Roman and Other Origins

British social history was very different from that on the Continent. The Roman created a new attitude in Britain and made a title available to those who deserved it by merit, not birth. (Birth was the key to Continental titles.) Prior to the Romans, Britain had been a frontier area at the edge of Europe, with small tribes and a nomadic way of life. Territory was held by conquest and because of the constant incursions by neighboring tribes few permanent structures were built. The lack of permanency meant no social infrastructure: it also meant the rule of the warrior and priest, who held power through fear or force of arms. Stronger tribes overwhelmed lesser ones and as territories grew villages developed. When the Romans arrived Britain had 70 kings and territories. The Romans simplified that with law and order, central government, a rigid infrastructure, and by force of arms. Since Emperor Claudius had annexed Britain and Romans were there to stay, the local Romans were able to show and lead by their own example. Caratacus, king of the Catuvellauni tribe led the resistance to the invasion, but he was defeated and when Boudicca's later rebellion was overcome war gave way to peace (Pax Romanum), growth and prosperity.[1]

The feudal world itself was created in the seventh century as both the Roman Empire and the Frankish Merovignian monarchy declined and powerful men sought mutual protection by banding together.[2] The Germans had had more experience of war as they battled amongst waves of migrating tribes from the East. With that experience the Germans more powerful warriors than the Gauls or Britons on which to build protection. It took the English time to reach the 1215 security of the Magna Carta. The German Franks conquered France and the German Angles and Saxons conquered Britain. The 1066 Normans added their own views of feudal social organisation; and William I avoided the Saxon mistake of concentrating too much power in his barons by dividing feudal fiefs into small parcels of land. The Norman kings controlled their barons by holding the fiefs and parcelling out many small, disbursed estates, rather than as the Saxons had done by granting one large coherent region. Thus each baron and his subordinate landowners owed allegiance to the king, and the barons had to split their strength defending their own multiple estates.

The Magna Charta was an articulation of feudal defiance against King John and it limited the king to feudal custom, or law.[3] This was a brave step by the English barons, who involved themselves in the power-sharing arguments between popes and kings. The barons set aside questions of who had authority from God and demanded impartial justice be commonly applied Admittedly this common law was only intended to be applied to the barons, but the principle was established.[4] In the future, this would give rise to a new middle class, between the nobility and the serfs (or peasants), and end feudal life. But that was in the future and autocratic, feudal behaviour existed for centuries in Europe. The Magna Carta recognised custom (or common law), as an obligation for all.

A Warrior Class


The mediaeval period in Europe was characterised by war as the Carolignian state collapsed and with it the heritage of ordered Roman tradition. The central authority of German and French kings was lost as their local castles gave protection, but only if the kings themselves could be defended collectively. Young men, of landed families, were almost universally trained for war after puberty. The Roman tradition of patronage (patrocinium) was continued in Germany but limited to the upper classes whose sons provided the king's protection. The Germans were continually attacked by barbarian tribes and defended themselves in family groups and kinship ties. This evolved into kinship relationships with men who accepted feudal protection in exchange for loyalty.[5]

In turn, feudal loyalties motivated considerable effort in pursuit of honours and titles. Honour was perhaps taken to an extreme and the majority of the French nobility wasted themselves at the 1346 Battle of Crécy. Despite the evident futility of the failed early French attacks against the English line, 16 successive, futile, French attacks were made evidently motivated by a chivalric code of honour.

In France, a more stable authority tradition had resulted in fewer warriors and skilled peasant soldiers were able to move up the social ladder. Feudal society was pyramidal, with a hierarchically structured nobility and an obligatory relationship between the vassal and lord. The term vassal was Celtic in origin and had the same sense of condescension as the South African's boy, or young boy! Vassalage was granted for the life of the two parties and was not inherited. The lord granted protection and a gift, perhaps land, termed a fief, in exchange for personal military service. From the mid eleventh century, Latin texts also translated vassal as miles, literally soldier; but the French translated miles to knight. The knightly code of behaviour was termed chivalrous, based on the French term chevalerie, which in turn comes from cheval, or horse. The knight's principal advantage was his speed and the height he gained from sitting on his horse. The French dominated the feudal era because of their Carolignian inheritance of power, location, and the 1066 Norman Conquest of England and consequent linguistic and cultural spread. The Conquest brought political and military change in Europe, as William Duke of Normandy invaded England, killed the Saxon King at the Battle of Hastings, and established the Feudal Society. This radically changed the balance of power in Europe, since the Normans retained Normandy, Brittany, and Anjou, as well as gaining England. That empire required a considerable delegation of power and the feudal pyramid was cemented.

At the time of the Norman invasion, the European nobility lived in draughty stone castles with their own children (until 15-20 years old): the Saxons had generally lived in wooden houses. Castles might also house the noble's siblings and their families, destitute relatives and families, subordinate vassal knights and their families, retainers, squires, sergeants and more families, pages (younger relatives, in training), and servants. The total numbers varied considerably and yet they all had to be fed and provided beds. Beds for the first rank were quite large - perhaps two metres square. They would be expected to accommodate a variable number of people, but often as many as five or six. The kitchen had to be reasonably close, but ventilation was a problem and refrigeration was, of course, unknown.

Bathing was not a popular sport and since the roads were unpaved and dogs and horses the focus of training, fighting, entertainment, and hunting; household smells were strong. The chatelaine was expected to cope with all of this and produce a dozen healthy children (preferably sons, as daughters' dowries were expensive) despite a child mortality rate of about 50%. She may have been the wife, sister, mother-in-law, or a competent relative. She ran the house, directed the servants, prepared feasts, showed an estate profit and brought up children while her man was away (perhaps for years at the crusades). She was not expected be caught in any 'hankey pankey'.

Land and Service

The knighthood, or nobility, was the overwhelmingly dominant social class and wore a sword, both as pride in the military calling and as its badge of recognition.[6] The vassal (of whatever social rank) paid homage to his liege lord, effectively swearing absolute commitment and fealty or service for his land to the lord who was equally bound to protect the vassal and his rights. The person holding land directly from the king was known as a tenant-in-chief. (Walter FitzOther was a tenant-in-chief of considerable property.) A tenant-in-chief held land directly from the king and was required to provide a military service based upon the constabularia of ten knights. An important tenant-in-chief might be expected to provide one or more of these units, and lesser tenants-in-chief, half of one.

By the mid 1300's, the manor was the basic unit of estate administration. In the feudal hierarchy, the mesne lord was the lord in the middle - the lord of a manor who held (was the sub-tenant) of a superior lord, but was himself the superior lord of a lord holding one or more of his manors. Homage was sworn by an act of placing the vassals hands within those of the lord, thus indicating submission and confirming contractual obligations: this might be dignified by a kiss (of equality). Thus, the basic notion of knight comes from that of servant. The lowest feudal rank was serf and despite initial voluntary servile homage the serf's only possession of value was his freedom, and that was rapidly lost to hereditary service. The peasants led a dirty, short, life of hard, dangerous toil.

Nobility is a term, which comes from the Latin Nobilus, and it clearly indicates supremacy of rank. Wealth, authority and social characteristics defined class, although wealth was not exclusively tied to land. The lords of the manor exploited other men's labour and were all committed to being warriors.[7] Nobles were trained for war from the time they could walk when they were made to ride, learn animal husbandry and practice physically demanding weapons drills. The nobles were always mounted and fought with lance, sword and, infrequently, the mace. They were armoured by wearing heavy leather with metal strips, which was upgraded to a dress, or skin of inter-locking steel rings, which later gave way to the solid plate armour. The nobles also wore helmet and shield and were accompanied by an esquire (he carried the knight's shield called an escutcheon).


It is from the warrior association with the profession of arms that the knight gained his noble status. Some armies used lightly armed cavalry called sergeants. But the knight wore golden spurs, carried a sword and lance, and (after the Conquest) wore his arms on his shield and a belt around his waist. These symbols were the mark of the elite. The sword and belt (originally termed a military girdle) continue to be worn by military officers today. The logical significance of the belt is given by Guillam: "...And not without reason is a man adorned with a military girdle, signifying he must be always in readiness to undergo the business of the Weal Publick.... this military girdle was reputed very honourable, because none were to receive it but men of merit."[8]

Knights spent time between battles making money and jousting at tournaments. The local lord staged these tournaments as fights in which blood was drawn and lives were lost. The lord was assured of his vassals quality as they fought for the potential prize and ransom money, and probably for the sheer joy of the excitement and their absolute power.[9] The herald gained the crowds attention, announced the contest and winner, and generally acted as master of ceremonies. Heralds relate to heraldry by their need to be able to identify the contestants visually and thus the herald's needed to codify the different coats of arms. (These were literally sur-coats, similar to lightweight shirts practice teams might use in sports to differentiate sides. In this case, the shirt had a unique painted crest and device.) Heralds had to be familiar with the hundreds of regional knights' colours, history, and all of the local politics of power.

The Feudal Pyramid


The feudal distinctions of classes were as clear cut and absolute as vassalage could make them.[10] Roman provinces had been divided into military areas, called princepes, then further divided into comes. Prince derives from the Latin princeps and was the emperor's symbol of authority and therefore one step removed from the first rank. Princepes were ruled by a dux governem, and comes by a dux cometem. These Latin titles became the more familiar duke and count. Marquess also comes from Latin marca, which means frontier. The title earl is from the Anglo-Saxon eorla or cheorl (in Norwegian - jarl) meaning well-born, as distinct from a churl who was ill-bred. In Scotland and Ireland the earls were perceived as lesser kings and in Gaelic the an-rhi, their monarch, was called the 'high king'. The title count is the same rank as earl and is used across continental Europe. The wife of either an earl or count, or a woman so entitled in her own right, is still called countess.

Class status belonged to those nobles who had other nobles as vassals: the more powerful nobles were called barons, regardless of title, unless the individual was being addressed directly. The definitions of feudal rank vary slightly because of national adaptations but the basic social class level of distinction was baron. Baron derives from the Teutonic beron, or warrior. Baron also meant 'peer' - in this case, vassals were protected from arbitrary punishment by a trial in a court of his peers where the leading vassals sat in judgement of their equals in rank.[11] In England the barons held power directly from the king and evolved to become the House of Lords. In France the term denoted the exercise of 'high justice'.[12]

History is the continuous record of public events and the study of nations. Mediaeval history bridges the classical and the modern and is that period from the end of the Roman Empire, through Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire to the Renaissance. This neatly spans the European gaps in learning and stable government. Rome meant peace and security to Europeans and men tried to recreate that happy golden age. (Regrettably for those same Europeans, Charlemagne was followed by the Dark Ages.) In this definition, family interests lean to an emphasis of the later mediaeval time-frame.

The Church

By far the most significant event during this period was the empowerment of the Roman Catholic Church. The concept of Christendom is important to the understanding of subsequent events. By crowning Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor in 800 Pope Leo III gained temporal power. Since the Pope created Charlemagne Emperor, he made the Church’s support conditional upon the emperor’s defence of the Church. Thus the Holy Roman Empire was built to define the limits of European Christianity. The Saxons were won to Christianity because Charlemagne gave them a choice - convert or the sword! The Church had started early with five equal patriarchies, but by 700 there were only two left with significance: Rome and Constantinople. (Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem had faded badly.) Given Pope Leo’s coup with Charlemagne, the remaining Greek Patriarch was doomed to lose in an unequal power struggle to an increasingly powerful Roman Pope.

Charlemagne is important because he revived a secure empire, learning, and law. The great thinkers were all churchmen and included St Thomas Aquinas, Alcuin of York, Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus and William of Occam. Learning was an important issue, because European knowledge had only survived amongst remote religious centres, for example with the Irish monks. The pagan Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain undid much of Britain’s Roman culture and Christianity, which later returned via Ireland and France. The Merovingian King Clovis and three thousand Franks were baptised Christians in 496 at Reims. Because Charlemagne was a traditional Frank, on his death that empire was divided amongst his three grandsons in the 843 Partition of Verdun. That ended centralised imperial civilisation: but more importantly it separated France from the Osterreich (Germany and modern Austria), with Italy and the Low Countries in the middle kingdom. The result has been historical European conflict.

However, despite this split of state, the church had been established as the heart of God’s kingdom on earth. In recollection of earlier beliefs in pagan gods, men took religion seriously. Pope Gregory revived popular church music and is recalled in the Gregorian chant. Most did not understand it, but they accepted the Roman Church as infallible and ceded literacy and education to the abbeys and monasteries for the next five hundred years. This breadth of power explains the success in raising the Crusades and in controlling European kings. In a sense, the same depth of religious passion explains Mackenzie support of the Catholic Jacobites against the Protestant English.


1            Adapted from an Internet article by William Christmas, MD. See also Battle of Crécy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cr%C3%A9cy.

2           Edward James, The Franks, p.230, describes the decline after Dagobert (622-38) to les rois faineants - 'The Do-Nothing Kings', who were replaced by the Germanic Carolignians.

3           Norman Zacour, Mediaeval Institutions, p. 128.

4           The demand for equality of justice was only intended to extend as far down the power hierarchy as the barons and the future development of the protection of English common law would take further centuries.

5           Maurice Keen, Mediaeval Europe, pp. 21-22 explains the importance of kinship as being based on a vendetta revenge for injury or property damage.

6           Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, p. 450-451.

7            Ibid, p. 288-299.

8           John Guillam, cited in HCB Rogers, The Pageant of Heraldry, p. 124.

9           Traitors were hanged, cut down before death, and then physically disembowelled, castrated and finally, like Sir William Wallace, cut into four pieces. The pieces were sent to various places for public display and warning.

10         Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses, p. 114. Margaret of Anjou (niece of Charles II of France) arrived in England to marry Henry VI with her household of five barons and baronesses, 17 knights, 65 squires, 174 valets and at least 1,200 more attendants. Although lacking an adequate dowry, Margaret maintained this household at her own expense. The nobility had wealth and power!

11         Marc Bloch, op cit., p. 332.

12         Ibid, p. 334.

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