The medieval times, we’re well aware, hardly boasted an equal society.
Rather, the feudal system saw a single, all-powerful monarch as ruler of everyone and everything; a couple handfuls of earls or other magnates – direct liegemen of the king – below that; many more subinfeudated lords of lesser nobility below the magnates, sometimes two or three levels down; and finally, at the lowest levels of society, the non-noble peasants who held land in exchange for their labour upon it in producing their lord’s food.
Across each level of this pyramidal arrangement, people experienced life differently, those who lived closer to the top generally enjoying more authority, prestige, control over both society and their situation within it.
However, there also existed finer divisions among people within each level of the pyramid, which only served to compound the inherent inequality of lesser folk being beholden to their betters.
Among the peasants, there existed two major distinctions, the first of which relating to the size of land they held. According to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle,
Equality, in fact, was the guiding principle in the village, within the limits of two basic social classes: the more prosperous peasants, whose land was sufficient to support their families, and the cottars, who had to hire out as day-labourers to their better-off neighbors. (p. 153)
These more prosperous villagers were referred to as either yardlanders or half-yardlanders depending upon whether they held thirty acres or fifteen.
Cottars, meanwhile, held only five acres of land or less. They also had to borrow oxen from their wealthier neighbours for plowing, or else were forced to cultivate with a spade.
Since cottars lacked oxen, the service they owed on the lord’s land comprised mainly of “hand work” such as digging ditches, repairing walls, and spreading dung as opposed to plowing. The average village contained 50% cottars, and in some villages, it was they who either primarily or even exclusively saw to cultivating the lord’s land.
The second distinction among villagers is related to whether or not they were free or unfree.
Not all villagers were villeins (or “serfs”, to use the Continental term). Rather, every village contained a few free tenants as well.
Instead of the “week’s work” (two to three days a week of service on the lord’s land) and the various other liabilities to which villeins where obliged, freeman paid for their land in one of two ways:
- Through money rents and “suit”, i.e. attendance at certain courts, or
- Through skilled labour, such as that of the village’s miller, carpenter, smith, tanner, and shoemaker.
An interesting point to note is that not only villagers of substance were free; cottars could be free too, although they would typically hold nothing beyond their cottages and the yards that surrounded them.
According to the Gies, “Given the choice between freedom and more land, any villager would have chosen land. Land, in fact, was the real freedom.” (p. 156).
Among the nobility, those who generally fared the worst and had the lowest degree of self-determination in their lives, unsurprisingly, were women.
The status of women was divided both by age and whether or not they were married, which itself related back to age.
According to Margaret Wade Labarge in Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century,
[T]here was an enormous gulf between the occupation of the young girl and the married woman. (p. 39)
The greatest asset a young girl possessed was her virtue, for without it, she would be useless as a future marriage prize. As a result, she spent almost all of her time segregated from men who were not family, was kept as ignorant as possible about matters that were crude or unseemly, and was constantly chaperoned by a trusted older woman.
Labarge goes on to explain that,
The single girl had no real tasks and little social standing; she therefore looked forward to marriage which brought her prestige and an independent establishment. (pp. 39-40).
In the 13th century, the canonical age a girl could be married was 12 (for boys it was 14) and betrothal could take place from age seven onward. In practice however, earlier betrothal and marriage often occurred.
Peter Coss, author of The Lady in Medieval England: 1000-1500, states that
Marriage for medieval nobility was largely a matter of family strategy in which material concerns were uppermost. (p. 87).
Eileen Power, author of Medieval Woman adds that “All feudal marriages of convenience were dictated by interest of land.” (p.19), and that, “A father took the earliest opportunity of marrying his child [off] so that the right of [dictating her] marriage not fall to his lord.” (p. 31)
If a girl’s father died before he’d arranged her marriage, she would become a ward – the protectee of another man, such as an uncle or her father’s lord. Female wards were highly desirable because there was much money to be made from them.
The guardian received all revenues from the girl’s dowry as long as the she remained unmarried, as well as the benefit of selling her marriage to the highest bidder. Or else selling the right to her wardship to another man at a profit, as if she were a trading security.
Meanwhile, the man that eventually married the ward would gain control of all her assets for life.
Once married, Labarge indicates that,
The married woman was charged with the considerable responsibility of directly supervising the affairs of the household. (p. 40).
This is a subject very dear to my heart about which I’ll write a considerable amount in future Medieval Mondays posts.
Legally, a married woman came “under her husband’s rod”, which is to say, under his authority, yet in a way that alludes to the fact that wife-beating was not only lawful, it was often encouraged. A popular Florentine saying claimed, “A good woman and a bad one equally require the stick.”
A married woman owned no property other than the dress on her back; any money or goods she might possess, and in particular, her dowry, became the property of her husband to do with or even dispose of as he saw fit.
As while unmarried, the behaviour of married women was also carefully scrutinized. Peter of Blois, a mid-13th century poet quoted in Mistress, Maids and Men offers the following criticism of the contradictory advice offered to his female contemporaries:
If she speaks, someone says it is too much. If she is silent, she is reproached for not knowing how to greet people. If she is friendly or courteous, someone pretends it is for love. If on the other hand she does not put on a bright face, she passes for being too proud. (p. 42).
In many ways, despite having made it to marriage, a wife’s virtue remained her most valuable possession. That and her ability to bear sons.
Since a woman was entitled to a portion of her husband’s lands upon his death, widows, like wards, were highly sought after brides; men would pay handsomely to a widow’s overlord for the right to marry her (although kidnapping and forcible marriage often occurred as well).
In spite of this, widowhood (which could come early given a girl might be married at 12) often proved a vast improvement both upon a woman’s married live and her childhood. In the book A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life, Margaret Wade Labarge states,
[W]idowhood, if she had any resources, open to a woman the possibility of the exercise of personal power…. [F]or the first time in her life, [she] could make independent decisions. (p. 27)
Some widows did succeeded in remaining unmarried for significant lengths of time, raising their children, managing their lands, and eventually getting remarried to men of their own choosing, if at all.
A/N: Next month in part 2, the lives of different types of medieval noblemen and where within the feudal pyramid.