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The Medieval World

Evolution of Medieval
Society & Class

Jean Miles
Rhodes University
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The term "society" is indeed a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon with a myriad of factors that integrate and impact onto each other and should, therefore, be viewed from a holistic perspective.

When analysing society, however, it seems expedient to examine the various issues in relative isolation so as to gain a thorough understanding of the numerous dynamics present. From the complexity of society, specific elements will, therefore, be examined to establish the extent to which an evolution occurred in High Middle Ages society.

These elements include the three different class structures of the High Middle Ages: firstly, the clergy incorporating the issue of religion; secondly, the nobility and monarchy incorporating the issue of politics; and thirdly the bourgeoisie and peasantry.

Modes of agricultural production, urbanization, trade and commerce, education and culture, as well as law will also be explored.

See:
  • M Perry & Others, Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics and Society, Vol. 1 to 1789 (Boston, 1985), p186.
  • It will be essential, in each section, to do a synopsis of prevailing conditions in the Early Middle Ages to help determine the extent that society evolved in the High Middle Ages. Perry contends that the church gained in power and importance as the Roman Empire decayed.

    The church was able to teach a higher morality and tame the warrior habits of the German peoples. The clergy were generally the only educated people and therefore played a vital role in administration. The Bishops became good bureaucrats and the Monks good secretaries.

    Although intellectual life in the seventh century continued on a steady decline, the monasteries were the principal cultural centres. The monasteries were also places of refuge for travellers and the destitute. The monks taught peasants improved farming methods and helped to clear land.

    See:
  • RR Palmer & J Colton, A History of the Modern World to 1815 (New York, 1984), p36.
  • Nevertheless, in the Early Middle Ages the lay rulers controlled the church. For example, manorial lords appointed their priests, and the dukes and kings would appoint Bishops. Lay lords often sold, at enormous profit, the office of Bishop through the practice of simony.

    The Bishop would gain money through the tithe that the public paid. With the lay control of the church the Papacy was also corrupt. For many centuries the Papacy had been under the control of nobility and in effect, had no influence.

    Coupled to this, the Benedictine monasteries had become wealthy and the subject of feudalism, whereby the Abbot of the monastery was himself a wealthy landlord. As Palmer and Colton state that the church in the 10th century was,like everything else, also in a dubious position.

    The church seemed to reflect the nature of life about it, that is, it was fragmented and localized. Although the clergy was the only literate class, many of the clergy themselves could not read or write. Priests often lived in concubines or married to pass their church position on to their children.

    Circumstances came to their lowest point in 1046 when no less than three Popes were on the throne each claiming to be legitimate.

    The High Middle Ages, however, saw the flowering of the Christian church. The impulse to reform the church itself came from many quarters, for example, monastic reform. Early in the tenth century the Cluniac movement arose in protest against the worldliness and complacency of the contemporary Benedictine monasticism.

    Cluny brought about a reform programme aimed at reverting to the ideal of monastic virtue. Cluny became responsible for wide-spread monastic reforms, until it eventually had about 1 400 Benedictine monasteries under its control.

    The Cluniac monasteries, however, soon became the victim of wealth and luxury, which gave rise to two new form of asceticism, namely Carthusians and Cistercians. The Carthusians never proved popular because of their severity, although it lasted the longest.

    The Cistercians were far more popular and based their spiritual programme along the lines of the original rule of St. Benedict. Economic successes brought ever-increasing wealth to the order. Cistercian abbey churches became more elaborate, and the austerity of Cistercian life was progressively relaxed.

    Offshoots of Cistercians emerged to return to the strict observance of the original Cistercians. Mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans were started and prospered.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p186.
  • Another major church reform was the decree issued by the church providing that future popes should be elected by cardinals and thereby gain autonomy from secular powers. Pope Gregory VII was elected by cardinals in 1073. He founded the papal supremacy of the High Middle Ages.

    Pope Gregory believed that the church should stand apart from worldly society, and it should judge and guide all human actions. Coupled to this, he believed that a pope could judge and punish kings and emperors if he deemed them sinful.

    He insisted that clergy had to free themselves from their worldly involvements which included their becoming celibate. Pope Gregory prohibited lay investiture of the clergy and simony was eradicated.

    The height of the medieval papacy came with Innocent III of the early thirteenth century. Innocent III virtually realized Gregory's dream of a unified Christian world. Membership in a universal church replaced citizenship in a universal empire.

    He interfered in politics and received acknowledgment as supreme arbiter. The Pope even had the power to excommunicate kings and emperors at will. Enormous revenues flowed to Rome from all over Latin Christendom. Society in general grew very pious and became united around a Christian viewpoint.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p186.

  • CW Hollister, Medieval Europe: A Short History (New York, 1990), p190.
  • Perry explains that for the medieval mind, society without the church was as inconceivable as life without the Christian view of God and the purpose of life. The medieval papacy was also responsible for motivating the crusade movement.

    The high-medieval Church was, however, also very corrupt. Although Hollister argues that the great shortcoming of the high-medieval Church was not gross corruption but rather a creeping complacency that was compounded by a network of bureaucracy.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p228.
  • Certainly, the church had evolved from the dark days of the Early Middle Ages. Indeed, Hollister contends that the church had an independence and political leverage that has been unmatched in history. Nevertheless, man is man and somehow seems to gravitate towards personal power and gain which resulted in a thrust and parry pattern of religious reform.

    The barbarian kings of the Early Middle Ages viewed the land he controlled as his own private possession that could be divided amongst his sons after his death. There were no trained civil servants to administer the state and no system of taxation to provide a secure financial base for government.

    The barbarian kings instead subdivided their kingdoms into districts and chose a member of the great noble families to administer each district. These noble counts dispensed justice, maintained order, and collected taxes in their districts.

    The constant fratricidal wars during Merovingian period, however, led men to seek aid in some form or other. Powerful nobles sought private armies while less powerful men sought to enlist with a lord who had a private army. As a result the system that came to be known as feudalism was crystallized.

    In other words, it was the need for military support that precipitated the practice of feudalism and therefore, it was clearly the product of necessity and was not an aristocratic imposition as it eventually evolved into.

    The vassal agreed to give military service, sit in the lord's court and judge cases, and provide lodgings when the lord travelled through the vassal's territory.

    See:
  • J White, Medieval Technology and Social Change (London, 1964), p29.
  • The vassal received a fief, usually land, in return. This fief was inhabited by peasants, and the crops that they raised provided the vassal with his means of support. Knights were increasingly in demand but they were an expensive commodity and ways had to be sought to support them.

    White states that in 761 a certain Isanhard sold his ancestral lands and a slave for a horse and a sword. In general, White comments, military equipment for one man seems to have cost about twenty oxen, or the plough-teams of at least ten peasant families.

    The solution was found in the form of the benefice, that is, land. A benefice was granted to a knight to allow him to support himself. As a result, knights came to be a form of nobility in their own right.

    A hierarchy of nobility also came about. At the top were men who were so powerful that they could choose whom they wanted as vassals. At the bottom were the much lesser lords who were prepared to take anyone to make up an army.

    It was therefore possible for a person to be at once a lord with his own vassals, and also a vassal of a greater lord. To be a vassal through acquiring a benefice was soon no longer looked upon with disdain, but a means of gaining further wealth.

    See:
  • Palmer & Colton, History of the Modern World, p29.

  • White, Medieval Technology and Social Change, p5.
  • Palmer and Colton state that this feudal scheme, which probably originated locally, gradually spread. Lords at the level of counts became in turn the vassals of Dukes. White identifies a hypotheses put forward by Brenner. He claims that the invention of the stirrup in the eighth century formed the origins of feudalism.

    The stirrup had changed the mode of fighting from infantry to cavalry. The expense of maintaining a knight led to the confiscation of church lands and the giving of benefices. He concludes that the ancient custom of swearing allegiance to a leader (vassalage) was fused the granting of an estate (benefice), and the result was feudalism.

    As feudalism evolved, the king came to be regarded as the chief lord, who had granted fiefs to the great lords. In theory the king was the highest political authority and source of land tenure, but in reality, he was often less powerful than other nobles of the realm.

    Furthermore, vassals and serfs would pay more allegiance to their immediate lord than to the king. For the kings had no power unless he had a huge feudal power base. Feudalism therefore had grown to have major impact on the concept of kingship. Feudalism would only decline when kings converted their theoretical powers into actual powers.

    Feudalism, however, moved onto even firmer ground with the invasions of the Vikings and Magyars. Indeed, these invasions cemented feudalism. The political authority of kings in turn virtually disappeared. This process was facilitated by the fact that the kings were busy fighting amongst themselves.

    With the invasions the counts came to regard as their own the land that they administered and defended for their king. Similarly, the inhabitants of a district looked on the count or local lord as their ruler for his men and fortresses protected them.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p193.
  • In their regions, nobles exercised public power formerly held by kings and established their reputations as military people. In many regions the political unit shrank from the county to the castellany, that is, the land close to a lord's castle.

    In such areas the local lord exercised virtually supreme authority and indeed, people turned to him for protection and for the administration of justice. Perry declares that Europe had entered an age of feudalism in which the essential unit of government was not a kingdom, but a county or castellany, and political power was the private possession of local lords.

    See:
  • A Harding, "Political Liberty in the Middle Ages", Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies, 55, 3, 1980, p441.

  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p115.
  • Harding argues the concept of political liberty in the Middle Ages. According to him the notion of liberty was privileges attached to and exercised in the particular lord's land so the liberty could refer to the land as well as to the freedom.

    According to Harding the concept of "liberty" evolved in the middle ages from the lord's power of independent action within his liberty. This gave birth to the idea of freedom political force. The trend toward regional defence against invaders gave rise, during the tenth century, to a military innovation of surpassing importance, that is, the castle.

    The coming of castles changed the character of the aristocracy by giving great families a specifically located centre of power. The nobility soon began to identify themselves by the name of their chief castle. As the castle and lordship passed over generations from father to eldest son, the family tended to view themselves as members of a hereditary line of descent and not merely a group of relatives.

    See:
  • Palmer & Colton, History of the Modern World, p34.

  • Perry, Western Civilization, p207.
  • With the defeat of the Magyars and the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity, Europe entered the High Middle Ages. Palmer and Colton states that after 1000 the kings were busy, each trying to build his kingdom into an organized monarchy, that would outlast his life.

    Aided by educated and trained officials who enforced royal law; tried people in royal courts; and collected royal taxes, kings expanded their territory and slowly moulded strong central governments. Gradually, subjects, began to transfer their prime loyalty away from the church and lords to the person of the king.

    In England in the twelfth century, the customary obligation of the vassal to render military service to the king was being converted into a money payment called "scutage" or shield money. The foundations of European states were laid.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p207.
  • The National Monarchy was a new form of government that started to take shape in France and England, and indeed Germany until Gregory VII and Pope Innocent III destroyed it.

    These National Monarchy's brought internal peace and stability to large parts of Europe, where they contributed to making life more fruitful. They developed administrative techniques which superseded even the Roman Empire.

    Although states like England and France became unified into a national monarchy, the king did not have unlimited power. In other words, he was not above the law.

    Using England as an example, the evolution of the representative institution is clearly evident. In Anglo-Saxon England, the tradition had emerged that the king should consider the advice of leading men in the land.

    In William I's England, leading nobles and bishops were looked to for advice. In the thirteenth century it became accepted custom that the king should not decide major issues without consulting these advisers as assembled in the Great Council.

    Lesser landowners and townsmen also began to be summoned to meet with the king. These two groups were eventually called the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p196.

  • Harding, "Political Liberty in the Middle Ages", p442.
  • The English Parliament had therefore evolved and by the mid-fourteenth century had become a permanent institution of government. Perry states that feudalism contributed to the principle of limiting a king's power and the practice of parliamentary government was also derived from feudal tradition.

    Harding states that the curbing of territorial power of the magnates by monarchy in the thirteenth century in the name of the liberty of communities gave the concept of freedom emotional force, and created the politics of freedom.

    In the High Middle Ages the nobility formed the second estate. With the passing of time, the social boundary between nobles and knights grew indistinct. The term knight gradually acquired high prestige. The reason being that knights grew more and more wealthy.

    They were acquiring more extensive lands, along with privileges and jurisdictional rights formerly limited to the old nobility. The church, however, also facilitated this development by emphasizing more and more the idea of Christian knighthood in an effort to curb anarchy. For nobility, had in effect, come to consider only one vocation worthy, that is, being a warrior.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p196.

  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p155.
  • Through combat, the lord demonstrated his valour, earned his reputation, measured his individual worth, derived excitement, added to his wealth, and defended his rights. Warfare was his whole purpose in life. Hollister puts it in a nutshell: the medieval aristocracy was primarily a military class. To become a knight now he would have to take a vow. Therefore, knights were given a code of conduct.

    The crusading movement glamorized the knight as the "knights of Christ". Pious High Middle Age society was highly vulnerable to this sort of propaganda. These wars succeeded in harnessing the destructive nature of the knights into "holy" paths, with the result that warfare sharply declined in Europe during the High Middle Ages.

    A further achievement of the Crusades was that it helped to convert the concept of the knight into the chivalrous concept which came to predominate during the High Middle Ages. The knight was no longer seen purely in terms of a war machine but as a Christian soldier whose task it was to preserve Christian values, rescue the damsel in distress and slay the infidel.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p155.
  • The age of chivalry had arrived. A true knight was expected to fight bravely, to demonstrate loyalty his lord and to treat other knights with respect and courtesy. Fictional knights such as Roland, Tristan, Lancelot and Galahad became heroes of high-medieval literature. Hollister contends that by the thirteenth century, knights and nobles had blended into a single aristocratic order.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, pp154-5.
  • The commercial revival had a substantial impact on medieval aristocratic life. The much-increased circulation of money gradually eroded the tenure-service relationship of early medieval feudalism. Rulers came to depend less on the military and administrative services which vassals performed in return for their fiefs, but resorted more to the use of mercenary troops and paid officials.

    The money and commerce also made new luxuries available to the landed aristocracy, for example, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, clothing, jewelry, fur coats. These commodities, in turn, caused many nobles to land in debt and thereby increasing the business of the already unpopular Jewish lenders. Hollister claims that many aristocrats regarded overspending as a virtue and the mark of a generous spirit.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p157.
  • According to Hollister, the much-needed process of refinement characterized high-medieval aristocratic life as a whole. Most baronial castles of the eleventh and early twelfth century were nothing more than square wooden towers of two or three stories. The tower was prone to be stuffy, leaky, gloomy, and badly heated.

    These castles were usually atop hills and surrounded by barracks, storehouses, stables, workshops, kitchen gardens, manure heaps and a chapel which was all enclosed along with assorted livestock , within a large stockade.

    Since it was built for defence not comfort, its windows were narrow slits for outgoing arrows, and its few rooms had to accommodate not only the lord and lady and their family, but servants, retainers, and guests as well.

    Hollister declares that it was a world of enforced togetherness in which only the wealthiest of aristocratic couples could enjoy the luxury of a private bed chamber.

    By the late thirteenth century, however, rich aristocrats were living in much more comfortable dwellings, usually built of stone and mortar. The advent of chimneys in the twelfth century, replacing the central fire, made it possible to heat separate rooms and thereby contributed to the spread of the notion of privacy.

    Hollister contends that the sweaty, swashbuckling life of the eleventh-century baron had evolved by 1300 into a new, courtly life-style of good manners, troubadour songs, and gentlemanly and ladylike behaviour. Furthermore, he claims the old military elite was becoming a "high society" increasingly conscious of itself as a separate class.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p157.
  • Distinguished from lesser folk by its good breeding and good taste, the aristocracy became more exclusive and rigidly defined than in its earlier, less stylish days. The nobility also presided at the castle court, giving counsel to their lords, and managing their revenues and estates.

    This was a responsibility they took more seriously as the commercial revolution increased the circulation of money and encouraged a profit mentality. Clearly, there was a dramatic evolution of the class and power of monarchy and the nobility during the High Middle Ages. Indeed, the whole concept of monarchy and nobility changed during this period.

    See:
  • P Johnson, The Offshore Islanders: From Roman Occupation to European Entry (London, 1992), p36.
  • The evolution of feudalism had resulted in distinct class structures, namely the clergy and nobility on the one hand, and the peasants and labourers on the other. Somewhere in the centre a new class of merchants were developing in the towns.

    They were the bourgeoisie and considered as part of the Third Estate. As Johnson states the urban middle class emerged, and its development was promoted by the growth of economic and political freedoms.

    Furthermore, he adds that the society of the Dark Age feudalism really made no provision for the urban merchant, since he scarcely existed in that epoch. The bourgeoisie emerged through cracks in the carapace of society, without status, but without obligations and social ties.

    Tenants of urban land, were therefore able to let, pledge or transfer their properties without the intervention or even agreement of the proprietor and in this way raise capital for industrial or commercial schemes.

    See:
  • RHC Davis, A History of Medieval Europe (Hong Kong, 1983), p393.
  • The town dwellers were drawn mainly from the wealthier peasantry but also included vagabonds, runaway serfs and ambitious younger offspring of the lesser nobility, and the surplus of a growing population. A serf who entered a free town and resided in it for a year and a day was automatically regarded as free.

    The townsman was a new man with a different value system from that of the lord, the serf, or the clergyman. Davis identified a terminology of the time: "Stadtluft macht frei", that is, town-air makes a man free.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p147.
  • A town was almost always situated on the territories of some lord. Townsmen found collective action could win their cause for them. At an early date traders began to form themselves into merchant guilds to protect themselves against exorbitant tolls and other exactions levied by the landed aristocracy.

    They also faced problems such as: freedom from servile dues, freedom of movement, freedom from inordinate tolls at every bridge or castle, and the rights to own town property, to be judged by the town court rather than the lord's court, to be free to execute commercial contracts, and to be free to buy and sell freely.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p147.

  • Harding, "Political Liberty in the Middle Ages", p441.
  • By the twelfth century, lords were issuing charters to their towns that guaranteed many or all of these privileges. Some lords were forced to do so in response to urban riots and revolts, others did so voluntarily, recognizing the economic advantages of having flourishing commercial centres in their territories.

    The town communities paid their taxes to their lord and some paid dearly for their charters, but they did so as political units because they enforced their own law in their own courts, and collected their own taxes and paid their dues to their lord in a lump sum.

    In other words, these people had won the privilege of managing their own affairs. Harding declares that the rights passed on to the communities of tenants in rural and urban liberties gave content to the idea of individual liberty. The idea of mere freedom for the man without noble blood slowly acquired content.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p148.

  • Perry, Western Civilization, p206.
  • Hollister declares that townspeople exhibited a piety that was more vibrant and intense than that of the peasantry and aristocracy. He explains that the surge of urban piety became a crucial factor in the development of high-medieval Christianity.

    It was these people who built the cathedrals. The leading citizens of the towns were the merchant- bankers, doctors, and lawyers and tended to dominate the town politics. On the next rung down on the social ladder were the master craftsmen in the more lucrative crafts and large retailers.

    One step down, was the small retailer and right at the bottom were the labouring poor. Nevertheless, Perry claims all these townsmen were freeing themselves from the prejudices both of feudal aristocrats and clergy. Furthermore, they were critical, dynamic and progressive, indeed a force for change.

    See:
  • Palmer & Colton, History of the Modern World, p28.
  • The peasantry comprised the other section of the Third Estate of the High Middle Ages. The great estates of the sixth and seventh centuries were tilled by slaves or by semi-servile, rent-paying villagers in an economic environment that became more localized and more self-contained.

    Palmer and Colton state that with labour saving devices and the influence of the Christian clergy, resulted in the gradual disappearance of slavery from Europe and its replacement by the less abject and less degrading status of serfdom.

    Feudalism was built on an economic foundation known as manorialism. Although pockets of free peasantry remained, a village community consisting of serfs bound to the land became the essential agricultural arrangement in medieval society.

    The manorial village was the means of organizing an agricultural society with limited markets and money. Neither the lords who warred nor the clergy who prayed performed economically productive work. Their ways of life were made possible by the toil of serfs.

    Peasants continued to sacrifice their freedom in exchange for protection or in some cases, they were too weak to resist the encroachments of local magnates. Like feudalism, manorialism, was not a neat system, but consisted of various relationship and practices that varied from region to region.

    Poor roads, few bridges, and dense forests made travel difficult; thieves and warring knights made it unsafe. Peasants generally lived, worked, and died on the lord's estate and were buried in the village churchyard.

    In return for protection and the right to cultivate field and to pass these holdings on to their children the serf owed obligations to his lord. His personal freedom was restricted in a variety of ways. Bound to the land, he could not leave the manor without the lord's consent.

    Before a serf could marry, he had to obtain the lord's permission and pay a fee. The lord could select a wife for his serf and force him to marry her. These rules would then also apply to the serf's children, who inherited their parent's obligations.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p208.
  • In addition to working his allotted land, the serf had to tend the field reserves for the lord. More than half the serf's work week was devoted to fulfilling services to the lord. Serfs also paid a variety of dues to the lord, for example, the annual capitation, a tax considered a sign of servitude; the taille, a tax upon the serf's property.

    The High Middle Ages saw an evolution in the life of the serf. The colonizing and cultivation of virgin lands in the eleventh and twelfth centuries resulted in the decline of serfdom. Lords owned huge tracts of forests and swamps that would vastly increase their incomes if cleared, drained and farmed.

    Perry claims that serfs were often unwilling to move from their customary homes and fields to do the hard labour needed to cultivate these new lands. To lure serfs away from their villages, lords promised them freedom from most or all personal services.

    In many cases the settlers fulfilled their obligations to the lord by paying rent rather than by performing services or providing foodstuff, thereby making the monumental transition from serf to freeman.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p203.

  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p164.
  • The growth of towns further loosened the hold of lords on serfs. Serfs fled to new towns where according to custom lords could no longer reclaim them after a year and a day. Enterprising serfs earned money by selling food to townsmen.

    Many bought their freedom from lords, who needed cash to pay merchants. As a result of these changing economic conditions, the percentage of French peasants who were serfs had fallen from 90% in 1050 to about 10% in 1350.

    Serfs gradually became rent-paying tenants and in time, were no longer bound to the lord's land. The manorial system of personal relations and mutual obligations was disintegrating.

    Peasants were motivated to produce as far in excess of the consumption level as they could to sell to townspeople and thereby convert into cash. The net result was to increase peasant's incomes and elevate their legal status.

    See:
  • J Bowle, The English Experience: A Survey of English History from Early to Modern Times (London, 1971), p111.

  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p168.
  • Bowles states that we can never directly know much about these rustic and illiterate people, nor is their mentality easy to assess. Hollister, however, claims that the conditions of the peasants in the High Middle ages goes beyond our imagining. He states that they lived in hut-type structures which housed family and livestock.

    The notion of hygiene was not evident and they had no contact with doctors or effective medicine. They were completely vulnerable to fire, floods, famine and warfare. Disputes were settle in their lord's court. Their living conditions did improve with the agricultural improvements and an increase in the consumption of protein-rich food.

    Throughout much of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, lords were under pressure to improve the condition of their peasants in order to keep them from migrating to the town or to newly cleared lands. The thirteenth century, however, saw a reverse in these trends.

    The population growth was gradually outstripping the increase in arable lands, creating a rise in land values and a surplus of peasant labour. As land became more valuable than labourers, lords throughout much of northern Europe began farming more intensively. Landless peasants were employed at low wages or the labour services of the remaining serfs was strictly enforced.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p165.
  • Hollister claims that the thirteenth century witnessed a growth of legal consciousness and a hardening of custom that gave rise to stricter class divisions and made it much more difficult for serfs to gain their freedom.

    Coupled to this a freeman might sink back into serfdom for it was the custom of some districts, that a free peasant forfeited his freedom by marrying a servile woman, and a free woman suffered the same descent if she married a serf.

    See:
  • S Rigby, "Marxism and the Middle Ages", History Today, 41, 1991, p27.
  • The peasants, therefore, lost the leverage in the thirteenth century that they enjoyed in the two preceding centuries.

    Rigby contends that for many Marxists, social structural change was generated by class conflict over the level of rent and the extent of manorial restriction, a conflict which is seen as inherent in the landlord peasant relationship. Rigby claims that the extent of such tensions have been minimized by historians.

    The Early Middle Ages agriculture suffered from several deficiencies, for example, there was a short supply of fertilizer which resulted in farmers depending solely on animal manure; the wood ploughs were inadequate and the primitive methods of harnessing draft animals resulted in low yields.

    Many of the innovations occurred in the early Middle Ages, but were only gradually adopted. The heavy plough was developed that cut deeply into the soil. Farmers were now able to work more quickly and effectively and could therefore, cultivate more land.

    The collar harness replaced the old yoke harness which had worked well with oxen, but it tended to choke horses. Horses are more valuable for agricultural work because they move faster and have greater stamina than oxen. Horse shoes were developed which protected the soft hoofs of horses and added to their ability to work on difficult terrain.

    The use of a water mill and windmills replaced the ancient hand-work mills. These new mills both saved labour in grinding grain. The three field system was introduced thereby increasing production. Crops were diversified and resulted in making more vegetable protein being available.

    By the end of the thirteenth century, medieval agriculture had reached a technical level far superior to that of the ancient world.

    The improvements in agriculture had huge ramifications for the medieval economic and social life. The increased agricultural production reduced death by starvation and dietary disease and thus resulted in population increase.

    The population increase in turn had a phenomenal impact on society. For example, the manorial village could not support its growing population. Peasants had to look beyond their immediate surrounds and colonize trackless wastelands. Their efforts during the eleventh and twelfth centuries brought vast areas of Europe under cultivation for the first time.

    In turn, the colonizing and cultivation of virgin lands contributed to the decline of serfdom. The surplus food and the increase in population also freed people to work at non- farming occupations, making possible the expansion of trade and the revival of town life.

    The grain surpluses also meant that draft animals and livestock could survive the winter. The growing number of animals provided a steady source of fresh meat and milk and increased the quantity of manure for fertilizer.

    The deterioration of the vitality of the urban institutions of the classical civilization was accelerated under the Germans. While the German kings retained Roman cities as capitals, they did not halt the process of decay that had overtaken urban centres.

    The German kings settles their people in the countryside. Although towns did not vanish altogether, they continued to loose control over their surrounding countryside and to decline in wealth and importance. They were generally the headquarters of bishops, rather than centres of commerce and intellectual life. Italy was the exception.

    Italian cities kept some metal currency in circulation and traded with Byzantium. With the invasion of the Vikings and Magyars, political insecurity was heightened and the process of decentralization was further accelerated.

    See:
  • Davis, A History of Medieval Europe, p392.
  • With the heralding in of the High Middle Ages, however, the process of decentralization was reversed. There was a decisive shift towards urbanization with the end of the invasions, the rise in population from the increased food production and the expansion of trade.

    In the eleventh century, towns emerged anew throughout Europe, and in the next century they became active centres of commercial and intellectual life. Davis comments that one of the outward signs of the new prosperity was the growth of towns, which were no longer sheltered fortresses as they had been in the tenth century, but flourishing industrial and commercial communities.

    Most of them were self-governing communes and seemed extraordinary phenomena in a feudal world. Indeed, towns contributed to the decline of manorialism because they provided new opportunities, other than food producing.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p142.
  • Because many towns were situated on land belonging to lords or on the sites of old Roman towns ruled by bishops, these communities at first came under feudal authority. The lords tended to encourage the founding of towns, for urban industry and commerce brought wealth to the region.

    Tensions, however, arose between merchants who wanted freedom from feudal restriction and lords and bishops who wanted to preserve their authority over the towns. Sometimes by fighting, but more often by payments of money, the townsmen obtained charters from the lords giving them the right to set up their own councils.

    The assemblies passed laws, collected taxes, and formed courts that enforced the laws. Towns became more or less self-governing city-states. Hollister states that by 1300 cities had become a crucial factor in the European economy, culture and social structure.

    See:
  • Johnson, The Offshore Islanders, p91.
  • By 1300, cities of 25 000 to 50 000 were not uncommon. Larger cities, for example, Paris was approaching 100 000. Medieval towns were protected from outside attack by thick high walls, towers, and drawbridges.

    Covering only small areas, these walled towns were crowded with people. The narrow crooked streets were lined with the stalls and refuse of merchants and artisans. During the day the streets were jammed with people. At night, however, the streets were deserted because of thieves.

    Johnson states that the volume of violent, serious crime in twelfth-century England was enormous. When court records began to appear, they present a picture of viciousness which would appal even the most pessimistic American police commissioner today.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p142.
  • The towns regulated their industries and trade by organizing guilds which controlled prices, standards, and working-hours. For food every town was dependent on the produce which was brought to its market from the countryside, and the authorities soon recognized that if the townsmen were not to be exploited, the middleman had to be eliminated.

    The peasants, therefore, had to take their products straight to the market-place and sell them in public view. As time progressed towns tended to become centres of industry as well as commerce. Manufacturing followed in the footsteps of trade.

    According to Hollister, these medieval cities transformed Europe for all time to come. Certainly, it is notable that almost all the great men of the High Middle Ages were products of the new commercial towns.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p193.
  • The shrinking commerce during the Early Middle Ages was part of the process of decline begun in the late Roman Empire. Although commerce never completely disappeared it was predominantly localized and was controlled by colonies Jews, Syrians and Greeks.

    By the end of the seventh century, however, Muslim power expanded to control the Mediterranean, this resulted in the Byzantine merchants turning eastward for markets. And so, such essential activities such as weaving, leather and metal work were carried out on the manors and hence the term "manorialism". People produced what they needed for themselves.

    Henri Pirenne calls it the economy without outlets. Therefore, with the invasions of the Vikings and the Magyars, trade was at a standstill, coins no longer circulated and farms were turned into wastelands. The European economy collapsed.

    With the termination of Viking attacks; the clearing of the Mediterranean Sea of Muslim fleets; greater political stability; expansion in agricultural production and an increasing population a revival of commerce and trade was produced at the beginning of the eleventh century.

    The European economy showed unmistakable signs of recovery from the disorders of the previous centuries. During the nest two centuries, local, regional and long-distance trade gained such momentum that some historians describe the period as a commercial revolution that surpassed the commercial activity of the Roman Empire during the pax Romana.

    See:
  • J Lindsay, The Normans and their World (London, 1974), p141.
  • Money came back into circulation. According to Lindsay, trade was the main factor in getting money into circulation. Between 1049 and 1093 the bishop of Coutances saw the product of his market tolls at St. Lo rise by 14%.

    Furthermore, Lindsay claims coins increased in circulation because of the continual emigration, especially to Italy from England. The emigrants sold their property for ready cash. They took away the money and to that extent weakened the economy, but they helped to make money dealings familiar.

    Perry claims that a class of traders emerged that had business contacts in other lands, know-how, and ambition. For example, individual businessmen often lacked sufficient capital for large-scale enterprises, groups of merchants formed partnerships thereby enabling merchants to pool their capital, reduce their risks, and expand their knowledge of profit-making.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p203.

  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p149.
  • Increased economic activity led to other advances in business techniques, for example, underwriters insured cargoes. The development of banking and credit instruments made it unnecessary for merchants to carry large amounts of cash.

    International fairs promoted trade and also served as capital markets for international credit transactions. A systematic bookkeeping was developed. A body of commercial law was formed that defined the rules of conduct for debts and contracts.

    Near the end of the twelfth century, commerce outdistanced agriculture to become the dominating force in the European economy that it has remained to this day.

    See:
  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p146.
  • Money and merchants made it possible for local people to concentrate on whatever goods they could produce most efficiently, using their profits to import other necessities, for example, Paris basin exported grain, Scandinavia exported timber, Germany exported salt and fish, and England exported wool and beer.

    Hollister states that Flanders was a great sheep raising district and its towns became centres of woollen textiles production. He adds that Flanders was the industrial centre of northern Europe, and its textile industry the supreme manufacturing enterprise of the age.

    Indeed, claims Hollister, it was the exporting of textiles more than anything else that reversed Europe's age-long deficit.

    See:
  • HR Hilton, "Medieval Market Towns and Simple Commodity Production", Past and Present, 109, 1985, p23.

  • Johnson, The Offshore Islanders, p39.
  • Hilton focuses on the evolution of the small medieval market town and argues that these towns were a good indication of the progressing commercialization and urbanization of a medieval economy. He stresses the pivotal role that these towns played in the evolution of a capitalist economy.

    He poses an interesting observation that the evolution towards an capitalist economy was underpinned by the small medieval town with its simple commodity production.

    Johnson, however, puts it succinctly when he claims that the medieval manor, with its emphasis on status and stability, ceased to be the microcosm of the economy, and yielded to a cash-onexus society based on wage-contracts between freely negotiating individuals.

    The old Roman upper classes abandoned their heritage and absorbed the ways of their Germanic conquerors. Roman schools closed and few clerics could read and write Latin. The Germans were culturally unprepared to rescue the dying classical civilization.

    By the end of the seventh century the old Roman lands in the West showed a marked decline in central government, town life, commerce, and learning. During this period of cultural poverty, the few persons who were learned generally did not engage in original thought, but salvaged and transmitted remnants of classical civilization.

    The translations and compilations made by Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Isidore; the books collected and copied by monks; and schools established in the monasteries kept intellectual life from dying out completely in the Early Middle Ages.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p191.
  • The Carolingian Renaissance reversed the process of cultural decay that characterized the Early Middle Ages. The focus of this renaissance was predominantly Christian. Perry claims it was an effort to train clergymen and improve their understanding of the Bible and the writings of the church fathers.

    Carolingian scholars therefore helped to fertilize the cultural flowering known as the Twelfth Century Awakening. With the invasions of the Vikings and Magyars, cultural life and learning withered, but it would never fall to the low level it had reached in the centuries following the decline of Rome.

    As the attacks of the Vikings, Muslims and Magyars ended and kings an great lords imposed more order and stability, people found greater opportunities for travel and communication and, most important of all, the revival of trade and the growth of towns created a need for literacy and provided the wealth required to support learning.

    Europe evolved during these generations from a preliterate to a literate society. Although most Europeans of 1300 could not read they had nevertheless come to depend on written records for example, deed; letters; government surveys. Previously, much had been left to memory and oral tradition.

    By 1300 English freeholders and even some serfs were having their property transactions recorded in writing. The production and preservation of government documents increased spectacularly, for example, in 1100s, 35 papal letters survived per year. In the late 1300, 1 300 to 3 600 papal letters survived per year.

    This explosion of paperwork occurred at royal courts as well. Financial records, for example, became systematic and widespread. Cathedral schools became the main centre of European education. The church paid for one school teacher per cathedral to teach rich or poor people, without charging them.

    Pupils would include administrators, lawyers and people from the upper class. The merchants attended more practically orientated schools. These schools grew and became independent of the church's control. Secular lines of enquiry could be pursued. Western culture therefore, became more independent of religion.

    See:
  • Perry, Western Civilization, p230.
  • A chief expression of expanding intellectual life was the university, a distinct creation of the High Middle Ages. The first universities were not planned but grew up spontaneously. They arose as students, eager for knowledge, gathered around prominent teachers.

    Perry states that learning disseminated by universities tightened the cultural bonds that united Christian Europe. The education revival led to the creation of some excellent Latin poetry and literature. Epics of heroes, known as Chansons de Geste, portrayed the virile, but unpolished warrior society.

    In the twelfth century, French troubadour poetry and writers of courtly romances changed the subject matter and style. The fabliaux, written by Chaucer for example, were tales for the bourgeoisie. The main objective of the fabliaux was to ridicule conventional morality.

    Roman Law incorporated elements of greek philosophy and was written. Roman judges investigated evidence and demanded proof. The law of the conquering Germans was, on the other hand, unwritten tribal customs.

    German courts relied on trial by ordeal which tended to favour the richer and more aristocratic classes, and maintained order rather than protected the innocent.

    Germanic law became an essential element of medieval society and feudal law incorporated many features of traditional German law. For example, it was local in that it covered only a small region; it was personal in that a vassal owed loyalty and service to a lord and not to the state.

    The late eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, saw the revival of Roman law. Intellectuals increasingly came to insist upon both a rational analysis of evidence and judicial decisions were based upon rational procedures.

    A legal system slowly evolved as towns began to prosper and grow. Merchants had no desire to be controlled by feudal lords. Occasions arose where merchants needed to be able to take a feudal lord to court.

    Mercantile law developed in response to this need. Law courts were started with magistrates and judges who were independent of the feudal system. The legal system now operated for the welfare of the community and not for the feudal lord.

    Canon Law made advances: Gratian, a canon lawyer, completed the Decretum in the mid-twelfth century which was a body of general legal principles that were validated by passages from the Bible and by Papal and conciliar decrees. The Decretum became the basis of all future study in Canon Law.

    Lindsay summarizes the evolution of the High Middle Ages society. He states it was a time when tribal elements carried into the Roman west by the Germanic tribes were in many ways breaking down; the system of matured feudalism was making new demands on people, allotting them new roles in society; money was appearing as an active force.

    Some elements of tribal society, such as the kindred, were being dislocated yet were finding new forms; certain aspects of village life carried on despite all the changes in land-ownership and social status. At the same time men felt a deep need to adapt themselves to the new structures, not only socially and economically, but also emotionally and psychologically.

    See:
  • Lindsay, The Normans and their World, p149.

  • Davis, A History of Medieval Europe, p463.
  • A complex network of strains and stresses was at work in the way in which men responded to the dominant ideological institution, the Catholic Church, either accepting it and finding ways of connecting their lives with it or rejecting it in favour of heresies or the underworld of magical procatics.

    As Davis declares, pessimism gave way to optimism in the High Middle Ages. Furthermore, the prosperity was great, and the disasters that were to befall the European economy in the fourteenth century were as yet unsuspected.

    Certainly, the evolution in the High Middle Ages was dynamic. It is inconceivable that the High Middle Ages be viewed merely as the ages between two great periods in time, for some of the changes that occurred in this tremendous age still have impact on our lives today.

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