Medieval England: Language, society and The Canterbury Tales #2

Philo MEOkay, so last time I discussed the language used in Medieval England from +- 1100-1500 CE. In part two of my series about Medieval England I’ll highlight some of the aspects of the medieval society:

  • Society
    • Three estates
    • Religion
    • Medieval writing

The three estates

All over the medieval world, society was divided into three different estates:

  1. Aristocracy (nobility)
  2. Clergy
  3. Peasantry

All estates were there for a reason and had their own tasks and lifestyles. The estates were connected to each other through the Feudal system, a political system. On a smaller level the vassals and peasants were connected to each other by the manorial system that was an economic system.
To give an impression of both systems I’ll put in some nice colourful pictures/tables and tell you a little more about them.

The Feudal system
To rule a country all by yourself is hard. One can’t possibly expect of a king to run around all year, keeping track with every little thing that is happening in his country at every minute. Let’s face it, some modern instruments would have been nice back then. But it’s not like the medieval kings were unable to rule their country. The feudal system is basically this:

feudal systemAs you can see there was interaction throughout the system, one couldn’t ‘poses’ land without doing something in return.

The manorial system
With the feudal system covering the distribution of land, the manorial system was based on the interaction between the peasantry and the sub-tenants.
Manors were the larger self sufficient estates and were owned by lords. Here’s what a manor (sort of) looked like:

The lord provided housing, farmland and protection and in return the peasants worked their own lands (see light stripes of land) and the land of the lord (black stripes of land). They also paid taxes gave him the spoils of his lands.
There were also the serfs. These men and women were bound to the land and if the land was sold they had to go with it. Unlike the free peasants they couldn’t leave the land  without their lord’s approval. Free were those who rented land from the lord, these people were often tradesmen or peasants.
There was also a clergyman on the manor.

Now returning to the three estates.
In the case of the aristocracy and the peasantry it’s clear what their purpose was in the medieval society. The aristocracy was there to protect the weak and the poor, while the peasantry was there to work the land, feed the people and pay taxes.

The aristocracy
These men were the lords temporal, those who fought and were often French.
However when there was no war the aristocracy was encouraged to live by a certain lifestyle (including chivalry, courtly love etc).
There were also tournaments, to spice things up a bit, think about jousting or the mêlée.

The clergy
Men and women belong to this estate where those who prayed.
This estate was divided into:
The secular (or the worldly) clergy were those who went out into the world, they live among the people and are not separated from the rest of the population.
They were responsible for the organisation and control of the spiritual lives of the laity in the everyday world. These are the pope, archbishops, bishops and the parish priests.
The regular clergy were spiritual and those who follow a certain rule. This group actually exists out of two sub-groups: the monastic orders (the monks) and friars. (for more about clergy see: Religion)

The peasantry
Were those who worked. As I already mentioned there were regular peasants, serfs (those who belong to the land for their whole lives) and free people who all worked at a manor or near a village/town.

As you can see this was quite a decent system at the time. Everyone knew what to do and in general there was not a lot to make a fuss about. Eventually though the three estates system came under pressure. The middle class (merchants, craftsmen, doctors, lawyers and so on) started to rise.  The middle class was the class between the nobles and the peasantry and was established in the 14th century. They ruled the economic part of society and rose in position by establishing guilds in the cities.
(If you want to know more about guild then click here).

The 14th century was a time of change and chaos. Because of the Hundred Years’ War (1339-1453 CE) many of the aristocracy died in battle. In a war there’s always need for more money and so the king started to raise his taxes which in return caused the social unrest to grow.
The unrest increased even more after the Black Death, when nearly half the population died and people tried to find shelter in the cities.
After so many people had died, the wages were able to rise and that was something that the aristocracy wouldn’t allow. These events together caused the peasant revolt in 1381. (For more information about the peasant revolt click here).
Also in this period, the connection between the English and French court faded. Leading to a new period of hate against all things French.
If that wasn’t enough, a religious unrest started through England (see next topic about religion).


Everyone, apart from the very few exceptions, was baptised and would be called a Christian. All that a person did was with the support of the clergy, those who pray.
A way to show their devotion and to get an extra point for spiritual investment the people could go on a pilgrimage.
Most people went for the spiritual advantage they would get for travelling to a far away (or less far away) place and worship the relics of saints. But there could also be pleasure in the journey, it was an adventure after all and in the end one could even earn a badge as evidence of their enterprise. (I mean come on… don’t pretend like you’ve never wanted a badge for going somewhere far or less far away. Now that I think of it, I’d like a badge…)
Most common people were lay. Meaning they were not a part of the clergy.

Like I explained before the clergy was one of the three estates, divided into regular and secular clergy and both in their own way were taking care of the people.
The church was not only in charge of the ceremonial services but also had a social function and so had taken responsibility for the social welfare. The church created several foundations (also called ecclesiastical foundations) which included a majority of school, universities and hospitals.
Now hospitals are institutions of the church that are gifted by a patron or patrons for charitable purposes. Often those hospitals were under direction of a warden who controlled the finances and managed the regular religious devotions. Hospitals could be almshouses for the ages and infirm, a place of provision and hospitality for pilgrims or travellers, an orphanage, leper houses and even asylums for the insane.

At this point in time, people associate clerk with the church and so if you were a clerk in the Middle Ages you were probably a monk or someone connected to the church.
Primarily the term was used for men in minor order, for example those who wanted to become a priest, had taken the first tonsure and one (or more) of the minor orders of i.e. exorcists or acolytes.
However there were those who would never be more than the above. Those men had decided to remain in worldly employment of law, the household of great lords, in the employment of the king or maybe be a secretary. You could say that one would be named a clerk until he received benefice (a benefice being an ecclesiastical office, a paid post). One was also a clerk if one was a regular in monasteries, a friar, a prioress, a nun and the whole secular priesthood. In greater extension the whole of the learned and professional class (theologians, physicians, professors and lawyers) fell under the term of clerk.
Eventually any man with learning, even though he was no man of the church, was called a clerk.

As I already mentioned the clergy was divided into secular and regular, the latter also divided into two different groups.
The regular clergy were those of the monastic (monks) orders and the friars.
The monk would follow a rule (for example the Benedictine rule), they would live isolated from society in a monastery to dedicate themselves to a life of meditation and prayer for forgiveness of all the sinners of the world. They would make 4 vows: obedience, chastity, poverty  and stability of place.
Friar’s orders (Dominican, Franciscan or Augustinian) dressed like monks and would make three vows: obedience, chastity and poverty, but not the vow of stability of place. Friars travelled from one place to another, totally dependent on the charity of the people for their food and lodging. They preached the Gospel and provided spiritual comfort to people in their homes.

Please do remember that there are more differences between the secular and regular clergy than described above.
The secular clergy was also divided in the major and minor orders.
– The minor orders had taken the first tonsure (a shaved pot on the top of the head) and might perform duties in church, or they could not. These men were allowed to marry but couldn’t hold a benefice.
– The major orders (including sub deacons, deacons and priests) were always sworn to celibacy. A man from the major orders could only hold a benefice when he was at least a deacon and 24 years of age, he had to be ‘intending’ to proceed to priesthood.
Another difference was that one group could be called the clerical elite and the other the ordinary run. Those belonging to the elite were, unlike those belonging to the ordinary run, much less involved in the active care of souls or service of an altar. Those who graduated from university often ended up with the clerical elite. This part of the secular clergy offered career opportunities.

But there was a turning point.
After some time anti-fraternal/ anti-mendicant feeling arose among the people and this was not without reason. Friars had been abandoning the ideals of their founders, were attacked for becoming rich and powerful, did anti-apostolic begging, were hypocrites and tended to become consumed with pride and anger instead of being humble and forgiving. It’s even said that they wanted to get a benefice, like the secular clergy. And then there was the contact with women. Friars started to break their vows all over the place and people no longer accepted this.

From 1378-1417 CE something called the Great Schism came into existence. At this point there were two popes rather than one. One situated in Rome and the other in Avignon. If you want to learn more about the Great Schism click here.

At the end of the Middle Ages, religion would never been the same again.

Medieval writing

Poems have existed for a long time, probably even prose sages, but none of them were written down in the old Pagan England. The Anglo-Saxon had their own alphabet, the characters used were called runes. But those were not known to everyone and were only used for special purposes, not for writing down songs or stories. And so there were only oral poems. However there are some old Anglo-Saxon poems left, but those poems weren’t written by the rune masters from the Anglo-Saxon period. The poems that are still left were written down by the Christian scribes.
With the coming of the Romans something else changed besides the conversion to Christianity. The Romans also brought Latin with them. This alphabet wasn’t any easier then the runic alphabet but the Christians used writing for a lot of purposes, while in the Anglo-Saxon society writing was used for very few things (for magic spells, marks of ownership and so on).
The Christian scribes (often monks) would copy the bible and something wrote commentary those same scribes would also take the time to copy Latin poems, eventually they also started to recording and copying native prose and poetry (but this only when it was religious or else sober and dignified).
After a time it seemed like most of the literate people were inside the monasteries and cathedrals.

This all changed in the twelfth century, the Anglo-Norman period, not because of some innovation but the effect was that the demand for books and written materials grew massively.
Like I already mentioned before the church took care of the social welfare and that this included that the church founded institutions, among them schools and universities. More and more of the regular clergy started to pursue learning and research, with this change came that the secular clergy also became more familiar with the use of books and documents.
The increasing complexity of the society also had its affect, there was now need for additional paperwork of every sort. Bureaucrats, household clerks, lawyers and merchants all steadily became dependent upon written records and instruments. Even the general population began to take an interest in books.
To keep up with the demand, more manpower was acquired, there was an improvement in productivity (a new less formal writing and the pecia-system so that several scribes could copy the same text) and there was the introduction of paper from the Near East.

A passage from the work of St. Bonaventure shows that he distinguishes four ‘ways of making a book’ or four different ways of being a writer:

  1. The scribe: He writes another man’s words, adding nothing and changing nothing.
  2. The compiler: He writes another man’s words, putting passages together which are not his own.
  3. The commentator: He writes both the words of another man and his own, but with the other man’s words in the prime place and his own added only for the purpose of clarification.
  4. The author: He writes both his own words and those of another man but his own words are in the prime place while the other man’s words are only used for confirmation.

So in a way you can say that an author, even though he or she tries to be original, there are always the words of another author in their own work.
But those four types of people still do the same thing; making books, being writers.

Now we know how the medieval writing came into existence and how it changed in time.
A writer was someone who wrote down words an made manuscripts (literary meaning written by hand) originally in a scriptorium. A scriptorium was attached to libraries in monasteries or cathedrals and was a place of writing/copying.
Manuscripts were written on parchment sheep or goatskin) or vellum (cow skin) and this took a long time to produce. (For more about parchment making click here).
When the parchment was done the scribe would be careful with it and so beforehand he would make notes and the original composition on wax tablets with a stylus. Afterwards he would copy it unto the parchment with a quill and different kinds of ink.
First he would make the illuminations, which are illustrations or decorations in the margins and are also used for the capital letters. Those illustrations were called miniatures (after red lead dye) and were originally used for the capitals (red letters).
After the copying was done they would gather the parchment and fit it together to form a quire, the last stage being bookbinding. (For more about bookbinding click here).

The Medieval England society was divided into three estates. All estates had their tasks and this was how things worked until the social unrest began to take over. Things started to change and a middle class was created which unsettled the system of the three estates and this would have its consequences later on.
Religion was the basis of the medieval society and this certainly left its mark everywhere, including the medieval writing. However at the end of the Middle Ages religion would never be the same again.

Next in this series about Medieval England: Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales.

For the second part of this series about Medieval England I’ve used the information provided by my tutors.
For the second part about religion I also used p.39/40 from R.W. Ackerman’s background on the Medieval English literature and p.243-249 from Maurice Keen’s English society in the later middle ages 1348-1500.
For Medieval writing I’ve used J.A. Burrow’s medieval writers and their work; Middle English literature and its background.
Also a big help was the medieval world complete edited by Robert Bartlett.


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