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Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages


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Additional Topics

Dancing In The Middle Ages

Castle Life

Cultural Expression

Dynamics of the Middle Ages

Influences of Christianity

Monks and Monasticism

Monetary System

Peasant's Life

The Rise of Towns


Castle Life

The International History Project

Date: 2001

Supported by the brawn and taxes of the peasants, the feudal baron and his wife would seem to have had a comfortable life. In many ways they did, despite the lack of creature comforts and refinements.

Around the 12th century, palisaded, fortified manorial dwellings began to give way to stone castles. Some of these, with their great outer walls and courtyard buildings, covered perhaps 15 acres and were built for defensive warfare 

Even in summer, dampness clung to the stone rooms, and the lord and his retinue spent as much time as possible outdoors. At dawn the watchman atop the donjon blew a blast on his bugle to awaken the castle. After a scanty breakfast of bread and wine or beer, the nobles attended mass in the castle chapel.

The lord then took up his business. He might first hear the report of an estate manager. If a discontented or ill-treated serf had fled, doubtless the lord would order retainers to bring him back--for serfs were bound to the lord unless they could evade him for a year and a day. The lord would also hear the petty offenses of peasants and fine the culprits or perhaps sentence them to a day in the pillory. Serious deeds, like poaching or murder, were legal matters for the local court or royal "circuit" court.

The lady of the castle had many duties as chatelaine. She inspected the work of her large staff of servants. She saw that her spinners, weavers, and embroiderers furnished clothes for the castle and rich vestments for the clergy. She and her ladies also helped to train the pages, well-born boys who came to live in the castle at the age of 7. For seven years pages were schooled in religion, music, dancing, riding, hunting, and some reading, writing, and arithmetic. At 14 they became squires.

The lord directed the training of squires. They spent seven years learning the practices of chivalry and, above all, of warfare. At the age of 21, if worthy, they received the accolade of knighthood. (For the ceremony of knighthood see Knighthood.)

Sometime between 9 AM and noon, a trumpet summoned the lord's household to the great hall for dinner. They gustily ate quantities of soup, game, birds, mutton, pork, some beef, and often venison or boar slain in the hunt. In winter the ill-preserved meat smacked fierily of East Indian spices, bought at enormous cost to hide the rank taste. Great, flat pieces of bread called trenchers served as plates and, after the meal, were flung to the dogs around the table or given to the poor. Huge pies, or pasties, filled with several kinds of fowl or fish, were relished. Metal or wood cups or leather "jacks" held cider, beer, or wine. Coffee and tea were not used in Europe until after the Middle Ages. Minstrels or jongleurs entertained at dinner.

Hunting, games, and tournaments delighted nobles. Even the ladies and their pages rode afield to loose falcons at game birds. Indoors, in front of the great open fire, there were chess, checkers, and backgammon. A troubadour would often chant and sing storied deeds of Charlemagne, Count Roland, or Arthur and his Table Round .

Dearest to the warrior heart of the feudal lord was the tournament, an extravagant contest of arms. Visiting knights and nobles set up their pavilions near the lists, or field of contest. Over each tent a banner fluttered to show the rank of a contestant--here a count, there a marquis or a baron (see Titles of Nobility). The shield of each armor-clad warrior was emblazoned to identify the bearer. The first day of the tourney was usually devoted to single combats, in which pairs of knights rode full tilt at each other with 10-foot (3-meter) lances. The tourney's climax was the melee, when companies of knights battled in perilous mimic warfare. A tournament cost a lord a fortune for hospitality and rich prizes given to the victors by the "queen of the tourney."

Tournaments had a grim value as practice for feudal warfare. Some battle or raid erupted almost daily, since medieval nobles settled their quarrels simply by attacking. If a lord coveted land, his couriers called his vassals to make a foray. The peasants, in quilted battle coats, trudged along to fight on foot with their pikes and poleaxes. Despite the innumerable outbreaks, casualties were surprisingly few, as long, exhausting battles were rare. Warring lords usually just burned the fields and villages of their enemies. After a skirmish, the defending lord and his vassals usually fled to the safety of the castle. The castle could withstand many a stubborn siege.

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