consisting of the lords, dukes, counts, and squires, who were vassals of the monarch
  • Knights were considered the lowest level of nobility, and at least in the early Middle Ages, they did not own land. 

Royalty And Its Role In Medieval Society

The king in medieval Europe was not necessarily born into the role but may have been appointed by the Church from the ranks of noblemen because of his military strength, ownership of large tracts of land, and political power. Laws of succession would then keep the monarchy within the royal family

The monarch owned all the land in the kingdom and had unlimited power over the land and all its people. With that power came responsibility for the well-being of the country, protection from external attacks, and peace and stability among the population.

Many kings were, in fact, benevolent rulers and much-loved heads of state, while others failed miserably and were dethroned by political rivals.

The queen’s role was seldom a political one. She was required to bear heirs to the throne, maintain close ties to the Church, carry out duties delegated by the king, and see to the efficient running of the royal household.

Some medieval queens ruled in their own right, as well as those who were very influential advisors to the king, but this was not generally the case.      

The title of prince was given to rulers of more insignificant territories but also to the sons of the king. The eldest, being heir to the throne, received education and training from an early age to prepare him for the time he would assume the role of king.

Military training, as well as academic education, would be prioritized. As an adult, the prince would be given royal duties to perform and often a region of the country to rule over on behalf of the king.

Princesses were given an excellent education but were trained to assume the duties of a queen rather than a king unless there were no male heirs to the throne. In this case, they would be trained as much as a prince would be.

The Clergy And Their Role In Society In The Middle Ages 

As mentioned, the Church became the dominant governing body after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was influential in shaping the policies and behavior of kings and every member of society beneath them.

Vast tracts of land were donated to the Church by rulers seeking support and allegiance from the Church. The upper echelons of the Catholic clergy lived the life of, and were considered to be, nobility.   

The wealth and influence of the Church led to many noble families sending at least one family member into the service of the Church. As a result, there was secular self-interest in some religious circles and often a conflict between secular and religious bodies looking to influence the royal court.    

Societal behavior at every level, including the peasants and serfs, was strongly influenced by discipline and punishments handed down by religious officials. Religion was a major factor in education, as well as art and culture of the time. This is cited as the reason why the Middle Ages saw very little growth in these aspects of culture.

The Noblemen Of The Middle Ages 

The nobility in the Middle Ages played the role of surrogates for the king. As vassals of royalty, noblemen were granted gifts of land by the king, known as fiefs, on which they lived, farmed, and employed serfs to do all the labor.

In exchange for this favor, they pledged allegiance to the king, supported him in times of war, and effectively administered the running of the country.     

Enjoying a great deal of wealth, living in massive castles on large estates, spending time hunting, riding with the hounds, and entertaining lavishly was one aspect of the life of a nobleman.

The other side of their life was less glamorous – managing the farming operation, dealing with, caring for, and protecting the peasants who lived on their estate, and going to war to defend their king and country when called upon to do so. 

The title of lord, duke, or whatever was bestowed on them by the king was hereditary and passed down from father to son. Many of the noble titles of the time still exist today, although many of the duties and privileges associated with the title no longer apply. 

Knights Became Part Of The Upper Class 

While in the Early Middle Ages, any soldier on horseback could be considered a knight, they first appeared as members of the upper class when Charlemagne used mounted soldiers on his campaigns and rewarded their invaluable contribution to his success by granting them land in the conquered territories.

Many noblemen became knights, with their wealth used to purchase the finest horses, armor, and weapons.

There was a great deal of conflict between the knights and the Church. They saw them as instruments of the devil, looting, pillaging, and wreaking havoc on the populations they conquered, and also challenging the powers and influence of the Church.

By the late Middle Ages, knights had become more than mounted soldiers and, governed by a code of chivalry, were at the forefront of society in terms of fashion, glamour, and status. By the late Middle Ages, new methods of warfare rendered traditional knights obsolete, but they continued, through heredity, as land-owning noblemen and members of the elite. 

The Middle Class In The Middle Ages

The middle class in Europe in the early Middle Ages was a small section of the population that no longer worked the land, but were not part of the upper class, as they had little wealth and were not landowners of any scale. Tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen with little education made up this middle class. 

The middle class emerged strongly after the Black Death of the mid- 14th Century. This horrific bubonic plague killed half the population of Europe at that time. It surfaced periodically as an urban disease until 1665. 

It favored the rise of the middle class because it reduced the demand for land, while decreasing the workforce available to work that land. Wages rose, and the influence of the Church declined. At the same time, inventions such as the printing press made books more available, and education flourished. 

The feudal system was broken, and the middle class, consisting of tradesmen, merchants, doctors, and professional people, became society’s largest and most economically active section. 

The Lower Class In The Middle Ages  

While the upper class in European society had total control of the land, and the feudal system remained entrenched, most of the population was condemned to a life of relative poverty.

 Serfs could not own land and were bound to the manor on which they lived, working for half of their day at menial tasks and as laborers in exchange for a home and protection from attack. 

Peasants were marginally better off, as they owned a small piece of land to cultivate, and some worked as craftsmen in their own right while paying taxes to their lord. Others were obliged to work on the land of the manor, for which they received a wage. From this meager amount, they had to tithe a portion to the Church and pay taxes.

While it is true that the lower classes were exploited by the landowners, it is also accepted that many lords of the manor were benefactors and providers, and the peasants and serfs, while poor, led secure lives and were not considered hard done by. 

In Closing  

The feudal system characterized society in the Middle Ages and was a result of the collapse of the Roman Empire. While historians called the early part of this period the Dark Ages, the current opinion is that it created a dynamic society that functioned for a thousand years.

Even though it might not have produced much art, literature, and science, it prepared Europe for a future Renaissance.