[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]Love Poetry and Social Change

By the year 1000, things began to change. The Vikings and Magyars converted to Christianity and their raids ceased. The Caliphate of Cordoba disintegrated into several warring states, and the Saracen raiders were virtually driven from the sea. The feudal aristocracy, that order of fighting land-holders, had fulfilled its function and successfully defended Europe. There was now no justification for the prestige and privilege it enjoyed nor for its control of so much wealth. In the following centuries, the aristocracy diminished in size and evolved into an hereditary nobility.

1. Decline of the Lesser Nobility

A. Effects of the Revival of Commerce and Trade

The feudal aristocracy, whose wealth was based upon land, fared poorly in the new money economy that began to arise around 1000

1, Labor Commutation

The peasants found a cash market for their surplus production in supplying consumer goods, mostly food, and manufacturing materials -- such as flax, wool, goose down, plant and animal dyes, straw, wood -- to the cities and towns. There was a limited variety of things that they could buy with their earnings, and so many arranged with their lord to change the labor services they owed him or her into cash payments. Such an arrangement -- the opposite of "hiring" -- is usually known as "commutation".

Inflation and Long-Term Leases

The problem with that was that the value of money kept decreasing -- or prices kept rising, if you prefer to look at it that way. More precious metals were converted into coin, increasing the actual amount of money in circulation, and that money changed hands more rapidly, increasing the amount of effective money in circulation.

This may be a bit confusing. Money usually acts like other things. Diamonds are valuable because they are rare. If there were suddenly twice as many diamonds available, their value would drop by 50%. "Effective" currency works a bit differently. If everyone in the world had one dollar and bought one thing with their money each day, and each one earned a dollar from selling something to someone else, daily income would be one dollar. But if everyone bought and sold something in the morning, and took their dollar and did the same thing in the afternoon, daily income would be two dollars. The faster money changes hands, the more of it there is "in effect."

At any rate, the real value of the noble's rent income dwindled steadily. Why didn't they renegotiate? Well, the maximum life of a lease in our economy is generally figured at 99 years. In the Middle Ages, it was seven generations, or about 230 years. Tradition made it difficult for the nobles to alter the terms of their leases, and many knightly families with small holdings eventually didn't have enough income to maintain their station, and simply dropped out of the aristocracy. What did such knight do? Well, many became mercenary soldiers, some married merchants' daughters, a number became salaried servants of the king or some rich lord.

Advances on Military Technology

This sort of thing continued. New and expensive types of armor, the use of Toledo and Damascus steel for weapons, better (and more expensive) horses, and a number of other things made it necessary for the noble who wanted to stay a fighting man to spend a lot more money to outfit himself. Where did he get the money?

Stop and consider. The lords had depended on their peasant's labor to till the manor's demesne land and now they no longer controlled those labor services. They used hired labor, but wages rose along with the prices of everything else, and it was eventually not possible to make a profit from the demesne land using hired labor, so they leased it out to their peasants. This only prolonged matters, since these rents, too, dwindled in value over time.

Then, too, the greater cost of going to war, and the power of mercenary soldiers, archers, crossbowmen, and other infantry specialists, reduced the mounted aristocracy's pre-eminence on the battlefield. They were not fitted for the new kind of warfare developing, and so lost the prestige they had enjoyed as great warriors.

The Rise of Middle-Class Wealth and Status

Meanwhile the merchants were becoming wealthier and more powerful. Between 1070 and 1130, the middle-class inhabitants of many towns rebelled to gain independence from the feudal system and to hold some independent political power. The monarchs tended to ally with the middle class, and used members of the middle class as advisors, accountants, lawyers, and the like. They grew in prestige and were often advanced to the nobility by their royal masters. This "nobility of the gown" took most of the power and prestige that the old fighting aristocracy had enjoyed.

A Money Economy

Generally speaking, a money economy coupled with inflation impoverishes those who depend upon a fixed income, such as rents. The income produced by the land was insufficient to support the entire feudal aristocracy, and the class split into an upper nobility -- magnates -- and a lower nobility. In the year 1100, England could have put 5,000 armored knights in the field, so they say, and in 1400, there were only about 400 noble families left. Forty of these families were magnates, and the others were trying to reach that status of wealth and influence.

The Rise of the Monarchies

The rise of strong monarchies in England, France, Aragon, Castile, and strong counts and dukes in other areas, such as Burgundy, was also a factor in the transformation of the feudal aristocracy. The central governments wanted to unify their states by eliminating independent powers such as the Church and aristocracy, intervening between the monarch and subject.

The Supremacy of the Royal Courts

The monarchies centralized their power by weakening the manorial courts controlled by the local aristocracy. In England, for example, this was accomplished through a series of important developments.

a) Local laws and customs were collected and regularized as a series of principles known as English Common Law. This became the law enforced in royal courts and supplanted the local customs enforced by the feudal nobles.

b) Royal officials and judges, such as the sheriffs, justices of the peace, traveling justices were established or strengthened to administer and enforce law at the local level.

c) A series of courts of appeal were established so that a person could always appeal a decision from a local court all the way up to the Crown.

The End of Private Castles and Armies

The monarchs forbade the building of private castles and the raising of private armies. This was difficult to enforce, but the more or less professional royal armies and, later, the use of gunpowder, allowed the kings to concentrate all military power in royal hands.

Emergence of Professional Administrators

We have already noted how professional administrators, often drawn from the middle class and trained in the new universities, displaced the feudal aristocrats as royal counsellors. This not only weakened the nobility, but strengthened the monarchs by providing them with full-time and efficient administrators.

Royal Control of Wardship

There was a limited amount of land belonging to the noble families, and the monarchs were able to use their right of wardship to exercise some control over these properties. When a noble died leaving a widow, an heiress, or minor heirs, the kings became the guardian of the widow and/or children and took the income of the property until it was passed on to heir or heiress.

As guardian of the widow or inheriting daughter(s), the king could arrange for their remarriage. Since this was the greatest chance for an impoverished knight to acquire an estate, many such aristocrats followed the court and did whatever they could to gain the king's favor and perhaps the hand and land of an heiress. They practiced the arts of being charming and became known as courtiers. As an example, William Marshall, one of the greatest English lords of the period 1190-1220, was the captain of a winning royal tournament team and was finally rewarded with the hand of the very wealthy Duchess of Pembroke.

C. Scutage and the New Armies

We've mentioned this earlier, but it would be worthwhile to consider how changes in warfare affected the feudal aristocracy.

Royal Armies

The typical feudal vassal had served his lord a maximum of thirty days a year and brought some of his garrison as an infantry force. None of these men were necessarily well-trained or disciplined since they were only part-time warriors. Great lords and kings began relying on mercenaries, or hired soldiers who would fight as long as they were paid and could collect booty. They soon replaced the feudal levies for various reasons.

Longer Campaigns

The campaign season began to grow longer than the thirty days of service the feudal vassals owed. This was partly due to larger forces being employed, partly due to the fact that besieging castles was a slow process, and partly because opponents began playing for time, hoping that the other side's vassals would go home while their own still had some service still due.

Professional Military

The lords and kings gained the longer military service they needed by hiring mercenary armies, who were, in any event, better trained and equipped for real warfare (and more experienced) that the typical feudal vassal. In addition, longer campaigns and the increasing importance of siege operations made warfare much more complicated, and experienced -- professional -- military commanders were needed.

New Weapons - The Pike, Crossbow and Longbow

Trained and disciplined infantry forces were reasserting their superiority over cavalry. Armored knights were now vulnerable on the battlefield to defeat by relatively inexpensive archers and pikemen. The vassals were not only expensive to maintain, but of little use among the other forces that composed the new armies.

The only problem was how to pay for these new forces. At first, the government encouraged its feudal vassals to stay at home and pay scutage ("shield tax"), a traditional payment made by a vassal who could not appear for battle and intended to be used to hire a substitute. By the 14th century, in England, vassals were expected to pay regular scutage whether they reported for battle or not. It had become a tax upon the feudal aristocracy that was used to finance the new armies that were displacing them.

A Summary of Sections A, B and C

By about 1200, the feudal aristocracy has lost its pre-eminence in land-ownership, wealth, display, fighting, legal administration, and advisory capacities. The aristocracy began to split into two groups: the great lords, about one percent of the aristocracy and the rest. The aristocracy no longer performed a function and needed a new justification for its privileges and status.

2. Influences of Aristocratic Thought and Behavior

A. The Need to Adapt to Remaining Paths of Advancement

1. Court Life

As we noted above, the vassals had to adapt to court life, to capture the favor of the king, in essence, to become court favorites, to have a chance of marrying an heiress, gaining an estate, and perhaps rising into the class of magnates. This meant that hunting, the nobles' favorite sport, was turned into an art form by the addition of elaborate terminology, rules, and ceremonial ways of basic things. Women were also more important in the court than outside it, and the courtier had to be able to charm these women by being able to tell stories, sing songs, play games, and flirt. All of these activities developed their own language and elaborate rules of behavior. A courtier was often the product of constant training and education between the ages of seven and sixteen.

2, The Tournament

The tournament evolved from rough and ready fighting games that the feudal aristocrats had played to keep in training for battle. Rules and regulations were developed, and entrance requirements were set to ensure that no one but nobles could compete.

The tournament served a number of purposes. They were gala events held to entertain the members of the court and they were pageants to impress the commoners. Most people are impressed with the tournaments shown in motion pictures and assume that this is all they were. For the participants, they were often much more.

The participants were often poor knights who were just trying to get ahead. There were banquets and social gatherings before and after the actual jousting, and the knights had an opportunity to meet the magnates and court officials and perhaps gain a patron who would provide him with money and influence at court. In any event, they got several free meals.

The tournament itself was very much of a gamble. The winner in a joust won the horse and armor of the man he had defeated and could sell them for enough to support himself until the next tournament. If the poor knight lost, he lost his horse and armor. If he didn't have a patron, he could no longer participate in tournaments and had lost his chance of advancing through that means. Many losers ended up as mercenary soldiers, and some killed themselves. Tournaments were not exactly fun and games for the participants, who were hoping to catch the eye of some lord or lady. Patronage was a road to success, and they hoped to find a patron.

The Troubadour Tradition


We mentioned that women were more important in courtly life than elsewhere. Attempts to impress influential women gave rise to the Troubadour Tradition and the concept of Romantic Love.

The troubadour movement arose first in the South of France, and Duke William of Aquitaine was the first reported practitioner. The troubadours were nobles who composed music and lyrics to be sung and played at court by their servants, called minstrels or jongleurs. Lyric poetry had not been common in Western Europe for three centuries, and the songs were about how the composer has fallen desperately and hopelessly in love with a women above his station whom he cannot hope will reciprocate his affection.

The poetic forms and music was quite complex, and the theory of male-female relationships elaborate and artificial. It seems to have been based upon the view of Plato that love is caused by a single soul being split in half in heaven and one half placed in the body of a man and the other in that of a woman. When the two souls sense the nearness of each other, said Plato, they seek to re-unite. Does that seem strange? Consider the old song,

Darling, you and I have a guardian angel, on high, with nothing to do
But to give to me and to give to you love forever true.

Each soul has one guardian angel, so the song supposes that the lovers share a single soul. We still talk of "soul-mates," so we still make the same assumptions within our concept of romantic love.

Social Dimensions

This poetical and musical practice gave rise to a social movement as courts throughout Europe turned the theory of troubadour love poetry into patterns of behavior. Elaborate and artificial codes arose to govern the relationships between men and women. These were based upon the old feudal relationship in large part. The lover swore to serve his beloved in much the same way and following a ceremonial similar to that of the oath of homage and fealty. The lover would fight in tournaments for the favor of his lady and defend her honor against the entire world. Books were composed about courts of love, in which men would tell tales of love to a group of women, and the women would then judge whether the lover had acted properly. This sort of thing reached its height with the long and complex Romance of the Rose (Roman de la Rose).

Behind this, of course, were some less edifying factors operating. The troubadour hope that the object of his poetry would be flattered by the attention and would either pay him herself or influence her husband to extend patronage to the poet. Even more basic was the contention that only the noble-born had the sensitivity needed to be in love in this manner. The troubadour movement, with its elaborate manners and language, was another way of keeping the commoners and middle class in an inferior position.


Like the tournaments, the troubadours were kept going by "largesse," or extreme generosity (the word "generous" originally mean "nobly-born). The magnates and other high nobles affirmed their status by generosity -- to other nobles, not to the poor who needed it. They gave both money and patronage, and courtiers, tournament fighters, and troubadours were all only impoverished nobles scrambling to gain the support of some rich man or woman.

The Influence of the Church

The Church generally disliked the tournament, which they saw as a waste of knightly energy that could be put to better use fighting the Muslims. They disliked the troubadour movement not just because the nobles did not practice romantic love only as theory, but because the emphasis upon such love diverted attention away from love of God. As Dorothy Parker wrote,

He who loves his love o'er well
will gaze in Helen's eyes
in Hell.
But he whose love is dry and wise
shall see John Knox
in Paradise

If you don't get the point, look it up. Anyway, the Church and society responded, probably unconsciously, to the threat posed by this noble preoccupation.

The Cult of Mary

Mary had been venerated for centuries, but her figure began to change from Mary, Mother of God to that of Mary, Queen of Heaven, and was offered as a substitute for the real women whose praises the troubadours had been writing an their jongleurs singing. She received the name of "Our Lady," and a frenzy of cathedral-building in her name ("Notre Dame de ...) ensued.

Symbolism of Arms The clergy began to participate in and influence the ceremonies of knighthood, elaborating them and endowing them with mystic and spiritual symbolism.

Spiritual Justification

All of these elaborate codes of behavior slowly grew more organized. Under the influence of the clergy, many acts were treated as allegory or symbols with a deeper spiritual meaning. The Romance of the Rose is basically a manual of how to seduce and be seduced in a "genteel" way, but it was soon interpreted as an allegory of the soul's striving to achieve salvation.

The Church took an active role in the transformation of the feudal aristocracy.

D. The Role of the Monarchs

The monarchs supported a code of conduct and status in which they were clearly superior and which would make the aristocracy dependent upon them, and often took a leading role in the development of this code. Royal masters of ceremonies defined and wrote down how one as supposed to act, and enforced such behavior in their role of organizing court activities. The royal heralds took up the job of maintaining the genealogical records by which a person had to prove his claim to noble status, and they developed the elaborate practice of heraldry or blazonry as signs for nobles to display in proof of their noble descent.

The monarchs set high standards of dress and conduct, sponsored expensive tournaments, established non-fighting orders of knighthood (Orders of the Golden Fleece, Bath, Garter, Santiago, Aviz, etc.). They also kept the game going by favoring the most "courtly" with heiresses. Games do not go on long unless there are winners.

3. The Emergence of Chivalry

All of these influences combined in an elaborate and artificial code of behavior known as chivalry. This code governed almost every aspect of aristocratic life -- hunting, hawking, jousting, playing games, telling stories, singing songs, making love, social ceremony, terms of address, and virtually everything else. Learning this code was the labor of a lifetime, and the children of the aristocracy began to do so at the age of five.

The chivalric skills of the aristocracy contributed little of nothing to society. Nevertheless, the aristocracy, monarchs, church, and intellectuals convinced most people that chivalry was the highest expression of secular conduct.

In addition, they held that only those of "gentle birth" were capable of the emotions and deportment required by chivalric society.


The feudal aristocracy in the year 1100 had been a fighting order of land-owners, defending local territories and maintaining law and order within them. Their position and prestige depended upon their accomplishments, and their ranks were open to anyone of sufficient ability.

By 1250, the feudal aristocracy had ceased to exist and had been replaced by an hereditary nobility who performed little service to society at large and claimed their privileges and status by right of birth.


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

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