Social Classes in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
There was a very distinctive social class system during the Middle Ages. Most Medieval people were peasants, over 90%, but the divide between peasants and nobility was very clear-cut. Clergy were also an important part of the social order during the Middle Ages, though they were not necessarily considered a separate class.
The Royalty were the highest of the Social Classes in the Middle Ages. The Royalty included Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses. Royals had complete power over the land and political and economic decisions during the Middle Ages.
The King was the highest authority in the land. The King had to make laws, attempt to remove poverty from the Kingdom and take care of the citizens in his kingdom.
Though they did not often rule alone, Queens played an important part in the Medieval class system. Queens were usually second in command to Kings, and often served as regents when their King was unfit to rule, either because he was ill or considered too young to make intelligent decisions. Queens also served as hostesses and event planners.
Depending on their birth order, a prince may have been next in line for the throne when his father died. Princes most likely sat in on courtly meetings.
Princesses were not usually next in line for the throne unless there was no male heir who could take the place on the throne that was being left. Princesses were oftentimes married off to princes in other countries in order to secure long lasting friendly economic and political ties with those countries. Sometimes this was successful, but more often than not it backfired.
After the Royals, Nobility had the most power of the social classes in the Middle Ages. Nobility included hereditary nobility, which were those whose power was bestowed on them through blood relations, and non-hereditary nobility, which included those who rose to power through non-familial means.
The main responsibility of a Duke was to be the ruler of a province. A Duke was also the direct superior of a Count. The Duke was the highest ranking in the nobility. The female equivalent of a Duke was a Duchess.
A baron was responsible first to his king and second to the people who lived on his manor. The king might require the baron to serve in the military or engage in various other activities. By complying with the King’s requirements the Baron was possibly able to earn a higher title, more land, or prosperous marriages for his children and other family members. If he did not comply, the baron could lose his manor, his luxurious lifestyle, or maybe even his life. As a percentage of each manor’s crops was sent to the King, a baron also had to make sure that all of the serfs on his estate was protected in order to ensure that a plentiful crop was produced. A baron also sometimes served as judges in a court of crime or passed out sentences in court.
Knights often served as vassals during the Middle Ages. Their primary duty as a vassal was to aid and protect the lord in his army. They also would assist their lord in court and watch over their lord’s manor, keeping an eye on the day-to-day activities of the manor.
The lowest social rank in the Middle Ages were the peasants. The peasant class included Freemen, who had some rights and land, serfs, who had no rights, and slaves, who were bought and sold.
Freeman were poor farmers who had control of small portions of land. Freeman usually made just enough money to live on. They sold their crops and may have worked with a trade. Wives of freeman sometimes did “stay-at-home” trades, such as brewing ale.
Serfs had no political power and were not allowed having control of property. They lived on the property of a noble vassal, and, in order to repay the vassal for letting the serf live on his property, the serf worked the land and was at the disposal of the vassal. Serfs were slaves in all but name.
Slavery, the practice of buying and selling human workers, was outlawed for much of the Middle Ages, but it was still conducted throughout Europe for most of the time period. Slavery was a favored practice among the Vikings, who took slaves when they invaded and raided new territories.
The clergy was not considered one of the social classes of the Middle Ages, but it did play an important and influential role at the time and did have a hierarchy of its own. The Pope was, naturally, at the top of the order, while nuns and monks were at the lowest end.
For much of the Middle Ages, Popes were the last word in anything to do with the church. Popes had a heavy influence over political and economic decisions as well for a time. However, towards the end of the Middle Ages Popes lost their political power when the Catholic Church came under a lot of scrutiny from the public.
After the Pope, the Bishop was the highest ranking official in the church. Bishops were considered to be nobility and were usually very wealthy. They had many responsibilities such as settling annulments of marriages.
Priests gave Mass in Church and in the Castle. They were also responsible for collecting church taxes and spreading alms to the poor. Because they were usually the only people in the village who could read and write, priests often were the ones who kept records for the church.
Monks were the lowest ranking in the church. Monks lived in monasteries and usually wore brown robes. Monks devoted their lives to learning and they could usually read and write in Latin. Some of the first Bibles were scribed by monks as the printing press had not yet been invented.