Medieval social theorists often divided medieval society into three categories, or orders: those who prayed, those who fought, and those who worked. Perched atop the society of high medieval Europe were those who fought, namely, the warrior aristocracy. Members of the warrior aristocracy shared a common way of fighting (on horseback, in armor, as knights). By the end of the High Middle Ages, the warrior aristocracy had also come to form a noble class, defined as a hereditary group whose membership was determined by blood and whose members possessed specific legal privileges that were not shared by commoners.
The aristocracy’s violence, especially its private wars and robbery, was one of the great social problems of the High Middle Ages. The objective of the lower classes: to tame and civilize the warrior aristocracy; an objective all too familiar in today’s time.
If you had examined the medieval nobility in around 1300 CE, at the end of the High Middle Ages, you would have noticed that they are various ranks or layers: At the bottom there are Knights, ordinary knights who might have modest land holdings and those who might not own any land at all and might live in the household of another more powerful noble.
You would have noticed that above the Knights there were individuals known as Castellans. Castellans where nobles that processed castles; it might be one castle or a small collection of castles. Together, Knights and Castellans formed the lower stratum of the medieval nobility.
Above them were the Barons. The Barons, the highest level of medieval nobility, include people with titles such as Count if you ruled over a county [this is where we get the modern use of the word county], Duke if you ruled over a duchy [they divide their land into counties] and, of course, Kings.
But whatever your title; Knight, Count, or Duke, they all shared one thing in common: they shared a common way of fighting.
The medieval nobility was a warrior class, it is also a largely illiterate class and as an illiterate warrior class it is very different from the aristocrats of ancient Rome where the senators are highly educated, highly literate and largely civilian. They are also rather different from later, more modern nobles who are also highly educated and largely civilian.
It is not just the fact that they fought that separated nobles from all other members of society. Lots of people fought, townspeople fault, peasants fought, it was more how they fought. Nobles fought in a very distinctive manner, one that was for the most part not shared by others. Nobles fought in heavy armor, on horseback, wielding swords and especially couched lances; during the High Middle Ages, an individual who was unable to afford a Knight’s equipment could do little to resist one who fought as a Knight.
In addition, the introduction of the stirrup and the high saddle seem to have been crucial for the development of Knights and knightly warfare in Europe. Controversy, however, surrounds the chronology of their introduction. Current scholarly thought holds that it began as early as the 8th century, yet it took many centuries for warriors to embrace this style of fighting completely—the transition was still ongoing during the 11th century. From beginning to end, from 1000 CE to 1300 CE, the medieval nobility is a warrior class; this is what separates them from the rest of society.
The medieval nobility undergo other; very important changes between 1000 CE and 1300 CE.
Change #1 concerns the definition of nobility, that is, what it means to be a noble. Around the year 1000 CE the meaning of the term noble was very vague, by 1300 CE it had become very precise and much more exclusive then it once had been.
Change #2 concerns the composition of nobility. If you had gone to Europe in the year 1000 you would have noticed that Knights, ordinary Knights, were not considered to be nobles. If you had addressed a Count or Duke by the title of Knight you probably would have been assaulted physically for doing so. Knights had a very lowly reputation [think of them as modern day mobsters]. By 1300 CE that was not the case. Knighthood became an honorable vocation and all members of nobility gloried at using the title of Knight.
The word noble, in Latin nobilis (to be well known and/or celebrated), existed in the year 1000; however, it was very vague. There were no rules to determine who should be called noble and who shouldn’t, it was simply a matter of opinion. The title of nobilis, if you got away with it, confers no specific benefit to you as an individual. By 1300 CE that was not the case. If you were a noble around 1300 CE you enjoyed certain specific legal privileges, privileges that the medieval nobility will continue to cling to for the Late Middle Ages into with the early modern period, long after it had abandoned its early military role.
These privileges that now came with the term noble include the right to be beheaded. Though this might seem weird at first, but in fact the right to be beheaded was somewhat of a rather cherished right because it was better than the alternatives. Execution by beheading was quick and it was honorable. It was better than burning which is reserved for the worst sort of criminals [and women of course], better than hanging which is slower and humiliating since you knew your body will be left on display to be mocked by people for days or weeks afterwards.
Next is the right to escape the payment of taxes. By 1300 CE nobles had claimed that they should not have to pay royal taxes or municipal taxes if they happened to reside in a town. While these claims are not always respected they often are. The nobles claimed that their military service fulfilled their societal obligations; it would be redundant for them to fight and also pay taxes. Noble exception from taxation would have a very long and varied contested future ahead of it in European history; you can see its remnants even today.
Nobles also tried to claim an exclusive right to vengeance, say for example in the case of personal injury. If you were assaulted, only if you were a noble could you assault the person that assaulted you or the person’s family or friends.
Not only do nobles have very specific and well defined privileges by 1300 CE that they were going to guard very ferociously, nobility had become more exclusive. It became a very closed group by the end of the High Middle Ages. Now, a noble had to meet certain requirements that went beyond mere public opinion. Now you had to be descendant from other nobles, you had to be able to prove that your parents and their ancestors have also been considered noble and by making nobility the hereditary condition, one that is passed by blood, nobility became much more of a closed loop. You could try to break into nobility, you could try and forged documents proving that your ancestors were nobles, you can buy exceptions from these rules, it is never an entirely closed group but it is a substantially closed group.
Because the medieval nobility had become a hereditary group by 1300 CE, it had to devise various instruments to publicize and prove its bloodlines to separate itself more clearly from other segments of medieval society. These instruments include family names, last names or patronymics.
If you have you had traveled to Europe in the year 1000 CE you would have noticed that individuals have one name, Reinhardt, Phil, etc., that was it. There was no family name, no second name that all members of the single family hold. By 1300 BCE family names are relatively common. The practice of having a family name, a single name that all members of the family are going to share gains momentum in the 11th century and it begins with the medieval nobility and from there it will trickle down to other segments of society.
Quite revealingly, early forms of family names that the nobility tend to adopt are the names of their castles. You would take the name of the most important castle you have and that would become your family name. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it reveals something about what is truly important to the medieval noble: Private property.
On a side note, have you ever wondered why women take on the name of their husbands? It’s because they are his property as well.
Not only is nobility more refined by the year 1300 CE, more exclusive and rubbing it in the faces of everyone else in society, Knights had also risen in status during this period. Knighthood, which was not an honorable vocation in the year 1000 CE, is considered honorable and the title of Knight is added to every title. Knighthood becomes equated with nobility and because of this, Knighthood needed to become as exclusive as the nobility, that is, it had to become a hereditary condition. The right to be a Knight, to undergo the ceremony of dubbing is also a high medieval invention. In order for one to become a Knight you had to show that your ancestors were also Knights. This was not the case in the year 1000 CE; if you can afford the equipment, if you can afford the training, you were Knight no questions asked. By 1300 CE that wasn’t enough anymore, you had to have the family.
But why? Why the hereditary condition? Why family names?
During the high middle ages there appeared a group of people who had the economic resources to become Knights, to acquire the equipment to train. This group of people had the desire to use their economic resources to become Knights, because they regarded entrance into the social nobility as social advancement.
The groups which I speak of are the townspeople of the High Middle Ages, merchants especially, who as the commercial revolution gathers steam and its commercial life revives begin to amassed fortunes that start to rival those of, at least, the lower ranks of the medieval nobility. To give up work, to be able to live a Noble Life and to fight instead of having an actual occupation was considered the greatest form of social success. In order to keep these people out, nobility made nobility itself dependent on your ancestors. [Genius!]
Consequently, increasing economic competition from townspeople appears to be the primary reason for the nobility’s greater class-consciousness and exclusivity. Shifts in nobility requirements was actually a defensive move; an attempt to keep these individuals at arm’s length. While today’s restrictions are somewhat different, the idea remains the same.
Now, any idealize notions that you have of medieval nobles should be abandoned instantly. Any ideas in which Knights or Dukes were doing battle with monsters or even doing any sort of good should also be abandoned rather quickly. Fighting and warfare was endemic within the nobility. Nobility turned its military superiority to good economic use. They fought constantly because it paid to fight, and because of its willingness to constantly, constantly fight one another and to use its military superiority to brutalize the lives of other segments of the population, noble violence becomes the major social problem during the High Middle Ages.
The medieval nobles used their military prowess in various ways to make a buck. Warfare always had the possibility of profit through looting at the expense of fellow nobles, at the expense of religious establishments such as churches which are often wealthy and not especially well defended, and at the expense of peasants and/or villagers. But warfare always carried risks, such as the risk that you might die or the risk that you might lose. Because of these risks, nobility used their military superiority to create a system whereby it can make quite a lot of money without the risk inherent in actual warfare. They implemented the very old idea of having others do the dirty work for you and they called it Lordship. The nobility used its ability to fight better than anyone else to impose and to sustain its rights of lordship over practically anyone that it could.
Lordship was ubiquitous doing high medieval Europe. If you were a noble, a Knight, a Castellan, a Count or a Duke and you are able to create rights of lordship over people who lived near you (peasants, townspeople, etc); these rights of lordships gave you certain powers over other individuals. If you are someone’s lord you have the right to collect an array of bewildering payments from other individuals, payments that might be made in cash or in kind. In addition to taking someone’s money theoretically in return for protection, you also have rights of justice over other individuals. You can try individuals for crimes and collect the fines if the individual is found guilty…you can see the incentive to find individuals guilty since the money ultimately goes into your pocket.
In addition to judicial rights, the right to levy exactions, you also have a third right if you are a lord of others: the right to exact unpaid labor. You can make someone work on your land and you don’t have to give them anything to do so, this is part of your rights as lord.
The ability of nobles to bring others under their lordship varied a great deal according to time and place. Lordship is not equally harsh in all areas and it is not equally prevalent in all areas. Lordship tends to be most pronounced in areas where nobles succeeded in building private castles, private castles that made them almost untouchable to any form of justice. It took a long time to eject the noble from a castle that had become private property. There is a very strong correlation between those parts of Europe and those periods where castles proliferated and in which lordship proliferating. In new kingdoms in which Kings were able to control the construction of castles, to make sure that castles did not become private property lordship tends to be less prevalent.
What does this mean for the map of Europe? In around the year 1000 CE the part of Europe in which lordship was the especially harsh was modern day France, northeastern Spain, and northern Italy. These areas had experienced near total political collapse during the 8th and 10th centuries as a result partly because of external invasions. With the collapse of central authority, private castles prop up like mushrooms across the landscape, and so the rights of lordship were quite extensive. In parts of Europe that did not experience the same upheavals such as the kingdom of Germany and England rights of lordship are kept in check, but whenever royal authority starts to weaken in any of these areas the castle’s will start to go up. Sometimes the Kings will get the upper hand and sometimes they won’t and soon other parts of Europe will begin to look like France, Spain and northern Italy.
In much of Europe around the year 1000 CE it was clear, all too clear, that those whose job it was to restrain nobles, such as Kings and even Counts and Dukes, who had the responsibility to control the lower levels of nobility couldn’t do so, they just simply could not do so. The job was simply too difficult and as a result you begin to see other segments of society devising new and innovative methods for dealing with the problem of noble violence.
One of the earliest and one of the most important attempts to deal with the nobles, their fighting with each other, their willingness to attack those who cannot defend themselves is something known as the Peace and Truce of God movement. The Peace and Truce of God movement begins around the year 1000 CE. It begins in those parts of Europe where the collapse of central authorities was most complete, where the problem of unchecked castle building and noble warfare was most severe and it will spread to those parts of Europe were the same problems existed.
The Peace and Truce of God
The Peace of God, first proclaimed at the Council of Charroux (southern France) in 989 CE, granted immunity from noble violence to certain defenseless groups. It granted immunity to the defenseless such as clerics, orphans, widows, virgins, peasants and even farm animals. The Peace of God was quite specific, it prohibited the nobles from stealing from churches, from stealing farm animals, beating peasants, burning down peasants’ houses, stealing the grain from their mills, cutting down their fruit trees…You get the picture. Virtually every bad thing that a Knight or noble can do to a non-Knight or non-noble was included and forbidden in the Peace of God.
The Truce of God comes somewhat later. It was first proclaimed at the Council of Touluges (southern France) in 1027. If the Peace of God protected certain categories of people, the Truce of God attempted to forbid any fighting whatsoever within the medieval nobility on certain periods of the year and certain days of the week. In summary: No beating of peasants on these days and no fighting among one another.
At first, the time periods were rather limited. For example: war for was forbidden from the beginning of lent to Easter, war was also forbidden on Sundays. Overtime as it is renewed during the centuries, the Truce of God became more extensive. By the year 1100 CE the entire weekend is off limits (everyone gets the weekend off!). Christmas season also becomes a period of non-violence.
These are great ideas but, who were the masterminds behind the Peace and Truce of God movement? The driving force behind this movement was, of course, the clergy. Local Bishops and local abbots in the regional level are the ones that come up with the Peace and Truce of God. They leap into action once they see that Kings are no longer capable of maintaining order in their own lands [there is also a great incentive on their part to protect church assets].
Local clergy, abbots, heads of monasteries, and Bishops would hold church councils and summon the regional nobility to these councils demanding that they show up. If the nobles would show up, the clergy would bring all the saints relics they could find in the neighborhood such as bone, clothing, blood or any item that had physical contact with any person that has been venerated as a saint. They would attempt to use the fear and retribution of the saints to intimidate the nobility into swearing to abide by the Peace and Truce of God. The tactic was simple: wave these relics in the nobles’ faces and hopefully get them to promise that they will obey.
One should never underestimate the fear of saints and of saints’ relics in the middle ages. People would travel from miles around to visit the shrines where the saints’ relics were venerated, often seeking favors or advice. The belief in the power of saints’ relics to alter behavior is very, very real.
Nonetheless, the Peace and Truce God movement was highly limited in its effectiveness and in its inability to restrain the fighting of medieval nobles. It was limited because nobles were under no obligation to attend the church councils. Even if you attended you do not have to swear to abide, and even if you swore to abide, there was never any punishment for breaking your oath.
The Peace and Truce of God had to be a renewed over and over again, decade after decade. In the areas in which it existed, the mere fact of constant renewal suggests that it was not especially well obeyed. Because the Peace and Truce of God movement was in certain respects a failure it meant that further attempts would have to be made to restrain these savage nobles.
Enter the Knight in Shining Armor
To Knights, the Peace and Truce of God offered only condemnations and restrictions; therefore, their appeal was limited. Some clerics sought to reshape the warrior aristocracy through literature. The result was the emergence of new literary genres, such as the courtesy book and, most important, the chivalric romance.
The fables of the heroic chivalric Knights are just that, fables. The modern notion of a Knight in shining armor, who fights evil, defends the weak, and rescues maidens, is not historically factual nor is it based on any actual events. Quite contrary, the chivalric stories were in fact just another attempt at tackling the very real problem of noble violence.
Such authors as Chrétien de Troyes used chivalric romances to craft role models for medieval Knights. Chivalric heroes practiced courtly love, whereby they devoted themselves to a single lady and strove always to be worthy of her. Their devotion led to their moral improvement; to win and retain love, these fictional heroes upheld the chivalric code of behavior, which required Knights to use their martial prowess for the benefit of those who could not help themselves.
The chivalric Knight was expected to possess such qualities as bravery, honesty, generosity, and loyalty. Furthermore, chivalric Knights were supposed to use their martial prowess to defend, rather than to oppress, the defenseless.
Chivalric Knights were supposed to acquire these qualities by practicing courtly love. In courtly love, the Knight dedicated himself to a single lady, whom he treated with the utmost respect; the knight strove always to win her admiration and to do whatever pleased her. The love that a knight felt for his lady, because it compelled him to do good deeds, ennobled his character. It is important to note that in courtly love, the Knight’s love was not necessarily platonic, and it could even be adulterous.
Literature, especially the genre of the chivalric romance, was the means by which chivalric values were transmitted to the nobility. The chivalric code offered Knights a positive role in society and held greater appeal for them.
Although some in the Church, such as monks, condemned chivalric romances for their lewdness, the authors of chivalric romances were often clerics, especially court chaplains. For this reason, it is justifiable to see chivalry as part of the Church’s long-standing struggle to cope with noble violence.
Before the emergence of the chivalric romance, clerics had tried to reshape the warrior aristocracy through the genre of courtesy books, which appeared in the first half of the 12th century. Courtesy books consisted of advice designed to improve aristocratic manners. This advice was presented in a scolding fashion, which did not make the books appealing to the intended audience. Furthermore, courtesy books were written in Latin to be read, but nobles were usually illiterate and ignorant of Latin.
Chivalric romances consisted of the thrilling adventures of knights who were the perfect embodiment of chivalry. Thanks to their engaging presentation, to the fact that they were written in vernacular languages rather than Latin, and the fact that they were meant to be heard rather than read, chivalric romances had a much greater impact on the aristocracy.
The genre of the chivalric romance emerges circa 1150 CE and quickly takes off during the second half of the twelfth century. Perhaps the most famous author of chivalric romances during the 12th century is Chrétien de Troyes. As a court chaplain attached to the court of the count and countess of Champagne, Chrétien de Troyes wrote such romances as Erec and Enide, Yvain (The Knight with the Lion), and Lancelot (The Knight of the Cart).
The goal was to appeal to the noble’s desire to fight and triumph over their enemies, but give it a just and worthy cause. The chivalric romances tried to get Knights to internalize the chivalric code and, thereby, restrain their propensity to engage in constant violence and theft.
Assessing the impact of chivalric ideals on aristocratic behavior is difficult. To judge from the history of the aristocracy’s favorite pastime, the tournament, it appears that the warrior aristocracy became more civilized during the High Middle Ages—but the civilizing process was far from complete by 1300 CE.
Tournaments first appear in Europe circa 1100 CE; at first, little distinguished these from real warfare. Fighting took the form of free-for-all melees; participants fought with unblunted weapons and attempted to render their opponents unconscious or dead. There were no physical boundaries, and people living in the vicinity of a tournament could find themselves literally in the middle of life-threatening fighting.
By 1300, free-for-all melees had given way to jousting, blunted weapons were used, and the carnage associated with tournaments was considerably less than it had been. Knights who had violated the chivalric code in some way, who were subject to reproach, were barred from tournaments.
A much more revealing fact was that some medieval tournaments were held as round table tournaments in which participants picked a character from chivalric literature and pretended to be that person for the duration of the tournament. Assessing the manner in which medieval tournaments evolved, it would appear that the warrior aristocracy was successfully civilized by 1300 thanks to the chivalric code — but only to a certain extent.
In conclusion, the image of the chivalric Knight who devoted himself to the love of his lady and defended the helpless was precisely that: an image. As such, it never conformed to reality. However, it was an image with a purpose, and the distance between image and reality varied over time. During the High Middle Ages, nobility had indeed lost some, but only some, of its bloodthirstiness.
It is almost comical that in the year 2011 CE, almost one thousand years later, we find ourselves trying to bring an end the continuous warfare that our leaders are constantly engaged in. Not much has changed, look deeper and you will see that the certain elements of medieval society are very much alive in today’s time.
Thanks for reading,
Information above comes from Professor Philip Daileader, Ph.D., Harvard University, The College of William and Mary, from his lectures on the European Middle Ages.