We’re often told that medieval society consisted of three groups: those who work, those who fight and those who pray. Even by the last quarter of the fourteenth century when Langland had Piers Plowman say to the knight “I’ll toil and sweat for both of us. I’m willing to work all my life because of the good will I have towards you. But this on condition that you, for your part, protect Holy Church and myself against those ravaging villains who destroy everything they come upon” it was no longer true.
Medieval society was far more complex than the concept of the three orders would have us believe. Chaucer reflected this at the end of the century, not only in the assortment of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, but in the subjects of the tales they tell. His pilgrims included a miller, a knight, a cook, a reeve and a pardoner. Characters in the tales include a carpenter, an alchemist and a priest. When most of us think about the fourteenth century, however, I’m sure that we think in terms of peasants, knights (and their ladies) and priests or monks.
Not only was there diversity within society, but there was also diversity within groups. Not all peasants were poor. Some lived very comfortably and employed other peasants. Some had a lot of land, others had just enough to live. Some, reeves, had authority over the others in their village, rich or poor. Not all knights were rich. Some could barely afford to buy armour or keep their horses. Some became wealthy by capturing and ransoming other knights. Some became poor because they had themselves been captured and had to pay a ransom. The church didn’t just consist of monks and priests, but friars, pardoners and summoners. Some priests lived well in rich parishes or in the households of wealthy men, others struggled to live on the tithes of their parishioners.
Towns had their own structures and hierarchies. Merchants had apprentices and could aspire to high office. Richard Whittington (of Dick Whittington and his cat fame) was a mercer who became mayor of London. In the towns men practised trades: smiths, bakers, apothecaries, coopers, wheelwrights, bowyers and fletchers. Some towns had universities, which grew in the fourteenth century, producing scholars and learned texts. Increased access to education meant that there were more people, in towns at least, able to read the texts. Education gave commoners the opportunity to rise in the church or in government.
Fourteenth century society was not static. Women could rise in society by marriage and men could advance through their own efforts and by patronage.