Nobility in Feudal Europe

Bayeux Tapestry

With this webpage I am trying to give the reader a flavour of what nobility meant in feudal England and France. I think it might help in understanding the context in which the great châteaux of the Loire Valley were built. There are numerous websites dedicated to the Middle Ages and to feudal Europe, here I just want to bring together some bits and pieces on one page. For example, the story of Chambord, and of all the châteaux in the Loire Valley, is one of French nobility and is rooted in the Middle Ages. But what exactly were the prerogatives and responsibilities of the nobility? And how did feudal France differ from feudal England?

When you thinks of the medival France and England, what are the first thought that come to mind? Knight's in shining armour saving damsels in distress, colourful heraldic shields, castles and dungeons, joists and constant battling between England and France. Then maybe the Crusades, and perhaps a final thought for the poor peasants toiling in the fields. Hopefully this webpage will cover, albeit superficially, most of these topics. So here goes!

Introduction - "Nulle terre sans seigneur"

Middle Ages (5th C to 15th C), Feudalism (legal and military customs), and Aristocracy ('rule of the best') are in many ways the same thing. Built on the ruins of the Roman Empire the Feudal System was a kind of political system which privileged a few to the disadvantage of many.

Even in
Ancient Greece an aristocracy (oi aristoi) led by a privileged few controlled the subservient many (oi polloi). Freemen of noble rank 'owned' the legislature and religion, and were judged fit to command armies. Free citizens (the non-servile class) were to a large degree ignored by the aristocrat, but in reality it was they that enriched the State. Domains and privileges were hereditary, but the 'people' had no political rights at all and were to all intents either house or field slaves. Even early Republics enshrined the distinction between a privileged class and a subordinate class of 'toilers'.

Rome divided its people into patricians (early aristocrats or 'nobilis') and plebeians (Roman citizens). Patricians were the law-makers, law-executors, and priests, but they were also expected to act as a 'patronus' to a number of 'cliens' (unprivileged freemen). Patricians were either 'patres conscripti' (senators) or 'ordo equestris', who were owners of horses, and thus were an early kind of 'Knight' and were of knightly rank. A senator or Knight was allowed to wear a ring upon the left hand ('jus annulorum'), just as in the Middle Ages a Lord or Lady of a castle or a Knight were allowed to bear a hawk upon their hand. Plebeians were either 'ingenui' (freemen descending from freemen) or 'libertini' (freedmen or descendants of slaves), and neither had any share whatsoever in the government or religion. However plebeians could elect 'tribunes' to defend their interests, and they could eventually rise to high office. Roman social classes were more complex than described above but the 'servile body' had no rights at all, and Roman slaves were considered property under Roman law.

Map Migrations

It has been often stated that when the Franks finally settled in Gaul (AD 486), about ⅔ of the Roman population were still slaves or serfs, and only about 500 families held real power. The barbarian invaders were 'rude', ill armed, poorly disciplined, but they were freemen. Plunder was top of their list, but many of the invading tribes developed the desire to found new settlements throughout Europe. The tribes are legendary, starting with the Goths in about AD 200 (with the Visigoths and Ostrogoths). Then came the Vandals, ca. AD 260, the Franks in AD 274, the Saxons, Jutes and Angles in ca. AD 286, the Alemanni in AD 351, and the Huns in ca. AD 395. What these new tribes did was to replace the centralised power of the Roman Empire. Roman legions required a central government and a taxation system in order to pay for salaries, constant training, equipment and food. But there was a decline in agriculture and in general economic activity with fewer and fewer rural groups and villages (and thus a shrinking tax base). Increasingly the Roman Empire was composed of urban towns and cities linked together with a network of Roman roads, making them attractive to a barbarian army looking for plunder. Even the major land owners dwelt in the town, making the countryside ripe for resettlement. Over time the marauding barbarian disappeared and was replaced by a population sparsely distributed over the conquered territory. The feudal system that replaced the Roman Empire consisted of rural mansions (manorialism) and villages dependent upon municipal boundaries, and initially all held together by military chieftainship. The social system depended upon the relationship between the chief and his 'comes', a concept of companions taken from Roman tradition and often translated today as Count. The 'suzerain' (a feudal Lord) used a kind of vassalage which obliged his 'comes' to provide military support and mutual protection in exchange for certain privileges. The tenure of land was free, but subject to certain obligations to a superior. Wikipedia has an extensive series of articles on the Early (5th C to 10th C), High (AD 1000 to 1250), and Late Middle Ages (AD 1250 to 1500).

Britain 886

The story goes that when the Roman legionaries left Britain in AD 420-426, the neighbouring barbarians (Caledonians, Picts, and Scots) renewed their raids south (the history of the British Isles is really a history of invasions). The Britons invited the peoples from Northern Germany and Scandinavia (Angles, Jutes, Saxons, etc.) to help them fight the barbarians. After AD 449 the Saxons, as a general term, drove back the Caledonians, but then installed themselves. And within a 100 years a Heptarchy of seven kingdoms dominated the British Isles. Fiefs were created, petty Kings were always waring against each other, and the Danes arrived first to plunder. But later they also settled, and Canute (ca. AD 995-1035) became the first Danish King of England. Then in 1066 we have the Norman Conquest, who back at the end of the 8th C were also Danes (Vikings) or 'Northmans'. By the 11th C Normandy had become the most perfect feudal realm in Europe. Upon conquering the British Isles William I (ca. AD 1028-1087) divided his new lands into some hundreds of large estates or 'Baronies', and these were divided into 60,215 Knights' fiefs (no natives were allowed into the highest rank of nobility). By AD 1070 all bishops and abbots and other surviving land owners were forced in to feudal tenure, and all were subject to military service. When William I died he held 1,422 manors and a fixed annual income of 400,000 silver pounds weight. He was probably the richest and most powerful man in the world. This is not a webpage on history, so we will jump forward to AD 1215 when a coalition of great Barons wrested from King John (AD 1166-1216) the Magna Carta. Between the 13th C and 16th C the 'Great Charter' was renewed and confirmed more than 30 times by successive Kings. In AD 1415 Henry V (AD 1386-1422) dissolved the active military part of the English feudal system with the introduction of a national militia, and by the reign of Henry VII (AD 1457-1509) overt feudalism was almost extinct.

France 1035

France as a kingdom emerged from Roman domination in AD 507 with Clovis (ca. AD 466-511). Society was then, and long afterwards, composed of 'leudes' (land-endowed) and 'anstrustions' (faithful comrades). These were the companions of war ('officiers et premiers serviteurs') of the King of the Franks. William the Conqueror (ca. AD 1028-1087) and his descendants dominated more than half of France until AD 1179. From the mid-9th C to the mid-10th C the rich nobles started to fortify their properties, distribute their lands, and build castles. As was written "no great Lord disdained to receive from a Prince, less powerful than himself, a fief which suited him, and render to him faith and homage for that fief. Between two Knights, one was often Lord of the other in one land, but his vassal in another". The earliest French noble families were the 'fideles' or companions (his 'leudes') that the chief (King) called about him. Many of the earliest Frankish nobles perished in the Battle of Fontenai in AD 841, but they were quickly replaced, and from them sprang the first French hereditary nobles. The highest were the great vassals of the crown (royal blood), then came those who held banner-fiefs and could command armies (high nobles with princely fiefs and forts or castles). Third were the 'ordinary nobles', possessors of hauberk-fiefs, a tenure of a Knight with the obligation to serve on horseback in complete armour (a hauberk was from old Frankish and described a shirt of mail reaching at least to the mid-thigh and including sleeves). Lastly were the 'écuyer' who held low fiefs ('noblesse' or 'gentry', but originally a squire or 'shield-bearer'). This represented about 4,000 families, and they could muster about 100,000 combatants. Nobles had the right to bear arms and wear 'armorial' (distinctive emblems of nobility on their 'buckler' or small round shield). Duc (Duché), Comte (Comté), Vicomte (Vicomté), Vidame, Chevaliers, were all of Roman origin, and the new additions were Baron (Baronnie) and Marquis ('Marquisats'). Nobles did not pay personal tax, and were not liable to have soldiers billeted upon them. Nobles usually bore a hawk upon their fist, both in chase and in war, as a distinction of their rank. In France the first formal letters of nobility dated from AD 1270 when Philip III (AD 1245-1285) favoured his chief councillor. Three degrees of French nobility emerged, on the top were the 'gentilhommerie', next came the nobles who descended from the ennobled, and thirdly those who had acquired nobility. There were also four subordinate kinds of French nobility. The first was the "nobility of the sword", the second that of the 'robe' or magistracy, the third that bought with money, and the fourth the noblesse or gentry who bore no distinctive title as nobles but composed the 'genteel' class. Between AD 1000 and AD 1730 more than 5,000 titles of hereditary nobility had been granted by 'patente' (letter from the King) and no less than 23,052 'seigneurie' or territorial lordships existed, or had existed in France. Naturally a few were as large as a province, but most were just villages and their environs. There were great fiefs, sub-fiefs ('arrières fiefs' or 'vavassorie') and 'châtellenie', and some fiefs would have given titles and privileges to several families. By the time of the French Revolution the body of nobles totalled 365,000 individuals including 4,120 families of ancient lineage. In AD 1626 Cardinal Richelieu (AD 1585-1642) decreed the immediate demolition or dismantling of all castles, feudal fortresses, and the bulwarks of every city and town in France, not situated upon the frontier of the kingdom. This, and other measures, finally abased the feudal and exalted royal power. Some may note that this just meant that feudal lords were replaced by the debaucheries and excesses of the King's royal and noble intendants (not to mention the corruption of the clergy), but as they say "that's another story".

The word '
feudal' is probably of Teutonic origin and would have meant some kind of payment for some kind of service to an acknowledged superior. The Wikipedia article highlights the uncertainty surrounding the origins of the word and even the conceptual basis for it. What we do know is that four different classes of person emerged. On top we have 'free men', then there were leudes or fideles (an early form of aristocracy) who had contracted an obligation in return for lands or privileges, then there were freedmen, and finally serfs. Serfdom was a form of bonded labour attached to the land of a fief (a heritable property or right). Technically a serf could not be removed from a fief, nor could the Lords act in a way that might reduced the value of a fief and impoverish their successors. So someone of importance would have established himself, his family and his retainers on some 'free' land, and built a simple fortified dwelling (later to become a castle). The feudal population became fixed but distributed sparsely over a conquered territory, forcing the former occupiers to cultivate the land for their new masters. Feudalism was all about private property whereas public property was more important in the Roman Empire.

Toiling the Earth

Not all
territorial fiefs were equal, but even the 'Suzerain' could not impose law on everyone. Until around the 11th C there was no coercive powers, no regular armies, no taxes, no central tribunals. There was really no collective or central state. Kings did emerge, and laws were created in which it was said that the King was the sole owner of all lands, and that all his subjects derived their possessions and privileges from him. All his subjects were to consecrate their lives to his service, and all titles flowed from him. The most powerful in the land would swear fealty at the Kings feet, and acknowledge them as their liege lord (in French 'Seigneur'). But this form of government was purely aristocratical, the appearance of despotic power was an illusion. The real form of government was military with an army composed of volunteers that conquered for gain. Conquered lands would be divided as fiefs to the principle officers in the army, who would them parcel out the land to their followers. A feudal settlement was in many ways the encampment of an army, and the possession of land was their pay. The key was a continued posture of common defence and obedience to their military leader.
In this sense many experts consider that patronage relationships were the very organising principle of medieval society. Seignorial power was all about bringing together the interests of the Lord, the families, individuals and the general community and finding acceptable compromises. Rules were flexible, and decisions often made to reconcile conflicting interests and keep the local peace. Medieval tenure was interdependent and inheritance and admittance to a tenancy had to be acceptable to the Lord, to his peers and to the Lord's men. In the medieval world the Lord bought a man to perform a certain service and payed him with land.

It is interesting that in the eyes of the law every 'subject' owed
allegiance to their Prince, either by birth or by naturalisation. The idea was that as soon as you were born you owed obedience to your Sovereign, and that obedience would follow you 'wheresoever he goes'. All persons over 12 years old were required to take an oath of allegiance.

Another topic I found interesting were
apprenticeships. A young person was indentured for 7 years to a tradesman or artificer (someone skilled in making things) to learn a trade or 'mystery'. It was a requirement in practicing a trade or 'mystery', and those coming into the realm needed also to complete the 7 years. Later this requirement was dropped if the person had served 7 years 'beyond Sea'. Everything the apprentice did belonged to his master. Another topic I found interesting was assault (the threat of violence) and battery (physical violence). Assault can be striking someone without hurting them, or even just the threat of striking them. Battery was "by striking or beating of a man, pushing, jolting, filliping upon the nose, etc.", but the "beating in a moderate manner" was allowed for children and servants.

There is a wonderful discussion about the word '
average'. It was a common expression describing how merchants contribute to their losses when their goods are cast into the sea during a tempest. Average because the losses would be proportioned according the goods carried. If the master was illicitly carrying more goods than allowed by the owners, and must cast overboard some goods, the remaining goods were not 'averaged' and the master had to make up the difference. If the goods were cast overboard before half the trip was completed, then the costs were estimated according to prices in the shipping port. If the casting overboard occurred in the latter part of the trip costs were estimated according to prices in the destination port. Goods given to pirates to save the ship were proportioned according to the 'average'.

Another interesting term was '
bottomry' which was when a master of a ship would borrow money upon the keel or bottom of his ship, i.e. failing to repay the debt the creditors would have the ship. More generally it referred to merchants who invested in a ship and upon its return were to be paid with interest greater than the legal limit of 5%, but it was not considered usury. Money lent at sea was allowed a higher interest than money advanced on land, due to the additional risks. Money lent 'on the bottom' was technically on the empty ship, but if the ship came back safely with a full cargo they would be paid back double, but were risking receiving nothing if an accident were to occur. One trick was to take the money, then cast off and sink the ship.

feudal Kings received revenues from their own lands ('demesne') and from the occasional wardship, etc. but they could not maintain a standing army nor cover the cost of sending an embassy to another feudal King. There were only three taxes in this early period ('aids'). The first was when the King's eldest son was made a Knight. The second was when his eldest daughter married. And the third was to pay the ransom when the King was taken prisoner. In some cases an additional tax could be levied for going on a crusade. This did not include the feudal 'relief' that was a tax due to the Lord by a new vassal upon entering into possession of a fief. A feudal tenant might also pay 'scutage' in lieu of military service. The only justification I've seen for taxes levied for the first son and first daughter is that it was to the benefit of those paying the taxes to ensure the continuity of the royal line and thus the continuity of their privileges.
Other sons of a King would be given a title and land to ensure that they also had an active interest in the well-being of the realm. For example, the third and fourth sons of Edward III of England (AD 1312-1377) founded the Houses of Lancaster (AD 1267-1361) and York (AD 1385-1499). Yet other 'lesser' sons might join the priesthood, and some might become mercenaries. In recent times 'lesser' sons might immigrate to the New World.


Marriage was in many ways also about land ownership, the very basis of medieval power, and land conveyancing, the very basis of family control. Medieval marriage involved the transfer of property to the new couple, and thus also the transfer of the act of inheritance. So any medieval girl or woman 'of merit' was a potential heiress as well as a recipient of a dowry at her marriage. Marriage was thus a tool to strengthen the bonds between Lords and vassals. Women were often called "peace-weavers" ensuring that the ownership of land was intermingled in a group, thus reinforcing mutual dependence for security of tenure. Given the limited lifespan of people in the Middle Ages infant betrothals were a way that a father could still have a say in the matter (life expectancy in the early Middle Ages rose to 33 years from 25 years during the Roman Empire). Some people consider this a bit like bartering cattle, but early marriage arrangements were a form of insurance that the girl would inherit. Child marriages were quite rare, since usually the marriage would take place when both had 'come of age', usually around 15 for boys and 14-15 for girls (puberty probably started later in the Middle Ages). Although Common Law set the lower limit on marriage at 12 for girls and 14 for boys, people were not idiots, a medieval woman's 'job' was to give her husband children and provide alliances, and she had to be old enough to survive childbirth (usually around 16 or 17 years old).
We have to remember that the Common Law on inheritance was only really settled by the end of the 13th C. Preference was given to the dead person's issue, and men were favoured over women, but only the eldest male inherited. If there was no male issue, daughters would co-inherit. However, the son of a deceased eldest son had priority over living younger sons, and indeed the daughter of a dead eldest son also had priority over a surviving younger son. The principles of Common Law could be modified by grants or settlements included in an inheritance. However, until AD 1540 in England the law required that the inheritance of land had to pass to the eldest male descendent.

And for those readers who might have heard of the '
droit du seigneur' as a supposed legal right for a feudal lord to sleep with subordinate women, in particular, on their wedding nights. In French it was called 'droit de cuissage' and it said to actually refer to a 'formariage', where a surf was obliged to pay his master 3 sous to allow his daughter to marry someone from outside his fief (there exist alternative interpretations). There is a general consensus that it is a myth, but some historians even write that it was abolished by King Malcolm (AD 1031-1093) in 1057, and the payment 'marcheta' replaced it.

Age played an important role in front of the law even in the Middle Ages. A 12 year old man ought to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King. His age of discretion was 14 years old, where upon he could marry and choose his guardian, and at 21 years old he could alienate his lands, goods, and chattels. A woman at 9 years old was 'dowable', and at 12 years old she could consent to marriage, and her age of discretion was 14 years old. Also at 21 years old she could alienate her lands, goods, and chattels. To all intents and purposes both were in 'full age' at 21 years old. Under that age a person could still 'contract for necessaries' and even be an executor of a will. At 14 years old they could inherit goods and personal effects, but not land until the age of 21. A man under the age of 14 years old and a woman under the age of 12 years old could refuse a marriage. People under the age of 14 years old were usually not punishable for a crime (but they must answer for damage). A 14 year old could be a witness, and it had been known for a 9 year old to give evidence. You had to be at least 21 years old to sit in Parliament, 24 years old to be ordained, and 30 years old to be a bishop.

So in the early Middle Ages Europe was to all intents and purposes peopled by soldiers, mostly sub-vassals to Barons (first introduced in England ca. AD 1050). The essence of the feudal bond was military service. Often Kings and Princes possessed less power that military commanders. Soldiers were volunteers and were conquering for themselves, seizing lands and taking people "under their protection" (land was a soldiers pay). Once land was seized they would take a posture of defence against new invaders, and they would establish a military style collective governance.

Pit and Gallows

judicial authority was fragmented and public justice was difficult to enforce. The solution was to invest judicial power with the Barons, and other powerful land owners. They received the "power of pit and gallows" and could drown and hang those who broke the laws. But this solution all but rendered the royalty impotent. With time, land and positions of privilege became hereditary, descending from father to eldest son. Inheritances could be added to, but not diminished, and great families accumulated an exorbitant number of titles, wealth, and power. The more land they possessed the more they could parcel out, and the more vassals and sub-vassals they could 'own'. Experts disagree about how feudal laws evolved, since most collections of feudal laws were only written down in the later Middle Ages. The earliest arrangement between land owner and cultivator dated from before Charlemagne (AD 742-814) and extended over a large part of the inhabited world. The idea that a land owner would allow someone to make their fields valuable, on condition that they will obey during peace and fight during war has been found in almost every type of feudal system. Frankish Lords having more land than they could cultivate distributed fiefs to leudes (vassals), who in return bound themselves to fight for them as needed.

The bond or engagement between a Lord and a vassal was a kind of simple contract of mutual interest, but over time other types of obligations were added. Obligations of a more chivalric nature, the observation of which were deemed a point of
honour (which was intimately tied in with land ownership). A vassal was bound, if his Lord lost his horse in battle, to give him his own in exchange. He was to cover his Lord with his body to protect him from danger. He was to keep his Lord's secrets, and to defend his honour and that of all his family. These obligation were not seen as degrading but as a way to prove ones nobleness.

Hommage de Edouard III à Philippe VI en 1329

obligation of a vassal was contracted in a triple ceremony of Homage, Faith, and Investiture. The vassal declared upon his honour that he wished to serve his lord ('fealty'). It was done in person, by knelling down, bare-headed, without belt or spurs, and by placing his hands between those of his Lord. The same obligation was made in a religious ceremony, binding faith and honour. This usually took the form of an oath taken on the Bible or a Saint's relic. The lord would then deliver the land promised, this was the Investiture, and the rights of the vassal were known as 'dominium utile'. Initially the King was excluded from such ceremonies, but they quickly found that it was a useful way to extract obedience (if not money) from their Lords. But all was not lost because Kings quickly learned that they could generate a non-negligible revenue selling bishoprics (and some historians have pointed out that this money helped pay for the King's mistresses).

What we see in the High and Late Middle Ages is that a Lords wealth could be increased by growing their towns. The earliest city-states were
Florence, Venice, Genoa, etc. which became trading republics run by commercial aristocracies (Florence became a city state in AD 1100, Venice much earlier, and Genoa was a major maritime power by AD 1190). The trading towns of the Rhine and the manufacturing boroughs of Flanders were quick to follow. The Hanseatic League was a perfect example of a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns established around AD 1250. Initially established in Northwestern Germany at one point it represented 66 towns and cities in Central Europe and the Baltic region.

church was just as active. From the 9th C they established new communities of ecclesiastical origin, which became the nuclei of a new urban population. Some of the prelates (Bishops) and Abbots became Lords. They were also able to become rich and powerful, and could exercise great influence over Baronies near by. Through the clergy the freemen (burghers) of the towns and cities were able to obtain exceptions and privileges from the Lord. Here began the struggle between the Lords, Barons and a towns sub-vassals, struggles that usually ended with a charter granted by the Barons. Prelates who were also Barons were the first to grant charters to the townships growing up around cathedrals. For in the 12th C the church was sufficient rich and powerful that they could start building stately cathedrals. And when local Barons were unwilling to issue a charter, the clergy could usually obtain (for a price) a charter from the King. It is perhaps at this moment that a relationship of mutual interest between burgher and King was first established (bypassing the aristocracy). And royal charters became more and more valuable.

Map of Cistercian and Clunaic Monasteries c 1200 1300

Here we can see a map showing Cluniac and Cistercian monasteries sometime after AD 1098. And this does not include the Benedictines, Camaldolese, Carthusians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, etc.

Crusades, starting in AD 1094, changed significantly the concept of nobility in feudal Europe. The fact that many different nations were represented created a certain 'generous rivalry' that resulted in a common concept of chivalry (from the old French for horsemanship). Some historians have noted that one positive outcome of the crusades was that many 'high-spirited' nobles who might have become 'most dangerous' at home, never returned from the battlefield. And many fiefs and even dominions were none the worse for the absence of their Lords and Kings. Through it all the royalty was strengthen in that they were often able to recover the fiefs of defunct nobles. Some Lords and Barons had borrowed money for the expedition, and could not have repaid their debts even had they returned safely. A multitude of titles to smaller fiefs were extinguished altogether.

Chivalry (at least in English law) was used for the tenure of lands by Knights whereby the tenant was bound to perform a 'service of war' unto the King or to the Lord who held the tenure. Chivalry could be either general or special. 'General chivalry' was the need to provide military service in the 'feoffment' (estate) that the tenant held. 'Special chivalry' was particular to the individual Knight who held the service. All land was held by the Crown, and all land was associated with some yearly rent and the performance of a service or duty. As land became increasingly parcelled out the service became either chivalry or socage (i.e. a payment of rent). Chivalry was an obligation to perform some noble or military office. It was 'common' for a Lord, and 'regal' for the King, and could be a 'grand serjeanty' or 'petit serjeanty'. 'Grand' was when one held land of the King and would be expected to lead his men and carry the King's banner. 'Petit' was to provide "some small thing towards his wars". Chivalry could also apply to the 'common person' and was called 'scutagium' or 'service of the shield' and was in general an obligation on a noble to equip and maintain a soldier or soldiers at the disposition of the King. In fact it could be 'uncertain' or 'certain', and 'uncertain' could be either an obligation on a tenant to follow his Lord and fight for the King for up to 40 days (depending upon the tenant agreement), or to pay for a replacement. The 'uncertain' part was that the obligation could also be to defend a castle. 'Certain' was when the tenant could pay a fixed yearly sum in lieu of service, 20 shillings for a full knight's-fee, which was a measure of land deemed sufficient to support a Knight.

Historians have always noted that it is difficult to separate the reality of 'chivalry' from the poetry of the period. Some place the beginnings of chivalry with Robert I (AD 866-923), others prefer to wait for Philip I (AD 1052-1108) and the First Crusade (AD 1095-1099). Some historians like to suggest that early knighthood was like a second priesthood, a more active manner to serve God. And with the predominance of the worship of the Virgin Mary, it was not difficult to see emerge the idea of defending the weaker sex, some knights making the call "to God and the ladies". The entry into the holy order of chivalry would begin with a bath, implying that he would present himself 'free from sin'. He would be dressed in a white linen tunic, a robe of golden tissue, and a black cloak. The colours represented the purity of his future line, the blood he was to shed for the church, the death that would be his constant companion, and a sash would be for his new chaste life. He would have gilt spurs symbolising him flying when duty called, and finally in girding his sword, he would be armed to defend the poor against the rich that would oppress them, and protect the weak against the contempt of the strong. As a reminder of his promises, he would be struck with a 'colée', a blow to the neck with a sword, or a slap 'colaphus'. The new Knight would be reminded to fight the "treason of false judgement", help ladies and damsels, fast every Friday, and make offering every day at mass. Knights were of noble blood, yet those who traditionally looked down on servitude required a future Knight to serve an apprenticeship before finally becoming an accomplished warrior. The court-yard was the place for all chivalric exercise, thus the origin of the word 'courtesy'. Esquires, sons of Barons or Viscounts, were to pass a few years at the court of a Count or Duke. Their sons would in turn have their companions in sport, and possibly meet their future rivals. The court of the King was the supreme school of courtesy. The spirit of chivalry was said to be a strange mix of valour, superstition, and gallantry, and peace was scorned in favour of war, with religion used to justify violence.

Body Armour ca. AD 1000 body armour ca. AD 1400

The bearing hawks on the hand, by a Knight or Baron, or Lady of a castle, (or their attendants) was a distinctive mark of nobility. In the early ages of chivalry, body armour was very plain, but as the chivalric spirit declined with time, ornamental coats of mail came to the fore. Suits of steel carved with silver were not uncommon, and even some tournament suits were made of gold. Above we have body armour from ca. AD 1000 and ca. AD 1400.
Heraldry is said to have been introduced by Henry the Fowler (AD 876-936) in ca. AD 919, but Wikipedia tends to suggest that it is more likely to date from ca. 1150. The idea was that houses of noble families would be represented as symbols on shields, and the idea rapidly expanded across Europe. One historian called it 'eye language', and during the crusades it helped everyone understand "who was who".

Roll of Arms ca. AD 1400

In one of the old texts I came across a reference to the Caurfines (or Caurfini). There is mention of the cities of Italy (Venice, Pisa, Genoa, etc.) dominating the trade in spices, gold and silks between Europe and Asia. Over time the merchants of Florence established commercial houses in other parts of Italy, and many accumulated large capital by their trade, more than could conveniently be employed in it. They became dealers in money by exchange, and by borrowing and lending with interest. The merchants of other cities followed suit in dealing in money as well as merchandise. They extended their businesses into France and England, and despite coming from Milan, Sienna, Luca, etc. all were called Lombards or Tuscans. Many of the Italian merchants settled in London. It is said that the most famous were the Caurfini (not sure if it was a single family or a general term) who became infamous for departing from the proper business of merchants to become also agents for the Pope "in his usurious transactions, rendering themselves as odious as the Jews". They took advantage of those who were obliged to borrow money, and some writers mention an interest rate of 60%. As early as AD 1235 they were called the 'Pope's Merchants' and their trade was letting out money. It is said they differed little from Jews except that they were "rather more merciless to their debtors". There was a lot of uncertainty about their name but many thought that they came from a town in Lombardy called Caurfi or Caurfium, where it was said that the 'arts of usury and extortion" were first practiced. An effort was made to stop "their cursed trade", but it was only in AD 1251 they were accused of schism, heresy, and treason. Some wrote at the time that all this did was raise the interest rate on loans.

Before we move on it is perhaps worthwhile standing back from the fine words such as honour, chivalry and knighthoods, and remember what the feudal period really meant for most people. Cardinal Jacques de Vitry (ca. AD 1160-1240) wrote in the 13th C that the "great lords and their satellites … do not confine themselves to extorting money from their subjects, but exacting from them illicit dues, but yet worse, indulge in robberies by violence, sometime open, at other times secret, from the unhappy objects of their cruel tyranny. They ravage lands, too, without mercy, and burn crops, woods, and houses. They respect no sanctuary, not even those of the church; they even attack monasteries and plunder them without mercy. The nobles, by means of their provosts and other satellites, in their courts, despoil widows and orphans of their substance and rights, lay snares from their clients, raise litigations, and bring charges of unreal offences, in order to extort compositions by fear. It is quite usual with them to throw into their dungeons, and load with chains, men guilty of no crime, and to torture the innocent, to induce them to yield up sums of money. They do these things to supply their own prodigalities, their luxuries, and extravagance. It is that they may appear in a state of tourneys, to meet the exactions of usurers, from whom they have borrowed more money than they are able to pay, to maintain mummers, jongleurs, parasites, actors, and flatterers; it is for the benefit of such as these that they despoil and torture their victims".
Olivier de la Marche (AD 1425-1502) wrote "that every region of the kingdom was full of castles and fortresses, kept by armed men who lived by rapine and prey". And in the countryside there were the 'ècorcheurs' (skinners alive) who "went roving about, from province to province, and out of one district to another, seeking booty, and in quest of chances". In AD 1437-1438 Paris was invaded by wolves, who killed dogs, babies, men and women, and in just one period of a few days it was recorded that they killed seventeen people. A chronicler of the time simply noted "but these wolves, however ferocious, were less redoubtable, in those days, to the Parisians, than the feudal Lords and their brigand followers, commonly called ècorcheurs".

Feudal Jurisprudence

Feudal Jurisprudence

In the early Middle Ages the law was decided by the Lords, who would bring together certain of their vassals to serve at the court. Many of the basic legal principles were retained from Roman times. Vassals tried each other, under the presidency of the Lord. Freemen were subject to the jurisdiction of their peers. Oaths were allowed from the friends of the defendant, as was Trial by Ordeal (often suggested by the clergy), and Trial by Battle (preferred by nobles who accused the clergy of corrupting all justice).

In one of the old texts I found a wonderful definition of 'innovation' (I presume in the legal sense) as "
thought dangerous by our laws, and the ancient judges of the law have ever suppressed them, less the quite and certainty of the Common Law should be disturbed".

'Civil Law' was a codified set of laws based upon Roman Law which was said to be compiled "from the laws of nature and of nations". It was seen as laws "every particular nation, commonwealth or city had established peculiarly for itself", but was, with few exceptions, the same as Common Law. Civil Law could be written or unwritten (based upon custom), public or private, but all was said to derive from 4 books, the first being 'The Code' which was again divided into 'Twelve Tables', and all compiled on the order of Emperor Justinian (482-565) and published in AD 529 as the Corpus Juris Civilis. 'Common Law' was a body of law based upon precedents derived from decisions of courts (including "the law of nature, or of reason, the law of God, and the principles and maxims of the law"). It was 'common' because it was true for all the King's courts across England following the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was said to be the common birthright "that every subject hath for the safeguard and defence, not only of his goods, lands, and revenues, but of his wife and children, body, fame, and life also".

The story goes that after the decay of the Roman Empire, three sorts of German people invaded Britain, the
Saxons (from ca. AD 441), the Angles (fishing people), and the Jutes. The Jutes gave rise to the Kentish man and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight. The Saxons peopled the Sussex (West and East) and Wessex (from AD 519), and the Angles peopled East-Angles, Mercia and Northumbria. Having different laws and customs they preferred a mix of early West-Saxon law and Mercia law, and called it 'Jus Angorum'. The Danes also invaded a part of England and introduced Dane-Lage. When "William called the Conqueror, upon consideration of all those laws and customs, abrogated some, and established others, to which he added some of his own country laws which he judged most to conduce the preservation of the peace, and this is what we now call the Common Law". But it has been said that King Alfred (849-889) had already previously created a common law in that it was common to the whole nation (even if based upon Saxon law).

The reality of the time was that
crime between gentlemen was rare. Honour, an apprehension of duels, and the publicity surrounding Trial by Battle was enough to repress most forms of crime and violence. The "inferior part of society", in towns and in the countryside, remained outside the feudal system. In the early Middle Ages slavery was almost universal. All peasants and almost all citizens belonged to either a conquerer or to a usurper (someone who had seized land and power by some illegitimate means). Peasants were just conceded with the land which they cultivated. For serfs and those who committed crimes the will of the local Lord or Baron replaced all forms of alternative justice, and punishment was more than often execution. Some historians have noted that when you don't care about the security and safety of the 'lower classes' it is astonishing how few crimes get to the courts. Feudal law was made by strong men, for strong men, and it did not care much for the weak.

Duel Judiciaire

The majority of cases brought before feudal tribunals concerned the ownership of fiefs, and often involved the
law of primogeniture. Trial by Battle was considered a "judgement by God" but avoiding the church, which most nobles felt was able to obtain any result wanted. Initially a last recourse, Trial by Battle became common and a regular part of the jurisprudence of every feudal country. In England the first judicial Trial by Battle took place in AD 1095 at the court at Windsor, and the loser was castrated and had his eyes put out.

In France it was already a well established judicial process and most of the religious houses had an enclosure set aside for judicial sword trials. As early as AD 1008 French abbeys kept Knight vicars to fight for them against rich Lords and Barons who would not part with their money for 'pious use'. The Pope actually authorised in AD 1114 judicial combats held in French religious houses. From then on everyone would hire a champion to fight their cause, even if when beaten they might lose a hand, a foot or even be hanged. It became so popular that both
Louis VII (AD 1120-1180) and Louis IX (AD 1214-1270) tried to abridge it or even abolish it, but failed. Tradition had it that the vanquished parties would be paraded through the streets with only their shirts on (or even naked) and would have to support indignities and even "attacks of the flesh". Louis IX did manage in AD 1270 to regulate Trial by Battle. One particular rule was that a plebeian could accuse a knight, but the plebeian was to fight on foot whereas the gentleman could fight on horseback. If the knight were to accuse the plebeian, then both were to fight on foot. Losers were hanged. Women, priest, the sick, inform, maimed, young men under 20, and old men over 60 were exempt, but all could employ champions if they pleased. Over time Trial by Battle was replace by trial by jury. Defendants could support their right by single combat or by the oaths of 12 men of their 'vicinage'. Trial by Battle was only abolished in England in AD 1819, and the last Trial by Battle fought in France was in AD 1547 (although by then the 'battles' had become duels because the clergy had already withdrawn from such combats).

In a nice little aside I found that in preparing for combat both parties had to take an oath that they bore no charms or amulets about them, or made use of any magic.

In an old text we learn that a Trial by Combat was when an appellee of a felony pleaded Not Guilty he would then flings down his glove, and if the appellant would join battle he would reply and take up the glove. The appellee laid his right hand on the Book, and with his left hand took the appellant by the right, and swore that he was not guilty of the said felony. Then the appellant would take the Book by the right hand and with his left hand would take the appellee by the right and swear that the felony was committed on a particular day. The court fixed the day and place of battle, and usually kept the appellee in custody. They would meet at the 'rising of the sun' bare headed, bare legged from the knee downwards, and bare armed to the elbows, armed only with batons an ell long (elbow to tip of middle finger). They would take an oath and the crowd was warned to be silent under pain of imprisonment. The combat began. If the appellee was vanquished or could no longer fight he was adjudged to be hanged immediately. If he fought until the stars appeared he was acquitted. If the appellant 'becomes a crying coward' the appellee would recover damages and the appellant would for his perjury lose his 'liberam legem', their right to give evidence or serve on a jury. Trial by Battle was a defendants choice, but would only be used in cases of uncertainty. If there was 'a violent presumption of guilt' then the crime could be judged in the 'ordinary way'.

Here is a wonderful description of a Trial by Battle (or Combat) and I've more or less taken it word-by-word. The combat occurred in AD 1386 between Jean de Carrouges (ca. AD 1330-1396) and his erstwhile friend Jacques Le Gris. Le Gris was accused of raping Carrouge's wife Marguerite while Carrouge was on a trip to Paris to collect the wages he earned fighting in Scotland.
The stakes were, if Carrouges won then Le Gris was indeed a rapist and would die in the duel. If Le Gris won then Marguerite would be burned at the stake for being a liar. This would be the last official trial by combat ordained by the King and Parliament of France and would be the highlight of a big party King Charles VI (AD 1368-1422) was throwing to get over the death of his 3 month old baby son. Charles VI was 17 when he married in AD 1386 Isabeau of Bavaria (ca. AD 1370-1435) who was 14. She had her first child at the age of 15 and her 12th child at the age of 37, although several died young.
The story goes that the combatants took the field in the early afternoon, mounted and dressed in plate armour. Both carried a lance, longsword, a heavy battle axe known as the 'Holy Trinity' and a long dagger called the 'misericordia'. Carrouges appeared first, reciting his charges against Le Gris to the King and crowd before Le Gris followed and did the same. Le Gris was then Knighted in order that he and Carrouges be of equal standing during the fight. Both Knights then dismounted and gave oaths to God, the Virgin Mary and St George, thereby sanctifying God's judgment over the duel's outcome. Finally, Carrouges approached his wife and pledged his honour before her, kissing her and promising to return.
As the field was cleared, silence descended on the arena following the King's instructions that anybody who interfered in the duel would be executed and that anyone who shouted or verbally interrupted the combat would lose a hand. Readying their steeds, the Knights squared up and at the marshal's signal, charged towards one another. Their lances struck but failed to penetrate the thick hides covering their shields and the combatants wheeled and charged again, this time striking one another on their helms. Rounding once more, the Knights charged a third time, again striking shields and this time both shattering their lances. Reeling from the impact, the warriors drew their axes and charged a fourth time. Slashing and kicking at one another in the centre of the field, they traded blows until Le Gris, the much stronger man, was able to drive his axe through the neck of Carrouges' horse. As the beheaded beast tumbled to the ground, Carrouges jumped clear and lashed out with his own weapon, disemboweling Le Gris' steed in turn.
Now on foot, the Knights drew swords and returned to battle, Le Gris again proving stronger than his opponent and slowly gaining the upper hand. After several minutes of engagement, Carrouges slipped and Le Gris was able to stab his rival through the right thigh. As the crowd gasped and murmured, Le Gris stepped back to view his opponent's injury and Carrouges desperately counter-attacked, wrestling Le Gris to the ground. Le Gris' heavy armour prevented him from regaining his feet and Carrouges repeatedly stabbed at his floored opponent, his blows denting but not puncturing the thick plate steel.
Realising that his sword was inadequate, Carrouges straddled Le Gris and used the handle of his dagger to smash the lock holding Le Gris' faceplate in position. Even as his opponent struggled beneath him, Carrouges tore the plate off and demanded that Le Gris admit his guilt. Le Gris refused and cried out "In the name of God and on the peril and damnation of my soul, I am innocent". Infuriated, Carrouges drove his dagger through Le Gris' neck, killing him instantly

Standing over his vanquished opponent, Carrouges remained on the field as the crowd cheered him and pages rushed to bind his wound. He then kneeled before the King, who presented him with a prize of a thousand francs in addition to a royal income of 200 francs a year. Only then did he greet his wife, in an emotional scene before the thousands of spectators.
Jean and Marguerite de Carrouges then, with the crowd following in a great procession, rode from the abbey to the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, to give thanks for the victory.

Jacques le Gris and Jean de Carrouges

Interestingly I said that the description was wonderful, but that does mean truthful. A chronicler of the time noted that upon the signal to attack both men dismounted and engaged each other on foot. Le Gris did stab his rival in the thigh, but Carrouges managed to pull Le Gris to the ground and kill his enemy with great difficulty, because he was encased in armour. Jean Le Coq, the lawyer for Le Gris, also recorder the battle and confirmed that it took place on foot and not on horses. Another account added that after Le Gris was killed, his body was dragged to Montfaucon and there he was hanged.

Duelling became so popular as a replacement for Trial by Battle, that it was estimate in France alone, that more than 4,000 gentlemen lost their lives duelling between 1589 and 1607. Henri IV (1553-1610) issued an edict that marshals of France should hear all complaints concerning the honour of nobles and gentlemen, and that duelling should be punishable by death and confiscation of property. Seconds and assistants should lose their rank, dignity and offices, and be banished from court. But the number of duels continued to increase. Even Richelieu (1585-1642) tried to put an end to duelling. There was a non-fatal duel between an infamous duelist François de Montmorency-Bouteville (1600-1627) and Guy d'Harcourt, Comte de Beuvron. Harcourt escaped to England, but Bouteville was tried and beheaded. Even this did not stop duelling in France. Voltaire (1694-1778) noted that duelists could be seconded by as many as 10 or 20 people, and they would also often fight as well after their principals had been disabled. Finally it was Louis XIV (1638-1715) who created a 'court of honour' to redress all conflicts. Anyone issuing or accepting a challenge would be suspended for three years from any office of the state, would be imprisoned for two years, and was fined ½ of his yearly income. Anyone who fought a duel would be held guilty of murder. Persons of high rank were beheaded, and others hung and their bodies refused a Christian burial. The key was that Louis XIV carried through with his promise and many were executed.
extensive article in Wikipedia is a testament to the role and importance of duelling throughout the Middle Ages (5th C to 15th C) and well into early modern Europe (15th C to 18th C).

We have mentioned quite extensively the Trial by Battle, but what of the
Trial by Ordeal? Ordeal was probably a Saxon word and was used for a kind of purgation (purification or cleansing) in Canon Law, where the 'party' was to be judged guilty or not guilty. An 'offender' when pleading 'not guilty' might chose to be judged by twelve men (God and Country), or just by God. A Trial by Ordeal would be either by water or by fire. The water ordeal would be performed in either cold or hot water. "The parties suspected were adjudged innocent, if their bodies were not born up by the water contrary to the corse of nature; in hot water, they were to put their bare arms or legs into scalding water, which if they brought out without hurt, they were taken to be innocent of the crime". Fire ordeal involved "passing, bare-footed and blindfold over nine hot glowing plough-shares; or were to carry burning irons in their hands, usually of one pound weight, or of two pounds which was duplex, or of three pounds weight which was triplex; judged innocent or 'nocent', acquitted or condemned". The fire ordeal was for freemen, or "persons of better condition" and the water ordeal for bondsmen and 'rusticks'. Trial by Ordeal was condemned by Pope Stephen V and Pope Innocent III forbade priestly cooperation in AD 1215 (it was later abolished by the English Parliament).


Above we can see a trail by fire painted in ca. AD 1430. The 'trial by fire' sounds pretty barbaric, even if it was only administered to those who professed to believe in God. However one analysis of church records from 13th C Hungary showed that 308 cases were judge by trial by fire. Exactly 100 were aborted before obtaining a result. Of the remaining 208 the number burned was 78, meaning that according to records 130 passed the trial by fire and remained unharmed. In England there are records of 19 trials by fire, of which 17 were exonerated. The conclusion drawn was that the clergy rigged the whole thing, or …

Honour could taken many forms. There was at one moment in time a conflict between
William of Breteuil (a Benedictine Abbot) and Ascelin de Goel (ca. AD 1045-1116), Seigneur d'Ivry & Bréval. The château d'Ivry had been given to Guillaume de Breteuil, but Ascelin felt he had more right to it, being already its commander (in his family since before his grand-father). After taking the affair to the courts, the young brother of Ascelin, taking advantage of the fact that Guillaume was in prison, captured the château in AD 1088, and gave it the Duc de Normandie. Guillaume once freed had to pay a large sum of money to get the château back, and Ascelin had to go back to his castle in Bréval. Ascelin was the weaker, but was helped by 'de Seigneurs française', and was able to take back the château and capture Guillaume. Guillaume was humiliated, but freed for a large ransom, the hand of his daughter Isabelle, and of course the château. In AD 1091 Guillaume attacked the château through the attached abbey. Ascelin burned the abbey and captured Guillaume. Guillaume then promised the Duc de Normandie and the King of France a lot of money, and 'naturally' they attacked Ascelin and his château was put under siege with a new 'machine of war'. He gave in, and Guillaume got his château back in AD 1092. Upon the death of Guillaume in AD 1103 the story does not end. If your interested check out the rest here. What interested me was the 'behind the scene story'. The brother of Ascelin had in fact given an insult to a woman, but had been too severely punished by William of Breteuil. In the household of the King of France Philip I (AD 1052-1108) the young gentlemen of the court were restless, so for a price they took the part of Ascelin (the weaker of the two in the conflict). Richard de Montfort (AD 1065-1092) took command, seconded Ascelin, and defeated Guillaume. This royal assistance was more costly than common soldiers, and Ascelin was determined that Guillaume pay the bill. Guillaume was the Lord of Ascelin, to which he had given his homage. He did not want to give him to the executioners to extract his treasures, so he exposed Guillaume every day in his shirt at the north window of his castle, occasionally throwing a bucket of cold water over him. In this way he extorted 3,000 pounds of silver, horses, arms, the château, and Guillaume's daughter whom he demanded in marriage. Honour amongst thieves comes to mind.

The bailiff is mentioned several times on this webpage. It origins were in France where a bailiff would administer justice handed down from one of the high courts, and to which there was no appeal. Mention was made that in England justice was administered by a sheriff or Viscount, and that the sheriff fulfilled the same functions. However mention was also made that in ancient times in England justice was administered by bailiffs as in France, but that the role of the bailiff was to serve the sheriff and was to serve writs and it was a position held in great contempt by the people. Yet in other situations the bailiff was held in good esteem because chief magistrates were also called bailiffs. Equally 'in former times' bailiffs looked after the Kings castles. And there were different 'ordinary' bailiffs, e.g. bailiff of Liberties, of Lords of Manors, or of Husbandry. The bailiff of Liberties was a officer of the court and could arrest a man for which a warrant had been issued by the sheriff. But the sheriff could not enter the property of a 'subject' without a specific clause in the writ. As such the bailiff of Liberties was a surrogate for the sheriff. Bailiff of Lords of Manors collected rents and fines, but even when acting on behalf of the sheriff this type of bailiff could not trespass. A bailiff of Husbandry belonged to 'men of good estates' and they would fell trees, cut hedges, repair houses, and 'gather up the profits of the land of their Lord and Master, for which they render accounts yearly".

I came across a new word which was 'aures' which appeared to be the Saxon of
cutting off the ears for those who robbed churches, or were guilt of any other theft. This lead me to find an extensive article on "Disfigurement, Authority and the Law in early Medical Europe". It's worth a read if only to understand that in almost all cases the perpetrator of an injury was fined rather than physically punished, even if the list of gruesome punishments was extensive.

Another topic that caught my attention was the '
cuckingstool' (or ducking stool) which was used to punish disorderly (one text mentioned unquiet) women, scolds (public nuisances), and dishonest tradesmen (in particular brewers and bakers). And just to make it more interesting one text mentioned "immersed over head and ears in some stinking water".

One topic I had not seen mentioned much was the so-called '
corruption of blood' which would happen to an attainder when condemned of a capital crime (felony or treason). The idea was that he (or she) would not only lose one's life, property and any hereditary titles, but that his (or her) children would not inherit and would be "rendered base and ignoble" (their blood was corrupted as well). By a specific pardon of the King children born afterwards could inherit land if it were purchased at the time of the pardon.

A nice closing topic in jurisprudence is the so-called
Bawdy-House, a "house of ill fame, kept for the resort and commerce of lewd people of both sexes". It "endangered the public peace, by drawing together dissolute and debauched persons, and promoting quarrels, but also in respect of its tendency to corrupt the manners of the people, by an open profession of lewdness". Couples going to a 'lewd house' could be arrested for fornication or adultery, and offenders could be arrested for breach of the peace. "Whores and bawds may be carted" probably means that whores and women in charge of a brothel may be taken to prison in a cart where they could be seen and where people would often throw mud at them. A wife could be indicted and set in the pillory with her husband, because being in charge of a brothel was an offence against the domestic economy and the governance of the house, in which the wife was said to have a principle share. Bawdy-houses were also known as brothel-houses or 'stews' and brothels were usually whitewashed because of their origins as steambath houses. Which leads us nicely on to entertainment.


There are a multitude of interesting and well written websites and webpages dedicated to medieval entertainment, so we will only summarise the topic here.

humiliation and punishment was an accepted and popular forms of entertainment. Offences meriting humiliation could be as simple as being a bad musician (wear a 'Flute of Shame') or arriving late for church (obliged to wear a giant rosary). Then there was the pillory (first documented in English in AD 1274) and the 'stocks' were certainly popular in the late Middle Ages, not to mention the pole or chair of shame (simple types of pillory). Shackles were widely used in medieval times, and criminals would often be paraded through the streets and people would shout insults and throw mud and dirt at them. Some sentences actually prescribed humiliations such as head shaving, flogging, etc., and of course flagellation was a common means of self-discipline in the medieval church. Medieval society was also particular imaginative in developing and using torture machines such as iron chair, the rack and the brazen bull to extract confessions or information.

Pieter Bruegel

Medieval entertainment included feasts, banquets, jousts and tournaments, liturgical dramas and 'morality plays' and 'mystery plays' (and theatre in general), story telling, fairs, games and sports, hunting, hawking, and all sorts of 'entertainment' using dogs, cocks and bears. Experts have estimated that workers would have celebrated Christmas, Easter, May Day, and the end of ploughing and harvesting, and beside Sundays many had up to about 8 weeks free from labour. Entertainers included jesters (buffoons), mummers, minstrels and troubadours, acrobats, jugglers, and conjurers and magic.

'Playhouses' were originally designed to promote "virtue to the imitation of the people, and expose vice and folly; and therefore are not in their own nature nuances: but it hath been holden, that a common playhouse may be a nuisance, if it draw together great numbers of coaches, etc., as prove generally inconvenient to the places adjacent". But we have also to always remember that any person "speaking any thing in derogation of religion, etc., they are liable to forfeitures and imprisonment".
Public story telling and ballad singing rose to become an art form in the Middle Ages. Minstrels, or 'love-singers', and
troubadours ('inventors'), and jesters (and buffoons) were by ca. AD 1380 in high vogue and competitions would be held throughout Europe. Minnesingers, often landless Knights or persons of genteel extraction, were popular in the 13th C in Germany. Many of the songs of love were taken from Moorish poets, passed in to Provençal, and then into English or German.
Later still the nobles became bored and minstrelsy was banished from the great halls and palaces. Minstrels and troubadours found less laudable employment playing go-betweens in intrigues, and pimping for Lords and Ladies, as they "corrupting the minds and bodies of the young blobs and gentry of both sexes". By
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) they had sunk into contempt.

Medieval games included dice, cards, draughts, chess and board games, and there was also skittles (kegel was played in Germany in the 3rd C or 4th C) and bowls/bocce. Egyptians played with dice, Romans gambled with dice (despite it being illegal), and games such as Hazard were very popular in the Middle Ages (ca. 14th C). By AD 1100 there were at least 10 different dice games being played, most with 3 dice and all based upon obtaining defined combinations of casts. Playing cards (ca. 1365) were developed from dice, and by the 16th C had replaced dice in popularity. It was in the 17th C that the French finally gave the cards the symbols clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades. Senet is one of the oldest board games in that it was played by the Egyptians ca. 3100 BC. Tafl games (a kind of abstract strategy game) have been dated back to 400 BC in Northern Europe, and it is said were only supplanted by chess in the 12th C.

There is plenty of evidence that simple
children's games such as 'hide-n-seek', 'tag', 'ring around the Rosie' (some associate it with the first outbreaks of plague), 'see saw', 'hopscotch' (dates back to Roman times) were all practiced in medieval times.

games of strength and skill included archery, marbles, quoits (ring tossing), hammer throwing, wrestling, etc.

Games of chance were almost all associated with some form of
gambling. Examples are 'teetotum' (put & take), Glückshaus (Lucky Pig), Knucklebones (a early from of dice dating back to 330 BC). There are numerous examples of sermons and treaties condemning card games making it clear that usually gambling was involved.

There were other
strategy games such as 'Tic-Tac-Toe', Nim, Alquerques (an early form of draughts originating as early as 1400 BC), Backgammon, 'Fox and Geese', 'Rithmomachia' (invented in Southern Germany in 11th C), Shove Groat (Shove ha'Penny), and Piquet.


Tournaments ('pas d'armes') had their origins in France and clearly the name tells us that the original idea was to display the art of manoeuvering, of skilfully turning ('tournoyer') the horse so as to strike an adversary and shield themselves at the same time. There were usually two parts, the joust (single combat) and the tourney (a battle between two troops of cavalry). It is said that the tournament rules were established by Geoffroi de Preuilly in ca. AD 1050 to stop them becoming a field of carnage, and resulted in tournaments becoming a national pleasure. Arms were ones of 'courtesy' and would not inflict dangerous wounds (pointless and edgeless wooden arms). Knights of great reputation became judges, and of course part of their responsibilities was to ensure the proper rank and lineage of each noble. They would check to see that no one was bound to their saddles, because victory consisted of dismounting the adversary. It is said that to spice up some tournaments the Knights could agree to use unsharpened arms of war, and many councils and Popes tried to ban their use. But the ladies encouraged great shows of courage, giving a portion of their dresses (sleeve, mantle, a knot of riband) as a 'favour'. And it was the ladies that distributed the days prizes to the most valiant. The 'tourneys' invented in France gave the French the position of arbitrator in all questions of chivalry and passages of arms. The tournament arrived in Belgium in AD 1048, a little later in Germany, and in England in the first-half of the 12th C, followed quickly by Italy.

A Frenchman writing in the 11th C noted that '
tourneys' distanced even more the nobles from the plebeians, they would not even mix in the open air. In AD 1348 someone wrote "these tiltings are attended by many Ladies, of the first rank and greatest beauty, but not always of the most untainted reputation".

In AD 1358 in Windsor "
Knights, with large bands of retainers, are crowding into the town towards the castle gates. Fair matrons and damsels, on their ambling palfreys, richly attired like cavaliers, with daggers suspended from their girdles; attracting, and here and there returning the glances of the bright-helmed warriors. Throngs of the lower orders, in their best gay clothing, are seen making their way to the place of concourse". One side of a temporary gallery "hung tapestry, glittering with royal arms and crowned with high-born dames, the beauties of the court. The commonalty, in their holiday dresses, are availing themselves of such accommodation as is left them, and add to the gay and animating picture. There, at each end of the lists, are the Knights cased in plate armour, each with his favourite device depicted in his shield. Regulating the paces of their horses with knightly dexterity, they move round the arena, and dividing into two parties, prepare for conflict". The combatants engage, "the shock is tremendous, the fallen Knights and shivering lances attest its violence". Later there is a banquet with costly pieces of gold and silver plate, the 'viands' are washed down with Burgundy claret, minstrels play, and even in the inferior halls everyone enjoys themselves. The next morning the tournament is renewed, with tilting and a chase in the royal parks. The highest nobles have their falcons, and in the towns there are mysteries, mummeries, masking, and pageants.
By about AD 1520 some the most spectacular and last of the great feudal tournaments were so costly that some nobles would spend the income of their entire estates and live in penury the rest of their lives.

If nobles could not kill each other in war, then they could at least
hunt and kill animals. Horses were trained to carry iron-clad men, and be strong and fleet. Hawks (falconry) and hounds were present both in the hunt and at war. Nobles, since the Norman conquest, had created forests for hunting, and game parks were attached to every manorial domain.

Medieval Football

One finally entertainment was medieval football or mob football, which it is said may date back to the 3rd C AD. The Wikipedia article is extensive, but it is worthwhile noting that the rules were vague and there are records of accidents and even fatal accidents (or incidents). In matches in 1280 and 1312 it was mentioned that players still carried their sheathed knives. Several Kings in England tried to prohibit the game allegedly because it had a bad impact of the mercantile classes. Others tried to introduce 'civilising' rules, also without much success.

And for the lovers of cricket there was always
Stoolball, which some say dates back to the 15th C.

In 1366
Edward III (1312-1377), who enjoyed a bit of shooting and artillery, declared games unlawful, including hand and foot-balls, and cock fighting. But nothing happened until "in all places, table, dice, cards and bowls, were taken and burnt". Artificers, apprentices, labourers and servants were not allowed to play tennis, dice, cards bowls, etc. outside Christmas "on pain of 20 shillings for every offence". However, "any nobleman, or gentleman, may licence his servants or family to play within the precincts of his house, or gardens, at cards, dice, tables, or other games, as well among themselves, as others repairing thither". Keepers of cock-pits were fined 40 shillings a day. Those who won money by deceit or fraud on games such as cards, dice, cock-fighting, horse racing, were to forfeit treble the money, one half to the Crown and one half to the grieved party. The Act of Parliament included many articles all designed to penalise those who won by some illegal trick and to protect those who might otherwise lose too much. Also all notes, bills, bonds, judgements, mortgages, and securities won at cards, deice, etc. were void (as were side bets). Interestingly any mortgages or securities of land lose in games were to be recovered and given to the person who would normally have inherited (as if the gamer was dead).

Titles, Offices and Privileges of Honour

Wikipedia has an article on Peerages in the United Kingdom which includes a section on 'Ranks'. In order of importance England had the Duke, followed by Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and then Baron.

The very earliest title in medieval England was
Earl, of Anglo-Saxon origin it meant a 'chieftain' that ruled a territory in a King's stead. The French equivalent of the time was Comte (Count). After the Norman conquest of England (AD 1066) Countess was adopted for women but Earl remained in use for men. Earls had authority over their own region and right of judgement in provincial courts. They collected fines and taxes, and received ⅓ of the money they collected. In wartime they lead the King's armies. Some 'shires' (an early English term for the division of land) were grouped together (creating the so-called 'Heptarchy') into Earldoms, e.g. Wessex and Mercia. William the Conqueror (ca. AD 1028-1087) finally adopted the shire (and they became 'counties') and imported the title of the Norman Count. Earls remained as social ranks just below King and Prince but it was the sheriff that later became the official responsible for a shire or county (although the relationship between shire and Earl remained strong for some considerable time).
In Anglo-Saxon England the highest ranking Earl was referred to as Duces or '
Duke' (from the plural of the Latin dux, or 'leader'), and was recognised as the highest rank below the monarch. The first English Dukedom was created in AD 1336 by Edward III for his son Edward, the Black Prince (AD 1330-1376), and by AD 1483 a total of 16 ducal titles had been created (although many became extinct over time).
The next highest rank was
Marquess, presumably inspired by the French Marquis. The origin was to do with a Comte who administered a frontier or boundary and would have military powers so that he could rapidly defend the land against attack. Robert de Vere was appointed in AD 1385 as the first English Marquess (it became extinct upon his death).
Viscount meant a Count's or Earl's deputy, and someone appointed to help run a province either with judicial responsibilities and/or as governor and/or military commander. In many cases Viscounts were replaced by the non-hereditary bailiffs (someone executing court decisions) and provosts (a kind of prelate or Bishop).
Baron was a common concept throughout Europe and meant servant, soldier, warrior, and/or nobleman. In England it is today the lowest rank, below Viscount. It was originally introduced by William the Conqueror and concerned those men who had pledged loyalty to him under the feudal system. Thus all who held land (a Barony) directly from the King by military service were Barons. As such initially it meant the possession of a large property and almost royal powers (Baronage eventually became Peerage). There emerged a distinction of 'greater Barons' (i.e. Earls) and 'lesser Barons' who held manors. The 'greater Barons' receive a personal summons to attend the King's Council (which evolved in to Parliament and the House of Lords). As stipulated in the Magna Carta (1215) 'lesser Barons' of each county would receive a single summons through the sheriff, and only some would attend (this is the root of the House of Commons). The 'greater Barons' acquired privileges and duties of peerage through this distinction, and 'lesser Barons' became free landholding gentleman (not of noble title).
There existed also someone called a
Baneret, which was a Knight 'made in the field'. The ceremony would be to cut off the point of his standard, making it a banner. They were accounted 'so honourable, that they were allowed to display their arms in the King's army as Barons do, and could bear arms with supporters". They would be called to Parliament and were next to Barons in 'dignity'.

Bayeux Tapestry Harold Coronation

Often mentioned, but we almost never see a definition of King. In one of the old texts we find King as being "he that hath the highest power and rule ever the whole land", but also "to govern the people of this kingdom, according to the statues in Parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of there same; to his power cause law and justice in mercy to be executed in all his judgements; to maintain to the utmost of his power, the laws of God, the true religion and profession of the gospel established by law; and preserve to the Bishops and clergy, their rights and privileges, as by law are appertaining to them". In the Magna Carta (1215) there was a clause "making it lawful for the Barons of the realm to chose twenty-five Barons, go see the charter observed by the King; with power, on any justice or other minister of the King's failing to do right, and acting contrary thereto, for four of the said Barons to address the King, and pray that the same might be remedied; and if the same were not amended in forty days, upon the report of the four Barons to the rest of the twenty-five, those twenty-five Barons with the commonalty of the whole land, were at liberty to distress the King, take his castles, lands, etc., until the evils complained of should be remedied, according to their judgement; saving the person of the King, Queen, and their children; and when the evils were redressed, the people were to obey the King as before". This last bit is said to have disappeared from a later version of the Magna Carta, and been replaced with twenty-four great men, twelve by the King, and twelve by Parliament, to appoint justices, chancellors, and other officers, to see that Magna Carta was observed. It was stated that the King had many prerogatives "which arise from the reason of the Common Law, … and the King's prerogative does not extend to any thing injurious to his subjects; for the King by our law can do no wrong". The King could make war and peace, but could not himself introduce new laws by proclamation. He "might suspend or alter any particular law that was hurtful to the public". He could dissolve Parliament, and all statues were to have his royal assent. As supreme head of the church, by his royal assent the canons made in 'convocation' had the force of law. The King "hath the supreme right of patronage all over England; and is the founder and patron of all bishopricks, etc. so that none can be made Bishop but by his nomination. Usefully, "the King shall pay no tithes, his lessee shall pay them". He was the "fountain of honour, and has the sole power of conferring honourable titles". And "no forest, chase, or park, can be made, or castles built, without the King's leave". Also "he can put a value upon the coin, which is made by his authority; and make foreign coin current by proclamation. And to make money, the law gives the King all mines of gold and silver. All lands are said to be holden of the King; as by construction of law they are originally derived from the Crown". The King could not be a minor, but otherwise "in him the law will see no defect, negligence or folly".

Queen, could be Queen Regent, "she that holds the crown of the realm by right of blood", or Queen Consort, "she who is married to the King". The Queen Regent would have the same 'regal powers' as a King. A Queen Consort would be inferior to the King, but "partakes of several prerogatives above other women". By Common Law the wife of the King was a public figure, exempt from the King, and could hold lands or tenements, and could purchase, grant, and make leases in her own name.

Prince could also mean King, but since 1301 it was the King's eldest son and heir apparent (Prince of Wales).

Earls Procession to Parliament

According to an old text Earl was a great Saxon title (and one for people of royal blood), and was the most ancient English peerage. It was the only title of honour that had been retained from Saxon times, and was used for the "first in the royal line". With time it was also awarded to associates of the King in his councils and martial actions. William the Conqueror annexed the title to counties or provinces, but King John made Earls of counties by charter, giving them no authority or profits. With time the number of Earls increased, and became associated with a town or their own seat. Earls were placed next to a Marquess and before a Viscount.

According to an old text Duke originally meant the person who led the armies (Duces) and were governors of Roman provinces. In England the title Duke was the next dignity to the Prince of Wales.

Marquess was a title of honour before an Earl, and next to a Duke.

According to an old text Baron was a degree of nobility next to Viscount. It suggested that once Barons had been governors of provinces on behalf of Kings, and that many would now be called Counts in England or Seigneurs in France, as people holding Lordships or manors. At one point in time all nobles were Barons, and initially they all sat in the House of Lords but it was 'too much thronged'. So King John (AD 1166-1216) ordained that only 'Barones Majores' should be summoned to Parliament "for their extraordinary wisdom, interest or quality. After this, men observing the estate of nobility to be but casual, and depending merely upon the King's will, they obtained of the King 'letters patent' of this dignity to them and their heirs male, who were called Barons by Letters Patent, or by creation, whose posterity are now by inheritance those Barons that are called Lords of Parliament; of which kind the King may create at his pleasure". So the King would summons only the most powerful feudal Barons to Parliament and add to them other with lesser feudal tenures but with qualities making them good royal councillors and thus peers (these were Barons by writ). The highest form of Barony (sometimes called Barons by Tenure) were those that were or had been one of the King's Barons, and who had provided soldiers to the royal feudal army. And we should not forget the Bishops who had Baronies annexed to their bishoprics and thus also had places in the House of Parliament as Barons by succession. There were also a few Barons by Office, e.g. Barons of the Exchequer, Barons of the Cinque Ports, etc. The 'Five Ports' were those facing France and were to be "vigilantly guarded and preserved against invasion". There were also 'Baron and Feme' which were husband and wife by law but judged as one person. This was quite a complex concept in its own right. It included the fact that a wife could be a witness against or for her husband, but he could not be a witness against or for her (except for treason). The wife was considered 'under the power of her husband', and for example her acts did not bind her but neither could she make contracts nor a will. The husband gained his wife estate and her chattels (but not her debts), could even sell his wife's estate, but not leave it in his will. The relationship appeared very complex with the man having to answer for the trespassing of his wife, and if she were to slander someone, both the husband and wife must be sued, but any award would be made only against the man. These are just examples of the complex legal relationship that 'Baron and Feme' had. As a parting shot on this topic, "though a wife is very lewd, if she cohabits with her husband, he is chargeable for all necessaries for her, because he took her for better or worse", and just to make thing worse "she cannot by our law steal the good of a husband".

Lord, which I'm told signified 'bountiful', was a title of honour for nobles by birth or creation (by Parliament), and also all sons of a Duke, the eldest son of an Earl, and to "persons of honourable office" such as the Lord Chief Justice. Most commonly the owner of a manor could be called Lord by his tenants.

It is interesting to note that the Magna Carta makes no reference to Dukes or Marquess, so the presumption is that these titles were introduced after AD 1215 (in fact the earliest Dukedom dated from AD 1336 and the earliest Marquisate from AD 1385).

I'm not sure there exists a list of all the privileges held by nobles (experts talk of
countless privileges). Nobles would often claim that they should not pay taxes and also be free from arrest for debt. In England this was true when Parliament was sitting. 'Gentlemen in difficulty' were often allowed some days delay after a judgement was obtained against them, enough time for them to escape their creditors reach. In England no man was allowed to speak or write the truth (or otherwise) regarding the acts, criminal or otherwise, of the noble class.

There existed a number of lower titles, one was
Constable (derived from 'comes stabuli' or master of the stable). The office of Lord High Constable was of high military rank and could even mean commander-in-chief of all royal forces. Later it concerned the regulation of all matters of ceremonial chivalry, such as tilts and judicial combats.

We should not forget that just the use of a surname was a form of title which generally indicated a territorial standing, e.g. William de Crespigny. Until the early 14th C common practice was to call someone as the son of someone, e.g. John son of Richard or Richardson. Higher ranks added the names of their estates. Yet others took the names of their trades, e.g. William Chamberlain. Then you could have names of reproach, for example a lower class of freeman such as a ploughman might be called Charls from the Gallic word 'carr' or plough. And finally you had names with strong negative connotations. The cow was a biped incapable of martial honour and the word cow-herd became coward, which was then used as a name.

Titles given to a person besides his Christian and Surname were called an 'addition', and could be of his 'estate', 'degree', trade, etc. 'Additions of estate' were
Yeoman (an attendant in a noble household), Gentleman (a man of good conduct), Esquire (landed gentry), etc. 'Additions of degree' were Knight, Earl, Marquess, and Duke. 'Additions' of trade were such as Clothier, Carpentier, Mason, etc. 'Additions' of place could be London, York, Bristol, etc. The idea was that "additions were ordained that one Man might not be grieved or molested for another; and that every Person might be certainly known, and bear his own Burden". Some argued that the titles of Duke, Marquess and Earl were not 'additions' but names of Dignity, whereas Knight and Baronet were parts of a man's name and were to be used at all times. Whereas 'additions' could or could not be used and had no material value. In law the son of an English noble (with a title in respect to the family) was to be named with both Christian and surnames, and 'esquire'. In Common Law, a man with no name of Dignity was to be known simply by his Christian and Surname. Those with a name of Dignity were to write it along with their Christian and Surname. A Duke was to be named by his Dignity and his Christian name only, the Dignity becomes his Surname.

Gentleman, a mix of French 'gentil' and Saxon 'mon', also existed as 'gentil homini' and in Spanish as hidalgo (or 'hijo d'alga' meaning a son of a man of account). So gentlemen "are such whom their blood or race doth make known". A gentleman was without a title, but bore a coat of arms or who's ancestors had been freemen. Gentleman in France was just as vague, and was for highly born nobles, as opposed to men who became so by right of high office. However when nobility became hereditary, their children became 'gentilshommes' and 'gentilsfemmes'. 'Gentilshommes de parage' were those who were 'gentil' by their fathers side and could become Knights (Chevalier). Those who were 'gentilshommes' by their mothers side and with a plebeian father, could hold fiefs, but could not attain to a knighthood.


Having a definition of gentleman, we can now define a Knight. Originally it is said that Knight was a servant, but it became to signify "one who bears arms, who for his virtue and martial powers, is by the King singled from the rank of gentlemen, and exalted to a higher step of dignity".

Someone who served the King in an official or military capacity and who performed military service or was bound to serve in wars was in French called 'Adouber' and the English called a
Knight (which I think is at the origin of the English 'to dub'). The lowest rank was Knights Bachelors, and Knight could be either spiritual or temporal. Temporal Knights were 'of the Sword', 'of the Bath', 'of the Garter', and 'Knights Banneret' (a high honour made only in times of war). Knights of the Bath comes from the tradition that before a Knight went into the service it was usual for them to "go into the bath and wash themselves". Knights of the Chamber were Knights Bachelors made in times of peace.
It would appear that the Knight's Banneret were later seen as nobles of the most ancient lineage and were expected to display great opulence for they were bound to maintain a considerable number of men-at-arms. Their banner was a square pennon and they wore golden spurs. Bachelor Knights were of an inferior (or poorer) rank, having fewer vassals, and needed to be able to field only fifty men-at-arms. The had polished steel spurs, and their pennon was pointed. A Knight would be assisted by his '
esquire' (armour-bearer) who would usually also be a cadet of noble blood. They would have passed through the grades of page, damoiseau (young man), and varlet (squire), and Barons and Knights and esquires we all entitled to wear 'coat armour'.
There are reports that there were in excess of 100 different
orders of knighthood, 46 religious order such as the Templars and Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. There were also 'knights errant' …

Knave was an old Saxon word which had first the meaning of a boy with simplicity and innocence (often equated with varlet). Later it was to mean servant-boy, and later still any servant man. It also came to mean a minister or officer who bore the weapon or shield of his superior, and only later still did it become to mean "a false and deceitful fellow".

Servants are often mentioned, and they are defined as men employed by those of trades and professions to assist them. Or it could be men or women "retained to perform the work and businesses of their families". Service could be menial, or not so menial, as those domestics living within the walls of a house. Those under the age of 30 and brought up in the handicraft trades would have to be a bit careful. If they did not have "land of inheritance" (or some equivalent value in hand), and were not retained "with any person in husbandry, or in the said arts", and were not already hired by a nobleman or gentleman, they could be forced by law to take up a paid service for 1 year at a time. Any woman between the age of 12 and 40 could also be forced to take up paid service for 1 year at a time.

In reading through the different ancient texts one comes across minor facts that remain in the mind. I was immediately taken by the job of '
ale-conner' as someone officially appointed to ensure the goodness of bread, ale, and beer. Another interesting job was an 'auscultare' or a "person appointed in monasteries to hear monks read and direct then as how and in what manner they should do it with a graceful tone or accent, to make an impression on their hearers, which was required before they were admitted to read publicly in the church". A 'garbler of spices' was someone allowed to enter any shop or warehouse to view and search for drugs and spice and 'garble' and "make clean the same". My understanding is that 'garblings' were impurities separated from spices and drugs, and that it also meant to sift out the valuable parts from dross or dirt. There is a link with garbled speech or a garbled story as meaning confused or unintelligible, and that 'garbley gook' was language messed up and hard to understand. And we also have the 'gauger' as an officer appointed by the King to examine all tuns (252 gallons), pipes (126 gallons), hogsheads (63 gallons), barrels (31.5 gallons), and tercians (84 gallons) of wine, oil, honey, etc. and to give them a 'mark of allowance' as containing a lawful measure.

Reading though the old texts one is struck by the number of different jobs all starting with 'clerk of the ….' and being "a person who by his function or course of life, practices his pen in any court". Naturally there were clerks of "all things judicially done", but you also had 'clerk of the check' (control of the Yeoman of the Guard at the King's Court), 'clerk of the King's silver' (who collected and documented fines), 'clerk of the King's great wardrobe', 'clerk of the rules' (looking after the prisoners), 'clerk of the sewers', '
clerk of the signet' (held the 'privy signet'), and 'clerk of the pipe' (keeping the accounts of debts due to the King, and the shape of the Great Roll was like a pipe). One particular post was 'the clerk of the market' who was to ride in advance of the royal party to secure all necessary supplies, and to ensure that prostitutes were kept away from the court. I've also read that they were responsible for the King's 'measures' and keeping the standards for all measures throughout the land, e.g. surface area, weights, volumes, etc., and to ensure that all measures in all places were to the same standard (and to burn those that were not of the standard).

Another more prestigious but equally interesting 'job' was Master of the Posts. As officer of the King's court they were responsible for "appointing, placing and displacing of all such through England, as provided by post-horses, for the speedy passing of the King's messages, letters,
pacquets, and other business, and was to see that they kept a certain number of good horses of their own". He was different from the Master of the Horse, who looked after the King's stables and all his horses, racers, and breeding, and of course also the coaches. This master also looked after all the equeries, pages, grooms, coachmen, farriers, smiths, saddlers, etc. This post was of 'high account' and was always given to great nobleman. In honour it was just behind the Lord Steward and Lord Chamberlain. And of course you had the Master of the Wardrobe, who looked after all the former King's and Queen's ancient robes remaining in the Tower of London, and all hanging and bedding, etc. for the King's house. He would also distribute all the velvet and scarlet cloth used for liveries.

There remains but one last category in medieval society,
the poor. Defined as "a person is such as is a burden to, and charge upon the parish". Medieval society, and medieval law, recognised three types of poor. Poor by impotency and defect; as "the aged and decrepit, fatherless and motherless, poor under sickness, and persons that are ideots, lunaticks, lame, blind, etc., these the overseers of the poor are to provide for". Poor by Casualty, "such as house-keepers decay'd or ruin'd by fire, water, robbery, etc., or by losses in trade; poor persons over-charged with children, labourers that are disabled, and these, having ability, are to be set to work, they are to be received with money". Poor by Prodigality and Debauchery, also called 'Thriftless Poor', "as slothful persons, pilferers, vagabonds, strumpets, etc., which are to be sent to the House of Correction, and be put to hard labour, to maintain themselves; or work is to be be provided for them, that they do not perish for want". Behind this simple description of the poor we have children being put to work to help support their parents who are not able to maintain themselves, or 'binding' boys as apprentices until the age of twenty-four, and girls to the age of twenty-one (or until they marry). The poor were to "upon the shoulder of the right sleeve of their coats, are to wear a band or mark, with a large letter P, and the first letter of the name of the parish whereof they are inhabitants, either in red or blue cloth". On the other hand taxes were raised to pay for help to the poor, and poor housing was built.

Witchcraft and sorcery


Wikipedia has articles on Witchcraft (practice of and belief in magical skills) and Sorcery (supernatural magic). The article on sorcery does look at its role in the Middle Ages, and the topics of magic and ritual practices (religion), divination, astrology, horoscopes, incantations, witchcraft, etc. are mentioned. I was disappointed with the Wikipedia contributions, at least in terms of their usefulness in understanding traditions of nobility in medieval Europe. Below I've tried to pull together something, and I express my regret if I've not captured all the subtleties expressed by modern day academics.

There are some reference in AD 585 to a stabbing pain induced by 'powerful women' who had ridden across the land and inflicted illness on people by means of spears. In a ca. 8th C text there is mention of an unkept grey-haired sorceress with a bloody three-pronged weapon rushing through the woods. In AD 971 it is recorded that a man encounter three supernatural women, two black and terrifying and one shinning white. He is attacked and is paralysed by just a touch from the white woman. He is then miraculously restored to health by
St. Swithun. The general idea was that by AD 1000 there was a established story of women traversing the land inflicting harm on people. My understanding is that these stores overlap with 'elf shots' (arrows fired in mischief by invisible spirits), and other traditional tales. I quite like the suggestion that much of these very early supernatural stores might be mixed up with very early, but very real, 'medicine' of the time. Some experts have suggested that it was the advent of Christianity that divided up early Anglo-Saxon words to be either natural (good) or supernatural (bad).

Whatever the reason Middle Age ecclesiastical authorities looked down upon the practice in society of witchcraft. But they saw them as superstitions practiced by the 'simple minded' and thus they actually escaped sever condemnation and punishment. This was the common belief between the 9th C to 13th C. Sorcerers worshipped false idols (which was sinful), but since God alone governed the laws of the universe, magic could not exist and could not be validated. Therefore witches did not have supernatural powers and were not able to invoke magic. And if a 'miracle' did occur it was really a false one prepare by God to test the faith of Christian people. Tracts of the time clearly show that people believed that witches could leave their bodies at night and slay Christians and eat them, and that there were nocturnal assemblies with rites and feasts. But the overall tone was that it was sinful to believe in such fantasies (illusions or dreams), and that you had to have the "right faith in God". The church did not ignore witchcraft but it dealt with it through penances of fasting with bread and water. Magic was just a facet of paganism and the simple-mindedness of people. But by the mid-13th C the Inquisition was underway, and the official position of magic began to shift. It was only late into the 15th C that "cunning men and women" were fully demonised and transformed into diabolical sorcerers and witches. The change was from ignorant practitioners of practical magic, to people in league with the Devil, participating in orgies, murdering children, and (naturally) conspiring to overthrow Christianity. In fact until the 13th C most of magic appeared to be related to Greco-Roman and Germanic (pre-Christian) traditions. So these "cunning men and women" fulfilled basic, everyday needs such as physical healing (medicine), weather making, divination, conjuration, and love magic (fighting malefic magic causing impotence, bewitchment, illness or death). The argument is that the condemnation of sorcery and the persecution of witches was driven by the will of the church to eliminate pre-Christian traditions. Experts point out that this suggests that even through to the 16th C people believed in and practiced 'magic', that the role of Devil had become practical and physical and people increasing were on the lookout for his human agents, and that the church was having to fight increasingly well organised sects of heretics. The idea was that the more the church wanted man to recognise human wickedness the more they needed to construct the diabolical witch (one time practitioners of folk magic). Since the 12th C the church had started to fight against dissenting spiritual movements with Papal bulls and Canon Law, e.g. from AD 1179 heretics would be excommunicated and denied Christian burials. And heresy was equated with treason against the state. In AD 1215 it was decreed that heretics could be physically punished.

Some historians have noted that early legal practices in feudal Europe was based upon an initial accusation, but with the hidden nature of sorcery that initial accusation was not forthcoming. In the 12th C Europe re-discovered Roman law and the inquisitorial procedure. So judges set aside the model of accusation and ordeal, and turned to interrogation of witnesses and the collection of evidence. Given that evidence and witnesses were quite rare, and the accused was unlikely to confess, torture became the preferred tool. Also it was assumed that the Devil would exert power to stop a witch confessing, so uncontrolled and excessive tourture became the norm. From the 15th C to 18th C there was a social fear and legal paranoia about sorcery and witchcraft, resulting in the executions of tens of thousands of people. It is probable that the number of trials for witchcraft exceeded 100,000 and more than 50,000 witches were executed.

The relationship between religion and magic has always existed. In fact the Greeks considered foreign rites and practices as 'magic', whilst their own rituals were 'religion'. More or less all religions considered magic as being a deviation from proper religious practices. By the 5th C the world was defined as a struggle between divine (good) and demonic (bad) forces. Sorcery derived from demonic power, and required sorcerer to worship demons. So magic was not the problem, the demon worshipping was. The real enemy was the Devil, not the human magician, who had simply succumbed to temptation. So clerical authorities remained through the 15th C quite lenient on sorcerers. It was at that time that witches finally became recognised as demonic sources who worshipped the Devil and were part of a vast diabolic cult dedicated to the destruction of the Christian world.

Medical knowledge in the early Middle Ages was limited. In ca. 800 AD it was written that to tell if a sick person would die, you just had to take a tick from a black dog in your left hand, and if the sick man turns to you then he is going to die. Later techniques improved. You wiped the sick person with a lump of lard, and if a unfamiliar dog eats it, then the person will live. Words like primitive come to mind. Medical manuscripts from the early Middle Ages are quite extensive, with plant remedies generally being considered biologically efficacious, and early magical and religious interventions are seen as having contributed to the placebo effect. Even in Greek times more than 600 species of plants had been systematically classified for making herbal medicaments.
Ca. AD 1000 the most famous doctor in Europe was Notker (I think
Notker Physicus) who consulted for Otto I (I think it was him). The story goes that Otto I wanting to check just how good our Doctor Notker was, so he sent him some urine, but not his own but of a servant girl. Notker wrote back claiming a miracle, because Otto I was going to soon give birth (the girl did in fact give birth). However medicine at the time was limited to the reading of Hippocrates (ca. BC 460-370), herbs, and the famous four humours (black and yellow bile, phlegm and blood). In the early Middle Ages a man might study law, liturgy, or possible medicine. But a medicine based upon intellectual philosophising rather than practical discovery. They knew nothing of the basis of disease, and almost nothing about curing disease. Their knowledge was limited to astrology, and a lot of church dogma about sin. The more a person was ill, the more he must have committed great sins. Historians so far have only been able to identify eight physicians who lived in the British Isles between AD 400 and AD 1066.
Between the 11th C and the 13th C, with the Crusades, fairly little medical knowledge was brought back form the Arab world. Stores abound about Frankish friars amputating the limbs of Knights rather than allow Arab doctors to treat the wounds, on the simple basis that the 'pagan magic' would contaminate the souls of the Crusaders. But all was not lost, new medical schools emerged based upon practical knowledge and observation. King's started to require the most successful physicians at court. After AD 1140 they started to license doctors and the there was a growing professionalisation of medicine. Medical universities emerged in Salerno (AD 1231), Paris (AD 1150), Bologna (AD 1158), and Oxford (AD 1167), but women could not enter these universities and were barred from medical studies. Even these university physicians were often beaten by equally effective and often more financially reasonable woman healers. It got to a point where in AD 1329 an order was issued "no woman may practice medicine or give potions, under penalty of being whipped through the town, but they may care for little children and women to whom, however, they may give no potion".
In fact alongside the early medieval physician (men) there were also medieval healers (women) who delivered healthcare with less theoretical knowledge but more practical understanding of illnesses. The reality was that most women healers looked after midwifery and domestic medicine. Most women healers remain unknown, with just a few names coming to us from the past, no doubt because these few women were rich and powerful. There is a lot of evidence that every women knew a little bit about family medicine and looking after child illnesses. Remembering that most women (ands men) were illiterate, we can safely assume that medical knowledge was transmitted orally from mother to daughter. At least through to the 13th C women were the main inventors and delivers of practical medicine. Throughout most of the Middle Ages male physicians were presented in illuminated manuscripts and sitting meditating with a scroll (God forbid a patient), whereas woman healers were usually presented with their patients.

male-dcotor woman_healer

But what of witches? As witch hunting increased across Europe in the late 14th C, so did the number of female healthcare workers being accused of witchcraft. Midwives were increasingly consider witches, and it was written that midwives "surpass all others in wickedness". Some historians have suggested that this correlates with the increased use of charms, incantations and spells during childbirth. By this time witches were accused of being in a sexual relationship with the Devil or demons, so midwives using charms, etc. just reinforced the link. It was at this point that women were often relegated to the janitorial aspects of medical care. Oral traditions were lost, the 'soft skills' lost, the interaction between healer and patient lost.

I have just scratched the surface of feudal Europe. My objective was to give the reader a taste for the Middle Ages, and help them better appreciate some of my webpages on our visits to castles, châteaux, etc. around Europe. If at times the reader was left wanting more, this should be seen as an encouragement to look deeper into a particular topic.

References and Resources

I have added below an additional collection of 'bits & pieces' that never made it into my final text.

Wikipedia has the most extensive range of webpages on the Middle Ages, including for example their
Middle Ages by Country and if you follow the links you can find webpages such as Anglo-Saxons Settlement of Britain, England in the Middle Ages, Britain in the Middle Ages, Medieval France, France in the Middle Ages, Medieval Art, and it just goes on, and on, and on. In addition there are 'indirect' sources on Wikipedia such as the History of Clothing and Textiles which hosts webpages such as 1100-1200 in European Fashion. Many of the Wikipedia webpages have their own collection of external links to additional web resources.

For me one the best websites is, with its massive collection of information, and almost everyday new 'stuff' is posted making it a really interesting place to regularly visit.

Global Medieval Sourcebook is a digital repository of medieval texts.

Another well researched website is
Medieval Histories, then you have the British Museum with its Medieval Manuscripts Blog, and there is Manuscripts Online covering written culture 1000 to 1500.

Here is a Wiki on Military which has quite an extensive and well researched (but still developing) series of webpages on
Medieval Warfare, Medieval Weapons, Medieval Fortifications, Knights, etc.

There are four interlinked websites on
Castles and Manor Houses around the World, Cather Castles, Medieval Warfare, and International Heraldry & Heralds.

Manuscript Miniatures is a website with an image collection of armoured figures from the medieval period (pre-1450).

There are also websites that are dedicated to one particular aspect of the Middle Ages, for example
The Medieval Bestiary.

One unusual website is dedicated to Hoaxes, and includes a webpage on
hoaxes from the Middle Ages.