Social Organizations: Stratification

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Social Organizations: Stratification


Secular Church Hierarchy . As the organization of the church grew during the Middle Ages, so too did the social stratification of the secular clergy. Parishes were established and priests appointed to take care of these tiniest jurisdictions.

The bishop, the next rank up in the secular church echelon, ruled over many parishes. The independence and political aggressivity of medieval bishops often made them ineffective in functioning as part of the larger church. At certain intervals the position of archbishop was established to group bishops into provinces under more direct supervision than that of the Pope. After all, the Pope in Rome was the leader of the whole Christian Church, and while he was in charge of all the bishops, he could not have his entire attention diverted to overseeing an obstreperous bishop or two.

Hierarchy in the Regular Clergy . In the case of the regular clergy, the notion of social stratification itself was an anathema. Monasteries were to be the site of social equalization as all entrants stood in their terrestrial communities as they would before God. Involuntary entrants, or oblates, were no less worthy members of the community than those who had joined voluntarily. Nonetheless, there was a social bias of sorts: monks received more attention than nuns. Emphasis on education for monks and nuns was not uniform throughout the Middle Ages. The early Benedictine order was not particularly concerned about the formal education of its members in general, but many of the most educated men of the early church were to come from its monasteries. Granting a few exceptions, not until the mid twelfth century would nuns, such as Heloise and Hildegard of Bingen, be able to be recognized as well educated and learned, in nunneries, which were allowed to function for women as important centers of learning.

Lay Marriage . Among the laity, gender also played a part in social stratification. While the role of the male noble was initially primarily to fight, at the highest echelons of the nobility, men also were trained to govern.


The following apprenticeships were the more common ones found in medieval cities such as Paris and Genoa,

Source: Steven A. Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill; University of North Carolina Press, 1991). 
Baker, Carpenter, Draper, Ropemaker, Spinner4
Barber, Cloth worker (wool), Cobbler, Hatter (for hats), Mason5
Coppersmith, Cutler, Dyer, Tailor6
Blacksmith, Carder, Hatter (felt hats), Turner7
Butcher, Cloth worker (silk and linen), Locksmith, 
Painter of saddles, Religious artifacts maker (bone), Tanner8
Bookbinder, Harness maker, Religious artifacts maker 
(beads and buttons)9
Armorer, Cooper, Religious artifacts maker (amber), 
Saddler, Silversmith, Tapestry maker10
Lapidary, Religious artifacts maker (coral)12

Source: Steven A. Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe (Chapel Hill; University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

Noblewomen were raised for the most part to be chaste wives to the nobility. Marriage made for love was not unknown in the Middle Ages. Geoffrey Chaucer celebrates it in “The Franklin’s Tale,” a hymn to equality and love in marriage. Yet, by and large, a woman of the landed classes was a commodity to be traded by parents with calculating care, for territorial or commercial advantage, status, power, or influence. Some marriages brought the English kings the great lands of Aquitaine, Anjou, Gascony, and Brittany. Love, it was thought, might grow out of marriage, but there was no need to take love into it. Most daughters of the nobility were “sold into marriage,” such as an English noble child, in around 1200, who at age eleven was married for the third time for a payment in cash.

Noblewomen . Only occasionally were noblewomen raised for power and subsequently allowed to assume it. For example, Mathilda, though queen of England, was never crowned. In the civil war between herself and a contender, Stephen (1139–1148), she was defeated. Nonetheless, her son, Henry of Anjou, recognized by the victorious Stephen as heir to the throne, did rule England (including Northumbria, Cumbria, and Westmoreland by 1157, and Ireland by 1171) and France, as Henry II (1154–1189). Duke William of Aquitaine was the exceptional medieval father in raising his daughter, Eleanor, to rule his land in central and southwestern France in the twelfth century. Upon her marriage to King Louis VII of France, Eleanor brought more territory to the kingdom than he had. Her chance to rule came, however, only in her second marriage, when her son by Henry II of England, King Richard I (the Lion-Heart), was away on crusade. By 1317 in France, appeal to the Salic Law officially banned women from inheriting the throne, in accordance with the general sentiment, frequently expressed as in 1200 by an elderly Parisian man to his new fifteen-year-old wife, that a woman’s duty was simply to offer love, patience, and obedience to her husband.

Urban Strata . The urban environment with its many social organizations also reflected blatant social stratification. As noted earlier, the cities were filled with craftsmen of all sorts. Trades for males fell into different categories of difficulty and prestige. Among the easier trades to learn and the lowest in terms of status were shoemaking, tailoring, and candle making. Those ranking somewhere in the middle were carpenters and blacksmiths. At the elite end of the artisan scale, and the most expensive in which to be trained, were trades such as goldsmithing and glassmaking. Females faced the social stratification for religious and noblewomen. In the craft sphere, women chose among limited options.

Apprentices . The lowest strata in the urban community belonged to the apprentices of whatever craft. Within the European commercial production community, master workers ran their own shops. These craft masters frequently hired young people to serve under them. An apprentice was usually a boy of seven or eight who wanted to learn a trade. His work was where the master’s household was; therefore the apprentice usually lived in his master’s house, receiving there a room, food, and some clothing. He was not given any payment, however. An apprentice was bound to his master, studying under him to learn the trade and business for anywhere from two to twelve years.

Education . Apprentices’ low position in the craft social hierarchy was because of their age and lack of training. Children and adolescents, still in need of sheltering from the world, were nonetheless part of the employment work ladder, receiving training in a craft or skill and often at the same time learning the basics of reading, writing, and sometimes ciphering. However low the station, it was an important one particularly for children of the poor who usually had only one other means of survival. They could be sent to a monastery or at least to a religious school set up by the monks or priests for the purpose of teaching children. That route would more probably lead to a life in the church, rather than to the potential riches of a craft profession. Apprenticeships ideally offered a dual education: training in a skill as well as the rudiments of education, both of which became increasingly important in the medieval urban economy. In this way apprenticeship was an important vehicle for educating medieval children in an era when formal education was neither required nor the time to indulge in it readily available.

Gaining Master Status . Upon completion of his training as an apprentice, a would-be medieval craftsman became a journeyman, a worker who was paid by the day {journée in French). If he remained within his master’s household, rather than traveling to learn different techniques under other masters, he would work there for wages for the first time. His greater training gave him a position higher in the stratification of the craft world than that of the apprentice. A journeyman was indeed the second and last rank before becoming a craft master. The journeyman would devote part of his work time to the crafting of an exemplar of his skill worthy of a master, a “masterpiece.” If his masterpiece were acceptable to masters of the guild he hoped to join, the former journeyman would then be permitted to open his own shop as a craft master, the highest rank in the craft world, and maybe teach his sons the trade.

Medical Service . Of all the medieval service professions, medicine was among the most lucrative. Then as now, satirists jeered at the exorbitant salaries of doctors. Although from as early as 1140 in France, doctors had to have a license to practice, the guilds that did the licensing were yet to have the same authority as those for practitioners less highly ranked in the medical order of social status: the surgeon, the apothecary, and the barber. Then as now, patients sued their doctors for malpractice, winning in some cases substantial awards, such as the recorded more than twice a day laborer’s maximum annual wages. These penalties provided some means of hitting the unqualified, incompetent, or downright fraudulent physicians, if not of lowering the outright cost of seeing a doctor. By the fourteenth century, some physicians were trying to protect themselves by bringing a patient’s relatives before the civic authorities to sign consent documents before any treatments were rendered, yet a course of treatment might still cost a patient almost half of a day laborer’s annual wages!

Doctors . A physician with good fortune and presumed skill, since the penalties for misdiagnoses or bad treatments could be far harsher than fines, could work for a lord. In one year alone he could earn five or more times the pay of a common laborer. On top of his salary he would receive costly gifts as well. Doctors in the service of royalty did even better. The English king paid his favorite court physicians a yearly salary of up to three or more times what a lord might make and showered them with honors and gifts, even bestowing sizable estates on them.


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: Stratification

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