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Society and Population

On Classes, Orders and Social Position

We think of classes as being hierarchical and based largely on wealth. The richer you are, the more upper class you are. There is one continuum, that of money. It's a ladder and we are all placed either higher or lower on it.

Medieval society didn't think in these terms. It's not like people didn't recognize wealth or long for it. It's more the case that there was more than one ladder and more than one measure. There was nobility, for one, which was something you were born into or you weren't. If you were, you were on a particular ladder, regardless of wealth or anything else. Even with the order of nobility, wealth was a means to an end rather than an end in itself. A variety of other behaviors and characteristics more than offset a lack of wealth.

Another group unto itself was the clergy. You had to join this one, though you could join it quite young, and you could in theory be expelled from it. The clerical world had its own ladder, though not unaffected by other worlds. You could be noble, for example, and be in the clergy, which gave you a position the non-noble clergy could not aspire to. But a non-noble could go far; some commoners even became pope.

Beyond these were other "ladders". In the cities, for example, there was citizen and non-citizen, guildsman and non-guildsman. Among the nobles, increasingly there was being or not being at court. Those at court were starting to be called courtiers, though this became important only with the seventeenth century.

You could move up and down any of these ladders, though really the metaphor is too confining and misleading. Instead, I'll use a word that the people of the time often used: estate. You belonged to this estate or to that estate and each had its own sphere of social mobility. Some movement was affected by wealth, some wasn't.

The main point I want you to understand here is that "class" is an inadequate and ultimately misleading term. Especially if you start thinking of class conflict and that sort of thing.

Even estates, however, gives far from a complete picture of medieval social reality. Two other groupings were every bit as important as estate, and were all tangled up together. One was family, and the other was the corporation, by which I mean entities such as commune and guild. I'll talk about each of these in turn.


There was a traditional division of medieval society into three groups: those who pray (oratores), those who fight (bellatores), and those who work (laborares). It was always an oversimplified picture, even in the central Middle Ages, but it has been repeated so many times by so many writers that it's worth starting here.

These were not classes in the modern sense of the word. That is, they should not be understood as three rungs on a vertical ladder. Rather, they were three separate cuts of the pie. The word "estate" was often used, as was "order." I shall use both, rather than class, as a way of emphasizing the difference between modern and medieval perceptions. "Estate" derives from "status" and reminds us to focus on condition rather than elevation. "Order" comes from the Latin "ordo" which is also the root for "ordination." Think of orders in biology. The word also reminds us that in the Middle Ages these divisions were viewed as natural and essential to maintaining order within society.

The divisions were, however, mainly a literary trope, a way that writers had of talking about society. In practice, there were more than just three estates. Moreover, there are other ways of analyzing social structure than in these terms, for this tripartite division is not sufficient for the modern historian.

The chief shortcoming of the three orders picture is that it lumps so much of society into one pile: those who work. There is room here not only for great variations in wealth but also great variations in social prestige and social power. We need to look further.

Definitions of Social Status

We moderns tend to look at society through the relatively simple lens of money. If you have lots, you're upper class; if you have little, you're lower class. Most Americans think they're middle class, regardless of how much money they have; while much of the rest of the world thinks Americans are rich, regardless of how much money they have. But the scale is always vertical and has only the one yardstick. A mistake often made is to look at medieval society in terms of wealth. It affected social standing, without a doubt, but it did not create social standing.

Another vector of analysis is privilege, most commonly expressed in terms of law, treatment at law, or exemptions from laws. Indeed, the word privilege comes from two words—privatus and leges—that mean "private laws." We can see who was according privilege and thereby infer social groups.

Know Your Place

That takes care of the law, at least for the purposes of this overview. What about social status? What does that phrase actually mean? Or, rather, what did it mean in the late Middle Ages?

We know there were gradations within the orders. We frequently encounter phrases like "upper clergy" and "lower clergy" or "leading families" and the like. These were not normally clearly defined categories but were more in the nature of distinctions that "everyone" understood without needed to be particularly precise about it. It's worth looking at these gradations in a little more detail.

Distinctions were perhaps clearest among the religious. Bishops and archbishops were clearly superior to ordinary priests; one was upper clergy, the other lower clergy.

Among the nobility, the distinctions were more clearly based on wealth, but more specifically were based on title. Earls, counts, dukes, these were always members of the upper nobility. Ordinary knights belonged to the lower nobility. In between were any number of intermediary positions. Since these titles were customary, there was never a clear hierarchy of title. We do get that eventually, but not until the 17th century and even later. During the Middle Ages, status rested on the far more shifting grounds of alliances, family associations, and personal reputation.

I should also mention that royalty was a special case. All kings were noble, but once they became king all sorts of special associations accreted to them. These traditions were stronger where dynasties were long-lived, such as in France or England; they were weaker in places like Germany or Italy. Nevertheless, a king was special. This derived in part from Germanic traditions, in part from Biblical (Old Testament) foundations, and in part from a conscious and deliberate effort to draw upon Roman imperial law to bolster the special authority of a king.

This was not yet fully resolved by 1300. One tendency was to try to set the king apart, to make him something separate, with special powers such as the ability to make law simply by proclaiming it. A counter-tendency emphasized that the king was a member of the nobility, raised up by them (or his ancestors were), and required to work in partnership with them. This tension was by no means resolved by the time our course begins.



In your textbook, Denys Hay presents European society from a different angle: from the perspective of orders; specifically, clergy, nobility, townsmen, and peasants. That's a valid and useful approach as well. As Hay himself points out, it's how the people of the time tended to write about social structure. I offer this essay as a complement, not a contrast, to that information. You should also try to consider the portrait of Florentine society painted by Brucker in light of by this essay and Hay.

There remains the question of change over time. Changes in family structure are extremely difficult to document, but it seems clear that the impact of demographic crises led to significant changes in family size and sometimes even family relationships. In the longer run, though, the family is more fundamental and does not change in the space of a couple hundred years. The nuclear family was at the core of European society in 1300 and remained so in 1500.

Corporations, on the other hand, changed in significant ways. Their social function changed little: they were formal associations for mutual assistance, both social and economic. The change was in the number (a steady growth in guilds) and in their political power (a more complex story here, with both gains and losses). The big change here comes after our course, during the Reformation.

The fundamental religious unit of society was the parish and this did not change during our course. The significant change there was more administrative, as bishops were able to exert a more direct influence on local parish priests, but the social and religious functions of the parish remained untouched, even in the face of catastrophic events.

Likewise, the pays continued to exert a primary loyalty for nearly everyone. We do see the very first beginnings of a recognition of something larger, of the "nation" as embodied by the king and royal government, but only in a few places (England, France, Spain) and only fitfully as yet. Still in 1500, a man when asked to identify himself would reply "a Cornish man" or "Provençal" or "Swäbischer" before he would answer English or French or German.

And, finally, what about "Christendom"? This one is a little trickier, for it's among the humanists of our period that we start to hear references to "Europe" rather than "Christendom". It's very late, though, and very restricted, and would not become general until the 17th century. The concept in our period was still unchanged at its heart. What changed was the understanding of what was included by the term, for the eastern frontiers of Christendom were very much in flux.

This section belongs in the Law essay

It's better to think in terms of jurisdictions here, areas of authority that overlapped, competed, and even duplicated. I'll give an indication of the complexity.

A Jumble of Jurisdictions

There were village courts, run by the villagers themselves enforcing village customary law. There were manorial courts, in practice very similar in scope and purpose but run by the local lord or his representative. There were royal and baronial courts, run by the nobility and trying cases having to do with the nobility. Towns tended to have their own courts, and indeed this is one of the chief characteristics of an incorporated medieval town, that it could try its own citizens. There were also any number of specialty courts; for example, medieval fairs often had their own courts, enduring only for the length of the fair and dealing only with disputes arising during its course.

That's just a sampling. In many ways the courts can be divided into much the same categories—the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners—except that the third group is clearly divided into rural courts and town courts. Also, whereas the literary three-fold division always was presented as clear and unchanging, we see in the law courts large areas of overlap and changing relationships over time and place.