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The Middle Ages' Social Class System

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

This lesson explains the three major classes of Europe in the Middle Ages. Let's work our way from kings to peasant and look at some common misconceptions about the European class system of the Middle Ages.

A Steep Society

You may have the idea that the Middle Ages were a time of great social segregation. In many ways, they were. The kings and popes reigned supreme, and social mobility was all but impossible. However, that didn't mean that life was brutally horrible if you weren't born a prince. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the social stratification of Europe during the Middle Ages. While these classes were hard to move in and out of, life in this system had some small perks for each class.

At the Top

At the top of the class system were the royalty, nobility, and top church officials. While many people believe that royalty was the most powerful body during these times (even above the pope), it was actually a bit more complicated.

During the Middle Ages, these three groups were constantly at odds with each other. Royalty wanted the nobility to fall in line and wanted the Church to stay out of the way. The pope wanted everyone to do what he said as the word of God. Meanwhile, the nobility wanted to be left to their own goals of becoming more and more powerful.

Still, day-to-day life for these groups was pleasant, at least compared to everyone else. Sure, castles were drafty places, but at least they had a staff to wait on them and grand meals every night. And while you were expected to fight many wars as a member of the nobility, you could be ransomed if captured, rather than just killed as the lower classes were. Meanwhile, Church officials were revered with great respect and often received extravagant gifts for their status.

Richard the Lionhearted was the King of England for 10 years during the Middle Ages, though he spent most of his reign fighting alongside the lower classes in war.
Richard the Lionheart

Middling

That said, the most exciting class during the Middle Ages, at least from a historical perspective, had to be the middle class. The middle class included everyone who was a merchant, a doctor, a university graduate, or in the middle management of the Church. These were the people who really saved Europe from the Middle Ages, and their size and importance grew as the period went on.

However, the people within the middle class was constantly at odds with those above them. Merchants and doctors were toward the top of the middle class, due in great part to the fact that they were most likely to have money. Others used bartering for everyday transactions, which meant they were easy targets for taxing.

Meanwhile, university graduates, bishops, and archbishops often worked as inside men, stealing sensitive information from their bosses--royalty, nobility, and top church officials--and selling it to interested parties. While the pay way high, this type of work could ultimately lead to getting their heads chopped off! For many middle class citizens, the risks were worth the rewards. The richest merchants could rival even moderately successful kings and were sometimes welcomed to wine and dine with nobility.

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