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Hierarchy

In the Middle Ages, as also in Ancient times, society was vertical. In the Modern and Post-modern ages, society is horizontal. This difference is important.

There were three or four "classes" to which individuals belonged. If a person was born a peasant, then he very probably remained a peasant his whole life, and his children and grandchildren were peasants like him. If a person was born a nobleman, then he very probably remained a nobleman his whole life, and his children and grandchildren were noblemen like him. In every age there are some people who are wealthier than others, but during the Middle Ages the situation was different than it is today. Poor people today compare themselves to the rich. Some poor admire the rich and try to become like them by working hard.

Often they succeed and rise out of poverty. Some poor envy the rich and try to bring them down or force them to share their wealth. Either way, the poor compare themselves to the rich. In the Middle Ages, peasants did not compare themselves to nobles. If a man was born a peasant, he had a well-defined place in society and did not think of leaving it. A peasant would not more believe that he could be a nobleman than a man would believe that he could be a woman. Noblemen, likewise, did not fear losing their status and descending to the level of peasants. Noblemen were essentially members of the warrior class, so they had to fight, and death was always a possibility, but becoming mere peasants was not a possibility they worried about. Blaise Pascal wrote that no sane peasant would ever be sad about not being a king, because no sane peasant ever expected to be a king. The son a a former king, however, might be very sad about not being a king like his father. During the Middle Ages, there was much fighting between the sons of kings, but not many peasant uprisings. The few cases of peasant revolt were caused not by revolutionary ideals seeking equality; they were caused by food shortages which forced some peasants to resort to violence in their effort to obtain enough food to survive. In general, people knew where they belonged in society and they were content there. Today, on the other hand, people do not have "places in society". Each individual can rise or fall depending upon his intelligence, effort, and good or bad luck. A medieval peasant was not discontent as a peasant, because he had always been one and never expected to be anything else. A modern or postmodern poor person is usually discontent, because he believes that he does not deserve to be poor. The most unhappy poor people are those who had been rich. Satisfaction is linked to expectations.

In the early Middle Ages, there were many slaves, especially in Italy and Eastern Europe. The slaves were the fourth, the lowest, class. During the Middle Ages, most slaves were freed, and the whole institution of slavery slowly, gradually, faded away. There was no great war to free the slaves. There was no date or year when all the slaves were suddenly emancipated. The institution just faded away. This "fading away" of slavery during the Middle Ages was caused by Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church did not forbid or condemn slavery during the Middle Ages. In the Bible, slavery is accepted; it tells slaves to obey their masters, and when an escaped slave came to Saint Paul, Saint Paul sent him back to his master. The Bible, and the Roman Catholic Church, did not condemn slavery, but they did tell Christians to treat their slaves well. For a Christian, his slaves were people too, for whom Jesus Christ had died, and so they were to be treated humanely. Everyone who understands economics knows that free workers are more efficient than slaves, for men care about doing their jobs well when they benefit from their work, but slaves work not for their own benefit but rather for the sole benefit of their masters. Slavery is profitable only when masters can treat their slaves badly, feeding them the minimum they need to survive, providing little or no shelter and clothing, and ruthlessly torturing some for disobedience so that others would be afraid to disobey. Christian slave owners were not supposed to treat their slaves in this way. When faced with the choice between either providing enough food, shelter and clothing so that slaves could live descent lives, and paying free workers who would take care of themselves, it was more profitable to pay free workers. So, slavery faded away during the Middle Ages, and therefore it can be said that there were really only three classes in medieval society: workers, warriors and clergy.

The clergy were distinct from the other two medieval classes because it was possible, in fact it was normal, to enter the clergy after having been a member of another class. None were born priests, nuns or monks. Some babies were abandoned and raised in monasteries or convents, so they knew no other life-style. Sometimes such individuals were happy as monks or nuns. Often they were not. Aelread of Rievaulx, who lived from 1110 to 1167, wrote of a girl who had been abandoned as a baby and raised inside a convent as a nun. She never freely chose to become a nun, and when, during her adolescence, she saw a young man for the first time in her life, she went into the woods and had sex with him. When she was found to be pregnant, the other nuns locked her naked in their dungeon for several months. Aelread states in his account of this incident that those nuns were somewhat lacking in charity towards the miserable young girl. Usually, however, people voluntarily chose to become priests, monks or nuns.

In many ways, the clergy began the modern age. In the Modern age, each individual is free to choose his life-style. In the Middle Ages, the Church alone provided the opportunity to choose one's life-style. Of course, after the choice was made, then the freedom ended. All priests, monks and nuns had to take a vow of obedience, after which they became as slaves having to do the will of another person. But though they were as slaves, they lived far better than most free men and women. They were educated and had books to read. They lived in nice buildings, some of which even had running water and heat during the winter. They were highly honored and wielded power not inferior to the nobles. And the possibility of promotion existed for each cleric. A peasant might be able to save some small amount of money and so die richer than when he was born, but he would still be just a peasant. I priest, however, could become a bishop, then maybe a cardinal or even Pope. A monk could become the Abbot ruling over his monastery. A nun could become the Abbess ruling over her convent.

I intend to write more about this some day, but until I do, I recommend the book The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 by Colin Morris.