's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Society and Social Classes

Medieval society and social classesEdit

Early Middle AgesEdit

New societiesEdit

Although the political structure in western Europe had changed after the fall of the Roman Empire, the divide was not as extensive as some historians have claimed. Although usually described as "invasions", they were not always just military expeditions but were mostly caused by the movement of peoples immigrating into the Empire. Such movements were aided by the refusal of the western Roman elites to either support the army or pay the taxes that would have allowed the military to suppress the migration. The emperors of the 5th century were often controlled by military strongmen such as Stilicho (d. 408), Ricimer (d. 472), Gundobad (d. 516), or Aspar (d. 471), and when the western emperors ceased, many of the kings who replaced them were from the same background as those military strongmen. Intermarriage between the new kings and the Roman elites was common. This led to a fusion of the Roman culture with the customs of the invading tribes, including the popular assemblies which allowed free male tribal members more say in political matters. Material artifacts left by the Romans and the invaders are often similar, with tribal items often being obviously modeled on Roman objects. Similarly, much of the intellectual culture of the new kingdoms was directly based on Roman intellectual traditions. An important difference was the gradual loss of tax revenue by the new polities. Many of the new political entities no longer provided their armies with tax revenues, instead allocating land or rents. This meant there was less need for large tax revenues and so the taxation systems decayed. Warfare was common between and within the kingdoms. Slavery declined as the supply declined, and society became more rural.

Coin of Theodoric.

Between the 5th and 8th centuries, new peoples and powerful individuals filled the political void left by Roman centralized government. The Ostrogoths settled in Italy in the late 5th century under Theodoric (d. 526) and set up a kingdom marked by its cooperation between the Italians and the Ostrogoths, at least until the last years of Theodoric's reign. The Burgundians settled in Gaul, and after an earlier kingdom was destroyed by the Huns in 436, formed a new kingdom in the 440s between today's Geneva and Lyon. This grew to be a powerful kingdom in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. In northern Gaul, the Franks and Britons set up small kingdoms. The Frankish kingdom was centered in northeastern Gaul and the first king of whom much is known is Childeric, who died in 481. Under Childeric's son Clovis (r. 509–511), the Frankish kingdom expanded and converted to Christianity. The Britons, related to the natives of Britannia, settled in what is now Brittany, which took its name from their settlement. Other kingdoms were established by the Visigoths in Spain, the Suevi in northwestern Spain, and the Vandals in North Africa. In the 6th century, the Lombards settled in northern Italy, replacing the Ostrogothic kingdom with a grouping of duchies that occasionally selected a king to rule over all of them. By the late 6th century this arrangement had been replaced by a permanent monarchy.

With the invasions came new ethnic groups into parts of Europe, but the settlement was uneven, with some regions such as Spain having a larger settlement of new peoples than other places. Gaul's settlement was uneven, with the barbarians settling much thicker in the northeast than in the southwest. Slavonic peoples settled in central and eastern Europe and into the Balkan Peninsula. The settlement of peoples was accompanied by changes in languages. The Latin of the Western Roman Empire was gradually replaced by languages based on Latin but distinct. These changes from Latin to the new languages like French or Portuguese or Romanian took many centuries, however, and went through a number of stages. Greek remained the language of the Byzantine Empire, but the migrations of the Slavs added Slavonic languages to the mix.

Western societyEdit

Society in Western Europe changed with the new rulers. Some of the Roman elite families died out while others became more involved with Church than secular affairs. The older values of Latin classics scholarship and education mostly disappeared, and while literacy remained an important skill, it became a practical skill. In the 4th century, Jerome dreamed that God rebuked him for spending more time reading Cicero than the Bible. By the 6th century, Gregory of Tours had a similar dream, but instead of being chastised for reading Cicero, he was chastised for learning shorthand. By the late 6th century, the principal means of instruction in the Church ceased to be the book and was replaced with music and art. With laymen, a similar change took place, with the aristocratic culture focusing on great feasts held in halls. Clothing for the elites was richly embellished with jewels and gold. Lords and kings supported entourages of fighters who formed the backbone of the military forces of the time. Family ties between the elites were important, as were the virtues of loyalty, courage, and honour. These ties led to the prevalence of the feud in aristocratic society, examples of which included those related by Gregory of Tours that took place in Merovingian Gaul. Most feuds, however, seem to have ended quickly with the payment of some sort of compensation usually ending the feud. Women took part in aristocratic society mainly in terms of their functions as wives or mothers of men, with the role of mother of a ruler being especially prominent in Merovingian Gaul. In Anglo-Saxon society, the lack of many child rulers meant less role for women as queen mothers but this was compensated for by the increased role played by abbesses of monasteries. Only in Italy does it appear that women were considered as always under the protection and control of some male relative.

Peasant society is much less documented than the nobility. Most of the surviving information available to historians comes from archaeology; few detailed written records documenting peasant life remain from before the 9th century. Most the descriptions of the lower classes come from either law codes or writers from the upper classes. Landholding patterns in the West were not uniform, with some areas having greatly fragmented landholding patterns and other areas with a pattern of large, contiguous blocks of land being the norm. These differences allowed for a wide variety of peasant societies with some being dominated by aristocratic landholders and others having a great deal of autonomy. Land settlement also varied greatly. Some peasants lived in large settlements that numbered as many as 700 inhabitants. Others lived in small groups of a few families and still others lived on isolated farms spread over the countryside. There were also areas where the pattern was a mix of two or more of those systems. Unlike in the late Roman period, there was no sharp break between the legal status of the free peasant and the aristocrat, however, and it was possible for a free peasant's family to rise into the aristocracy over a number of generations through military service to a powerful lord.


Spinning by hand was a traditional form of women's work. Hunterian Psalter, c. 1170. Glasgow University Library.

The Roman Catholic Church was a major unifying, cultural influence of the Middle Ages with its selection from Latin learning, preservation of the art of writing, and a centralized administration through its network of bishops. Historically in the Catholic and other ancient churches, the role of bishop, like the priesthood, was restricted to men. The first Council of Orange (441) also forbade the ordination of deaconesses, a ruling that was repeated by the Council of Epaon (517) and second Council of Orléans (533).

With the establishment of Christian monasticism, other roles within the Church became available to women. From the 5th century onward, Christian convents provided opportunities for some women to escape the path of marriage and child-rearing, acquire literacy and learning, and play a more active religious role. Abbesses could become important figures in their own right, often ruling over monasteries of both men and women, and holding significant lands and power. Figures such as Hilda of Whitby (c. 614–680) became influential figures on a national and even international scale.

For most of the Middle Ages, until the introduction of beer made with hops, brewing was done largely by women; this was a form of work which could be carried out at home. In addition, married women were generally expected to assist their husbands in business. Such partnerships were facilitated by the fact that much work occurred in or near the home. However, there are recorded examples from the High Middle Ages of women engaged in a business other than that of their husband.

Midwifery was practiced informally, gradually becoming a specialized occupation in the Late Middle Ages. Women often died in childbirth, although if they survived the child-bearing years, they could live as long as men, even into their 70s. Life expectancy for women rose during the High Middle Ages, due to improved nutrition.

As with peasant men, the life of peasant women was difficult. Women at this level of society had considerable gender equality, but this often simply meant shared poverty. Until nutrition improved, their life expectancy at birth was significantly less than that of male peasants: perhaps 25 years. As a result, in some places there were 4 men for every 3 women. The late medieval poem Piers Plowman paints a pitiful picture of the life of the medieval peasant woman:

"Burdened with children and landlords' rent;
What they can put aside from what they make spinning they spend on housing,
Also on milk and meal to make porridge with
To sate their children who cry out for food
And they themselves also suffer much hunger,
And woe in wintertime, and waking up nights
To rise on the bedside to rock the cradle,
Also to card and comb wool, to patch and to wash,
To rub flax and reel yarn and to peel rushes
That it is pity to describe or show in rhyme
The woe of these women who live in huts"

High Middle AgesEdit

Medieval French manuscript illustration of the three classes of medieval society: clergy, knights, and the peasantry. The relationship between these classes was governed by feudalism and manorialism. Li Livres dou Sante, 13th century.

The High Middle Ages saw an expansion of population. Rough estimates of the increase from the year 1000 until 1347 indicate that the population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million. The exact cause or causes of the growth remain unclear; improved agricultural techniques, the decline of slaveholding, a more clement climate and the lack of invasion have all been put forward. As much as 90 percent of the European population remained rural peasants. Many of them, however, were no longer settled in isolated farms but had gathered into small communities, usually known as manors or villages. These peasants were often subject to noble overlords and owed them rents and other services, in a system known as manorialism. There remained, however, a few free peasants throughout this period and beyond.

John, Duke of Berry enjoying a grand meal; Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, ca 1410.

Other sections of society included the nobility, clergy and townsmen. Nobles, both the titled and simple knights, were the exploiters of the manors and the peasants, although they did not own lands outright, rather they were granted rights to the income from a manor or other lands by an overlord through the customs of feudalism. During the 11th and 12th centuries, these lands, or fiefs, came to be considered hereditary and in most areas they were no longer divisible between all the heirs as had been the case in the early medieval period. Instead, most fiefs and lands went to the eldest son. The dominance of the nobility was built upon its control of the land, its military service as heavy cavalry, control of castles, and the various immunities from taxes or other impositions that the nobles enjoyed. Heavy cavalry had been introduced into Europe from the Persian cataphract of the 5th and 6th centuries, but the addition of the stirrup in the 7th allowed the full force of the horse and rider to be used in combat. Stone castles began to be constructed in the 9th and 10th centuries in response to the disorders of the time, and allowed inhabitants to take refuge from invaders. Control of castles allowed the nobles to defy kings or other overlords.

The clergy was divided into two types – the secular clergy who lived in the world, and the regular clergy, or those who lived under a religious rule and were usually monks. Most of the regular clergy were drawn from the ranks of the nobility, the same social class that served as the recruiting ground for the upper levels of the secular clergy. The local parish priests were often drawn from the peasant class. Townsmen were in a somewhat unusual position, as they did not fit into the traditional three-fold division of society into nobles, clergy, and peasants. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the ranks of the townsmen expanded greatly as existing towns grew and new population centers were founded.

In Central and Northern Italy and in Flanders, the rise of towns that were, to a degree, self-governing, stimulated economic growth and created an environment for new types of trade associations. Commercial cities on the shores of the Baltic entered into agreements known as the Hanseatic League, and Italian city-states such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa expanded their trade throughout the Mediterranean. Besides new trading opportunities, the agricultural and technological improvements enabled the increase in crop yields, which in turn allowed the trade networks to expand. Rising trade brought new methods of dealing with money, and gold coinage was again minted in Europe, at first in Italy and later in France and other countries. New forms of commercial contracts emerged, allowing risk to be shared amongst merchants. Accounting methods improved, partly through the use of double-entry bookkeeping; letters of credit also emerged, to allow easy transmission of money through the trading networks.


Eleanor of Aquitaine was a wealthy and powerful woman.

During the High Middle Ages, numerous women seemed to have achieved large amounts of political, religious, and economic power. For example, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages. She was the patroness of such literary figures as Wace, Benoît de Sainte-More, and Chrétien de Troyes. Eleanor succeeded her father as suo jure Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers at the age of fifteen, and thus became the most eligible bride in Europe.

Herrad of Landsberg, Hildegard of Bingen, and Héloïse d’Argenteuil were influential abbesses and authors during this period. Hadewijch of Antwerp was a poet and mystic. Constance of Sicily, Urraca of León and Castile, Joan I of Navarre, Melisende of Jerusalem and other Queens regnant exercised political power.

Female artisans in many occasions, like their male maids, organised in guilds.

Regarding the role of women in the Church, Pope Innocent III wrote in 1210: "No matter whether the most blessed Virgin Mary stands higher, and is also more illustrious, than all the apostles together, it was still not to her, but to them, that the Lord entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven".

Late Middle AgesEdit

A medieval manuscript illustration of a bishop blessing victims of the Black Death.

The first years of the 14th century were marked by a number of famines, culminating in the Great Famine of 1315–1317. The causes of the Great Famine were not just related to the ongoing climatic change that was taking place, a slow transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age, but also had causes in overspecialization in single crops, which left the population vulnerable when bad weather caused crop failures. Other troubles included an economic downturn and the aforementioned climate change – which resulted in the average annual temperature for Europe declining 2 degrees Celsius during the 14th century. These troubles were followed in 1347 by the Black Death, a disease that spread throughout Europe in the years 1348, 1349, and 1350. The death toll was probably about 35 million people in total in Europe, about one-third of the population. Towns were especially hard-hit because of the crowded conditions. Large areas of land were left sparsely inhabited, and in some places fields were left unworked. Because of the sudden decline in available labourers, the price of wages rose as landlords sought to entice workers to their fields, but the lower rents were balanced out by the lower demand for food, which cut into agricultural income. Urban workers also felt that they had a right to greater earnings, and popular uprisings broke out across Europe. Among the uprisings were the jacquerie in France, the Peasants' Revolt in England, and revolts in the cities of Florence in Italy and Ghent and Bruges in Flanders. The trauma of the plague led to an increased piety throughout Europe, which manifested itself in the foundation of new charities, the extreme self-mortification of the flagellants, and the scapegoating of the Jews. Conditions were further unsettled by the return of the plague throughout the rest of the 14th century. It continued to strike Europe throughout the rest of the Middle Ages[1]


Christine de Pizan became a professional writer after the death of her husband in 1390.

In the Late Middle Ages women such as Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila played significant roles in the development of theological ideas and discussion within the church, and were later declared Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. The mystic Julian of Norwich was also significant in England.

Isabella I of Castile ruled a combined kingdom with her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Joan of Arc successfully led the French army on several occasions during the Hundred Years' War.

Christine de Pizan was a noted late medieval writer on women's issues. Her Book of the City of Ladies attacked misogyny, while her Treasure of the City of Ladies articulated an ideal of feminine virtue for women from walks of life ranging from princess to peasant's wife. Her advice to the princess includes a recommendation to use diplomatic skills to prevent war:

"If any neighbouring or foreign prince wishes for any reason to make war against her husband, or if her husband wishes to make war on someone else, the good lady will consider this thing carefully, bearing in mind the great evils and infinite cruelties, destruction, massacres and detriment to the country that result from war; the outcome is often terrible. She will ponder long and hard whether she can do something (always preserving the honour of her husband) to prevent this war."

From the last century of the Middle Ages onwards, restrictions began to be placed on women's work, and guilds became increasingly male-only. Female property rights also began to be curtailed during this period.[2]

Society and social class in Chaucer's Canterbury TalesEdit

Chaucer as pilgrim.

The upper class or nobility, represented chiefly by the Knight and his Squire, was in Chaucer's time steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness. Nobles were expected to be powerful warriors who could be ruthless on the battlefield, yet mannerly in the King's Court and Christian in their actions. Knights were expected to form a strong social bond with the men who fought alongside them, but an even stronger bond with a woman whom they idealized in order to strengthen their fighting ability. Though the aim of chivalry was to noble action, often its conflicting values degenerated into violence. Church leaders often tried to place restrictions on jousts and tournaments, which at times ended in the death of the loser. The Knight's Tale shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights turns into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealize, with both knights willing to fight the other to the death in order to win her. Chivalry was in Chaucer's day on the decline, and it is possible that The Knight's Tale was intended to show its flaws, although this is disputed. Chaucer himself had fought in the Hundred Years' War under Edward III, who heavily emphasized chivalry during his reign. Two tales, The Tale of Sir Topas and The Tale of Melibee are told by Chaucer himself, who is traveling with the pilgrims in his own story. Both tales seem to focus on the ill-effects of chivalry—the first making fun of chivalric rules and the second warning against violence.

The Tales constantly reflect the conflict between classes. For example, the division of the three estates; the characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being "those who pray" (the clergy), "those who fight" (the nobility), and "those who work" (the commoners and peasantry). Most of the tales are interlinked by common themes, and some "quit" (reply to or retaliate against) other tales. Convention is followed when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group. But when he is followed by the Miller, who represents a lower class, it sets the stage for the Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules. Helen Cooper, as well as Mikhail Bakhtin and Derek Brewer, call this opposition "the ordered and the grotesque, Lent and Carnival, officially approved culture and its riotous, and high-spirited underside." Several works of the time contained the same opposition.[3]


  1. "The Middle Ages" (Wikipedia)
  2. "Women in the Middle Ages" (Wikipedia)
  3. "The Canterbury Tales" (Wikipedia)
Last modified on 18 April 2013, at 20:12