[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]Lectures in Medieval History

The Sundering of Society, 1350-1500

The 14th and 15th centuries saw the splitting of most of the classes of medieval society into a powerful elite and a powerless mass.


There were 5000 feudal warriors in England in 1100, and only 40 peers (lords) in 1500. The mass of the aristocracy were country knights allied with the middle class of the towns. The reasons for this split were numerous:

  • chivalry grew increasingly costly.
  • Largesse became more ostentatious and a more important status symbol; many could not afford it.
  • The fighting aristocracy lost their importance because of gunpowder, infantry formations, and standing armies.
  • Many noble families were wiped out by the 100 years' war and the civil wars that followed.
  • The upper middle class was now buying up land, and there was less wealth in the aristocracy to support a large warrior class.
  • The kings were less dependent upon the aristocracy for military or bureaucratic services.
  • The economic recession in many regions impoverished the local aristocracy.
The aristocracy split into the great magnates and the local squires. The magnates abandoned the practice of enfeoffing vassals in favor of paying salaried servants.

The Results

Three classes of aristocrats emerged:

  • The rich and powerful
  • The land-hungry and grasping
  • The small farmers and servants with little wealth or power.

There was also an over-elaboration of chivalry into costly fantasies (playing Acadia, paseos de honor, etc) and a popular and fabulous chivalric literature. This process was ended by Miguel Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) and his novel Don Quixote (pronounced doan kee-ho'-tay)


We have seen that the proto-capitalists began to supplant the artisan guilds with new systems of production: factory and putting-out. This changed the medieval middle class greatly. A cleavage between the greater and lesser guilds took place, and there was sometimes civil war in the medieval towns between the "populo grasso" and "populo minuto." A gap also emerged between the guild masters and the workers, with the result that an urban proletariat emerged, and the modern division between management and labor was born.


After centuries during which the peasantry enjoyed relatively good and improving conditions of life, the mass of the peasantry was pressed into poverty.

As a result of the fifteenth-century recessions, the capitalists began to buy up farmland to produce raw materials for their manufacture (e.g., fields were turned into sheep runs). A grasping aristocracy began to claim many feudal dues that had long been out of date. Proprietors fenced in the lands -- woods, meadows, ponds --that had once been common property of the peasant communities. Communities died, and their inhabitants were either forced into the indigent class or became salaried farm workers.

The fluctuations in population brought about by plagues, wars, and famines on the one hand and a high birth rate on the other also affected the structure of rural society. Land-owners abandoned granting land in exchange for rents and services and turned to employing temporary workers for wages. Abandoned fields were turned into profitable pastures that required little or no labor investment and not reclaimed as arable land when the population rose again. Wages were set low when population was high and labor was cheap, and the social and economic elite passed maximum wage laws when to keep these wages low even when population fell and labor was in short supply. Tenants were evicted and villages levelled to provide compact and larger farms that could be exploited rationally. Generally, a greater reliance was placed upon capital, machinery, and animals than upon human labor.

The Results

The peasantry split into two groups, the few who owned land and the many who worked for them. A rural proletariat emerged.


The emergence of proto-capitalism and other factors in the later Middle Ages created a situation in which wealth concentrated in few and fewer hands. The result was the division of society into a small elite with wealth and power, and a mass of the population with neither. The social structure of medieval Europe, which had consisted of three great classes distinguished by their social function -- the aristocrats who fought, the middle class who made things and carried them to where they were wanted, and the peasantry who grew food -- was changed in basic ways. The classes were now distinguished by their economic power and were two in number -- the "haves" and the "have-nots." Moreover, the medieval social classes had transcended national boundaries. The fighting aristocracy of France felt a greater kinship with the fighting aristocracy of England than it did with its own peasant population. This had come to an end, and the population of Europe was divided into competing national groups.

The medieval social ideal had been a stable harmony among disparate classes, and the ideal had been shattered. As the middle ages closed, the upper classes were concentrating on the suppression of the lower classes and were concerned with the possibility that the lower classes still felt a sense of fellowship that was international in scope. Although there is no evidence that any such movement existed, nobles and capitalists alike believed in the existence of local groups who were members of a vast lower-class conspiracy known as the brüdershaften ("brotherhoods). This was only one sign of the tensions that underlay European society as it entered the early modern age.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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