The Orders of society
Medieval writers divided their society into three main groups which the called orders: peasants (or those who worked on the land), fighting men and the clergy. To explain how they thought these groups ought to work together for everyones good, they compared society to a human body. Peasants, who supposed society by their hard and dirty work, were its feet. Strong fighting men, who defended society, were its arms. Priests, monks and nuns, who spent their lives preaching and praying, were its conscience. The king was at the head of society. Like the bodys brain, he was in control of the actions of its head and feet, and was guided by its conscience.
In reality, there were many other groups of people in medieval society. As well as the fighting men, the peasants and people living lives devoted to religion, there were, by 1200, growing numbers of townsmen shopkeepers, craftsmen, merchants and bankers. There was also an increasingly large group of lawyers and men skilled in administration. In the villages there were woodworkers, potters, thatches, blacksmiths and ale-house keepers. Women in towns and in the countryside spun wool from which cloth was woven by professional weavers. Along the coast, sailors and fishermen made a living from the sea. There were scholars artists musicians and writers. On the fringes of society were criminals sometimes organized in gangs and living in wild and lonely places and pathetic outcasts such as lepers. Beggars sought charity wherever they could find it.
So, we can see that when medieval writers described their society, they were concentrating on just the three groups which they felt to be most important. This tells us a lot about medieval society and its values. To them, a hardworking peasantry ensured food and a strong fighting force meant safety from attack plus the chance to make new conquests. The church stood for high standards of behavior in this world and salvation in the next.
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