One interpretation of medieval history is that between the years 600 and 850 AD., or thereabout, one man's chances of becoming a nobleman were almost as good as another's, given equal physical and intellectual powers. Accompanying this interpretation, usually, is the related theory that the exact regulations of feudalism then suddenly put every man and his descendants into a very particular niche or groove from which extrication was impossible, except through the church or in the towns. According to this theory, from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries the social class structure of western Europe remained frozen (except in the towns, "those spots of open opportunity"), in contrast to the preceding and succeeding periods of "great social mobility." Both of these ideas are what Beard might refer to as "schoolbook fictions."

It has already been shown that the age preceding the formal establishment of feudalism was one of unequal opportunity. It is the purpose of this chapter to examine the next, or feudal, part of history to determine whether or not there actually was great social mobility in the towns, and to describe what was taking place in the sphere of agriculture. An attempt will be made to confine the discussion to those aspects of medieval history which are relevant to the subject of social mobility and social class continuity. * Studies of the formal setup of the feudal classes abound -- but it is the hope of this one to trace the moving parts of the social class mechanism. This is a study of social class dynamics. There is always some social class mobility -- the question is, how much?

The classes at the outset of feudalism. The early classes of feudalism may be divided as follows:
(1) An aristocracy of large landholders. Some of these aristocrats owned landed properties handed down to them through generations of Gallo-Romans of senatorial rank, now intermarried with Germans. Some were more largely German in descent, offspring of German aristocrats who, after leading armies into western Europe, were granted large tracts of public (old imperial) lands, or parts of Gallo-Roman estates, or the whole of a deserted estate. The third source of recruitment was from among the administrative officers of the court, sometimes Gallo-Romans of senatorial lineage, sometimes Germans, all personal friends of the king and some of humble birth. These offices were rapidly becoming hereditary and soon came to carry with them grants of land. "Hereditary tenure, together with precarious tenure, existed in the time of the Merovingians. It grew continually and became a widely prevalent fact before it was recognized as law." 1 In any case, whatever their background, the seigneurs were now landed aristocrats.

(2) The merchants were at a low ebb of power and prestige, because town life, for the most part, especially in the northern parts of Europe, had not been developed or had given way to rural life. The artisans were, at the beginning, incorporated into the feudal system (much as the artisan blacks in the ante-bellum South were largely included within the slave and plantation system).

(3) The great mass of humanity was composed largely of serfs. Their position was then not greatly different from what it had been when the walls of Rome were first built. Slaves, it is true, persisted plentifully until about the end of the first millenium AD. Indeed, it may be correctly asserted that the first social mobility of significance during the period of feudalism was the general disappearance of slaves in Europe. They attained, largely, the more stable and honorable status of serfs.

It will be noted, not only in this first instance of significant nobility, but also throughout the medieval period, that there was a fermentation going on in agriculture as well as in the towns. The latter had no monopoly upon social opportunity. " . . . the mass of the people, in what is now England, were from the first in a servile condition, and . . . their history, up to the Norman Conquest and beyond, has been one of progressive amelioration." 2

Next Page


* A certain familiarity with historical details and background is prerequisite to an understanding of this discussion.
1. Edward Maslim Hume, The Middle Ages (New York, 1938) p. 320.
2. W. J. Ashley, An Introduction to English Economic History and Theory, Part I (London, 1913) p. 15.