What was life like in medieval Francia? Learn all about it for the rich, poor, powerful and powerless.
One of the most common misconceptions people have about history is that there is a natural development from one political or societal state to the next. Marxist doctrine holds that societies begin as tribalistic confederations, advance to a primitive form of communal organization, shift to feudalism, then industrial capitalism before inevitably undergoing a communist revolution. In contrast, Francis Fukuyama famously wrote The End of History and the Last Man in 1992 wherein he argued that all history had led up to Western liberal democracy. He claimed that with the fall of the USSR all of humanity would gradually adopt Western-style liberal democratic capitalism, “as the final form of human government.” I should note that Marx was a sociologist and Fukuyama a political scientist, though in fairness some historians have fallen into this trap of claiming societies naturally progress from one state to another. They don’t.
History is not determinative. The slippery slope does not exist. When a society adopts one or more cultural, legal or economic practices that does not determine where it will go next. Those practices can be amended, repealed or the entire system overthrown in revolution or foreign invasion. History is not a straight line from one state to another. However, actions taken in the past do have a large impact on what happens in the future. In this sense, history is like a never-ending dance. When a dancer takes a step in one direction, she sets herself up for possible moves in other directions while limiting her ability to move in other ways. Each movement opens a number of possibilities while obstructing others. But we don’t know what her next step will be until she takes it. She can stumble, she can fall, or someone new may enter the dance with her, forcing her to change her entire course. In this manner, decisions made in the past lay a foundation but what people build on that foundation is of their own making.
This idea that history is non-determinative is an important one to remember whenever we study history, though it is especially important as we study the Carolingian era. So often historians have interpreted this early medieval culture as a stepping-stone to the feudalism of the High Middle Ages but that isn’t the case. Carolingian society worked on its own. The decline of centralized government and the assumption of its powers by countless petty lords was not an inevitability but the result of the failures of the Carolingian dynasty and Viking invasion. The replacement of tenant farming with serfdom, in which peasants could not legally leave their lords’ land, was also not inevitable. For a hundred-year period from Charlemagne through the division of the empire under his grandchildren the Carolingian Empire had a robust and diversified economic and legal system. This economic and legal system incorporated nobles, free landholders and tenant farmers. But poor decisions, Viking invasion and chance brought about the collapse of the powerful centralized regnums and created insular petty realms ruled by minor nobles. The evolution of Charlemagne’s Francia to feudal Europe was not inevitable but due to a set of specific circumstances. If the Vikings hadn’t been so effective, or if they had been more effective; if diseases were more prevalent or less, if the Carolingians had been smarter or dumber, if anything had been different it is likely that their society would have developed differently too. Despite its name, Early Medieval Europe was not just a precursor for the Medieval period, nor was it a natural devolution of the crumbling Roman Empire but a distinct culture all on its own.
So, now that I’ve gone to great lengths to defend Carolingian society, what the heck was it? Thankfully the Carolingians left behind a mass of sources including charters, legal documents and polyptychs, which are surveys by kings and great churches of their lands and tenants’ dues, that allow historians to understand the inner workings of life for people across all social strata.
During the reign of Charles the Bald a monk named Heiric of Auxerre came up with the theory of the Three Estates, in which he divided society between those who fight, those who pray and those who work, meaning nobles, clergy and peasants. Heiric’s theory reflected the reality of its time and naturally spread, becoming incredibly important to the point that the Kingdom of France literally divided its society into the Three Estates system until their abolition by the French Revolution. But while the Three Estates represent the primary political and legal divisions of society they don’t represent the lived experiences of people at the time. Nobles lived with relative wealth, power, legal privileges and military expectations. Commoners had to work and try to eek out a subsistence. Meanwhile clergy could fall in any number of places. Bishops were nobles who controlled manors, cities and engaged in politics. In contrast individual monks or priests often experienced poverty like the peasants they lived amongst. In this episode I want to talk about the lived experiences of the people of Francia and The Three Estates division really doesn’t help us in that way. Instead, I am dividing Carolingian society spatially between its three most important locations: the village, the manor and the court.
One notable absence in my list is the city. Cities did exist in Carolingian Francia, but they were a pale imitation of their Roman past. The largest city within the empire was Rome, which had a population of 50,000, down from its height of at least one and a half million. Within West Francia the largest city was Paris with a population of 25,000. This is a steep decline from Roman Gaul which had 9 cities with significantly larger populations than Carolingian Paris, the most important of which was Lugdunum with a population in the hundreds of thousands. [Arles, Autun, Lugdunum (Lyon), Metz, Narbonne, Nimes, Paris, Reims, Toulouse]. The Roman Empire had a sophisticated system of resource allocation from rural areas to urban centers, but this system cracked under the stresses of disease outbreaks, civil war and foreign invasion. The post-Roman kingdoms developed a more flexible system of nodal points. Farmers inhabited the countless villages that dotted the landscape. Villages were connected to towns which had markets and fairs. Finally, towns were connected to cities. In this manner the whole realm from the lowliest peasant up to the king were attached to each other. But let’s not overstate it: the central government was small, law devolved to the local level, long travel was rare for non-nobles and communication was poor. Cities still served as important points for culture and craft-work but their importance was decimated since the fall of the Roman Empire.
Chapter 1: The Village
To get a clear picture of the village we have to remove the gray filter that Hollywood puts on their camera lenses every time they film a scene set in the Middle Ages. Villages were not dreary, colorless places where mud-covered imbeciles worked in their own filth while waiting to die of a plague.
Villages had color. They were out in the countryside and naturally set amongst beautiful landscapes of rolling hills, valleys and mountains, and always near a source of water such as a river or lake. All kinds of colorful plants defined villages, including crops, wildflowers and weeds. Work animals like oxen, horses and donkeys lived beside farmstock like chickens, pigs and cattle. Most villages bordered a forest where villagers chopped down wood and hunted for game, if the wood wasn’t already claimed by a noble. Given all this, peasant villages were probably quite scenic places.
Villagers were much smarter than how they’re usually depicted. They were masters of their given trade, which was usually farming, animal husbandry and some domestic skills such as sewing or simple construction. Peasants bathed regularly and cleaned their teeth, though tooth decay wasn’t as big a problem given how little sugar was part of their diet. Peasants were often semi-literate and could recognize simple signs and keep deeds for themselves to pass on property to their children.
Even as we recognize that villages were not dirt-covered hellholes we must also not romanticize them as ideal, bucolic Gardens of Eden, free of all modern problems. A local priest might offer some basic schooling but otherwise education was nonexistent. Infant mortality was high and violence was more common than in modern society. People were impoverished and had few sets of clothes. Malnutrition was common and medicine was not.
The village was neither paradise nor purgatory. The village was where people lived, and living was their primary occupation. Villagers could only expect to subsist, which is strange considering how much the infrastructure had improved since the post-Roman period. Carolingian livestock were larger than their counterparts in the Merovingian period. The end of the Roman villa meant cash crops were rare, as peasants devoted their land to cereal crops. There was more manufacturing during this period as women labored in small workshops making clothes. The Carolingians built more windmills to grind grain and iron ploughs to better till the Earth. Finally, innovations in crop rotation led to more production.
Despite all these investments and innovations peasants experienced a food shortage or famine every four years, which was more than during the Merovingian period or the proceeding High Middle Ages. Under Charlemagne, Louis and his children the central government was powerful and effective enough to tax the peasants. This incredible wealth led to the Carolingian Renaissance, though the poor suffered because of it.
Village buildings were made near-entirely of wood, except for the stone church. Houses were usually 10-15 meter-long rectangular buildings with wooden supports on their sides. Auxiliary buildings were often fonds de cabane, which were essentially roofs built over holes in the ground. Houses were commonly crowded as a married couple, their many children and often their elderly parents lived together. Peasants often marked their land with a fence. Extending out from the houses were the farm and pasture lands. The area beyond that, at the periphery of the village, were the woods and areas for waste that came to be known as ‘the mark.’
One interesting facet of village life was the phenomenon of shifting settlement. Over many centuries people abandoned some houses and built nearby, effectively moving the town. One notable settlement along the Rhine moved half a kilometer over 4 centuries; which doesn’t sound like much but imagine that your city literally moved; not expanded, moved!
Peasants had few sets of clothes, which had to be regularly washed. These included a basic linen shirt and leggings made of strips of cloth, a hood, and loose garment. They also often carried knives for personal protection.
Villages were collectives, which owned some things in common and settled internal disputes. Wealthier adult men were lead witnesses or had titles such as judge or hundredmen. These were largely informal and may have been chosen through elections. Rarely, counts or dukes imposed their own men on localities, which usually led to tension. Informal representatives from villages were sent to talk with local lords.
Unlike in the High Middle Ages, Carolingian landowners were legally equal regardless of how much land they held. In this period privilege came from royal patronage, not wealth, though the two often went hand-in-hand. Wealthier landowners showed up on more witness lists so they were informally more powerful, but not institutionally. The poor, known legally as ‘pauperes’ or paupers, were often not defined in economic terms, but ‘poor’ often meant socially disadvantaged vis-à-vis the powerful. Royal protection extended to paupers as the central government tried to teach aristocrats how they should deal with their vassals to maintain peace and ensure a steady flow of taxable wealth.
Paupers could engage with local courts though they usually didn’t win as the people who ran the courts were closer to the elites. Moreover, cases were determined by reputation; paupers, some of which traveled 50 miles to go to a court, contested with lords who lived there, giving them a natural advantage. But public pressure could force concessions, and paupers weren’t entirely without allies. Peasant kin networks stretched across densely populated regions like the Moselle area so that local landlords were not supreme authorities over their own constituents. Moreover, villages traded and interacted with other villages and paupers made friends and valuable connections. Royal agents worked to stop nobles from taking advantage of paupers. There were laws restricting how long a court case could last against farmers so that way they could return to their fields before missing crucial planting or harvesting days. Likewise, judges prioritized pauper’s cases. When a community couldn’t solve its own problems and did not want to go to court the villagers could go to their local landlord who administered justice.
Property was usually divided up into individual fields, plots, or farmsteads in small units. Landowners owned numerous small plots divided across large swathes of territory. Landlords rarely amalgamated them into one since their tenants had to work on separate plots anyway. One reason land was divided into small plots is that individuals often did not have sole control over them. Family members expected it would be used or passed on by them. In one case near the Fleury monastery a man passed on and gave away his plot of land but his family claimed it as their inheritance. Also, with many descendants and deaths of the owner land had to be held in small plots so it could be more easily divided. The result was a hodge-podge of scattered little patches of land wherein tenants worked on disconnected areas. The church added to this chaos since private individuals worked church lands though supposedly for the public good. This system was inefficient to say the least, and during the later medieval period landlords will assert their power, claim all the land in an area and tie the peasants to the land. On paper, feudalism is more efficient than the Carolingian tenant-farming system, but it also meant that peasants lost rights in favor of the landowners.
One final aspect of peasants’ lives we need to look at is military service. Military service was tied to freedom since free landowners fought in wars and took part in the annual army assembly. Military service was a goal for social advancement as people could make money through booty and in turn get royal patronage and privileges. This changed in the early 9th century as military service declined due to relative peace. In the latter 9th century Charles the Bald passed a law that all had to fight to defend their country, a law aimed against Viking raiders. It’s understandable that Charles wanted to adapt West Francia to the changing times and equip locals with the ability to resist small raids while the central army fought against large-scale attacks. But nobles worried about what would happen to them if the peasants had their own arms and increasingly passed laws banning peasants from having weapons. In the 850s the Loire and Seine basin became a frequent target of Viking attacks. Meanwhile Charles was occupied putting down rebellions and fighting Pippin II the pretender. In 859 peasants in that region decided that if no one would defend them they would do it themselves and formed a sworn association to arm themselves and engage in mutual defense against Viking raids. When the nobility learned about this they panicked that these armed peasants might revolt against them. The nobility banded together and slaughtered the peasants en masse. This extraordinary event showcases how Frankish nobility were more afraid of peasants asserting their power than they were of the Vikings.
Chapter 2: The Manor
Just as the Carolingian village was very different from its counterpart in the High Middle Ages, so too was the manor, the household where the nobility lived. Landowners during this period held privilege over non-landowners but their power was still limited. Many landowners, including some counts, relied on kin to work their lands. If they could afford it, nobles hired free tenants or seasonal workers. The ideal situation for nobles was to settle paupers around their lands who became legally bound to it in a form of serfdom.
During the 9th century society was not divided neatly between free and unfree; instead, society was based on vertical links of dependency. From the lowliest peasant upward everyone had a master or patron. Peasants worked for nobles, the lesser nobles owed fealty to great lords, and the lords served the king. People gained power through land, titles, offices and connections. Social mobility was possible, if rare. Aristocrats had a self-contained community based on engagement with military leadership, hunting, control of high offices and patterns of consumption and developed a culture around these practices. Exemptions from taxation turned aristocratic lands into islands of independence where the head of the household ruled like a petty king.
Nobility was characterized by mobility as lords travelled to different residences to maintain and make connections, care for their lands, adhere to royal summons and attend court. Scattered landholding was the dominant pattern of property ownership, even for aristocrats. It was difficult to create large areas of uninterrupted land since uncultivated land belonged to the king. Churches and large aristocrats could be given this forestum to clear and create large estates. Increasingly however, the manor was evolving in the countryside. The bipartite manor had a central area known as a demesne(English: domain) where dependents engaged in corvée labor. Corvée labor meant working certain days or providing certain services such as transporting goods on the lord’s land. In exchange paupers got to use some of the lord’s land to grow their own food.
Manorialism probably led to innovation in the economy by creating limited surplus value for landowners. Markets developed in towns during the 9th and 10th centuries as peasants and artisans sold excess goods. A popular market could cause people to move nearby, turning a village into a town or expanding a town’s population. Some places even held ‘fairs’ which were festivals marking a saint’s feast day. Fairs included entertainment and feasting which were sponsored by the city government, wealthy elites and later artisans’ groups. There had been fairs during the Roman Empire but these died off in the post-Roman period, though they made a comeback in the Carolingian period. Yet, markets were relatively small and fairs were rare given that most people lived at subsistence level.
Carolingian nobles lived in wood houses based around large halls. Wood was cheaper than the stone and brick that typified Roman houses which allowed nobles to buy extravagant tapestries to decorate the house and retain heat from fires. Before the 9th century noble houses resembled villagers’ houses only larger. During the 9thcentury onward manors evolved into complexes which combined the living quarters with a church. Wealthier families even had mausoleums for keeping their deceased ancestors. After Charlemagne built his palace at Aachen nobles copied his style, building second story walkways and balconies. These complexes had no fortifications since Charlemagne forbid the building of castrums without his permission and peace held during his reign. Thus, they were unprepared for the Viking Age.
Now let’s talk about noble culture. Terms used to describe nobility tell us about how they thought of themselves. Nobles believed they were morally superior to commoners. To this day when someone says, “you’re acting nobly,” it means with dignity and benevolence. The worst insult the nobility could level at each other was to say they acted like peasants or serfs, kind of like how today when a person is impolite we call them, “low class.” Charlemagne once said that a peasant who kills his lord is worse than a pagan. But nobility wasn’t just about individual conduct. Nobles gained their nobility through collective action and participation in society, either as politicians or at court.
The primary occupation for nobles was managing their estates, unless they were really wealthy in which case they hired someone to manage it for them. Their next important duty was participation in the military. Nobles maintained their arms, engaged in drills. They also enjoyed rough horseplay. Famously, in 864 Charles the Bald’s son was fighting with friends and one hit him with a sword that, “penetrated almost as far as the brain, reaching from his left temple to his right cheekbone and jaw.” The other youth was never punished as playfighting was normal. Charles also had his mounted warriors play a war game in which two horsemen charged at each other and barely avoid contact. This taught them how to expertly control their horses and instilled them with bravery (assuming they didn’t crash and kill each other. Is there any wonder why women live longer than men?). When the Franks weren’t practicing to kill each other, they were usually hunting. You might be wondering how such a martial society can also espouse a religion based around a nonviolent savior. Franks held restraint, not abstinence, as their core virtue. The Frankish nobility believed that they had to kill and reproduce but they did so in the proper situation. The Frankish nobility weren’t just brutes; in fact, they were highly educated in literature and poetry. They also spoke multiple languages, with Old French dominating in the west, Old German in the East and Latin serving as the lingua franca for the educated.
Now let’s talk about fashion. Everyday clothing for Frankish noblemen were shoes with long laces, a linen shirt, cloth leggings or trousers and a cloak which was low in front and back but short at the sides. Women wore wide-sleeved tunics, held at the waist with belts and covered with a mantle and elaborate jewels and pendants. These clothes were brightly colored with dyes and accentuated by jewelry.
A nobleman’s most important item was his sword. A father bestowing a sword on an adolescent became the most important right of passage for Carolingian sons. Peasants often had long knives and some even had swords, so elites distinguished themselves by the quality of their weapons. Moreover, they gave their swords names and emblazoned them. By the late 8th century surrendering a sword on an altar became a symbolic way to join the clergy. When Louis the Pious was deposed by bishops loyal to his son in 833 he had to take off his sword belt and place it on the altar at the church at Soissons. Later, Charles the Fat threw his sword belt down in a show of complete submission to his father.
Frankish opulence naturally extended to the dining room. Nobles amassed collections of elaborate kitchenware, including jeweled goblets as status symbols. The Franks became gourmands who sought out new foods to eat. The chronicler Notker once joked that a bishop spent 3 pounds of silver on a mouse stuffed with spices because he thought it was an Eastern delicacy. A broad diet gave nobles the nutrition their bodies needed and they became larger and healthier than commoners.
Chapter 3: The Court
The Carolingian Royal Court was the center of the empire, organizationally, politically and culturally. Court was where the king hosted aristocrats and clergy. By gathering important persons from across the empire the monarch could coordinate and patronize them. When the king patronized a noble that noble in turn patronized others down the line, creating the web of interconnections that held the empire together. Since the most important scholars resided at court nobles sent their children to be educated there, further tying them to the king.
Perhaps the most important function of the court was the awe it instilled in the nobility for the royal person. The palace at Aachen was enormous, filled with paintings and elaborate tapestries, and all utensils were of the finest metals and gems. Moreover, the court was divided into layers of influence and one had to court favor to get past gatekeepers and enter more rooms within the complex. There’s a story that a cleric wanted to warn Charlemagne of a conspiracy against him and had to pass through seven doors just to reach the king. Another story tells of a Greek embassy being ushered into one room where they met an opulent figure and thought he was Charlemagne, only to be led into another room with an even more opulent figure who they figured was Charlemagne, until eventually they entered the most opulent room with the king, his family and close advisors.
The court wasn’t just a place for the better-offs though. At times the king held audiences where peasants could appear before him and ask for protection against their local lords who were abusing them. The king used these public hearings to demonstrate his benevolence, Solomon-like wisdom, engender love between himself and his people, micromanage his nobles and teach those aristocrats present how to properly conduct themselves toward their vassals.
Court under Charlemagne began as a semi-fixed place. In the 770s Charlemagne’s court was often housed in tents or held at villas as he traveled frequently. In the 790s he stationed the court at his palace complex at Aachen where he spent most of his time. After the Treaty of Verdun there were 3 courts for 3 realms. Further divisions meant further courts. The decline of the Carolingian Empire brought with it a decline in the importance of the court and a subsequent magnification of the manor.
The Annals of Saint Bertin, Translated and annotated by Janet L Nelson, 1991.
Ed.s Sarah Rees Jones, Richard Marks and A.J. Minnis, Courts and Regions in Medieval Europe, 2000.
Matthew Innes and Simon MacLean, The Carolingian World, 2011.
Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald, 1992.