Nobles in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Life in the Middle Ages was rather strictly centered around something of a caste system. A clear hierarchy existed, a pyramid of sorts with royalty at the top and peasants, comprising the bulk of the population, at the bottom. Between the peasants and royalty, however, were well-regarded, privileged and elite families known as nobles or lords.
The nobles’ place in society was essentially to function as middle-men between the peasants and the royal family. Nobles provided work, land, and protection to the peasants while providing funding, supplies, and military service to the king.
Noble life was far from the ordinary life of the time. Most people were peasants, and, under the feudal system of the era, were beholden to and in debt to the nobles for whom they worked. Nobles, on the other hand, had lives focused much more around military strategy, financial obligations and responsibilities, and social affairs.
Becoming a member of the noble class was either a hereditary birthright—the so-called “blue bloods”—or an honorarium bestowed by royalty in appreciation for service or loyalty. Successful military conquests and strong displays of skill, performance, and loyalty could lead to the social and economic elevation of an entire family. The nobles themselves had regal-sounding titles given them by royalty, such as Duke, Count, and Lord.
Noblemen and Noblewomen
Noblemen balanced an interesting combination of activities and responsibilities in their daily lives. They performed necessary managerial tasks on their lands and with the peasants in their employ, collected and raised funding for military expeditions and social events, practiced horseback riding, hunting, and hawking, and met any additional obligations set upon them by their own masters.
Noblemen were also expected to become well-versed in the art of warfare, not only becoming excellent fighters but learning and analyzing military strategy as well. As such, a significant amount of a nobleman’s time each day when he was at home was dedicated to the arts of war and combat. In times of strife, noblemen were not only expected to fight for their king, but also to provide a certain number of highly trained knights and other fighters to aid in the mission.
Noblewomen lived lives dedicated largely to the management and cultivation of social opportunities and status. Noblewomen lived in large homes with luxurious comforts, but had help, most notably ladies-in-waiting, who performed the more menial tasks of household management.
Nobles of the Middle Ages, like everyone else at the time, had limited access to education, books, or cultural opportunities, meaning women with little housework or manual labor to perform had few options for pursuing engaging leisure hobbies. Instead, they spent a great deal of time planning events, keeping up-to-date on the happenings of other local families, and ensuring the family was held in high regard throughout the community.
In one sense, noblewomen were afforded a significant amount of responsibility. When the men were away, whether on business or while fighting or for any other reason, the women were expected to fill their shoes in every regard. Noblewomen had absolute authority to manage their serfs, their lands, and their finances and make all decisions necessary to ensure the smooth continued running of their estates and manors. At the same time, it was expected the noblewoman not allow the social elements of daily life to slide.
Warfare and Training
All men in the kingdom were expected to know how to fight and to be available for their king at any moment. Nobles had a substantial advantage in this regard. Their lives were structured and organized in a way that incorporated military training into the daily schedule. They also enjoyed more wealth, and thereby greater availability of weapons and armor.
A house of nobles would also employ fighters, specifically knights. Knights served their masters in that they were available to accompany or assist on hunting expeditions or military excursions. Knights also trained side-by-side with their masters, each able to benefit from the help and training of the other. However, knights were very much beholden to their masters, and expected to accept their orders and perform their bidding.
Earlier armor consisted of cloth garments covered in small metal links. This mail was relatively easy to create and to wear, but did not offer the superior protection of armor made later into the Middle Ages. Later plate mail was quite secure but heavy and cumbersome, and a great deal of training involved conditioning and practice in successfully maneuvering while wearing the heavy armor.
Little was available to nobles of the Middle Ages by way of entertainment despite their greater wealth and elite status. Tournaments, festivals, balls, and feasts were large-scale events expected to be attended by all in the village. Weddings were an especially celebratory time, featuring ceremonies followed by lavish banquets, music, and dancing.
The nobles arranged such affairs and provided the funding for them. A great deal of their time and money went into ensuring each event was a success attended and enjoyed by all in the area. Tournaments were a particularly large affair, offering not only prize money but also the opportunity to rise in status and class to the knights who gave the best performances.
On a day-to-day basis, socializing involved war strategizing and business management for the men, and event planning and personal conversation for the women. Both genders were able to study and practice at available musical instruments in their leisure time, but for the most part, such cultural entertainment was limited to the performances of traveling minstrels or bards and the music and dancing connected to a large celebration.
Educational opportunities were limited for everyone who lived during the Middle Ages. However, nobles of the Middle Ages took a great deal of time learning social graces, fighting skills, management and business skills, and financial management.
While most learning was passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, or master to subordinate, the sheer amount of time and effort nobles dedicated to the pursuits that kept their lives running smoothly ensured that even without what we would today consider a basic education, they were generally quite knowledgeable and well-rounded, highly regarded individuals.