Medieval civilization emerged out of the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire. As various new political states emerged, a new form of society emerged as well, one in which there were three distinct classes: those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed. During the time of the Roman Empire, there had been two distinct groups known as slaves and serfs. Following the collapse of the western half of the empire, the line between the two began to blur. Although the duties the two groups had varied, one thing remained the same: both lacked freedom and were thus subject to the whims of their lords.
Eventually the two groups merged into one overall peasant group, the members of which were initially tied to the land they lived on. In exchange for a home and protection, they were required to provide labor services for their lord. However, by the 11th and 12th centuries, peasants were able to gain their freedom. This allowed them the ability to rent their land, and released them from being obligated to provide labor services to their lords. Instead, they could simply pay a variety of taxes to him to cover the maintenance of the manor.
It is from this peasant class that the working middle-class would emerge from. The next group was the nobility, also called the aristocracy. In the medieval world, this class was made up largely of those who fought – warriors. The function of the warrior in medieval society was to protect the weak and poor. He was also expected to display chivalric behavior, particularly toward women, the goal being to cut down on the brutality of the warrior class. Along with protecting the weak and poor, and being chivalric, the warrior class was also the propertied class.
Therefore, the warrior-nobleman was required to acquire a good manager for his manor, as well as a large number of tenants to live on and work the land. Male tenants that were able to fight would also serve as soldiers for their warrior-lord. Thus, the more tenants acquired, the more lavish a lifestyle the warrior-nobleman could live. As time progressed, it was from this warrior-nobility that monarchs would draw upon to create a bureaucracy that paved the way for absolutism in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus, this class was critical to the evolvement of monarchy in the medieval period and beyond.
Finally, there was the clergy. From the lowliest village priest to the highest clerical official in the world – the pope – the goal of the clergy was to oversee the spiritual life of the people. With regard to the village priest, he was pivotal within medieval village society. It was to him that the village people turned to for spiritual and moral guidance. It was him that served as the visible symbol of the teachings and authority of the Church. Another aspect of clergy life was that of monasticism, in which monks spent a great deal of time in prayer and fasting.
In some monasteries, great effort on the part of the monks was invested in preserving various scrolls and texts for future centuries. Finally, there were those monks who utilized their vast knowledge to serve as tutors to members of the nobility. As time passed, the clergy began to look and act more like members of the nobility rather than men of the cloth. It was this change in priority by some that led to vast religious reform in later centuries. In conclusion, medieval society was one in which there were distinct classes.
However, unlike other societies, European medieval society was somewhat fluid. People had the ability, through hard work and perseverance, to move from one class to the next. They may not have always been welcome, but they were still able to move up the hierarchical ladder that existed within medieval society.
Source: Kries, Steven. “Lecture 23: Medieval Society: The Three Orders”. The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History. 24 September 2008. 10 April 2009 <http://www. historyguide. org/ancient/lecture23b. html>.