Greetings again, everyone. Today we’re going to talk about society and politics in medieval Europe. Now we’ll start with a discussion of the basic classes in western Europe during the Middle Ages. We’ll start with the most numerous. The largest percentage of the population were the peasantry and many of these poor farmers did not even own the land on which they worked. These were known as serfs. You’ll see the term that I have here on the slide These were large numbers of individuals who were working the land of the nobility.
And in exchange they got certain benefits. We’ll talk a little bit more about that when we discuss the concept of feudalism. For many European serfs this was a very difficult existence. They were legally bound to the land on which they worked, meaning they could not leave without the owner’s permission. They really owned nothing of their own. Even the homes – the small little one-room huts that they occupied – were owned by the lord of the manor. They didn’t – even their clothes, in principle, were owned by the lord of the manor. The old saying went that a man only owned his belly when he was a serf. That was about it. Everything else he owed to the lord of the manor. So they’re living a very difficult existence, lots of hard labor in the fields day in and day out, from sunup to sundown. They owed the lord of the manor their labor really free of charge. And in exchange for living on the land they offered their services and they received military protection from the lord of the manor. So a pretty difficult existence. if you had a bad harvest year – it rained too much or it rained too little – this would cause some serious difficulties for the peasantry during this era. And when we talk about their level of education there were no public schools at this point in time in Europe. For the peasantry – these farmers – even if they had access to education – learning how to read and write – it would not have helped them in their day-to-day lives. So when we talk about the peasantry – the serfs that lived in western Europe during this period – they were illiterate. They did not know how to read and write. And I say this also to bring up the topic of Christianity and its spread in Western Europe. It will spread very slowly through areas that were formerly under the control of many of these Germanic tribes. It will spread slowly not just because these people are reluctant to give up their native polytheistic faiths but because it takes a lot for them to understand Christianity. And the way they understand their faith is really through what the Roman Catholic Church tells them. So these are people that cannot pick up a bible for themselves and negotiate their faith and understand it. So when we talk about Christianity spreading in western Europe, it’s going to be a long, slow process. And many members of the peasantry or serfs are sort of nominally Christian. They’re Christian in name only. But they are very much reliant upon what the church tells them they need to do to achieve salvation. The next group we’ll talk about in western Europe during the middle ages is the nobility. During this period we’re talking about a really small percentage of the population maybe 2 to 3% of people during this period were part of the nobility. We’ve talked about the nobility in the context of other societies. They were considered those of noble birth. And in this case what we’re going to see is the nobility in western Europe during the middle ages are the warrior class. They are in service of their king. And the primary service that they will offer their king will be military assistance. In exchange for providing military service to their king they will be granted huge tracts of land. They are the ones that own the land that the peasantry and the serfs are working. And because they own this land they live a better lifestyle. They have the ability to sell off some of the crops that are grown on their land for profit. This means they can purchase better clothing and their diets are much richer. Whereas for the peasantry and serfs their diet was very, very poor they subsisted mostly on bread – rye bread, wheat bread – whatever the grains they were growing. Not so for the nobility. They are able to raise animals for slaughter. So they have a much heavier protein content in their diet. They also can hunt on the lands that they own to bring in wild game. So in a material sense the nobility is living a much nicer lifestyle than that of the majority of the population. Their homes are much larger. You can see this picture here of a medieval castle in Foix, France. For these individuals because they’re the warrior class, they’re spending all their time learning how to fight and become better warriors for their king. Their home reflects this. Their homes – these huge fortified castles of the middle ages – their home is their security system with those thick walls. Many of them are located on a high-rise point where they can get a maximum line of distance for invaders coming in. Huge defensive walls surrounding them, sometimes moats. They definitely lived in much larger structures then the little mud huts that the peasantry inhabited. So their material quality of life, as I said, is much better than that of your average person. That being said, the nobility is also Illiterate. They do not need to know how to read and write. There are no public school systems, If an individual member of the nobility decides to hire a tutor to come to his home to teach his children how to read and write, that might happen from time to time. But it is not important to them at this point in time. The nobility are not a bunch of fancy folks sitting around drinking tea with their pinky finger up in the air discussing philosophy. And, in fact, if anything this is a still a very rough-around-the-edges group of people because for male members of the nobility they are gone most of the time on military campaigns. So they’re more accustomed to sitting around a campfire telling dirty jokes and spitting and these sorts of things rather than cultivating what we think of as sort of fine manners. The nobility also enjoyed a tax-free status. In exchange for helping the king they are not taxed. Beyond that they also enjoy certain legal privileges. For the lord of the manor, for instance – many of them were the local justice of the peace. In cases of small crimes they were able to sit as judge for residents in the area. And so as you might expect the nobility to carry with them a good deal of political and legal authority in society. Another group that will enjoy certain privileges- legal privileges, the privilege of being looked up to by other classes in society – is the clergy. These are the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. These are individuals – men and women – who will decide to join the service of the Christian church and dedicate their entire lives to their spirituality. For doing this these individuals will have certain legal benefits. If they are charged with a crime they do not suffer justice at the hands of a regular authority like the lord of the manor or even the king. Instead, if you are in the service of the Roman Catholic Church during this period and you are accused of a wrongdoing your case will be heard Internally by only by the Roman Catholic Church and its officials. And this will be a cause of resentment for some individuals during the middle ages who will feel like that the church will sort of be sweeping things under the rug. They’ll be handling things internally and members of the clergy might be able to get away with things that they wouldn’t be able to get away with in the regular world. Also the church and everyone in the church enjoys tax-free status. It is considered to be disrespectful to tax the church since they are doing God’s work. So several benefits to being in the clergy during this period. Also, I mentioned on the slide they’re the most highly esteemed class. Of all three classes in medieval society, these are the folks that have a little bit of an education. And I do just mean a little bit of an education/ The Roman Catholic Church would expend some time training especially male members of the clergy in how to read and write, But these individuals were not highly literate. In other words, they were given sort of a rudimentary education. The thinking here is that if you’re coming into the service of the church you need to be able to read the bible. You need to be able to minister to those in the community – to write sermons, what have you. So a level of literacy is required. So for this reason many people sort of revere the the Roman Catholic clergy because they hold this strange knowledge of how to interpret symbols on the page – something that virtually no one else knows how to do. Moreover, they are very highly esteemed because they hold the keys to salvation. This is the popular belief during the period – that if you want to achieve salvation you must do what the church and its representatives tell you you need to do – practice a particular sacrament at a certain time, for instance – to be able to make sure that your soul is ready for salvation. When we talk about the concept of secular versus regular clergy – I have that here on the slide secular clergy were those members of the Roman Catholic Church who interacted with the public. These are your local parish priests, for instance. These are the ones that will be ministering to members of their congregation, performing marriages or last rites for those who are about to pass away. So the secular clergy was sort of the public-facing branch of the Roman Catholic Church. Now the regular clergy, this is something new. This is the rise of the monastic movement in Europe during this period. This is a picture of a monastery in Macedonia, for instance, from the Middle Ages. You’ll notice it’s located in a very remote spot. They’re not in the middle of a town. They’re very far away from everyone else/ We see the rise of monasteries and, for female members of the clergy – the regular clergy, if they choose to live a secluded lifestyle like this they would enter convents and and become nuns. But the regular clergy is different from the secular clergy because they live apart from the rest of the world. They do not Interact with the public on a daily basis, actually, hardly at all. And I mentioned the regular clergy because they are going to fulfill a pretty important role. For these individuals who do know how to read and write, they’re living in closed communities away from the distractions of the the material world. They have lots of time on their hands. They have at least a little bit of an education. They will be the ones who will be passing the torch of learning from one generation to the next in Western Europe. They will be copying manuscripts. You see a picture here of what is known as an illuminated manuscript. For many members of the clergy they have time on their hands. They’re making copies of the bible. They’re making copies of the writings of the church fathers, in some cases. They’re writing out copies of ancient Greek philosophy. They have time on their hands and they Illuminate or they decorate many of these medieval manuscripts. You can see the beautiful pictures and the pretty brushstrokes here that they would use. So these guys are keeping what little flame of learning that is alive in Western Europe during this chaotic time of the early middle ages. They are the ones that are keeping learning alive behind closed doors. In fact, the idea of devoting your entire existence to living a life kind of away from society with a group of like-minded individuals – other people who want to dedicate their days from sunup to sundown just to furthering their faith – we see the monastic movement will start to become so popular by the 4th and 5th centuries AD that some rules need to be put into place. These closed communities needed to sort of protect themselves from people that might show up thinking that they want to dedicate their lives to these pursuits but who might, once they get inside, decide that it’s not actually for them and start to cause some chaos. So Benedict of Nursia, an abbot – actually the head of a monastery in Monte Cassino in Italy – will come up with a list of basic rules that everyone who wished to join the one of these monasteries would have to commit to following if they were to join these closed communities. And this becomes known as the Benedictine Rule during the 6th century. And this was to weed out people that weren’t really serious about their faith. Before you let them in you must take three vows. First a vow of complete poverty – to do away with any pursuit of money or worldly goods, to live the example of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, a very simple existence focused on your faith. That’s going to get rid of some folks. The second vow was one of chastity, meaning no sexual conduct from that point forward. Again, taking Jesus of Nazareth as an example –
focusing not on the flesh but on your spiritual concerns. And then finally, you must take a vow of a complete obedience to the Roman Catholic Church. They are about to become your sponsor, so to speak. They’re your landlord, your educator. In return, if you decide to join the church you listen to what the church says. You do not criticize the church. You are completely faithful and obedient at all times.