Social Inequality: Early Medieval Perspectives on a Modern-Day Challenge

Social inequalities are among the most pressing challenges facing us today. Yet they also affected the past in many different ways. Investigating historical inequalities can sharpen our understanding of present-day phenomena. This is true even of an era whose social order no longer exists: the Middle Ages.

More than almost any other period, the European Middle Ages are widely associated with inequality. Certain aspects of the medieval social order, such as the division of society into three Estates, seem to offer direct proof of this view, as we see in a fifteenth-century woodcut (see Fig. 1). While the clerics and nobles stand on either side of Jesus, the peasants at the bottom toil in the fields. Christ in majesty illustrates how the arrangement was legitimized: God had organized the world hierarchically, and this hierarchy had to be maintained.

Illustration of the three estates of medieval German society standing before Christ in judgment.
Fig. 1:
Illustration of the three estates of medieval German society standing before Christ in judgment. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor lead their respective estates, while two peasants represent the third. Print from the Prognosticatio by Johannes Lichtenberger (1492). © Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 4 Inc.c.a. 1647, urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00033577-4

Ideals and Everyday Life in Past Societies

This print is not a straightforward depiction of social realities, however. It should rather be seen as an ideal state of affairs—strange as this may seem. The artist was not showing medieval society as it was, but how his patron felt it should be. As such, there is a simplicity to the image that certainly did not reflect the real lives of people at the time. Women are nowhere to be seen, and nor are members of other religions (such as Jews). Social change is also excluded from this view of the world, be it the rise and fall of specific individuals or the formation of new groups. Everyone in the picture occupies precisely the same position he was born into.

Beyond Clergymen, Warriors, and Serfs 

This tripartite division based on duties was in no way the only model of society in the Middle Ages. Questions of how to live together and the ideal social order preoccupied people back then just as much as they do today, and the answers varied substantially based on the context. Periods of upheaval, when old models lost their guiding function, were especially important drivers of such discussions and offer insights into how people dealt with social change. My project examines one such moment of upheaval: the separation of Western Europe from the Roman Empire, also known as the ‘transformation of the Roman world’. This was the period between around 400 and 850 CE that marked the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages.

Fig. 2:
St Willibrord. Book illumination, Trier, c.1000. Single leaf. © Paris, Bibliothèque National, Lat. 10510 (Wikimedia Commons)

Key Questions

My project focuses on the (re)negotiation of social inequality during this period of transformation. What exactly was typically ‘medieval’ about medieval society? How did it differ from the Roman Empire? How did the slaves and coloni of late antiquity become medieval serfs? What forms of social inequality were there, and how were they justified and enforced, or contested and overcome? What role was played by the clergy, who were also differentiating themselves socially at this time (see Fig. 2)? How and why were women largely excluded from church government? Was there really only one society in the early Middle Ages, or was there in fact a range of local(ized) societies that operated differently from region to region? My project seeks to answer these questions by examining the kingdoms established by the Anglo-Saxons in England and the Franks in Central Europe.

What Medieval Historians Can Learn from the Present

One particular challenge for my project is the study of marginalized groups—that is, of actors who have not left behind any egodocuments, and who often do not feature in social models such as that of the Three Orders of Society. However, social history does not have to be purely a history of elites. In order to address these supposedly ‘silent’ groups, I use methods drawn from modern inequality research. Specifically, my goal is to adopt a new perspective on elite ideas of social order by studying governance not only in terms of how it reflects on the people claiming positions of leadership within society, but above all its potential consequences for the people involved. This methodology also brings the interactions of different forms of discrimination and marginalization more sharply into focus. For example, it makes us aware that not all poverty was alike; rather, it was a specific condition of life that depended not only on restricted economic participation, but also on other factors such as gender or religious affiliation. Social life back then was not necessarily more egalitarian, but it was considerably more varied than is generally assumed.

What the Middle Ages Can Teach Us Now

Shedding light on the early Middle Ages can also benefit contemporary discussions of social inequality. Admittedly, there is no direct link between the dependence of medieval serfs on their overlords and modern-day forms of unfree labour. But parallels can be drawn between the mechanisms developed to enforce and maintain hierarchies then and now. In this respect, looking at the past offers new perspectives on the present. After all, in order to alleviate social inequalities, we must first understand their origins and workings.


Featured Image: Cleric, Knight and Workman representing the three classes. Courtesy British Library: Sloane 2435, f.85

Blog post translated by Jozef van der Voort (GHIL)




Cite this blog post
Stephan Bruhn (2024, June 3). Social Inequality: Early Medieval Perspectives on a Modern-Day Challenge. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/11rlv

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Stephan Bruhn

Stephan Bruhn joined the GHIL in May 2019. He studied History and Philosophy at the University of Münster (BA) and Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau (MA). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Kiel with a discourse analysis on reform groups in late Anglo-Saxon England. Before coming to London, he held positions at the Universities of Freiburg im Breisgau and Kiel. His current research project focuses on the relationship between ecclesiastical and social hierarchies in the Frankish and early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

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