Medieval Society

The Medieval society was complex, and was not so far away from what we would call a modern one. It was governed by laws, it had rules, the people had rights and obligations. There was a legal framework of land tenure, taxation and fiscal immunities. There was an urban organization and a rural one. The Feudal system had laws regarding the relationship between lords and peasants, and between the seigneurs and the monarch.

Any society requires some sort of armed force and the Middle Ages one is no different. Military organization was remarkable, based on the corps of hereditary aristocracy and their households, but also including bodies of professional soldiers, and the national levies.

The Church in Medieval society

The Church played a huge role in the Middle Ages society. By its services to civilization it secured influence, and with it came wealth. It had extensive possessions, either received as pious gifts, reclaimed by monks from the wilderness, or simply bought. People living on the Church lands were subject to its authority. Thus, besides teaching people religion, the Church was also a governing body, exercising its jurisdiction by controlling and punishing the unruly. It was the main educational agency in the society of the early Middle Ages, but also was ruling with the same power and duties as a monarch.

All these territories had to be organized. In order to enforce justice, and protect the lands from invaders, armies were needed. The abbots and bishops who were the rulers of these estates were therefore the source of all local authority. They maintained order, held the courts, and raised the army. They were judges and officials of the king, and had power to condemn criminals to death. They directed the schools, collected the feudal dues, and made war and peace.

Middle Ages feudalism and the society

The powers kings once held gradually passed into the hands of the nobles, and the feudal customs determined the political, social, and economic relations within the Middle Ages society.

Feudal customs

The elements which shaped European feudalism were the practice of commendation, the holding of fiefs, and the grants of immunity. Commendation was the act by which a free man accepted to be a vassal, commending himself to a more powerful member of the society, like a noble, a bishop, or an abbot.

The vassal promised to serve his lord faithfully, in war or with advice, and did not lose his position as a free man, or sink on the social scale. The lord was bound by his own obligations to support and protect his vassals, and did his best to have as many as possible, as a large number of followers added importance and strength.

In the later Middle Ages the old feudal order of the society was changed by the emancipation of serfs. As the serfs frequently left their land, the landlords reduced the burdens imposed upon their tenants, and tried to attract new ones.

The lords who needed large sums of money for a crusade or a local war sold to their serfs the exemption from certain obligations. This custom spread, because to a certain extent landowners had to compete for laborers. Emancipation was also looked upon as a pious act, and many lords decided to free high numbers of serfs. In most of France, the worst burdens of serfdom disappeared by the beginning of the thirteenth century, and in many parts there were no serfs at all. The life of the peasants was still hard, but eventually they all became freemen. Serfs who became members of the clergy were freed at the same time, and many rose to high positions, even to the Papal throne.

Medieval urban society

With the towns and merchant class gaining importance in the Medieval society, the old order of feudalism began to change. The merchants and generally the burghers became so wealthy that the kings decided to have them as allies in their power struggle against the nobles.

Throughout the Middle Ages the upper classes were themselves engaged in trade. The manorial lord sold the produce of his estates, and at fairs and markets purchased everything he needed for himself and his family. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, noblemen and bishops, abbots and kings themselves had ships which were doing trade with foreign countries for their profit.

A considerable number of the traders of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were cadets of good families, as in a knight’s family, only the eldest succeeded to the family estate and honors, the rest had to provide for themselves.

What strengthened the position of traders in the Medieval society was their organization into powerful and wealthy Guilds, which also consolidated even more the political position of the towns.

As a city was technically the residence of a bishop, it belonged to his fief. As a result, the town was a valuable piece of property which could be sold as the owner pleased.

The towns emancipated through their growth, which was wholly due to commerce and manufacturing. From the twelfth to the fourteenth century conditions in towns improved. It was sort of win-win situation, as the lords greatly contributed to the development of commerce. They found it to their advantage to make better roads, to build bridges, and to police the routes, since for these services they demanded heavy taxes from the merchants. Later the charges consisted of a fixed amount, and were no longer dictated by the lord’s pleasure.

By the wealth and influence of their Guilds, the townsmen position within the Middle Ages society considerably improved. They became influent and powerful, and were able to obtain exemptions from many burdens. By different means, from buying or taking advantage of political instability, they secured more privileges, until the towns became in many cases self-governing communities.

The Universities in society

Many Universities took the Guilds as models, the University of Paris being such an example. The right to teach belonged to the masters, corresponding to the master-workmen, while the students corresponded to the apprentices. In a guild, an apprentice had to work a number of years and to prove their skills before they became full members. In a similar manner, the students had to study for six years and pass examinations before becoming masters in art.

In conclusion, the Medieval society was not a primitive one, and we may dare to say that it differed from ours more in kind than in degree, and, in its own kind, we cannot deny its majesty. Modern institutions were in part shaped during the Medieval times.