So. As we discussed last week, there was a 90% chance that you would have been a peasant had you lived in the Middle Ages. But what if you weren’t? What if you were one of the lucky few born to a noble family? Life would have been a wee bit different. The Middle Ages was the time to be a noble. Politics, military action, education, fashion, and much of religious life all revolved around the nobles. Where you were born was as important as who you were born to. In places like Germany and around Paris, for example, the nobility was strictly limited to a few families. In other parts of France and England, however, you could marry into the nobility. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
Congratulations! You’ve been born a noble. And if you’re lucky enough to have made it past your first year of life without dying or being abandoned you’re doing pretty good. Wait, wait, what’s that you say? Abandoned? Yes. In the Middle Ages it wasn’t all that uncommon for babies to be abandoned. If you were a peasant you might abandon your baby because you couldn’t afford to feed them. But noble babies were abandoned too. With birth control all but non-existent and the amount of land owned by any given lord finite it wasn’t all that uncommon for a lord with too many heirs to give some of them away to the Church. In fact, as much as 85% of the men and women in monastic life were given to the Church as infants and children in a practice called oblation. But we’ll talk about that more when we talk about life in a monastery. For the sake of argument your parents did not give you away to the Church.
A noble childhood in the Middle Ages wasn’t all that different from 21st century childhood. You had toys and play time and could run around with your friends being a nuisance to everyone and driving your nursemaid and your parents crazy. It’s when you got to about eight years old that things changed and the divide between the sexes sprang up.
If you were a boy of noble birth, at age eight you would be packed off to serve in the household of one of your father’s friends or relatives. Yep, you would go from a life of noble luxury to being a kind of servant in some strange dude’s household. There you would learn everything you needed to know to become a knight. This includes how to polish armor and take care of weapons, how to ride and fight, maybe if you were really lucky how to read and write, in Latin, of course, and how to get pushed around by your betters and still obey them and be loyal to them. This period of hard-knocks apprenticeship would continue until you were 21. Yeah, not so awesome really. Sort of like going to a strict, individualized boarding school. Although the quality of the experience any boy of noble birth had would differ depending on the personality of the lord they were placed with.
At age 21 a boy would become a knight. All those ceremonies and the myths around them happened at this age. It was very religious and mystical in nature. When a young man passed through the process of knighthood and came out on the other side he was a lean, mean fighting machine. And that’s exactly what he was expected to do. Fight. And that’s about it. He was still considered a ‘youth’ until he was married, but you couldn’t marry without land and you couldn’t get land until you won it or until your father gave it to you. Which meant that most men didn’t marry until they were in their 30s or 40s. So what do you do with all that pent up sexual frustration? You fight. It was widely believed in the Middle Ages that half the reason the Crusades were started was to ship out an entire generation of randy young noblemen who did nothing but cause trouble fighting and raping and pillaging at home.
A quick side-note: My family were Swedish nobility. Oh, I know, you say, Swedish nobility in the Middle Ages were Vikings, right? Wrong. The Vikings were the warrior class. They were the violent, horny young ‘knights’ that couldn’t wait for their fathers to die to get their hands on the land. The noblemen sent them overseas to rape and pillage places like England because they caused too much trouble at home. My ancestors stayed home and calmly managed their estates.
Another problem that this system of extended youth for young noblemen caused was a serious age gap not only between noblemen and their wives but between fathers and sons. I used to wonder why there are so many stories of rebellious sons seeking to kill their fathers, from Henry II of England and his sons who were always at each other’s throats to fathers and sons in folklore and legend. Well, if there was a 40 year difference between them it’s no wonder they didn’t see eye to eye. Not to mention the fact that men spent a lot of time away from home … fighting.
Which meant that most manors were run by stay-at-home wives and mothers.
The average age for marriage for girls in the Middle Ages was 16. Yes, teenagers were routinely married off to guys in their 30s and 40s. Me, I like older men, but for most young girls this meant a whole lot of eew. These were not outstanding love matches. But remember, there were a bunch of young, virile knights running around with nothing to do but seduce young, frustrated wives with old or absent husbands. The whole system of courtly love grew up around these extramarital affairs. Peasant life is starting to look good, isn’t it.
Anyhow, if you were a noblewoman you were expected to run the manor. This meant being the manager for all of the guilds and craftspeople on your land. You had to be well-versed in the running of businesses and oversee not only the day-to-day running of the manor house, but also the industries within the manor at large. Not to mention popping out heirs left and right. No, ladies, being a noblewoman was not all about sitting quietly in the tower working on your tapestries. Noblewomen were also quite often called on to solve disputes between their husbands and sons. There may have been huge age gaps between fathers and sons, but quite often the age difference between mothers and children was small. Many a Medieval man wrote long, loving works of devotion to their mommies. And yes, at the end of the day when your husband came back from fighting someone, ladies, you would have to turn all the control back over to him with a smile. Which explains why some widows were fiercely determined never to remarry and were renowned to be as powerful as any man.
The life of a Medieval noble was also ridiculously expensive. The phrase “He who dies with the most toys wins” could have applied to the Medieval aristocracy. Stuff meant status. The higher your social standing the more you needed to keep up appearances by buying horses, clothes, estates, by having huge amounts of servants and ostentatious displays of jewels and finery. Tournaments and festivals were organized so nobles could show off their stuff to each other. Could you afford the stuff? Um, maybe. If not you might take out loans from the local monastery or some of those wealthy peasants we talked about last week. You could go bankrupt showing off how wealthy you were. And what did you do when you ran out of money? You went off to fight someone. What better way to refill your coffers than by pillaging your neighbors. And we’re not talking country-to-country here. Monarchs were forever having to break up petty squabbles between neighboring lords.
So there you have it. The life of a noble. Exciting, flashy, but not so stable or loving. There’s so much more to it than that though and I’m sure I’ll come back around to talking about it someday. But there was one other way to live that was neither peasant nor noble but was open to peasant and noble alike. That was, of course, the Church….