Document Packet: Medieval Feudal Society


Doc 1 Question:


Document #1

On the material side the life of the feudal class was rough and uncomfortable. The castles were cold and drafty. If a castle was of wood, you had no fire, and if a stone castle allowed you to have one, you smothered in the smoke. Until the thirteenth century no one except a few great feudal princes had a castle providing more than two rooms. In the hall the lord . . . received his officials and vassals, held his court, and entertained ordinary guests. There the family and retainers ate on tables that at night served as beds for the servants and guests. The chamber was the private abode of the lord and his family. The lord and lady slept in a great bed, their children had smaller beds, and their personal servants slept on the floor. Distinguished visitors were entertained in the chamber. When the lord of the castle wanted a private talk with a guest, they [both] sat on the bed. The lord and his family could have all the food they could eat, but it was limited in variety. Great platters of game, both birds and beasts, were the chief standby, reinforced with bread and vast quantities of wine. They also had plenty of clothing, but the quality was largely limited by the capacity of the servant girls who made it. In short, in the tenth and eleventh centuries the noble had two resources, land and labor. But the labor was magnificently inefficient and by our standards the land was badly tilled. Not until the revival of trade could the feudal class begin to live in anything approaching luxury.


SECONDARY SOURCE: Life in a Medieval Castle. Sidney Painter, Medieval Society, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1951, pp. 30-31.



Doc 2 Questions:


Document #2

During the eleventh and twelfth centuries there grew out of the environment and way of life of the feudal class a system of ethical ideas that we call chivalry: virtues appropriate to the knight or chevalier. . . . The German warriors had brought with them into the Roman Empire an admiration for the warrior virtues, courage and prowess in battle. They also valued the sound judgment that the feudal age was to call wisdom and fidelity to one's . . . word, later known as loyalty. Respect for these virtues was not a recent acquisition of the Frankish nobles. Their importance among the Germanic peoples can be clearly seen by a reader of the Norse sagas and Anglo-Saxon literature. But they were peculiarly applicable to feudal society. A man whose chief function was fighting had to be brave and effective in battle. Wisdom was a necessary attribute of the successful captain. The whole structure of the feudal system depended on respect for one's oath of homage and fidelity. These were the basic feudal virtues and formed the core of feudal chivalry. The earliest ethical ideas of the feudal class concerned their chief occupation and were designed to make war more pleasant for its participants. Armor was heavy and extremely hot under the blazing sun. No knight wanted to wear his armor when he was simply riding about, yet no knight was ever entirely safe from sudden attack by an enemy. Hence the idea developed that it was highly improper to attack an unarmed knight. You could ambush your foe, but you did not attack him until he had had time to put on his armor and prepare for battle. Then the chief purpose of feudal warfare was to take prisoners who could be ransomed. In the early days you put your prisoner in chains and dumped him in an unused storage bin under your hall. But this was highly unpleasant for the prisoner and he was likely to be the captor next time. Soon it was the custom to treat a knightly prisoner as an honored guest. The next step was to accept a son or nephew as a hostage while the captive collected his ransom. By the thirteenth century it was usual to release a captured knight on his pledge to return if he could not raise his ransom. The early tournaments were, as has been suggested, merely arranged battles. But the knights who fought in them felt it necessary to rationalize their activity. Hence they soon believed that they fought in tournaments not for amusement or to profit by ransoms but to win glory. As time went on the tournaments were carried over into actual warfare. To Froissart(a Medieval writer) the Hundred Years' War was just a vast series of pleasant and amusing jousts between noble knights whose only purpose was the desire for glory. Perhaps the high point of chivalric behavior was the return of King John of France to prison in England when he found he could not raise his ransom, unless it be the action of a noble lord who hanged one of his infantrymen because he had had the bad taste to kill a knight in battle. One more virtue of feudal chivalry requires mention: generosity. In most societies men have admired the giver of lavish gifts, and this was a marked trait among the Germans. But this virtue assumed an unusually important place in the feudal code of chivalry. Although the concepts of feudal chivalry sprang from the feudal environment, they were popularized and made universally known by professional storytellers. The evenings dragged heavily in the gloomy castles, and knights and ladies were avid for entertainment. This was supplied by various types of wanderers. There were the tellers of . . . stories, the dancing bears, and dancing girls. But there were also those, who composed and recited long tales in verse, and minstrels who sang the compositions of others. It was through these stories that the ideas of. chivalry were spread. The livelihood of the singers and composers depended on the generosity of their patrons. Hence in their stories generosity was inclined to become the chief of all knightly virtues.


SECONDARY SOURCE: Life in a Medieval Castle. Sidney Painter, Medieval Society, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1951, pp. 32-34.


Doc 3 Questions:


Document #3

The feudal organization of society made every person of noble blood a fighting man, but it cannot be said that it made him a soldier. If he could sit his charger(horse) steadily and handle lance and sword with skill, the horseman of the twelfth or thirteenth century was regarded as a model of military efficiency. That discipline or tactical skill may be as important to an army as mere courage he had no conception. Assembled with difficulty, insubordinate, unable to maneuver, ready to melt away from its standard the moment that its short period of service was over, a feudal force presented an assemblage of un-soldier-like qualities such as have seldom been known to coexist. Primarily intended to defend its own borders from the Magyar (Hungarian Barbarians), the Northman, or the Saracen, the foes who in the tenth century had been a real danger to Christendom, the institution of feudalism was utterly unadapted to take the offensive. When a number of tenants-in-chief had come together, each blindly jealous of his fellows and recognizing no superior but the king - and often even the king was powerless to control his nobles - it would require a leader of uncommon skill to persuade them to institute that hierarchy(order) of command which must be established in every army that is to be something more than an undisciplined mob. . . . The radical vice of insubordination continued to exist. It was always possible that at some critical moment a battle might be precipitated, a formation broken, a plan upset, by the rashness of some petty baron . . . When the hierarchy of command was based on social status rather than on professional experience, the noble who led the largest contingent or held the highest rank felt himself entitled to assume the direction of the battle. The veteran who brought only a few lances to the array could seldom aspire to influencing the movements of his superiors. When mere courage takes the place of skill and experience, tactics and strategy alike disappear...When the enemy came into sight, nothing could restrain the western knights; the shield was shifted into position, the lance dropped into rest, the spur touched the charger, and line thundered on, regardless of what might be before it. As often as not its career ended in being dashed against a stone wall or tumbled into a canal, in painful floundering in a bog....The enemy who possessed even a rudimentary system of tactics could hardly fail to be successful against such armies.

The fight of El Mansura (1250 C.E.) may be taken as a fair specimen of the military customs of the thirteenth century. When the French vanguard saw a fair field before them and the lances of the infidel gleaming among the palm groves, they could not restrain their eagerness. With the Count of Artois at their head, they started off in a headlong charge, in spite of St. Louis' (Louis IX) strict prohibition of an engagement. The Mamelukes (a warlike group of people living in Egypt) retreated, allowed their pursuers to entangle themselves in the streets of a town, and then turned fiercely on them from all sides at once. In a short time the whole "battle" of the Count of Artois was dispersed and cut to pieces. Meanwhile the main body, hearing of the danger of their companions, had ridden off hastily to their aid. However, as each commander took his own route and made what speed he could, the French army arrived upon the field in dozens of small, scattered bodies. These were attacked in detail, and in many cases routed by the Mamelukes. No general battle was fought, but a number of detached and incoherent cavalry combats had all the results of a great defeat. A skirmish and a street fight could overthrow the chivalry of the West, even when it went forth in great strength and was inspired by all the enthusiasm of a Crusade.


SECONDARY SOURCE: The Knight in Battle. C. W. C. Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages, revised and edited by John W. Beeler, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University.


Doc 4 Questions:


Document #4 Middle English Modern English

A KNYGHT ther was, and that a worthy man That fro the tyme that he first bigan To riden out, he loved chivalrie, Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie. Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre, And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre, As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse, And evere honoured for his worthynesse…. A knight there was and what a gentleman, Who from the moment that he first began To ride around the world, loved chivalry, Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy. Full worthy was he in his sovereign’s war, And therein he had ridden, no man more, As well in Christian as in heathen places And ever honored for his noble graces…..


SOURCE: Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales, 1386.


Doc 5  Questions:


Document #5 Women should be subject to their men.

The natural order for mankind is that women should serve men and children their parents, for it is just that the lesser serve the greater. The image of God is in man and it is one. Women were drawn from man, who has God’s jurisdiction as if he were God’s vicar (representative), because he has the image of the one God. Therefore woman is not made in God’s image. Woman’s authority is nil; let her in all things be subject to the rule of man….And neither can she teach, nor be a witness, nor give a guarantee, nor sit in judgment. Adam was beguiled (deceived) by Eve, not she by him. It is right that he whom woman led into wrongdoing should have her under his direction, so that he may not fail a second time through female levity (lack of seriousness).


SOURCE: Gratian, Corpus juris canonici, in Not in God’s Image, ed. J. O’Faolain and L. Martines (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1973), p. 130.



Doc 6 Questions:


Document #6

Look around, happy maiden, if the know of wedlock (marriage) be once knotted, let the man be idiot or dripple, be he whatever he may be, thou must keep to him. Thou sayest that a wife hath much comfort of her husband, when they are well consorted, and each is well content with the other. Yea; but ‘tis rarely seen on earth…. [On childbearing]: Consider that joy ariseth when the offspring in thee quickeneth and growth. How many miseries immediately wake up therewith, that work thee woe enough, fight against they own flesh, and with many sorrows make war upon they own nature. Thy ruddy face shall turn lean and grow green as grass. Thine eyes shall be dusky, and underneath grow pale; and by the giddiness of thy brain they head shall ache sorely….All thy beauty is overthrown with withering.

After all this, there cometh from the child thus born a crying and a weeping that must about midnight make thee to waken, or her that holds thy place, for whom though must care [like a wet-nurse]. And what of the cradle foulness, and the constant giving of the breast? to swaddle and feed the child at so many unhappy moments….Little knoweth a maiden of all this trouble of wives’ woes…. And what if I ask besides…how the wife stands that heareth when she comes in her child scream, sees the cat at the meat, and the hound at the hide? Her cake is burning on the stove, and her calf is sucking all the milk up, the pot is running into the fires, and the churl [manservant] is scolding. Though it be a sill tale, it ought, maiden, to deter thee more strongly from marriage, for it seems not sill to her that tries it….


SOURCE: Holy Maidenhood, an anonymous author of the 13c.


Doc 7 Questions:


 Document #7 These are the rules.

I. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.

II. He who is not jealous cannot love.

III. No one can be bound by a double love.

IV. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.

 V. That which a lover takes against his will of his beloved has no relish.

VI. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.

VII. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.

VIII. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.

IX. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.

X. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice (greed).

XI. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry. XII. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.

XIII. When made public love rarely endures.

XIV. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.

XV. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.

XVI. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates (beat rapidly).

XVII. A new love puts to flight an old one.

XVIII. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.

XIX. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.

XX. A man in love is always apprehensive.

XXI. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.

XXII. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.

XXIII. He whom the thought of love vexes (irritates), eats and sleeps very little.

XXIV. Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved.

XXV. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved. XXVI. Love can deny nothing to love.

XXVII. A lover can never have enough of the solaces (comforts) of his beloved.

XXVIII. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.

XXIX. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.

XXX. A true lover is constantly and without inter-mission possessed by the thought of his beloved.

XXXI. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.


SOURCE: Excerpt from Andreas Cappellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, 1174.