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The historical context, a brief synopsis (continued)

 


The three estates of man

Hierarchy and status (Tables 3a. & 3b.)

Much of the basis of medieval hierarchy can be understood through the notion of the 'three estates' (a concept running throughout the middle ages). In this model, society is divided into three broad categories (or 'estates') - each with its own structure based on status: The Clergy - overseeing all aspects of religion and accommodating the Church hierarchy; Warriors and Nobility - landowning classes charged with maintaining and defending the nation; and Workers - producing and manufacturing the goods and services on which all levels of society (and estates) depended. (Table 3a, left).

As mentioned, estates had their own structures and status-led pecking orders (Table 3b, below), however, the distinctions between each estate become blurred over time; and legislation - with its use of equivalences - led to the emergence of an upwardly-mobile tier of the working class which achieved a level of status on par with the lesser nobility.

Table 3a. The Three Estates

 

Classes within the estates


Table 3b. Classes within the Estates in the 15th Century3

Illustration © WW.Forsythe, 2009

The three estates were closely intertwined. Strong ties existed between the clergy and noble classes through the use of power/influence and the education and appointment of prominent (and lesser) nobles to positions within the Church structure.

Honourable Service, operating at every level of society, further linked each of the estates, providing the opportunity of social advancement (see notes on service).

It should be noted, however, that although social advancement was desirable, it  did not necessarily guarantee social acceptance. Examples of this include Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville - where many believed that she had married too far above her status; and criticism levied at John Paston who was accused of being a 'churl' owing to his humble family background.


 

Timeline of events in the church

 

Table 4. Events impacting on Religion4

Illustration © WW.Forsythe, 2009

 
Religion - a very brief outline (Table 4.)

In international terms, the Catholic Church was the dominant faith throughout Europe. It was powerful and influential,  impacting on all levels of society. Having survived the ‘Great Schism’ of the fourteenth century (where there was a rift within the Church which resulted in the appointment of two Popes - at Rome and Avignon) the Church had been reunited and was under Pope Martin V by the 1420’s (see Table 4, above). In diplomatic terms, it would sanction wars and approve the marriages of heads of state (for example Henry VII and Elizabeth of York required Papal dispensation for their wedding from Pope Innocent, as they were first cousins).

In England the Church was a powerful landowner, closely interconnected with the Nobility. Many lesser nobles had their basis of learning and reading provided by clergymen and would often proceed to hold prominent positions within the Church hierarchy, as bishops and archbishops. (The Clergy, unlike the Warrior/Nobility and Working classes had resisted change to its structure throughout most of the middle ages).

The Church provided a number of functions, closely associated with its Christian message. It catered to the nation’s spiritual needs; distributed charity to the poor in the form alms; tended to the elderly and/or infirm; and was at the forefront of teaching and learning.

Religious observance was considered important and, although not always strictly enforced, was a matter of significant community/ peer pressure.

At lower ends of the scale, the relatively short Sunday Mass was an opportunity for local commoners to meet and catch up with one another. It was not obligatory and often practical considerations mitigated attendance (e.g. farmers tending to their sheep during lambing season). One wonders how strictly Feast and Fast Days were observed at times of localised famine or paucity of meat for the table?

For the Nobility, religion had an increased prominence as much of the mediaeval spiritual mind-set was preoccupied with anxiety about death and the afterlife. This obsession had significant effects on society as a whole, as Catholic teachings taught that the ‘meek would inherit’ and talked of camels, needles and the chances of rich men gaining access to heaven. This was reflected in the treatment of the poor as the affluent were expected to be pious and charitable – often having paupers stationed within households. (It should be noted that ‘charity’ become somewhat more selective as a result of the Great Plague and subsequent labour shortages – where the poor were divided into those who should be working and those not-able.). It was not uncommon for more affluent families to have their own priest and, in many cases, a family chapel on their estate.

The notion of 'sin' was central to the faith and this led to a market for paid for dispensations and absolutions including ‘indulgences’ (which in times of war absolved the purchaser of the sin of killing other men on the battlefield). The affluent could also purchase the services of clerics to pray for their immortal souls whilst away on campaigns.

The notion of a pious society often incorporated the need to go on pilgrimages to leading holy shrines and centres such as Canterbury, York and Walsingham. The powers of the saints firmly engrained on the nation’s psyche. One of the best known accounts of a mediaeval pilgrimage is Geoffrey Chaucer’s  Canterbury Tales.

 


We have tried to keep the information on these pages as succinct as possible, using visual timelines and graphics to illustrate events relevant to the period. Over time we hope expand the content that we offer in order to piece together a fuller picture of life in the world of the fifteenth century. To do this, we would welcome your help, contributions or suggestions.

 


3 Table 3b is adapted from Christopher Dyer, 'Standards of Living in the latter Middle Ages (Social Change in England c.1200-1520)' p20.

4 Table 4 is adapted from Maurice Keen, 'English Society in the Latter Middle Ages 1348-1500' pp ix-xii

England was at war

Photograph © SW Churchill, 2009


Notes on hierarchy and status
Notes on church matters
 
 

The historical context (part 1)

Suggested reading
 
 
 
 
    The historical context (part 1)
     
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This site was designed by WW Forsythe and is © Company of Saint Sebastian, 2009. All photographs and other artwork are property of their respective owners, used with permission and credited accordingly.