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People of the Middle Ages

A king (or lord) ruled large areas of land. To protect his land from invasion, the king gave parts of it to local lords, who were called vassals. In return, his vassals promised to fight to defend the king's land.

Vassals ruled lands granted to them by their king. Those lands were called fiefs. Within a fiefs, a vassal acted as a local lord and could give portions of it to vassals of his own. Someone might be the vassal of one person, but the lord of another.

Knights were warriors who fought on horseback. In return for land, they pledged themselves as vassals to the king. Only the sons of lords could become knights. Candidates for knighthood began training as pages at the age of 7, learning social graces and skills such as fencing and hunting. At 13 or 14 they became squires and began to practice fighting on horseback. Squires served as assistants to knights both in the castle and on the battlefield. At 21 a squire could become a knight himself, kneeling before the lord of the manor to be "dubbed" on the shoulder with a sword. Kings, local lords, and knights were all part-of a ruling class that called itself noblemen.

Noblewomen were the wives and daughters of noblemen. They were in charge of the household servants and supervised the upbringing of children. They also helped take care of the sick and the poor. In certain cases, noblewomen themselves could own land. They could inherit it from their parents or from their husbands. When a nobleman was away, his wife ruled the manor. This meant that the noblewoman, if called upon by her lord, could send knights into battle, just as a man would.

Bishops were the leaders of the church, serving under the pope, the bishop of Rome. Most bishops were noblemen. Bishops supervised the church's priests, monks and nuns and administered its business. In many parts of Europe the church owned vast areas of land and commanded a large number of knights. In the early Middle Ages, it was not unusual for a bishop to lead his own knights into battle.

Priests provided spiritual instruction and conducted religious ceremonies in local, or parish, churches.

Monks and nuns were men and women who gave up their possessions and left ordinary life to live in monasteries and convents. They lived very simply, could not marry and devoted themselves to prayer, study, and helping the poor. They also served as doctors.

Frairs were traveling preachers who lived by begging and spread the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi (see Medieval Voices on p. 34).

Serfs lived in small communities called manors that were ruled by a local lord or vassal. Most peasants were serfs. They were bound to the manor and could not leave it or marry without the manor lord's permission. Serfs did all the work on the manor farm: they worked the fields, cared for the livestock, built and maintained the buildings, made the clothing, and cut firewood. Men, women, and children worked side by side. Serfs had small plots of land they could work for themselves; sometimes a serf saved enough money to buy his freedom and became a freeman.

Servants were peasants who worked in the lord's manor house, doing the cooking, cleaning, laundering, and other household chores.

Merchants set up businesses in the towns that began to grow in the later Middle Ages. The most commonly traded items were salt, iron, and textiles. There were also rarer items, such as silk and spices, that came from the trade with China and the Middle East. As trade grew, a new class of highly skilled crafts- people developed. These artisans produced cloth, shoes, beer, glass and other goods that required more expertise than was available on many manor farms. Other artisans cut and shaped the stones for the

. Women plied several of these crafts, and in some, like weaving and brewing, they played the leading role. Traveling merchants brought much-desired items to small towns and villages far from the major trade routes.

Minstrels were entertainers who traveled from town to town, often in groups. Most minstrels were singers or musicians, but some had other skills as well. They juggled, did acrobatics, or danced. Minstrels were known by different names in different parts of Europe. In Germany minstrels were called minnesingers, in France jongleurs, in Ireland bards. The most famous minstrels were those of southern France. They were called troubadours, from the Latin word that means "to compose." Many of the love poems they composed in the local language, Provencal, are still read and admired today. The troubadours were so famous that we know 500 of them by name.


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