Tomorrow in the United States we will all take part in a governmental extravaganza known as a presidential election. In theory, the citizens of this country will vote for who we want to be our president – although in actuality we’re just voting for the electoral college – who will then decide based on the popular vote who will be president. We’re also voting for federal and state legislators, who, let’s face it, are the ones who really wield the power in our governmental system. In the words of Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.”
But how did things work in the Middle Ages? How were people ruled a thousand years ago?
The most general answer to the question is monarchy. Most kingdoms of medieval Europe were ruled by monarchs, although the type and scope of these monarchies varied widely from kingdom to kingdom and through the various centuries of the Middle Ages. The Holy Roman Empire was administrated very differently from the Italian peninsula, which was ruled differently than Scandinavia or France or England. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to talk about government in post-Norman medieval England.
So monarchy, right? Medieval England was ruled by a king who was believed to be divinely ordained and who’s word was law. Right?
Well, yes and no.
Like Modern America, the government of medieval England was complex and layered. It was heavily based on the feudal system. True, you had the king at the top as the ultimate feudal lord. In theory the king was the most powerful feudal lord and all of the other lords and landowners swore fealty to him and fulfilled their obligations to provide fighting men and money accordingly.
William the Conqueror certainly was the strongest feudal lord in that he raised an army and defeated his distant cousin, King Harold, to secure the throne of England. And his descendants managed to hold onto the throne – although sometimes through a female connection instead of direct inheritance – for a really, really long time. The king was absolute, and the only way to become king was to be born into the royal line of succession. No election politics! Yay!
Actually, instead of election politics and Super PACs, medieval England had wars. Because where the line of succession from one monarch to another was not crystal clear, or where various sons of the rightful king decided to kill each other to take the throne, like in the case of Henry IIs progeny, war was the answer. It wasn’t just the sons of kings either. If nephews, cousins, or other relations felt that they would be a better ruler, they would raise an army to try to conquer the throne.
But wait, you say. What gave anyone the right to question the king?
Well, the king was still subject to the feudal system, even though he sat at the top of it. He relied on Great Councils to advise him, help him make decisions, and to implement those decisions and collect taxes. These Great Councils consisted of the heads of the clergy, barons, and earls. Sneak peak: The Great Councils developed into what we now know as Parliament. And that shift happened most formally after the events of 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta. I could write a whole blog post about the build-up to, the implementation of, and the effects of the Magna Carta, but for now the important thing to take away is that the king was not absolute, he answered to his nobles.
Okay, so how did a noble get to be noble? And how did that effect you and me, who statistically were most likely to be peasants? How did government work for our kind?
It was all about the manor system. When you get right down to it, “federal” government of kings and barons didn’t matter so much to the likes of you and me. It was all about our local government. In a lot of ways, local government would seem more familiar to us. Yes, the be all and end all was our feudal lord, who inherited his manor. Lords who didn’t inherit their manors either won them in battle from the previous lord or were granted them by the king. However they came into possession of their land, the Lord of the Manor was the ultimate authority.
Because the Lord of the Manor was often not present – away fulfilling his feudal obligations by fighting for his sovereign or just hanging out in London – he would appoint a man to be Steward and see to things in his place. The Steward would perform all of the duties of a Lord. This too could become a hereditary position. In fact, the Stewart family that would eventually take the throne of England got their name because they were the hereditary Stewards of Scotland, ruling in the place of the English king until independence was gained.
It goes further still, because sometimes even the Steward couldn’t be bothered to see to the day-to-day workings of the manor. That’s where the position of Reeve came into play. The Reeve was the man on the ground, so to speak. He was the one who had all of the actual responsibility, and in many cases the real power. How someone became the Reeve depended on the traditions of the given manor in question. In some cases he was appointed by the lord, but in many cases he was a peasant elected by the other peasants on the manor once a year at Michaelmas. The Reeve was responsible for everything from maintaining order to delegating work to making sure the produce of the manor made it to market and received a fair price. The Shire-Reeve, or Sheriff, was responsible for the administration of an entire shire.
So yes, while the king was the ultimate authority, like the federal government, and the Lord of the Manor was the de facto ruler of your patch, like a state governor, and while the Steward served to put the wishes of the Lord of the Manor in place, like a state legislature, the Reeve was the closest most of the population of medieval England got to authority, sort of like the mayor of a modern hometown. And the Reeve was as likely as not to be elected from amongst the people. If there was a dispute of some sort between citizens, you would take it to the Reeve or a local magistrate first, then the Steward if that failed, the Lord of the Manor if you needed to, and in the rarest of cases, to the king. But in essence, most local disputes were solved at the local level by lower officials and the Lord of the Manor and the king were lofty figureheads. Who the king was probably didn’t affect the daily lives of the peasants until and unless a war was fought directly on their land or they were plucked from the fields to go fight for their lord.
Mind you, I didn’t even scratch the surface of the influence of the Church or Church government here, and it was no small thing.
It was a very different sort of political system than we have now in America. Frankly, I don’t think I would mind living in this system as long as my Lord of the Manor was a good man who had appointed an honest Steward, and my fellow peasants had elected a good man to be Reeve. At least there wouldn’t have been political campaigns and TV commercials generating negativity. Considering how fruitful, populous, and economically stable England became in the years of the High Middle Ages and beyond, I think it’s safe to say that more Lords of the Manor ran things in a mutually beneficial way more often than not.
I’ve never been one to automatically assume that just because citizens of a given area didn’t have the right to vote it necessarily meant that they were all oppressed, down-trodden, and destitute. Living under an enlightened despot might actually have been a recipe for a more secure and prosperous life. Or maybe I’m just saying that right now because if I see another political ad I might go postal. Either way, I’ll definitely be voting tomorrow.