Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Age of Chivalry

Chivalry was a phenomenon of the High Middle Ages. The influence of chivalry was greatest in the period from 1100 to 1450 AD, and this is the period in which my novels are set. During this period, Europe was Catholic; there was no alternative to the Church of Rome, and the Pope was an extremely powerful political figure. Furthermore, monasticism flourished and several important new monastic orders were founded, notably the Cistercians, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and – most important for students of chivalry – the Hospitallers, the Templars, and the Teutonic Knights.

The dominant political system in the period was feudalism. Government was organized hierarchically, based on a complex system of obligations in exchange for rights and privileges. Because land ownership varied from region to region and across time, it is impossible to describe it here in detail, but the notion behind feudalism was that the king controlled all the territory in his kingdom and simply “lent” or “leased” it to tenants-in-chief (i.e., his barons), in exchange for their services in administration, justice, and particularly war. He could also grant land to the Church in exchange for the prayers and spiritual services of the Church.
The barons and bishops did the same, granting rights to the land they held from the king to their vassals, again in exchange for military service and so on, down to the peasant class, or serfs. The peasants, who might or might not be free, were responsible for tilling the soil for their overlord in exchange for retaining a portion of the produce for their own use. It is important to keep in mind that even serfs could accumulate considerable wealth, which they sometimes used to buy their freedom – or just to build larger, more comfortable homes. Archaeological evidence suggests that many “peasant homes” were as large and as luxurious as the homes of knights and squires. (Wood, 1985, 1990) (Emery, 2007) (Platt, 1978)

In fact, contrary to popular opinion, medieval society was highly fluid, and fortunes could be made – and lost – in just a few generations. Judicious marriages, the use of heiresses to reward loyal but landless followers, and the fortunes of war enabled men of “lesser birth” to rise very high in medieval society. The sons of peasants could, in the right circumstances, be knighted, and landless knights could become barons. (Keen, 1990) (Wilkinson, 1969) (Gies, 1974) Examples of the latter are William Marshal, Thomas Holland, and Bertrand du Guesclin.
Nevertheless, at the heart of feudalism was the notion that in an ordered society, each man and woman had a God-ordained role to play based on his or her “estate.” The king and his nobles were responsible for protecting the realm against outside threats, ensuring the security of law-abiding citizens against criminals, and dispensing justice. The Church was responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people, providing services from baptism and marriage to absolution, burial, and prayers for the dead. The “Third Estate,” composed of peasants and merchants, ensured the material well-being of all. From the medieval perspective, each estate made an essential contribution to good governance; the notion that the “Third Estate” was supporting “useless” and “exploitive” noble and clerical classes is a modern idea introduced most dramatically in the French Revolution. (Keen, 1990)

The historical record makes it abundantly clear that the Middle Ages was a period in which violence, cruelty, injustice, and oppression were rampant. Terms such as “feudalism,” “the Crusades,” and “the Inquisition” have become synonymous with oppression, injustice, torture, cruelty, and mindless aggression. Indeed, it is commonplace, nowadays, to refer to anything particularly inhumane or primitive as “medieval.” This is a gross oversimplification of medieval society.
Although medieval society did not fulfill modern ideals of good governance, and instances of brutality and repression existed in abundance, many aspects of medieval society were more “progressive” and “enlightened” than popular wisdom suggests. Women, for example, enjoyed considerably more freedom and financial independence in the medieval/feudal age than after the industrial revolution. (Ward, 1992) (Mertes, 1988) (Gies, 1987) Also, by the High and Later Middle Ages, the level of education among the nobility, clergy, and merchant class was significant. Nobles spoke, read, and wrote at least their own language and Latin, and sometimes they knew a second modern language or Greek as well. Women of the nobility and the merchant class were generally literate; they conducted correspondence and acted as their husbands’ deputies, or as the heads of their own households as widows or heiresses. (Mertes, 1988) (Ward, 1992) Furthermore, the clergy and many noblemen were more familiar with the works of antiquity than was the case after the Reformation. Last but not least, to name another example that might surprise readers new to the topic, bathing was more common in the Middle Ages than in the Renaissance, and – in the residences of the higher nobility – hot and cold running water was not unknown!

The Middle Ages was a period of intellectual and artistic flourishing. Trade was booming and was for the first time extended to China and the Americas. (The Norwegians maintained regular ties to Vinland until the plague decimated the Norwegian population in the mid-14th century.) Some of the most magnificent works of architecture known to man were built during the Middle Ages. Most readers will be familiar with medieval sacred architecture, from the awe-inspiring cathedrals such as York and St. Chapel to the breathtaking beauty of monasteries such as Senanque, Moissac, and Bellapais. Less familiar, however, may be the secular architecture of the period, which increasingly offered (to those able to afford it) comfortable and gracious accommodations with heating, plumbing, and light. The Palace of the Popes in Aquitaine, the residence of the Counts of Poitiers, and the home of the Earls of Northumberland at Warkworth Castle were magnificent residences. Even the lesser nobility and the upwardly mobile merchant and peasant class increasingly built and lived in houses that were substantial, well-lit, and warm. (Wood, 1985, 1990) (Emery, 2007)
This, then, is the world in which my “Tales of Chivalry” are set. For more information visit www.tales-of-chivalry.com.

Bibliography

Emery, Anthony. 2007. Discovering Medieval Houses. Prince's Risborough, Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd., 2007.

Gies, Frances and Joseph. 1987. Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

Gies, Joseph & Frances. 1974. Life in a Medieval Castle. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Keen, Maurice. 1990. English Society in the Later Middle Ages: 1348-1500. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

Mertes, Kate. 1988. The English Noble Household, 1250–1600: Good Governance and Politic Rule. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Platt, Colin. 1978. Medieval England: A Social History and Archaeology from the Conquest to A.D. 1600. London: Routledge, 1978.

Ward, Jennifer C. 1992. English Noblewomen in the Later Middle Ages. London: Longman Group Inc., 1992.

Wilkinson, B. 1969. The Later Middle Ages in England, 1216-1485. Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1969.

Wood, Margaret. 1965, 1983, 1990. The English Mediaeval House. London: Bracken Books, 1965, 1983, 1990.

 

 

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