Feudal Society
manuscrit du XIIIème siècle
Miniature où sont représenté un seigneur, des ecclésiastiques et divers personnages (« bataille entre les francs et les turcs » dans La Chanson d’Antioche, manuscrit du XIIIème siècle, BNF).

In the 12th century society was dominated by a feudal aristocracy. Apart from the king, all the lords were regarded as holding their fief from a lord above them, their “overlord”. They were said to be his “vassals”. An overlord often had several vassals and it could happen that a vassal had several overlords. An overlord could sometimes be an ecclesiastic (a bishop or an abbot who held one or more fiefs). In Aquitaine, the lordships were often managed as co-lordships, several lords ruling one undivided fief.

The Three Orders:

The society in which Richard lived was seen as a society separated into three orders. This system of organisation was found in a large part of Western Europe. In actual fact, these three orders were not so distinct and the reality was more complicated. In Aquitaine in particular, it acquired specific features that created its own distinct identity.

The Clergy
manuscrit du XIIIème siècle
Saint Grégoire, représenté en habits du XIIème siècle, (miniature de Gregorius Magnus, Registrum Epistolarum, XIIème siècle BNF)

The first order was the clergy, “those who pray”. Divided between the secular and regular clergy, it saw to it that society conformed to divine law as defined by the laws of God and the precepts of the Roman Catholic Church. The monks lived apart, devoting their lives to God. The secular clergy saw to the spiritual health of the other members of society and spread the word of God. The role of the clergy was to ensure that society acted in accordance with the will of God.

By the 12th century the clergy had become powerful and influential. The Gregorian Reform at the end of the 11th century has removed the leading churchmen from the influence of the princes, who had formerly interfered in the affairs of the Church, notably in the appointment of bishops.

Some clerics, like Suger, Bernard of Clairvaux (founder of the Cistercian Order) and Thomas Beckett, had great influence at the courts of France and England. In the remainder of these kingdoms, ecclesiastical power made itself felt through the means of parishes, defined by the Church but also the principal geographical point of reference and source of identity for many. The abbeys and monasteries also held actual fiefdoms, behaving like the feudal lords. They received the tithe, an ecclesiastical tax corresponding to a tenth of what was produced by those eligible to pay.

In the 12th century, following the Crusades and the creation of the Latin States in the East, the military religious orders appeared, such as the Templars and the Hospitalers, also under the authority of the Church; they acquired enormous wealth and land, not only in the Holy Land but also in Europe.

Eglise de Lageyrat, près de Châlus
Eglise de Lageyrat, près de Châlus (Photo Office de tourisme des Monts de Châlus)

The Christian religion left a deep mark on the civilisation of Medieval Europe. Daily life and rites of passage, like marriage and death, were regulated by religious observance and the sacraments delivered by the priests (bishops, parish priests and abbots). One lived in fear of divine punishment, interpreting catastrophes and misfortunes as punishments sent by God. The power of the Church and religion on minds is demonstrated by the building of a vast number of churches that are among the most beautiful creations of Romanesque art and the Gothic art that followed in the 13th century.

Moines-Saint Paschase Radbert
Moines (Saint Paschase Radbert & moines de Saint-Riquier paschasius radbertus (s.), expositio in matthaeum XIIème siècle, BNF).

But the role of the Church did not stop there. The clergy, notably the monks, were virtually the only ones in the 10th and 11th centuries to undertake the work of preserving culture and knowledge. The monks produced copies of numerous religious texts and also classical works, particularly of some of the Greek philosophers. It is thanks to this extremely important role of the Church that we still know the great classical authors and writers of the High Middle Ages.

Ecclesiastics were also involved in politics and economics at the highest level. In Limousin, the bishop of Limoges was a powerful figure, controlling territories comparable to those of viscounts. Numerous and very influential abbeys played an important role in bringing new land under cultivation and establishing new rural communities, allowing the expansion of peasant society.

The Nobility
Mariage de Guy de Lusignan
Mariage de Guy de Lusignan (Mariage de Guy de Lusignan et de la sibylle de Jérusalem, Guillaume de Tyr, historia miniature, XIIIème siècle, BNF).

Unlike the clergy, the nobility, “those who fight”, were not a clearly defined order. To be a noble in the 12th century was to be someone who did not live by the work of his own hands but from the income from his possessions, someone who dressed in a particular fashion, someone who practised activities not open to all, such as hunting and tournaments. It was in this period that many nobles adopted a distinguishing coat of arms. The power of a noble depended upon his family and the land that he held.

In the 12th century, the nobility could be divided into two barely distinguishable classes who gradually intermingled. The first was that of the long established aristocrats who were often descendants of the Carolingian aristocracy. Its members were the great feudal lords, the counts and other dukes. The royal families were also part of this “high” nobility.

This group mingled more and more with the warrior aristocracy born out of the feudal system. During the previous centuries, as power became decentralised and fell into the hands of the local aristocracy, the great lords surrounded themselves with a household of “milites”, that is, fighters, often on horseback, from whom evolved the knights. Gradually, these fighters, in their turn, in exchange for their service, claimed the privileges and lifestyle of the nobles. These knights and lesser barons were granted domains, i.e., land and other rights, and integrated with the old aristocracy.


Personnages en habits du XIIème siècle
Personnages en habits du XIIème siècle (Saint Paul Prêchant, miniature de la Seconde Bible de Saint Martial de Limoges, XIIème siècle, BNF).

During the 12th century, and even more so in the 13th, the nobility was closed to new members and took over the role of the knight which also gradually became a prerogative of the nobility. It is as a result of this that great monarchs like Richard the Lionheart were dubbed as knights: the fusion between the old land-holding aristocracy and the young warrior nobility was complete.

In society, the nobility had a political and a military role. Most of the nobles in the 12th century were feudal lords, holding land in the name of their overlord. They possessed rights on their domains, being able to raise taxes, dispense justice and recruit soldiers. They exploited part of their land directly, and entrusted some of it to tenants in exchange for rent.

The nobility was very hierarchical, from the great lords - dukes, counts and viscounts - who were able to mobilise enormous financial and military resources, and so possessed great influence, even on a national scale, down to the multitude of lesser barons, knights and lesser vassals who sometimes had no fiefs and who were on the limit between noble and non-noble. Their status and their lifestyle therefore depended on their personal wealth.

Nobles en armes
Nobles en armes (Mordrain et le messager de Saracinte, miniature tirée de L’histoire du Saint Graal, XIIIème siècle, BNF).

The other fundamental role of the nobility was warfare; it was the first purpose of “those who fight”. They had, therefore, as their duty to defend their subjects and the kingdom. They owed military service to the king or to their overlord who could call upon them in the event of war. With the assimilation of the knights into the nobility, a noble culture of war developed. Thus, to be noble meant to behave in a chivalrous manner, i.e., to demonstrate chivalrous values and bravery in combat and to establish one’s reputation by feats of arms. The tournament became, as a result, an activity highly regarded by the nobility.

At the end of the 12th century, even the great nobles who were descendants of the old aristocracy laid claim to a warrior status. The knight class closed itself against non-nobles more and more. Even the kings had themselves knighted. Therefore, there were great variations among the nobility, according to region and status.

The rest of society, “those who work”
Paysan (Mois de Juin, miniature d’une Bible du XIIème siècle, BNF).

Among the rest of society, the non-nobles, i.e., commoners, who represented about 90% of the medieval population, there was even greater diversity. The overwhelming majority of these were peasants who formed the bulk of the inhabitants of Europe throughout the Middle Ages. They constituted the working masses who sustained society by producing the basic necessities. Through the taxes they paid they were the basis of the wealth of the clergy and the nobility.

The peasant condition took many forms. The majority lived under the control of a lord, either noble or ecclesiastic. Most of the peasants were free. They had only to pay the duties and taxes that they owed to their lord in exchange for exploiting the land on which they lived. They also had to use the communal facilities (ovens, mills) built at the lord’s expense, in return for payment. They were otherwise free to go where they pleased, to leave the estate to which they were attached, and to marry as they wished. Nevertheless, they remained subject to the lord’s justice and tied labour.


Les Moissons
Les Moissons (allégorie du Mois de Juin, manuscrit du XIIème siècle, BNF).

Leaseholders, sharecroppers, tenants, labourers; status varied a great deal among the peasants. Most of them lived by subsistence agriculture, producing enough for their own survival and to pay their taxes. Many peasants practised crafts in addition to their agricultural activities in order to supplement their resources. They lived in villages, either isolated or grouped around a castle that served as a refuge in case of attack. Peasant houses then were very unsophisticated with simple cob walls, a floor of beaten earth and a thatched roof. Stone and chestnut shingles in some regions could indicate a higher status. The village community, consisting of several family units, was then the basis of the social organisation of the peasantry.

At the bottom of the ladder were the serfs. They were completely subject to their lord. They owned nothing for themselves and all they had belonged to their lord. At their death, their children inherited nothing. They could not leave their lord’s domain, nor marry without their lord’s permission.

Peasant life in the Middle Ages was harsh by modern standards. War, famine and epidemics were common. On the other hand, the numerous holidays (religious for the most part) and the increasing prosperity of the 12th century helped the situation and brought about an improvement in daily life for many peasants.

Les Moissons
Les Moissons (allégorie du Mois de Juin, manuscrit du XIIème siècle, BNF).

It was the inhabitants of the towns who freed themselves more and more. They began to kick against the idea of a society divided into three orders. In the course of the 11th and 12th centuries, the towns were becoming rich through commerce and the development of organisation which grouped craftsmen into trades. Becoming more and more independent, the towns were no longer willing to stay under the control of the feudal lords. The kings granted them charters which freed them from feudal power. The towns ruled themselves autonomously, with a town council at their head, while remaining subject to royal power.