Feudalism and the Medieval Village Hierarchy
Life in a medieval village was surely no fairytale. Hard work, poverty, uncertainty of life and its comforts, the iron fist of the feudal lord - the disadvantages were numerous, and benefits few and far between. It was a hard affair, in which obedience and hard work were the staple of a commoner’s life – while wealth, diplomacy and warfare were the staple of the lords.
But it wasn’t just the lord and his subjects that were involved in the everyday affairs of a medieval village. There was a complex social hierarchy involved here, and every person had a role to play – like cogs in a well-maintained machine. Today we shall immerse ourselves in the life of a medieval village, as we get to know the hierarchy and the way it worked. We shall also mention all the major players in detail. What was the duty of the feudal lord? And what were the tasks of a farmer? What about the sad fate of the serf? Stay tuned and find out more!
Understanding the Basics of the Medieval Village Hierarchy
When we mention the medieval hierarchy today, some clear-cut connections start popping up immediately – castles, lords and knights, peasants and serfs. And it is no strange thing that these images are quickly associated with a medieval village – because it is a closely accurate depiction of what the social classes were like back then. Of course, it was slightly more complex than that, but you get the gist of it. Power was the crucial driving force of medieval society – land holders and lords were the ones who held all influence.
Medieval castle complex (Carcassonne Fortress) in France. (ThomasLENNE / Adobe stock)
Of course, the highest title in a medieval society was that of a ruler – usually the king. The law bringer king had the highest authority in his realm and brought all important social and economic decisions. The royal household that consisted of princes, princesses and the queen was directly below him in the hierarchy, and was often present at the courtly meetings and involved in big decisions.
As you might expect, royal families of the medieval period were rarely idyllic and functional – the greed of the nobility was a well-known thing, and heirs to the throne would more than often attempt to usurp the throne. Fathers were murdered, sons exiled, and brothers assassinated. But those who held power would always emerge victorious. And power was flesh – manpower would win wars and resolve conflicts. The more adherents a ruler had, the more power.
For the large part of the medieval period and the era of feudalism, and throughout much of Europe, a system called manorialism was in effect. The manorialism system revolved around the lord of the manor, a feudal lord who either held his lands directly from the crown, or was a vassal of another, more powerful lord.
Lords were the nobility of the realm, and could either be hereditary nobles, or non-hereditary nobles. Hereditary nobles had long lineages of aristocracy behind them. Their families held lands and lordship titles for centuries, and they were inherited – from father to son.
The non-hereditary nobles did not have that privilege, and had to rise to the position of a lord through non-familial means. Some of these were landed knights – warriors and commanders that were granted lordship through their actions and achievements. This is well known throughout history, with William I (the Conqueror, or the Bastard) giving a clear example. This famed Norman conqueror granted many lands and titles to his most prominent warriors after his conquest of England.
Portrait of William the Conqueror (King William I), 1597. (National Portrait Gallery / Public domain)
The Lord’s Officials and the Artisans of the Village
Below the lord were all his officers and chief officials. Different titles were used in different parts of Europe. These officials ranged from reeves and bailiffs, stewards and sheriffs, to the protovestiarios, čelniks and many others. These skilled and wealthy men were the chief helpers of the lord, and important in the hierarchy of the realm, town and village. They were responsible for many important tasks, from taxation to law, all the way to the military matters.
Somewhere in the middle of the village hierarchy were the artisans. Although closer to the bottom of the ‘pyramid’, the artisans were actually contributing members of the society, and a lot depended on them and their skills.
These were the blacksmiths, farmers, bakers, millers, brewers, armorers, fletchers and so on. Sometimes they were freemen – men who owned small pieces of land and depended on it, trading their goods and paying taxes to the lord on whose lands they were.
For a lord, the artisans in his village were very important assets – each one had a distinct role to play and contributed to the wealth and prosperity of his lands. The blacksmiths were prized for the crafting of weaponry for the lord’s soldiers or horseshoes for the knights’ horses. The miller was essential for creating the flour en-masse, while the tanners, fletchers and all other tradesmen had their roles to fulfill. Without them, the feudal society would lack the power and influence it had, and would never go above a simple rural community.
Representation of medieval blacksmith forging a sword. (Nejron Photo / Adobe stock)
Serfs – Slaves in All But Name
Below the artisans and the freemen were serfs. The serf was essentially on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy of a medieval village. Being a slave in all but name, a serf was not allowed to own land, and was basically owned by the lord.
They lived on the land of a lord and were resettled on other lands at the lord’s choosing. To repay the privilege of living on the lord’s land, the serfs had to work the fields and produce goods, a large part of which went to the lord himself. The life of a serf was nothing short of misery – they toiled from dusk to dawn, were looked down upon and had no rights and no voice, they were never exempt from military service, and had meager training in warfare at that.
Medieval illustration of serf men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks on the orders of a reeve. (Anonymous (Queen Mary Master) / Public domain)
The life expectancy of a serf was not high, and if warfare didn’t claim his life, poverty and terrible quality of life certainly would.
But even for the poor serf, life found its way to move on. Through all the hardships, toil, illness and strife, the serf families had to continue on. Offspring was numerous, quite unlike the modern era. It was not uncommon for a woman to give birth to as much as 10, 12, 15 or even 20 children in her life. But the death rate in infants, babies and young children was extremely high. A child would rarely live beyond the age of 5, and only around 2 to 3 kids would manage to thrive and grow to a mature age. And the circle kept on going.
The Sad Fate of the Slave – The Lowest of the Low
But the serf was actually not the very bottom of the medieval village hierarchy – there was someone even lower. And that was the slave. Even though slavery was officially banned in the Middle Ages, unofficially it still existed. Even if a serf was basically a slave without chains, he still enjoyed a tiny, itty bitty sliver of freedom.
Some medieval societies still practiced slavery during this era. This was more prominent in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, where the practice of thralldom never went out of practice. Warriors would capture women and children on their conquests and wars, and declare them as thralls, slaves that were there to work on the land and serve the lord or the warrior.
Depiction of medieval slave trading. (Sergey Ivanov / Public domain)
The practice of slavery was not uncommon in parts of Europe where the Norsemen were present. In Scotland, England and Ireland, the Danes and other Norsemen would often raid inland and capture Gaelic women for their own use. Strong men would sometimes also be captured and used as slave ‘gladiators’, or utilized as slave rowers on the long ships. The fate of a slave was almost always a grim one.
The Norsemen’s practice of taking Gaelic slaves and thralls led them to be for a large part assimilated. They often married the Gaelic women and vice versa, and this gave rise to a distinct mix of Norse-Gaels that lived in Scotland, the Hebrides, and Ireland.
The Clergy – A Hierarchy of its Own
The medieval town and village hierarchy cannot be talked about without mentioning the clergy. Although not a social class per se, the clergy and all church officials had a lot of power in their hands throughout much of the medieval period.
The church was closely interwoven with all political and economic happenings, and enjoyed a great amount of wealth in all parts of Europe. The church itself had its own little hierarchy, which closely reflected on that of the village.
On the very top of the religious pyramid was the pope (for the Catholic Church) and the patriarch (for the Orthodox Church). These leaders always had the final say in all things church and religion related, and for a long time had enormous influence over the king and thus the nobility. For the Orthodox medieval world, churches and monasteries were an active currency. Monasteries were given enormous swaths of land through which they grew rich and powerful.
Depiction of the coronation of the medieval pope Celestine V. (French School / Public domain)
Lords and rulers were highly pious, and would build new monasteries to atone for their worldly sins, which they had aplenty.
Below the pope or the patriarch were all the church officials. Including the bishop, the next highest official of the church. Bishops were often considered to be a part of the realm’s nobility, and had their own titles, arms and lands. Bishops controlled over their own bishoprics and thus exerted influence over several lords around them, often rising in power higher than some hereditary nobles.
Below the bishops were the priests. While neither as rich or powerful as the bishops, the town or village priest still enjoyed some privileges. In the medieval village hierarchy, the priest was certainly a respected and important figure. Most often they were the sole literate person of the village, keeping important village records, serving as advisors and scribes for the lesser lords, and sometimes even as doctors. They were also the ones responsible for spreading and solidifying piety in a village, and collect the church taxes.
But even in the church hierarchy, there was a lowest rung, and that rung was occupied by the monk. Monks were the initiates, the pious devotees who lived in monasteries throughout the realm. A monastery was often outside a group of villages. Monks had no possessions and would usually serve throughout their lives. Many were literate and were employed as scribes in the monastery where they copied important religious books, usually the Gospels.
The Illuminated Gospels were another symbol of power and influence for a medieval lord. They would often use these illuminations as a form of currency and a way to gain favor with the church. Monks would also sometimes become scribes at the lord’s court. But in the monastery, they had roles, and these roles were not too different from the serfs’ – only in a monk’s robes. They worked the monastery lands, toiled in the fields, brewed ale, and maintained all things that were required for the proper functioning of a monastery.
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Depiction of medieval monks in a beer cellar. (Joseph Haier / Public domain)
The Eternal Yoke of the Powerful
Lives in the Middle Ages were tough for all – less for some, more for others. A medieval village was more than likely a sordid sight, rife with poverty and violence. Even some lesser lords would be considered utterly poor today, so you can imagine how their serfs would look like. But such was the life in the Middle Ages – violent, rough, and never certain. War was commonplace, as was illness, disease and hunger.
Some places were not as bad – isolated mountain villages that were far from the centers of power and lived their lives in a pastoral manner would often get on just fine. Those villages close to regional capitals and the king’s seat would also enjoy riches and long bouts of peace.
But in the end, nothing was easy or simple in those dreaded Middle Ages. Life was hard, but as they say – hard times bring forth hard men. And hard men and women, the medieval villagers certainly were. And just consider this – if a pair of hard working and high hoping medieval village serfs hadn’t fought for life as hard as they did all those centuries ago – you and I might not be here now!
Top image: Medieval village with key players from the hierarchy including: the king, queen, priests, monks and soldiers. Source: Matrioshka / Adobe stock
Hilton, R. 1985. Class Conflicts and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History. The Hambledon Press.
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