The Changing Life of the People in the High Middle Ages

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The Changing Life of the People in the High Middle Ages

0Instructional Objectives

After reading and studying this chapter, students should be able to describe the life of the rural common people in medieval Europe. They should also be able to discuss the place of religious practices and attitudes in everyday life. They should also be able to compare and contrast the lives of nobles and the common people. Finally, they should be able to assess the role of monasteries and convents in medieval society.

0Chapter Outline0

I0. Village Life0

A0. Slavery, Serfdom, and Upward Mobility

10. The largest and most economically productive group in medieval society was the peasants.

20. European peasants were not a homogenous groupclimactic and soil conditions created different problems throughout Europe, and there was a wide range of wealth.

30. Slaves (Slavs or Africans) existed in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, but their numbers gradually declined.

40. Slaves differed from serfs—serfs could not be bought and sold.

50. Serfs were required to perform labor services on the lord’s land and were subject to arbitrary levies.

60. Serfs could escape from serfdom by residence in a privileged town or by giving money to a third party who could buy their freedom, or sometimes by settling on newly opened lands.

70. Over time, peasants who remained in the villages of their birth often benefited from relaxed obligations and duties.

B0. The Manor0

10. Most peasants in the High Middle Ages lived on manors. They cultivated part of the land for their lord and part for themselves.

20. The manor was the basic unit of medieval rural organization and the center of rural life.

30. Manors varied greatly in size and wealth.

40. The grain-based agriculture of Europe involved a gender division of labor.

50. In western and central Europe, villages were generally made up of small houses for individual, nuclear families.

60. In eastern and southern Europe, extended-family households were more common.

70. Manors typically included meadowland and some forestland.

80. Lords appointed officials who oversaw the legal and business operations of the manor.

90. Manors were not the only form of medieval rural economy.
C0. Agricultural Methods0

10. Peasants practiced crop rotation in the “three-field system.”

20. They used animal manure as fertilizer.

D0. Agricultural Improvements

10. The tenth and eleventh century saw the increased use of mechanization and energy, especially water mills and windmills.

20. From the early 1100s the use of iron tools increased; first plowshares, and later pitchforks, axes, and harrows.

30. Horses came into wide use to pull ploughs (replacing oxen) and carts.

40. Yields of grain approximately doubled from the ninth to early thirteenth centuries.

E0. Households, Work, and Food0

10. Most peasants rarely or never traveled beyond their village.

20. Life on the manor was stable, but dull.

30. The size and quality of peasants’ houses varied.

40. Medieval household depended on village markets for certain items.

50. Peasants supplemented their diet of vegetables and bread with fish where possible, and with wild game, often poached from land reserved for noble hunting.

60. Children worked as soon as they could walk.

F0. Health Care0

10. Overall health seems to have improved in the High Middle Ages.

20. During the twelfth century, many hospitals were opened in England.

30. Most people relied on barber-surgeons and popular healers for healthcare.

G0. Childbirth and Child Abandonment

10. The most dangerous period of life was infancy and early childhood.

20. Childbirth was often fatal.

30. The abandonment of children seems to have been the most favored form of family limitation.

40. Surplus children were sometimes given to monasteries as oblates.

II0. Popular Religion

A0. Village Churches and Christian Symbols0

10. The village church was the center of community life.

20. Priests were appointed by the manorial lord. They were poor and often uneducated. They often worked in the fields with the peasants.

30. The Mass was the center of Christian religious life.

40. Popular religion consisted largely of rituals heavy with symbolism.1

B0. Saints and Sacraments

10. Cults of saints became important in the West during the High Middle Ages. Most saints were “chosen” by the common people, not by official church procedure.

20. The church began to emphasize sacraments in the High Middle Ages.

C0. Beliefs

10. Art within the church helped people to remember Bible stories, but did not impart complex theology to them.

20. From the eleventh century the church successfully encouraged veneration of Mary as an intercessor with Jesus for sinners.

30. Both God and the Devil were very real for medieval people.

D0. Muslims and Jews

10. Europeans who did not participate in Christian ceremonies and daily life were marked as outsiders.

20. Such groups included Muslims in the Iberian peninsula.

30. By the late tenth century, Jews could be found in many areas of Europe.

40. The Crusades made Europe’s Jews targets for violence.

E0. Religion and the Cycle of Life

10. Major life transitions were marked with ceremonies that included religious elements.

20. Most people wanted marriages that provided economic security, honorable standing, and a good number of healthy children.

F0. Children and Religion

10. Most brides hoped for children soon after their wedding.

20. Women were required to remain separate from the community after childbirth.

30. Religious ceremonies welcomed children into the community.

G0. Death and the Afterlife

10. Death was marked by religious ceremonies.

20. The souls of the dead were widely believed to return to earth if the soul was not at peace.

30. During the twelfth century, the idea of purgatory was increasingly emphasized.

40. The actions of the living could influence the fate of souls in purgatory.

III0. Nobles0

A0. Origins and Status of the Nobility0

10. In the early Middle Ages, noble status was limited to a very few families. Over time, the noble class grew larger and more diverse.

20. A noble's freedom was limited only by his military obligations to his overlord. Otherwise, no one had authority over a noble.

30. Originally most knights focused solely on military skills, but gradually the code of chivalry emerged.

B0. Childhood0

10. For aristocratic children, the years from birth to age seven or eight were years of play.

20. Noble boys were placed in the household of a relative or friend at about age seven, to work and receive training in the military life. Training ended at age twenty-one with the ceremony of knighting.

30. Noble girls were also trained in preparation for their future roles.

C0. Youth and Marriage0

10. Sons were dependent on their fathers for support until their fathers died.

20. Once knighted, young men traveled for two to three years.

30. They generally did not marry until they inherited property from their fathersoften at age forty or older.

40. At around the age of sixteen, aristocratic girls were often married to much older men..

D0. Power and Responsibility0

10. Nobles aimed to demonstrate their power and status by conspicuous display of their retinue and their goods.

20. Nobles had to provide military service to their lord for forty days a year to serve on guard duty at his court, to attend major ceremonies there, and so on.

30. Male nobles had to travel constantly and many died in battle. The result was that their wives managed their estates and held a great deal of power.

40. Lateness of inheritance denied nobles constructive outlets for their energy and exacerbated the problem of noble thuggery.

IV0. Monasteries and Convents0

A0. Monastic Revival

10. Viking, Magyar, and Muslim invasions led to deterioration in the quality of spiritual and intellectual activity in monasteries and convents.

20. Secular authorities exerted considerable influence over monasteries and convents.

30. The abbey of Cluny was established by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine, in 909. In its charter, the monastery was declared free of all dependence on secular authorities.

40. Cluny came to exert vast religious influence.

50. The material success of monasteries like Cluny sometimes led to spiritual decline.

60. The Cistercians are the best example of the new reforming spirit of the eleventh century.

B0. Recruitment of Monks and Nuns0

10. Until the thirteenth century aristocrats dominated monasticism.

20. Many were donated to monasteries by their parents as small children.

30. After that the creation of new orders and economic expansion brought more middle-class persons into the orders.

C0. Life in Convents and Monasteries0

10. Abbesses most often came from the highest noble families.

20. The administration of an abbey’s estates and properties took considerable time.

30. Monasteries were headed by an abbot or prior.

40. Prayer and chanting were regular duties for monks.

50. A few monasteries and convents became centers of learning.

60. Monks and nuns performed social services.

D0. Economic Activities and Difficulties0

10. Religious houses took full advantage of local economic opportunities.

20. The Cistercians were ideally suited to the agricultural needs and trends of their times.

30. Some monasteries got involved in iron and lead mining.

40. From the twelfth to fourteenth centuries many monasteries ran into financial trouble. High living and financial mismanagement were the sources of this problem.

0Lecture Suggestions0

10. “Peasants in War.” What role did peasants play in warfare? Were medieval armies made up entirely of mounted warriors from the nobility? Sources: J. Beeler, Warfare in Feudal Europe, 7301200 (1971); P. Contamine, War in the Middle Ages (1957).

20. “Childhood in the Middle Ages.” How were children treated by their parents? How was childhood as a developmental stage perceived in the Middle Ages? Sources: P. Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (English translation, 1962); D. Herlihy, Medieval Households (1985).

30. “Women’s Health Care in Medieval Society.” What was the state of the art of gynecology in the High Middle Ages? What did medieval physicians know about obstetrics? Sources: M. Labarge, A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life (1986); V. Bullough, The Subordinate Sex (1977); S. Rubin, Medieval English Medicine (1977); B. Rowland, Medieval Women’s Guide to Health (1981).

40. “Popular Religion: Christianity and Everyday Life in Medieval Europe.” What place did religion occupy in the everyday lives of ordinary people in medieval Europe? What role did ordinary people play in shaping the content and experience of medieval Christianity? Sources: R. and C. Brooke, Popular Religion in the Middle Ages (1984); A. Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices (1993); A. Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception (1990).

50. “The Reforming Spirit: Monks and Nuns in Medieval Europe.” What was behind the monastic reform efforts of the High Middle Ages? What were the consequences of these efforts? Sources: B. Rosenwein, To Be the Neighbor of Saint Peter (1989); B. Rosenwein, Rhinoceros Bound: Cluny in the Tenth Century (1982); C.B. Bouchard, Sword, Miter, and Cloister (1987); C.B. Bouchard, Holy Entrepreneurs (1991).

00classroom 0Activities 0

I0. Classroom Discussion Suggestions

A0. What role did women of the nobility play?

B0. What was life like in a medieval castle in the twelfth century?

C0. Discuss the classes of people who did not fit neatly into the tripartite division of society envisioned by Adalberon of Laon.

D0. Discuss infant mortality in the High Middle Ages.

II0. Doing History0

A0. Who was William Marshal? How is he an example of the existence of social mobility in the Middle Ages? Sources: G. Duby, William Marshal: The Flower of Chivalry (1985); J. Crosland, William the Marshal (1962); S. Painter, William Marshal (1933). Students should be asked to write a short paper on William Marshal’s social climbing. They should also be asked to be on the lookout for any other examples of social mobility in the Middle Ages.

B0. Some scholars argue that England became feudal after the Norman invasion in 1066; others suggest that it was feudal before 1066. Which is correct? What is the evidence for such assertions? Sources: E. A. R. Brown, “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” American Historical Review 79 (1974): 1063–1088; F. Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism (1932); R. A. Brown, The Origins of English Feudalism (1980); E. John, Land Tenure in Early England (1960).

C0. Have students read pertinent selections from Andreas Capellanus’s The Art of Courtly Lovethe twelfth-century guide for the “compleat” noble lover. Students should take notes on the descriptions of interactions between lords and peasants, especially where the author suggests how the lord should treat a peasant. Their descriptions can serve as the basis of a class discussion and/or the beginning of a longer study of class relations in the High Middle Ages.

III0. Cooperative Learning Activities0

A0. Organize your class into teams of knights who are participating in a medieval tournament (students may wish to consult J. R. V. Barker’s The Tournament in England, 1101400 (1986). After researching the tournament, teams should discuss their respective nationalities (Normans, Angevins, English, Flemings, and so on), paying special attention to the arms, armor, and tournament formalities.

B0. Using the team organization from Activity A above, have students write a “sports report” of a tournament. Teams should use the journalistic heuristic Who? What? When? Why? Where? Teams should share their newspaper reports with the class.

C0. At the beginning of the fall semester, organize your class into two large groups: “Normans” and “Anglo-Saxons.” Assign them the task of researching these topics and creating costumes and weapons similar to those in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The assignment must be completed before October 14 (the day on which the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.) On October 14 (or a date close to that if the 14th is on a weekend), have students reenact the famous battle. Use dice for “combat resolution.”

0Map Activity0

10. Consulting the map in the text, have students shade in the farming, mining, and manufacturing concerns of the Cistercians on an outline map of Europe.

20. Using Figure 10.2 (Boarstall Manor, Buckinghamshire) for reference, answer the following questions.

a0. What were the key buildings in a medieval manor? What does their physical relationship tell us about manor life?

b0. How were land and other material resources divided between the lord and the peasants? How did this division change over time? Why did it change?

0Audiovisual Bibliography0

10. The Medieval Manor. (22 min. Color. Encyclopedia Britannica Films.)

20. The Medieval Mind. (24 min. Color. The Humanities Series.)

30. Medieval Society: The Villagers. (11 min. Color. Coronet Films.)

40. The Lion in Winter. (131 min. Color. Films, Ltd.)

50. The Middle Ages: Rise of Feudalism. (Videodisc. Color. 20 min. Britannica Videos.)

60. Time Traveler CD. (CD-ROM. Society for Visual Education, Inc.)

70. Les Très Riches Heures du Duke du Berry (

80. Metropolitan Museum of Art: Arms and Armor (

90. Music of the Crusades (Audio CD, 1991)

0internet resources0

10. Bibliothèque nationale de France: Images of Rural Life (

20. Bibliothèque nationale de France: Images of Medieval Medicine (

30. Tintern Abbey (

40. Rural Life: Primary Sources (

50. Western Monasticism: Primary Sources (

60. Monastic Matrix (

70. Bibliothèque nationale de France: Images of Medieval Jousts (

00001suggested reading

For the three orders as a model of medieval society, see G. Duby, The Chivalrous Society, trans. C. Postan (1977) and G. Constable, “The Three Orders,” in Three Studies in Medieval Religious and Social Thought (1995).

For medieval peasants, an excellent brief introduction is J. Bennett, A Medieval Life: Cecelia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1297–1344 (1998), which examines all aspects of village life from the perspective of one woman. For the way that peasants were viewed by others, see P. Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (1999). For slavery and serfdom, see M. Bloch, “How Ancient Slavery Came to an End” and “Personal Liberty and Servitude in the Middle Ages, Particularly in France,” in Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages: Selected Essays, trans. W. R. Beer (1975), W. C. Jordan, From Servitude to Freedom: Manumission in the Sénonais in the Thirteenth Century (1986) and P. Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Medieval Catalonia (1991).

For economic changes in the countryside, see G. Duby, The Early Growth of the European Economy (1978), J. Langdon, Horses, Oxen, and Technological Innovation: The Use of Draught Animals in English Farming, 1066–1500 (1986). For gender and family relations in the countryside, see J. M. Bennett, Women in the Medieval English Countryside (1987) and B. A. Hanawalt, The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (1986). Medical care is examined in E. J. Kealey, Medieval Medicus: A Social History of Anglo-Norman Medicine (1981) and B. Rowland, Medieval Woman’s Guide to Health (1981).

For popular Christianity, see: R. and C. Brooke, Popular Religion in the Middle Ages (1984), a readable synthesis; and T. J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (1992), a study of the goals, assumptions, and audiences of saints’ lives. A. Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices, ed. D. E. Bornstein, trans. M. J. Schneider (1993) and A. Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception, trans. J. M. Bak and P. A. Hollingsworth (1990) both explore common people’s beliefs in more detail. D. Webb, Medieval European Pilgrimage, c. 700 – c.1500 (2002) and L. Davidson, ed., The Pilgrimage to Compostela in the Middle Ages (2000) both examine the role of pilgrimage in Christianity. Information on many aspects of Jewish life can be found in the venerable I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, new ed.(2004) and the more recent L. B. Glick, Abraham’s Heirs: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe (1999). M. Rubin, Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (2004) explores the way that stories spread about Jews contributed to violence against them.

For the origins and status of the nobility in the High Middle Ages, students are urged to see J. B. Freed, The Counts of Falkenstein: Noble Self-Consciousness in Twelfth-Century Germany (1984) and A. Duggan, ed. Nobles and Nobility in Medieval Europe: Concepts, Origins, and Transformations (2002). T. N. Bisson, ed., Cultures of Power: Lordship, Status, and Process in Twelfth Century Europe (1995), is a collection of essays by leading scholars on many areas of northern Europe, including Flanders and Laon. C. A. Newman, The Anglo-Norman Nobility in the Reign of Henry I (1988), examines the economic, political, and religious network of noble relationships in twelfth-century England, while P. R. Coss, Lordship, Knighthood and Locality: A Study in English Society, c. 1180–1280 (1991), also focuses on English social conditions.

The classic study of chivalry as an ideal is Maurice Keen Chivalry (1984), while R.W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (2006) examines the role chivalry played in promoting violent disorder. The career of the man described by contemporaries as “the greatest of knights” is celebrated in G. Duby, William Marshal: The Flowering of Chivalry, trans. R. Howard (1985), a rags-to-riches story. For noblewomen, see T. Evergates, Aristocratic Women in Medieval France (1999) and C. Klapisch-Zuber, ed., A History of Women, vol. 2: Silences of the Middle Ages (1992). For women more generally, see Eileen Power, Medieval Women (new ed. 1997) and Shulamit Shahar, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages (2nd ed. 2003). Emilie Amt, Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe (1992) provides an excellent collection of original sources. For men and masculinity, see C. A. Lees, ed., Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (1994) and R. M. Karras, From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (2002).

For family life and children, see N. Orme, Medieval Children (2001); B. A. Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History (1993), which has exciting material on class and gender, apprenticeship, and the culture of matrimony; D. Herlihy, Medieval Households (1985), which treats marriage patterns, family size, sexual relations, and emotional life; G. Duby, ed., A History of Private Life, vol. 2: Revelations of the Middle Ages (1988); and C. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (1991). J. Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (1989) remains the central work on that topic.
There is no dearth of good material on the monks in medieval society. C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (1988) provides a solid introduction. For monastic reform, see B. Rosenwein, To Be the Neighbor of Saint Peter: The Social Meaning of Cluny’s Property, 909–1049 (1989), and the same scholar’s earlier study, Rhinoceros Bound: Cluny in the Tenth Century (1982), which offer interpretations of Cluny. C. B. Bouchard’s Sword, Miter, and Cloister: Nobility and the Church in Burgundy (1987) and Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights, and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-Century Burgundy (1991) are basic for study of the Cistercian economy. C. H. Berman, Medieval Agriculture, the Southern French Countryside, and the Early Cistercians: A Study of Forty-three Monasteries (1986), presents a provocative interpretation of some French Cistercian houses. L. J. Lekai, The Cistercians: Ideals and Reality (1977), synthesizes research on the white monks and carries their story down to the twentieth century. Students seeking cross-cultural material comparing Christian and Buddhist monasticism should find W. M. Johnston, ed., Encyclopedia of Monasticism, 2 vols. (2000), useful. B. Harvey, Living and Dying in England: The Monastic Experience, 1100–1540 (1993), has valuable material on monastic diet, clothing, routine, sickness, and death. P. D. Johnson, Prayer, Patronage, and Power: The Abbey of La Trinité, Vendome, 1032–1187 (1981), examines one important French monastery in its social environment; this book is a valuable contribution to medieval local history. For a sound study of a uniquely English monastic order, see B. Golding, Gilbert of Sempringham and the Gilbertine Order, c. 1130–1300 (1995). J. Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000–1300 (1995), treats many often neglected issues. B. P. McGuire, Friendship and Community: The Monastic Experience, 350–1250 (1988), explores monastic friendships within the context of religious communities, while C. Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (1984) examines the differing spirituality of monks and nuns.

For further treatment of nuns, see J. K. McNamara, Sisters in Arms (1996), a broad survey tracing the lives of religious women from the mothers of the Egyptian desert to the twentieth century, and B. L. Venarde, Women’s Monasticism in Medieval Society: Nunneries in France and England 890–1215 (1999) which examines social and economic as well as spiritual issues. C. Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987) treats the significance of food for nuns and others in medieval society. M. Schmitt and L. Kulzer, eds., Medieval Women Monastics: Wisdom’s Wellsprings (1996) focuses on women mystics. For Hildegard, see B. Newman, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and her World (1998) and her more specialized Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (1987).

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