Europe in the early Middle Ages was a place as Thomas Hobbes once said, where the lives of people were “nasty, brutish and short.” Wealth was in the hands of the monarchy, typically. As there was a short supply of coinage and opportunities to earn it, little money “trickled down” to the average person. Most people survived by farming the monarch’s lands and bartering their farm produce for what items they weren’t able to make themselves.
Social Forces Did Not Change Society
When we consider the life of the average Medieval farmer- citizen, there would be no motive for a person of nobility to surrender their powers or lands in order to help the average, impoverished agrarian citizen. And religion did not seem to contribute to a change promoting egalitarianism. In fact, religion seemed to reinforce the position of the nobility who embraced the religious view that they had been born into the nobility as a “God given right.”
Introduction of the Stirrup
I would suggest that a very simple invention brought from the East contributed largely to changing the social order of Europe. That invention is the stirrup. The stirrup enhanced warfare in that it allowed the fighter to be more stable on the horse and exert more power when fighting the enemy. Also the vantage point of the horse gave the warrior more height and the ability to see across the legion of fighters.
As a result of the stirrup, weaponry could became heavier as the warrior now had more balance in riding. With the stirrup, heavy armor was introduced. Consequently, horses became heavier to carry the additional load and the destrier, the ancestor of draft horses, was developed which ultimately improved farming efficiency.
Creation of a New Social Class
A class of people was created whose full time jobs were as warriors, and those who supported the warrior such as artisans making items as swords and lances. New categories of domestic positions developed, for example, horse trainers and handlers. More importantly, a leisure class was developed in order to provide time for the warrior class to learn the skills of fighting and to train in those skills.
Because of the superiority of mounted, armored warriors in most battle situations, the monarch was further encouraged to bestow wealth and leisure on this class in order to assure their loyalty so warriors acquired status and titles, such as “knight.” And as “knight” they became closely associated with the political structure which was most important to the monarch in order to assure the safety of the monarch.
Reliance of the Nobility upon the Warrior Class
The local lord in turn could use this class of men to assure a measure of security. In turn the local lord could provide a modicum of security for the locality and everyone benefited.
Creation of a Class of Artisans
A class of warriors and wars required wealth to purchase or breed the proper horse. Also acquiring the acoutrements, like chain mail (an armored warriors under garment), weapons, armor, the warrior class required wealth. The necessary wealth that the monarch had to disperse to sustain wars and a warrior class encouraged the circulation of wealth from the monarch to the warrior class and from there to those whose positions supported the warrior class.
Coinage has been in limited supply in the early Medieval period due to the Fall of the Roman empire. During the period of Roman control, emperors minted their own coins and when there were no more emperors, coinage production stopped. So the question for the monarchy was how to distribute wealth in the absence of money. Land became the legal tender of most kingdoms.
Land was transferred as “fiefs” in order to assure political proximity and to remunerate the warrior class. In turn, the warrior class rewarded those who maintained their horses, produced their armor, trained them and sustained their elite status with parcels of land that could be cultivated on condition that they provided a necessary service to the warrior. These “fiefs” became the modern counties and provided the military unit. The fiefs then gave rise to the noble class.
Downside of Warrior Nobility
The negative aspect of the rise of warrior nobility, experienced initially by the Frankish kingdom, was the deterioration of central authority in Western Europe. The people in the fiefs perceived that their only protection lay with the local knight. Therefore anyone who was able to fight on horseback and had training as a knight acquired authority, power and prestige. This factor also gave a modicum of fluidity to social classes, creating opportunities for those not born into the warrior class to become warrior, such as William Marshall in England. However, social fluidity was not typical and an elite class developed which acted as the administrator, justice system and ultimate authority of the fiefdom. The aristocracy of knighthood resulted in the breakdown of central authority and would rule Europe for the next 700 years.