Twice this week I found myself in a conversation about the Middle Ages where I ended up defending the entire era against accusations that it was a miserable, barbaric, oppressive time period. Grr! If you’ve picked up on anything at all from reading my Medieval Monday posts then you know that nothing gets my goat faster than exactly those sorts of false assumptions. What raised my hackles even more was when one of the other parties in these conversations asked, “Where are you getting this information from?” *insert look of incredulity here* They’re called books. Some are commonly referred to as primary source material. I had to read a lot of them when I earned my two bachelor’s degrees in History. What interests me more is where these people who insist that the Middle Ages was dark, ignorant, and unfair got their information. I’m worried their answer would be “it’s common knowledge”. Friends, no knowledge is common. It all comes from somewhere. In the case of all this misinformation about the Middle Ages I blame the Victorians with their post-industrial, the-sun-never-sets-on-the-British-Empire sense of superiority. With a little bit of the American spirit of independence as the root of everything good thrown in. Because of course the enterprising spirit of the individual and the nationalistic impetus to convert everything to OUR way of doing things is far superior to the Feudal System, right?
Funny thing about that Feudal System. Because the thing is, in a lot of ways it worked. Really well.
Okay, I’m going to describe this in as over-simplified, generic terms as possible, because in reality there were so many different factors to Feudal Society and so many variations from country to country and manor to manor that moving from one specific set of organizational rules to another would be like moving from one planet to another. But in a nutshell….
The term “Feudalism” is used to describe a series of duties and obligations within a hierarchy, usually military. A lord is granted a parcel of land and in return for that land he must provide the king with military service or a cash payment to cover the costs of hiring a mercenary to take his place. The king, in return, prevents the collection of his lords and their land, also known as vassals, from getting the crap kicked out of them by their neighbors and having their land confiscated by slathering barbarian hoards (sometimes referred to as the French). The second half of this system is more correctly referred to as the Manorial System. The lord parceled out his land to folks known as peasants or villeins or serfs. They work a portion of the land for themselves as their own and in turn owe the lord labor on his land or a cash payment to cover the cost of hiring workers. The lord has a responsibility to make sure laws are upheld, public buildings (which he technically owns) like mills, ovens, and wine-presses, are maintained. It was totally a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” system.
Here’s where it gets sketchy. Depending on who your lord was (and in as much as 1/3 of manors it was the church) and what the economy was doing at the time, things were easier or harder. There were a lot of ifs. In a bad time serfs had very few freedoms, they didn’t own their own land or their own houses, they couldn’t marry without their lord’s consent, they definitely couldn’t move or abandon their land or choose their own profession, and they had to pay fees for the use of the lord’s mills, etc. This was made extra sucky if you had a rat’s-ass as your lord. He had the legal right to make your life miserable. These are the kind of manors that give the rest of the Middle Ages a bad name.
But it wasn’t always as bad as this. ^^
So what did the good times look like? A LOT different.
A manor was divided into three types of land. The Demense was owned directly by the lord and worked exclusively for his benefit. The Dependent land was still technically owned by the lord but had the appearance of belonging to the peasants that had an obligation to provide the lord with service or cash. The third bit was the Free Peasant Land. Yeah, you heard me, Free Peasant Land. The proportion of these sorts of land varied from place to place, manor to manor, and so did the obligations that the peasants owed to their lord. It was worked in the “Open-field System”, which I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about later. When life was good and things were going really well the size of the Demense was smaller and the peasants had plenty of time to work their own land. As a result they had plenty of cash to pay to their lord in the form of rent. And they had the money to pay the fees to leave or start some other trade. Everyone had enough and law and order was maintained. Some regions were known for their peasants having more freedoms depending on the regional specialties in farming or livestock and some areas were famous for having a lot of free peasants. Some centuries saw economic booms and a greater abundance of liquid assets and other centuries ran into hard times, like famines, plagues, and wars, and peasants lost some of their freedoms to balance the budget, so to speak. Plenty of manors were peaceful homes to fat, happy peasants who got along with their lords and they all lived happily ever after. But this is boring. That’s why you don’t hear about it in the same vivid detail as the horrible rotten manors where everyone was miserable.
But wait, you continue to frown, those poor peasants are still subject to the whims of a lord who was put in charge of them for no reason other than that he happened to be born a noble. Yeah, but before you go getting all upset about the rights of individualism and self-determination and fall back into the same old game of bemoaning the Middle Ages as a cesspool of inequality and hardship and throwing tea into the harbor to protest taxation without representation, let’s make a little comparison. I work in corporate America. I am a cube-dweller, a corporate peasant. I have my own cube decorated with all of my own things, but in fact I don’t own that space. And I spend all day working for someone else. My boss, a Vice President, tells me what to do. I do it or I’ll lose my job. She, in turn, does what her boss, the owner of the company, tells her to do. Is it fair that the owner of my company has a house in the Bahamas where he spends half the year while I get paid just barely enough to keep a roof over my head and food in my cats’ bellies? Well, in a way yeah, it is fair. He worked long and hard to build the company and really he’s a good boss. We have excellent benefits. I paid $100 for a $6000 visit to the emergency room two years ago. I am in no hurry to quit this job. Same thing, I believe, with a Medieval manor. If I was a peasant living under a good, honest lord I don’t think I’d mind working for him as long as he kept me from starving or being robbed or invaded by Vikings. … Except that the Vikings were my ancestors. But that’s another story.
Yep, there are a lot of things about the modern world that are just as “unfair” or “inequitable” or “unjust” as some people may think the Feudal or Manorial systems were. But there are a lot of benefits that we fail to recognize as well. Life on a good manor could have been a very happy place to live, what with its sense of community and camaraderie. But more about that next week.