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27 Jul

Life of Nobility in the Middle Ages

The social organization of the barbarian peoples after the fall of Rome and Migration Period slowly disappeared and adjusted to the military organization. Tribal and military leaders began to form a special class of aristocracy which was subdued to a king and gained possession of former Roman estates together with their working force (slaves and coloni). However, frequent civil wars, foreign invasion and new military tactic in which the chivalry played a central role accelerated the process of formation of the new social order known as feudalism and of nobility as its highest class. The need of the kings or the original landowners for military force to defend or expand their territory was essential for the emergence of nobility. Nobility emerged from “those who fight” and was rewarded for military service with the land which was the only form to gain wealth. The noble status could had been either earned or inherited but eventually it became exclusively hereditary.

Image of Henry II of England

Henry II of England
was as Duke of
Gascony, Duke of
Normandy, Duke of
Aquitaine and Count
of Nantes a vassal
of the French king

The land that was held by nobility could had been allodial land or allod which was in absolute possession of its owner. Opposite to the allod was the feud or fief, a property (usually together with its serfs) granted by a suzerain in return for providing military service and paying a homage. The recipient of the fief, the vassal could also grant a part of his fief to one who then became his vassal. Vassal was obliged to pay a homage and to take an oath of fealty to his overlord, while later also determined or at least gave his consent to all important life decisions of his vassal: whom he will marry, where his sons will be military trained, from whom they will be knighted and so on. However, one and the same person could had been a vassal of two, three or even more overlords at the same time. Even a monarch could had been a vassal of another monarch. The fiefs which initially had to be renewed on the death of the overlord or the vassal eventually became hereditary, while fiefs could had been also gained by purchase, exchange, by force, as dowry and as a gift. Church gained feudal land predominantly in exchange for the “salvation of the soul” of its donor and for performing various post-mortal memorial ceremonials.

Besides by nobles the land was also held by the clergy. For that reason the class of nobility is often divided on religious and secular, while both can be further subdivided. The religious nobility could be either secular or regular. The secular clergy consisted of religious ministers such as deacons and priests who did not belong to any monastic order, while the regular clergy renounced worldly pursuits and devoted its activities to religious matters. However, in contrary to bishops and other high church officials who were often also military leaders and lived the life of other high nobility, the clerics at the bottom of the hierarchy were not members of nobility.

The secular nobility or lay nobles were subdivided into high nobility, lesser nobility and knights according to the amount of their land and incomes. The higher nobility consisted of powerful noble families which eventually established their authority over lesser feudal lords or lesser nobility. Like the peasants, lesser nobles also sought protection at the mightier lords especially during the period of invasions of the Vikings, Hungarians and other peoples. The best choice turned out to be the tenants-in-chief who held their lands as tenants directly from the monarch: princes, dukes and earls. However, they had their own difficulties and were not willing to provide protection without receiving something in return. In exchange for their protection they demanded from lesser nobles to become their vassals, and to cede their land and receive it back as a fief. Thus the tenants-in-chief who were also the highest ranking officials of the realm greatly extended their power and influence. Besides holding the jurisdiction in the name of the king over all living in their duchies, princedoms and earldoms the tenants-in-chief made all leading men on their territory their vassals. Thus princes, dukes and earls eventually became practically independent rulers not only on the land granted by monarchs but also on the territories controlled by their vassals.

The third group of nobility were the knights, armed and mounted warriors who held land in return for providing military service. Originally the title of knight could had been earned exclusively through military achievements bur after the 12th century knights could became only the descendants of knighted men, while the knightly families became regarded as nobility. However, no one was born a knight and had to go through a certain process.

The process of becoming a knight started before adolescence typically at age of 7 years when a boy (usually son of a vassal) was sent to his lord’s household where he was military-trained, and toughed of chivalry and knightly values such as loyalty, generosity and social service. Before becoming a knight at age of 21 years the boy first served as page and then as squire. Knighthood was formally conferred with a ceremony performed by the king or overlord known as accolade, a stroke with the flat of the sword on the neck or shoulder of the future knight. From the 12th century onwards the ceremony of conferring knighthood was preceded by religious ceremonies such as prayers and fasting, blessing of the weapons, a bad of purification and keeping vigil.

The Knights of Christ by Jan van Eyck, Ghent AltarpieceAfter being formally knighted the knights served the mightier lords as vassals or were hired by them. Some knights held land and had their own castles, while others were landless and joined various military orders which were the both religious and military at the time of the Crusades: Knight Templars, Knight Hospitalers, Teutonic Knights and many others. Idealization of military orders after the Crusades resulted in the establishment of chivalric orders which were created by the European monarchs and known as the monarchical orders: the Order of Saint George (founded by Charles I of Hungary), the Order of the Garter (founded by Edward III of England), the Order of the Most Holy Annunciation (founded by Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy), the Order of the Dragon (founded by Sigismund of Hungary), the Order of the Golden Fleece (founded by Philip III, Duke of Burgundy), the Order of St Michael (founded by Louis XI of France) and others. Chivalric orders could have been founded by noblemen as well and were known as the confraternal chivalric orders: the Order of Saint Catherine (founded by Humbert, Dauphin du Viennois), the Order of Saint Anthony (founded by Albrecht I of Bavaria), the Order of the Crescent (founded by Rene d’Anjou) and many others. There were also other chivalric orders such as the fraternal orders formed ad-hoc for certain purposes, the votive orders formed for a limited period of time on the basis of a vow and pseudo-chivalric orders which were self proclaimed imitation-orders.

Rules were often broken by both knights and their masters when was in question power, goods and honor, while the so-called robber knights or robber barons even turned to organized crime. Some knights did not swore alliance neither to a liege lord nor to a military order and were known as the Knight-errants who wandered the land in search of adventures to prove themselves as knights and became important figures of medieval chivalric romance literature.

The importance of knights began to decline for several reasons by the end of the Middle Ages. On the one hand many landowners started to consider the duties of the knighthood too onerous, while on the other hand the monarchs began to prefer the standing armies led by officers rather than the knights. Such development resulted in the implementation of a regular payment of scutage, a payment instead of active military service which was in interest of both sides and led to a general decline of knighthood.

A photo of Warwick Castle, Warwickshire, England, 11th century

Warwick Castle

The nobility lived in castles and manor houses which were made of wood and later of stone. The castles were built on hardly accessible sites like on the top of hills, edge of cliffs, rivers and oceans but usually also near important roads which could have been controlled and if necessary defended from the castle. Since castles had also a defensive purpose their walls and towers were built strong and thick, while the castle’s exterior was additionally strengthened by the enciente (fortified enclosure of castle’s precincts) which was surrounded by a defensive ditch sometimes filled with water and with turning or removable bridge leading to the gates. Such construction provided higher safety and easier defense of the castle from an eventual siege. However, castle’s big and cold rooms did not provide a comfortable residence to its owner. The residence was initially located at the highest level of the keep, a strong central tower where was also the great hall or the main room which was used for feasts and wedding celebrations, receiving guests, discussing state matters and private talks. The residence in the keep eventually became too small and the castles were often rebuilt with additional structures. The structure of the castle was arranged around in square creating a closed courtyard which provided privacy and security as well as a shelter to the local population in case of a danger. Castle defense often featured also outer fortifications to stop an eventual enemy before reaching the castle. However, in case if enemy succeeded to crush the defense in outer fortifications the keep provided the last shelter and the final defensive line for castle’s owner and his garrison.

The primal occupation of noblemen was maintaining and governing their castles and fiefs although they devoted most of their time to military training. Sons of nobles were raised to become knights and sent to the castles of their overlords very young (at age of 7 or 8 years). Before becoming a knight the boy first served as page or pageboy until he was 14 years old. Besides education page’s duties were to wait upon the ladies, to run errands and running messages for noblemen and royalty. At age of 14 years the page became squire and apprentice of the knight. A squire served the knight by looking after his horses, armor and dress. When the squires grew older they followed their master into battles and sometimes became knighted for their outstanding achievements on the battlefield. However, squire was usually knighted by his overlord when the training was formally completed.

Depiction of the medieval tournament, Bavarian engraving, 15th centuryThe chief amusement of noblemen was hunting, tournaments, bear-baiting, checkers, dice, chess and dancing, while the banquets accompanied with gluttonous eating and drinking represented the chief event of the social life of nobility. Luxury food was considered the most important good as well as a status symbol. Noblewomen supervised the household, directed the education of the girls and entertained themselves together with their husbands watching tournaments, hunting, dancing, etc.

Clothing and costumes which displayed wealth and represented a social status symbol were of great importance. Fashionable clothes and fine materials were not only unaffordable for the lower classes of feudal society but they were reserved for the nobility. Wearing a costume of other class instead of one’s own was unacceptable and regarded as sin of ambition or spiritual decline.

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