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Nobles in the Middle Ages Overview & History | What Did Nobles Do?

Instructor: Joseph Cataliotti

Joe Cataliotti holds a Master of Arts degree in World History from Northeastern University. He earned a B.A. in History and Political Science from the same university and wrote his senior thesis on the history of radical right-wing movements in the United States.

Learn about the nobles in the Middle Ages. Review the life of Medieval nobility, explore the hierarchy of nobles, and discover their role in the Middle Ages. Updated: 05/22/2023

What are Nobles?

The term nobles refers to the dynastic upper class of Europe in the Middle Ages. The nobility held extensive political and economic power over much of European history; noblemen in the Middle Ages controlled the kingdoms, duchies, and principalities of Europe as kings, dukes, and princes, owning the land. They consisted of the upper tier of a hierarchical social system. However, the nobility was not internally equal, as it, in turn, consisted of a hierarchy of noblemen and noble families.

Alongside the nobility was the priesthood of the Catholic Church, which held extensive moral authority in Europe. Beneath both was the vast majority of the European populace: so-called commoners. This consisted of a small number of merchants and artisans and a much larger number of peasants. Most European people in the Middle Ages were farmers who very often were inextricably and legally tied to land owned by nobles and had few rights: the serfs. This social structure is called feudalism.

Nobles in the Middle Ages

Feudalism has its origins in the Roman Empire. That empire, due to its size and diversity, had many different parallel social structures. However, broadly speaking, Roman society could be divided into three segments: the elite patrician class, the lower plebeian class, and the enslaved servi (Latin for slave) class. In the Roman Empire, the landed patricians held the most power, ruling over a large number of laboring plebeians and servi.

In the late 300s and 400s, the Roman Empire fragmented apart into several German-ruled kingdoms. However, the social structures of the empire continued and evolved, with local landed elites gaining greater autonomy and sovereignty from weak monarchs and lords. It was in this new era that feudalism arose. In particular, feudalism's key characteristic is the allegiance sworn by land-owning patricians (who were eventually known by other names) to more powerful lords in an ascending hierarchy. This allegiance is called vassalage.

Meanwhile, the plebeians and servi continued to be subservient to the feudal lords of Europe. They were enveloped in the social status of being a serf. In serfdom, one was legally tied to the land owned by a nobleman and had limited rights.

As in the Roman Empire, the lands and titles of the nobility of the Middle Ages were passed down through inheritance. Various inheritance laws were present across Europe in this period, but broadly speaking, noblemen either divided their lands between their sons or granted most, if not all, to their eldest son. This paralleled how positions of power were passed down through generations of feudal lords in dynastic monarchies.

Life of Medieval Nobility

Medieval nobles lived a highly privileged life. Some may not have lived as luxuriously as middle-class people in developed countries today, yet the nobles in the Middle Ages lived luxuriously for their day. They lived in manors, if not palaces, whereas serfs lived in small huts or homes. Serfs wore simple clothes they made for themselves, while nobles dressed luxuriously in dyed fabrics and, at times, even jewels and gold, depending on their wealth. Nobles ate better than serfs; when there was a food shortage, for example, it was the serfs who suffered, not the nobles.

The knights were Medieval nobles who served in the military

Medieval painting of a king granting a sword to a knight

However, the Medieval nobility was regulated by certain codes of conduct. In particular, chivalry regulated noblemen's behavior. They were expected to behave in a proper and respectful manner; it was looked down upon to abuse one's serfs excessively, for example. Catholicism was the state religion of many Medieval states, so nobles were required to behave in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Chivalry was also highly militant; noblemen were expected to serve in the armies of Europe, either waging war against neighboring kingdoms or against foreign forces in distant wars. In times of peace, noblemen participated in martial games, such as jousting, in order to display and practice their martial fortitude. Similarly, honor was a key aspect of social relations in the Middle Ages; insults often drove duels between men.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How did the nobles live during the Middle Ages?

Nobles were the most privileged class in the Middle Ages. They lived luxuriously, for the time, in manors and palaces. It was not the nobles who went hungry in famines but the serfs.

What were the roles of nobles?

The nobles held power and land, ruling over Medieval Europe. However, they also had responsibilities and a code of conduct. Nobles fought in wars, for example, and followed the chivalric code.

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