Dictionary and Thesaurus
The 14th and 15th centuries saw the splitting of most of the classes
of medieval society into a powerful elite and a powerless
There were 5000 feudal warriors in England in 1100, and only 40 peers
(lords) in 1500. The mass of the aristocracy were country knights allied
with the middle class of the towns. The reasons for this split were
The aristocracy split into the great magnates and the local squires. The
magnates abandoned the practice of enfeoffing vassals in favor of paying
- chivalry grew increasingly costly.
- Largesse became more ostentatious and a more important status symbol;
many could not afford it.
- The fighting aristocracy lost their importance because of gunpowder,
infantry formations, and standing armies.
- Many noble families were wiped out by the 100 years' war and the civil
wars that followed.
- The upper middle class was now buying up land, and there was less
wealth in the aristocracy to support a large warrior class.
- The kings were less dependent upon the aristocracy for military or
- The economic recession in many regions impoverished the local
Three classes of aristocrats emerged:
- The rich and powerful
- The land-hungry and grasping
- The small farmers and servants with little wealth or power.
There was also an over-elaboration of chivalry into costly fantasies
(playing Acadia, paseos de honor, etc) and a popular and fabulous
chivalric literature. This process was ended by Miguel Cervantes Saavedra
(1547-1616) and his novel Don Quixote (pronounced doan kee-ho'-tay)
THE MIDDLE CLASS
We have seen that the proto-capitalists began to supplant the artisan
guilds with new systems of production: factory and putting-out. This
changed the medieval middle class greatly. A cleavage between the greater
and lesser guilds took place, and there was sometimes civil war in the
medieval towns between the "populo grasso" and "populo minuto." A gap also
emerged between the guild masters and the workers, with the result that an
urban proletariat emerged, and the modern division between management and
labor was born.
After centuries during which the peasantry enjoyed relatively good and
improving conditions of life, the mass of the peasantry was pressed into
As a result of the fifteenth-century recessions, the capitalists began to
buy up farmland to produce raw materials for their manufacture (e.g.,
fields were turned into sheep runs). A grasping aristocracy began to claim
many feudal dues that had long been out of date. Proprietors fenced in the
lands -- woods, meadows, ponds --that had once been common property of the
peasant communities. Communities died, and their inhabitants were either
forced into the indigent class or became salaried farm workers.
The fluctuations in population brought about by plagues, wars, and famines
on the one hand and a high birth rate on the other also affected the
structure of rural society. Land-owners abandoned granting land in
exchange for rents and services and turned to employing temporary workers
for wages. Abandoned fields were turned into profitable pastures that
required little or no labor investment and not reclaimed as arable land
when the population rose again. Wages were set low when population was
high and labor was cheap, and the social and economic elite passed maximum
wage laws when to keep these wages low even when population fell and labor
was in short supply. Tenants were evicted and villages leveled to provide
compact and larger farms that could be exploited rationally. Generally, a
greater reliance was placed upon capital, machinery, and animals than upon
The peasantry split into two groups, the few who owned land and the many
who worked for them. A rural proletariat emerged.
The emergence of proto-capitalism and other factors in the later Middle
Ages created a situation in which wealth concentrated in few and fewer
hands. The result was the division of society into a small elite with
wealth and power, and a mass of the population with neither. The social
structure of medieval Europe, which had consisted of three great classes
distinguished by their social function -- the aristocrats who fought, the
middle class who made things and carried them to where they were wanted,
and the peasantry who grew food -- was changed in basic ways. The classes
were now distinguished by their economic power and were two in number --
the "haves" and the "have-nots." Moreover, the medieval social classes had
transcended national boundaries. The fighting aristocracy of France felt a
greater kinship with the fighting aristocracy of England than it did with
its own peasant population. This had come to an end, and the population of Europe
was divided into competing national groups.
The medieval social ideal had been a stable harmony among disparate
classes, and the ideal had been shattered. As the middle ages closed, the
upper classes were concentrating on the suppression of the lower classes
and were concerned with the possibility that the lower classes still felt
a sense of fellowship that was international in scope. Although there is
no evidence that any such movement existed, nobles and capitalists alike
believed in the existence of local groups who were members of a vast
lower-class conspiracy known as the brüdershaften ("brotherhoods).
This was only one sign of the tensions that underlay European society as
it entered the early modern age.