The Medieval European Society in the Early 14th Century

From the Lecture Series : The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

The medieval society was primarily Christian, agrarian, and feudal in nature. While the Church played a significant role in shaping the society, subsistence farming was a dominant way of life in the early 14th century. In addition, a feudal social hierarchy also existed in the communities. Let’s try to delve into the basic aspects of the European medieval society.

Photo of a ruined medieval fortification in a village of England.
Etal Castle, a ruined medieval fortification in the village of Etal, England. (Image: Maya K. Photography/Shuterstock)

It would be an oversimplification of facts to state that England, France, Italy, or Germany were similar during the medieval period. However, in order to understand Europe in the early 14th century, it is necessary to make some broad assumptions, such as the whole of Europe was Christian, agrarian, and feudal.

Importance of the Church in the Medieval Society

The Church was no different from the state in medieval Europe. The church was an important part of everyday life and it functioned as a governing body in the 14th century. It was inconceivable for anyone from this period to accept the two as separate entities.

The Church was also the single largest owner of all properties. With several business interests and deep involvement at every level of education, the Church played a significant role in the affairs of the medieval society.

Influence of the Church on Culture

The Church was a powerful force that influenced every aspect of people’s lives. It structured the daily routine of the community surrounding an abbey or a chapel. The yearly calendar was a consequence of the rituals followed and marked by the Church.

The Church also decided on the timings of festivals and feast days in line with the passing of seasons. Lent, for instance, was observed when the granaries dried up and meat was in short supply. Hence, Easter was not just a celebration of resurrection of Christ, but a festivity when the storehouses of grains were refilled and fresh vegetables were ready for harvest from the cottage gardens.

Learn more about the plague’s effects on the medieval church.

The Agrarian Nature of the Society

Every household in a typical English village of the 14th century had a self-sufficient vegetable garden and space for small animals. Subsistence farming had become a dominant way of life after the urban centers of the Roman Empire collapsed.

Picture showing farming in the medieval societies.
The villages followed the open field system with thin long strips of fields outside the village centers. (Image: Old draw/Public domain)

The villages followed the open field system with thin long strips of fields outside the village centers. These strips of land were kept as long as possible because they were plowed by oxen.

The village also comprised a cluster of houses,a church, and corner shops that were surrounded by the farming plow lands.

They took assistance from each other for planting, plowing, harvesting, and other activities related to farming.

The farmers took care of the crop and field rotation so that the nitrogen in the soil was put back to the soil and the earth was given time to recuperate. Even children assisted.

Yet, like all communities, there were disputes between the villagers of medieval times too. There are interesting court documents of the period that provide a glimpse of the nature of disputes, such as the lack of mutual co-operation in terms of time allotment for work, plowing too much into the neighbor’s strip, or choosing to plant cereals instead of beans.

Structure of the Feudal System in the Medieval Times

Feudalism flourished in the medieval European societies establishing a social hierarchy in the community. The king was at the top of the hierarchical pyramid in the feudal system while the nobles, earls, vassals, and peasants were all under the king.

The king in the medieval world pledged his support and protection to the nobles as well as granted them lands and titles. The nobles, in turn, vowed their loyalty to the king promising to provide military service during the wars.

Learn more about Europe on the brink of the black death.

The Vassalage System

The vassals were lower-ranking men who pledged their loyalty to the nobles and entered into a mutual obligation with their lords. In a feudal society, this system went down till the peasants.

Depiction of socage in feudal England
In the feudal system, the vassal received protection from a lord or a monarch in return for allegiance to him. (Image: Queen Mary Master/Public domain)

The peasants agreed with their lords on the amount of harvest or the number of days of labor and earned the right to keep a portion of their harvest. The feudal system of the medieval society had the peasants at the bottom of the pyramid.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Three Estates Model in the Medieval Society

The medieval society was organized on the basis of the ‘Three Estates Model’. It was divided into three social orders: the First Estate comprising those who ruled or fought, the Second Estate were those who prayed, and the Third Estate comprised those who worked.

The ones who fought were supposed to protect the others in the social order while the clergy were expected to protect humanity from committing sins. Finally, the peasants supported the members of the First and Second Estate.

The number of people who constituted each of the social groups of the three estates was very uneven. Nearly 90 percent of the people belonged to the working class while only ten percent were from the First and the Second Estate put together. However, literacy was a cause of concern as even among the top social order, there were very few people who could read and write.

Movement from the First Estate to the Second Estate

The eldest son born into the family of the First Estate inherited the titles, lands and income of the family. By the 14th century, the nobles and landowners realized that the practice of primogeniture was the only way to retain their legacy and power. They figured that dividing lands and titles equally among the heirs would soon lead to a squabble for tiny pieces of land.

The solution to this problem was perceived as sending the other children in the family to pray as monks and nuns. These children born into the First Estate would become part of the Second Estate and lead comfortable lives. Hence, the second and third sons or daughters would spend their lives in the comforts of religious houses.

Common Questions about the Medieval European Society in the Early 14th Century

Q: What was the importance of the church in the medieval society?

The Church was a powerful force that influenced every aspect of people’s lives. It was the governing body of the daily lives, it owned most of the properties, and rituals and festivals were celebrated as per the church’s calendar.

Q: What was the reason behind observing Lent by Christians of the middle ages?

Christians fast or restrict their diet six weeks before Easter but the history behind this practice dates back to centuries when storehouses would go empty or meat would be in short supply.

Q: Give a brief description of a typical English village in the medieval world?

In an English village in the 14th century, the houses, church, and trade shops would all be gathered together in a cluster that would be surrounded by plowland, called the open field system.

Q: Who constituted the Three Estates Model?

The Clergy, nobility and peasantry constituted the Three Estates Model.

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