Social Organizations: Occupations and Work Habits

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Social Organizations: Occupations and Work Habits


Divisions of Medieval Society . There are many different ways in which medieval society was divided. The most striking division was that between the clergy and laity, those who had adopted a fully religious lifestyle and those who, although believers, went about their economic and social lives immersed in the world around them. The subdivisions of each of these groups give greater nuance to their character. The clergy was divided into the secular or worldly clergy and the regular or monastic clergy. Divisions of lay believers could be made with regard to their proximity to the clerical vocation with third order brothers and sister ranking the closest. Social class structure might also follow the most usual outlines of the economic categories of peasant, artisan, merchant, and noble. Even specific subdivisions of medieval society played a significant part in distinguishing the lives of some medievale, as a group, from others: certain monastic orders, conversi, Crusaders, religious dissidents, subgroups of the peasantry, the castle society, the middle class, and students.

The Church . Of all medieval social organizations those of the Church were the most universally known. There were principally the three official orders: the secular clergy, the regular clergy, and the believing laity. While the secular clergy strove to maintain the image of a shared union, the regular clergy could not sustain any real illusion of a single communal association. The Middle Ages had many different monastic orders: Benedictines, Cluniacs, Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, among others. There were three other groups connected with the church community that should rightly be identified as distinctly organized groups: conversi, Crusaders, and religious dissenters.

Religion in Daily Life . Religion played such a crucial part in medieval people’s daily lives that it called many believers to dedicate themselves fully to it. Men could become either priests or monks within the church. If they became priests, they joined the secular clergy. In canon law, the secular clergy were considered to be in a separate social class by virtue of their ordination to the priesthood, their knowledge, their behavior, and their legal status. From the

lay believers’ point of view, the tenets of their moral behavior were what most obviously set them apart. They were to remain celibate and were forbidden to live with women except for the closest of female relatives. They were not to accept employment and if rich, not to loan money at interest. While they lived in the secular world, they were to forswear the aspects of it, such as taverns, which were connected to immoral behavior.

Vocation in the Regular Clergy . Dedication of one’s life to service in the medieval regular church meant taking on an even more strictly regulated life, becoming a monk if a male believer, or a nun if a female. Belonging was either voluntary, with an adult choosing his or her monastic home and accepting not being allowed to leave the community except on the most urgent matters, or compulsory, as arranged for children (oblati) and female relatives given by parents, guardians, or church officials to a monastery. Acceptance of entry in a monastery was a binding obligation. The act of joining the monastery was undertaken by Christian believers to save their own soul or that of a loved one. To work, study, and attend to religion, these were places where people could live apart from the distractions of the world. Parents and relatives who gave a child, spouse, widowed sister, and so forth to a monastery disinherited them, so that the newly encloistered person would not be tempted to return to the tainted world.

Monastic Rule . The responsibilities of the child, monk, or nun of any specific community group were spelled out in the particular monastery’s Rule. The Benedictines with their Rule of St. Benedict were the first most widely spread medieval order. For all Benedictines, who lived communally with their abbots, behavior was measured by adherence to the three basic vows: poverty, chastity or purity, and obedience to the head of the monastic community, the abbot. Their training was spiritual and occupational; learned by example and participation, it virtually guaranteed the entrant all necessities for life. Not only was idleness considered by Benedict of Nursia “an enemy of the soul,” but since the community as a whole provided for each of its members, Benedictines were obliged to work and to turn their labor to serving others, by building schools, churches, and libraries, and by feeding the poor. In addition to ora (prayer), labora (the tasks of work) figured so prominently that the Benedictine monk wore a billhook or pruning hook in his girdle as a sign of his habitual involvement in manual labor.

Monastic Lifestyle . Virtually every monastic order asserted that a monk or nun should live a life of unencumbered purity. He or she could neither marry nor be unchaste, nor appear immodestly without a headcovering. The monastery, for its part, fed, clothed, and lodged monks or nuns and instructed them in reading and writing. The role of education in the lifestyle of monks and nuns was not uniform throughout the Middle Ages, and the early Benedictine order was not particularly concerned about the formal education of its members. It was, however, quite strict about property ownership: a regular could not own anything as an individual, with permission granted to possess only two pieces of clothing consisting of a cowl and a long robe. The color of the robe would be a defining feature in distinguishing one order from another.

Early Monastic Orders . Well before the seventh century, there were many monasteries for monks and some convents for nuns, but the Benedictine community was by far the most dominant. The relaxation by the order of certain terms of the Benedictine Rule led, however, to the establishment of different monastic orders after the ninth century. A new order of Cluniac monks was the first established in an attempt to bring reform to the Benedictine monastic movement. Since many monasteries had come to be founded or overseen by a great landowner, who had become not only its patron but also its administrator, they ceased to adhere closely to many of the tenets of the Benedictine Rule. The founding of the Cluniac abbey at Cluny in Burgundy, France, in 910 was to counter that lack of religious independence from secular authority. Since gifts of rich or generous medieval families continued to be forthcoming, the Cluniac movement spread rapidly from around 950 to 1100. As time passed, the Cluniac monasteries became great landowners in their own right, and their agricultural prosperity led them to lose much of their desire for reform. They succumbed to the evils of wealth, good food, tournaments, hunting, and politics.

Cistercian Order . The next major monastic society to establish itself was the Cistercian Order. Founded at Citeaux in France in 1098, it was another influential reform group. The Cistercians, called white monks because of their white robes, wanted a simple way of life away from worldly distractions. The greatest spokesman for the order was Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk who bitterly attacked the wealth of the church. He said, “The Church gilds its stones and leaves its children naked. With the silver of the wretched it charms the eyes of the rich.” The Cistercians represent the great age of the monasteries that was the twelfth century.

Decline . By the end of the century the popularity of the Cistercians was in decline. Their hard work, particularly at sheep raising, had been extremely lucrative, and the order had allowed itself to accumulate virtually every form of riches. Although the Cistercians had eschewed the town environment and its wealth, they had not maintained the simple rural life. The Rules of both the Cluniacs and the Cistercians were written in the hope that monks would become spiritual and economic models in their rural cloisters. Both were, however, in fact so successful in economic terms as to become repulsive in spiritual terms. When the Cistercians were named in the thirteenth century to head the attempt to bring Christianity’s wayward believers back into the fold, they were virtually ineffective.

New Religious Orders . The next new religious orders would test the possibility of living simply and religiously within the wealthy urban setting previous orders had avoided. The Franciscans, recognized in 1210, and the Dominicans, in 1215, were the most renowned of those orders based in towns. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans, was the son of a prosperous Italian merchant. He gave up the commercial life he deemed sinful for its attachment to riches to live in poverty. He wandered barefoot from town to town, caring for the sick, begging from the rich, giving to the poor, and preaching the love of God. The followers of Francis and Dominic were called mendicant friars and, as their leaders had, lived on alms or donations. The roles they assumed were slightly different ones for the regular clergy: they preached and they taught. In respect to preaching, they became in effect the parish priests of the towns and cities. As for their role in teaching, they set up their own urban schools and became among the most prominent educators within the universities that were forming in the thirteenth century. Long before the idea took hold in the West that extending education to the masses was a responsibility of the state, the church had come to see it as part of its mission. The Benedictine monasteries had been the main early focus for education and culture. The bishops’ schools of important towns gradually saw secular priests assuming the role of teacher, and ultimately the Dominican and Franciscan friars would number among those most concerned with education in the later Middle Ages.

Attraction of the Monastic Life . Both rural and urban monastic orders presented an attraction to individuals who because of social or economic ties could not devote themselves completely to the monastic lifestyle. Allowance was made for their worldly attachment and a new, third, official monastic lay order came about to embrace them. In the rural areas they proved extremely useful in a practical way. However self-sufficient in terms of natural resources, the monks of the different rural orders often found themselves shorthanded. In the urban context, the third order believers were the best defense of the church against the attraction of contemporary heretical beliefs and institutions.

Integrating the Laity . The most systematic rural response to integrating the laity was by the Cistercians, who instituted a suborder, the conversi (from the same etymological root as “convert”). Their role was to aid in the hardest of the agricultural work. They lived and worked on monastic land in farms called granges. The conversi played a full economic part in the monastic community but had fewer religious obligations and less political participation. They were extremely important to numerous Cistercian houses, numbering on average fifty, although in one setting in Flanders, at the monastery of Les Dunes, they outnumbered the 180 regular monks by almost two to one.

Franciscan Third Order . In the urban setting, the Franciscans gave a different role to lay adherents. It was clearly the rigor of the religious life that appealed to these lay people. The Franciscans saw therefore that they observed as closely as any monk or friar all the practical aspects of the religious vocation: fasting, penance, prayer, seeking spiritual guidance, and so on. The Franciscan third order, unlike the conversi, did not change their source of livelihood nor abandon their spouses or children. Nonetheless, frequently their lives were spent quite dislocated from the walk into which they were born, with their spending much time ministering “among humble despised folk, among the poor and weak, sick, lepers, beggars.”

Crusaders . The Crusaders were yet a different group of dedicated lay believers, a public religious society. Pilgrims at heart who desired to know they could come and go freely in the land where Jesus had lived and preached, the Holy Land, became soldiers “enlisted” by Pope Urban II to carry out a crusade or holy war against the Muslim Seljuk Turks who had taken to persecuting Christian visitors. The Pope warned that “Even now the Turks are torturing Christians, binding them and filling them with arrows, or making them kneel. …” All the rhetoric that was fomented to encourage a Crusader corps created a fervor that continued for almost two hundred years, between 1095 and 1291, when the last Christian stronghold at Acre in Palestine fell to the Muslims. Christians were ranked by the Pope in power according to their dedication to the cause, and pressure on the masses was rigidly maintained, especially by the upper clergy, who demanded impassioned and expensive involvement in ways similar to the secular obligation of the call to arms.

Career Crusaders . The thousands of people who took part in the Crusades were an eclectic group to share a collective endeavor. There were the career Crusaders, those who were members of religious military orders. The Hospitalers and the Teutonic Knights, or the Knights Templar, founded in Germany around 1190, were among the most feared of Christian warriors during the Crusades. The Hospitalers at first helped sick pilgrims and maintained a hospital in Jerusalem, while the Templars were originally a group of humble knights who protected pilgrims. Both chose to serve God by fighting rather than through prayer. The Teutonic Knights were also used in eastern Europe to gain converts between 1226 and 1283, during which time the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II sent them to convert the Prussians to Christianity. Some noble knights were equally dedicated to the Crusades. Richard I (the Lion-heart), favorite son of Eleanor of Aquitaine from her marriage to Henry II of England, spent much of his ten-year reign as king fighting in the Crusades, most notably in the Third Crusade of 1189-1192. Among the Crusaders, however, there were also serfs who were running away from rural hardship and nobles, from impecunious circumstances, in addition to those who were truly religious and hoping to free the Holy Land.

Series of Crusades . Between 1095 and 1099 there were different waves of Crusaders all attached to the First Crusade. The first military expedition was made up of French, Flemish, and Norman knights. They fought their way overland to Jerusalem, surviving attacks by the Turks, blistering heat, and shortages of food and water. Between 1202 and 1204 the Crusaders were the puppets of greedy Italian merchants who launched and financed the Fourth Crusade. It was not directed against the Muslims but against Constantinople, the great trade rival of the Italian cities. The Crusaders were led to sacking, burning, and stealing in the wealthy city of Constantinople, at the time one of the greatest cities in the world, with magnificent palaces, churches, schools, and public gardens. The Venetians, who had often been to Constantinople as traders, were able to seize the most valuable treasures. The victorious Crusaders set up a short-lived Latin empire there between 1204 and 1258–1261, when a Greek emperor was restored. In 1212 some fifty thousand children from France and Germany joined the Children’s Crusade, or Crusade of Innocents, intended to regain the original spirit of the Crusades lost in the Fourth Crusade’s attack on Constantinople. None of them reached the Holy Land, as many died of hunger, disease, or drowning. Some were sold as slaves. The Crusaders of the Sixth Crusade, however military, were forced to surrender and pay a heavy ransom after being surrounded by Turks in the city of Damietta, which they had just captured.

Crusader Settlements . While the Crusaders were for the most part dedicated to liberating the Holy Land, most of them were not committed to living there. Four Western-European-style feudal regimes were established, collectively known as Outremer. The knightly Crusaders settled in to build huge stone castles at the most strategic places within their kingdoms, particularly along the routes used by trading caravans. Although colonists were needed to hold the territory, having survived a crusade few Crusaders of less than noble birth stayed in the east. So if there is one feature that was shared by most of the Crusaders it was that while they made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, few of them remained there.

Religious Dissidents . Medieval Christian dissidents would not usually be recognized along with the conversi and Crusaders as a social grouping that enveloped some of the most devout believers of the period. Undoubtedly however, each one of those now remembered as unorthodox, the odd wandering preacher or hermit who acquired a following reflected a high degree of dedication to considering and weighing Christian ideas and practices, while admittedly attempting to revise the canonical position. Most dissident groups were a response to the Church’s own open emphasis, at least in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, on a minimalist lifestyle and preaching. Christian dissidents quite universally adopted the life of poverty, if rich to start, by giving away all their riches, if of lesser means, by making their lacks a virtue. It was, however, their social fervor as much as their religious revisionism that made them perhaps uneasy neighbors for the orthodox clergy. Most dissident, if not heretical, groups advocated a transformation of the whole social order hand-in-hand with their religious convictions.

Peasantry . Social organizations were also to be found outside the medieval religious sphere. There were at least four different categories of peasant: the free peasant, half-free peasants, serfs, and slaves. Free peasants were those who had personal liberties of mobility and were free to cultivate land that they might hold outright or by payment of a rent. The half-free peasant also had personal freedom, but frequently without land to his name, and had such extremely onerous constraints on his possibility to earn a living that at the very least his freedom of mobility was fully compromised. There were then the serfs who, although they were not technically the property of a lord as was a slave, had every condition of their lives dictated by the lord in return for a guaranteed livelihood from working the land. A serf could be sent to another manor, traded for another serf, denied the right to marriage or forced to marry, and so on. Not until there were more than enough workers than were needed to farm the land, which occurred by 1100, could the rural peasant of whatever station hope to escape his tie to land and lord with manumission, a grant of freedom and sometimes land ownership, or with an escape to a town where he could turn his talents or skills to a craft.

Castle . The life of the castle community of medieval nobles was not nearly as glamorous as some Romantic literature suggests. It created, however, a world unto itself, a world centered on the castle. Early medieval fortifications were little more than timber forts, protected by ditches, moats, and drawbridges. Later, stone castles were built with high towers and thick walls. The most powerful feudal lords lived in magnificent castles. A castle’s living quarters did not, however, provide a comfortable home. Although early writings could be found in the libraries of the rich, the castles themselves were cold, damp, and dark, unwelcoming to quiet intellectual activity. Open fireplaces provided what heat there was, and in the absence of chimneys, introduced for the first time in Europe around 1100, it was probably just as well that the windows lacked glass.

Living Nobly . The medieval castle was erected to protect the lord, his lady, his family, and his serfs from attack. Indeed it protected the whole castle community, even in terms of provisions. Vegetables were grown and animals were kept all within the castle walls. The confines of the castle were tight for the quarters of all who needed protection. As people of the medieval castle community needed more room and began to spill outside of the walls, for the wealthy the castles themselves were to become country houses, more like their scattered manor homes.

Castle Fare . It is small wonder that in good weather the noble spent little time indoors, greatly preferring to hunt or fight. The nobility had a plentiful diet, if not otherwise greatly distinct from that of the peasantry. The main foods were meat and fish, cheese, peas, beans, carrots, and turnips. Either wine or beer was the main beverage. Fruit was seasonal, and sugar and spices were available only to the rich. The fare of the noble is often described as uninteresting, which perhaps explains why most accounts of medieval dining also speak of the nobility being diverted while eating by entertainment, players, singers, and so forth. Jesters were employed by European royalty by 1202. Table etiquette was unknown. A knife was the only utensil used, and each guest brought his own. There were no rugs to be soiled, and when filth reached unacceptable limits—not often—the straw covering the floor was easily replaced.

Feudal Towns . Like all land, most towns were part of the feudal system, and their land and inhabitants were originally controlled by kings or nobles. What the townsman needed to come out from under the economic yoke of feudalism was freedom: freedom to work, to own and to sell personal property, to establish courts to settle the problems that came up in trade and commerce, and to move about as desired. Virtually every group of medieval town dwellers struggled to be free and to secure personal freedom for everyone among them. Some towns, particularly in Italy, were strong enough to revolt and become independent city-states. In most places, however, the townsmen bought a charter from the king or lord.

Self-Government . With the freedom of their land from noble ownership, town or city dwellers became part of a new social organization. Several terms were used to identify that organization—the commune, freiburgh, otfribourg—the last two terms simply meaning free town. Since the town or city itself had not changed in acquiring its new status, more evocative of the new phenomenon of the medieval free town were terms that identified the community association, the newly unified group of urban inhabitants. City dwellers were no longer either nobles or serfs but of a class in between, a middle class. Members of this middle class were called by different names in the different medieval vernacular languages. In the Netherlands they were called burghers; in France, the bourgeoisie. In England they were known as factors. Later on, the buildings the English factors used as sites both for employing wage laborers to make goods and for storing raw materials and finished goods were called factories.

Urban Middle Class . This urban middle class was to have a tremendous influence on European history. The same town charter that declared that the residents of a town were personally free also permitted a town to develop its own form of government. By and large it could regulate its own affairs. The governing body in most towns was a council, made up largely of the wealthier merchants or of nobles who had moved to the city. Often there were serious conflicts within the town between rival groups as they fought to control the council: nobles, whose power had derived from their high social and economic station within the feudal system, and merchants, who had much to gain by determining civil government and law. Sometimes the struggles were between the wealthy, who governed, and the poor, who had little voice in government. Over the coming centuries it was to be the middle class who pressed the nobility and the kings to share power with them, not just in the cities, but also in the country at large.

University Population . The last urban societal subgroup to note is the medieval university population. Medieval universities grew out of associations of students and teachers, the journeymen and teaching masters of the guild of scholars, who organized themselves respectively into groups that would set up whole institutions of higher education. Students began to gather in Oxford by 1100, and their organization would by the thirteenth century yield Oxford, England’s first university. At about the same time, Paris was also becoming a center for study with independent teachers. By 1231 the collective body of “the masters and students of Paris” was granted a papal charter to establish the University of Paris, its “constitutions and ordinances regulating the manner and time of lectures and disputations, the costume to be worn, the burial of the dead; and also concerning the bachelors, who are to lecture and at what hours, and on what they are to lecture; and concerning the prices of the lodgings or the interdiction of the same; and concerning a fit punishment for those who violate your constitutions or ordinances, by exclusion from your society.” Not only did such a charter acknowledge the difference between the universitas of the scholars and other like associations of the town or city, it also became the source of a new rivalry, the universitas of the gown and the universitas of the town.


Christopher Brooke, The Structure of Medieval Society (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971).

Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978).

Joseph H. Lynch, The Medieval Church, A Brief History (London & New York: Longman, 1992).

John H. Mundy and Peter Riesenberg, The Medieval Town (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1958).

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Social Organizations: Occupations and Work Habits

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