Commoners of Medieval Europe

The Knight- The Highest Title of the Gentry

The lowest members of society, the medieval commoners of Europe were broken down into two classes each with individual ranks and titles.

The medieval gentry and peasantry consisted of anyone who was beneath the royal families and the nobility of Europe. As a whole they were called commoners, however, there were differences between the two classes.

Titles of the Gentry

The medieval gentry were a class of wealthy landowners who had the right to bear arms. They were essentially upper-class commoners who were given titles but these titles were not titles of nobility despite their wealth. They rank as follows:

The Medieval Knight

While most nobles were also essentially knights, the title was given to commoners who swore loyalty to an overlord in a military context. To become a knight, a man would first serve as a page, valet and squire before being dubbed a knight by his overlord. Knights were bound by a code of chivalry and when they entered into knighthood they swore to uphold the values of faith, loyalty, courage and honor. They were not only knights but members of different orders, such as the Knights Templar or the Knights Hospitaller, that had specific roles in battle. Knights were also the owners of small fiefs that were given to them by their overlords. The wife of a knight was known as either a lady or a dame depending on the country.

The Role of a Squire/Esquire

Commonly known as a young commoner who was training to become a knight, a squire acted as an attendant and shield bearer for the knight he was training under. The term esquire was a vague one that could also pertain to the eldest sons of knights, the sons of nobles, esquires created by letters of patent, justices of the peace and others who bear any office of trust under the crown, foreign noblemen, officers of the army above the rank of captain, barristers, and in England, anyone who held a degree from either of the two universities (Cambridge and Oxford). It should be noted that there is no female equivalent of an esquire.

Gentlemen of Medieval Europe

The title of gentleman was created rather late in the medieval period when after the Black Death in 1349 the younger sons of nobles were forced to seek their fortunes in the French wars instead of settling down as owners or renters of farms. Forced to define their position in society, they chose to be defined as gentlemen. Also at the courts of several monarchs, servants who performed certain tasks were given titles such as gentleman at arms, gentleman-in-waiting and gentleman of the bedchamber. The female form of gentleman is gentlewoman or lady, and a younger male in the position would be known as a page.

Ranks within the Peasantry

Any person below the rank of gentleman was considered a member of the peasantry. They were the lowest, and usually the poorest members of medieval society and were not entitled to any type of title. They rank as follows:

The Role of Peasants

Peasants were paid workers usually on farms. They were low born and had no right to bear arms or to any title. They were however allowed to to own land and many were small farmers. Many peasant families worked together on their land to produce food for the entire family and sold any surplusses at the market in the cities.

Serfs in Medieval Europe

Serfs were basically slaves with a couple subtle differences. Serfs were bound to work the land of their lord but they were also under their lord’s protection. Someone became a serf when the land they worked as a peasant was conquered and instead of becoming slaves they entered into serfdom. However a serf could free himself by running away for a year and a day.

The Gentry and Peasantry Today

While the peasantry has been completely abolished for years, the titles of the gentry are still being used in modern society although they have come to mean something completely different. For instance a knight is no longer a man of military service but someone who is given royal recognition for their contributions to society. Likewise an esquire has long been exclusively used to mean a member of the educated class especially lawyers. Also a gentleman is no longer an actual title but means someone who is well mannered or considerate.