While novels and stories throughout time are full of lords and ladies and nobles of all kinds living in castles with loads of serfs to do their bidding, the truth is that in the Middle Ages there were relatively few nobles. Ninety percent of the population or more were peasants and a chunk of the ones who weren’t were tradesmen or skilled laborers of some sort. In fact, it was extremely difficult to become a noble. And so, to continue my look at topics that come up in my novel The Loyal Heart and its sequel The Faithful Heart, coming out later this month, let’s take a look at how one becomes a noble.
The first and by far the most prevalent way to become a noble was, in the words of Lady Gaga, to be born that way. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred this is how it happened. Your father was a lord so you were a noble. Ah, but depending on when and where you lived it wasn’t that easy.
In the Early Middle Ages across most of Europe inheritance was partible. That meant that when a lord died his lands were divided equally between his heirs. This almost universally meant the men in the family, although for a while in England only daughters inherited as well. The good news in this set-up is that everyone continues to be a land-owning noble. The bad news is that if you happened to have a lot of sons your land would be divided into parcels and divided again and again if your sons had sons and their sons had sons. Case in point is what was once known as the Holy Roman Empire, that great big huge swath of Europe that was originally all a part of the Kingdom of Charlemagne. In a nutshell, Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious inherited most of the kingdom, except for Italy which went to a grandson. Louis’s three children Lothair, Charles the Bald, and Louis the German split the kingdom after his death and continued in various ways to split it and split it until you ended up with a bunch of loosely affiliated German kingdoms. And that may be the greatest over-simplification of a complex issue the world has ever known.
Of course the other side of that coin is that if brothers knew they would have to divide dad’s kingdom up between them they could always try to kill each other off in order to get a bigger piece of the pie. There’s a reason the Early Middle Ages were fraught with conflict and violence. One of the methods of dispersing all this violence was to call Crusades and send all the young knights with excess energy off to fight someone else. Another method was the institution of primogeniture.
Primogeniture was one of the major changes to the structure of Medieval life as the Early Middle Ages changed over to the High Middle Ages. Simply put, the laws were changed so that only the eldest son inherited the title and the land. So if you were Charlemagne Jr. you were in luck. But what about all the rest of the sons? Well, the fact of Middle Ages life was that it was far easier to become un-noble than it was to become noble. Younger sons were S.O.L. They could either join the Church, live as a dependent on their older brother for the rest of their lives, or become a knight-errant and try to make something for themselves.
Thus we come to the second way you could become a noble in the Middle Ages. You could do something worthy of being granted land and a title by the monarch. This was the last chance for many a younger son. Every son of a nobleman who was not destined for the Church would be trained to be a knight. A “knight-errant” simply meant a wandering knight. As in they didn’t have any land or money or title other than “Sir” and had to make their own fortune. A lot of knights-errant rushed off to join the Crusades. Some of them found the glory they were looking for there. A small handful were indeed elevated to the status of noble for their deeds.
But just as often the younger sons stayed home, caused trouble, killed people and broke things. They didn’t have money so they took it. The Robin Hood legend was originally about a minor noble with no money who took to the forest robbing whoever he could for a living. And pocketing the profits, mind you. In fact, “fur-collar crime” was a huge problem in the Middle Ages. More often than not the noblemen who were lucky enough to have inherited their father’s land and title would have to waste a lot of resources defending their vassals from these falling stars of the noble class.
Also interesting to note, as I touched on in my blog about marriage in the Middle Ages, younger sons weren’t allowed to marry unless they had their own land. A great many of the knights-errant would perform their acts of heroism in the name of a woman. At jousting tournaments and the like they would carry a favor from their lady of choice with them. And of course they could and often did take ladies as their concubines or run around with the wives of legitimate nobles who were usually much, much older than their brides. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best system.
But what about those ladies? Was life any better for the women of the Middle Ages?
If you were the daughter of a particularly well-placed nobleman then you were a hot commodity. Alliances between powerful and rich families were made through marriages. So if you were the daughter of one of these families you could bet that the few marriageable young men out there would be falling all over themselves to marry you.
Women had another ticket to nobility in their arsenal that men didn’t have. A common woman could marry a noble and by that marriage become a noble. So quite often you might find the son of a noble house fallen on hard times looking to marry the daughter of a wealthy tradesman who would pay a huge dowry for her. In a way it was a win-win situation. The noble family would get an infusion of wealth and the tradesman would have a grandson with a title and estate and a chance at greatness.
This same path wasn’t open for men. If a common man married the daughter of a nobleman that daughter would lose her status. Lady Noblesdaughter would become Mrs. Merchant. Of course, this might not have been a bad thing if it meant financial security. There was still a certain amount of status attached to marrying a noble, even if it meant the end of the title.
So there you have it. Becoming a noble was almost as hard as holding onto your title once you had it. Yep. I still would have preferred to be a well-off peasant in spite of the castles.
And not to pass up a bit of shameless self-promotion, two characters in my novel The Loyal Heart are granted noble status at the end of the book. One of them in an absolutely historically legitimate fashion and the other … well, I took a little bit of liberty with that one. In The Faithful Heart one character is looking to become noble by one of the alternative methods mentioned above while another missed out on the nobility for one of the aforementioned reasons. And now aren’t you just dying to know who and how?