The schools and universities where the scholastic thinkers wrote and taught were part of a larger medieval European society. They depended on income from land and revenues from the mass of the population who worked the soil.

While scholars, then as now, attempted to keep some distance between their cloistered campuses and the demands of the outside world, universities did not depend directly on tuition (which was never a part of the European university system). Rather, they looked to donations and endowment; chiefly they depended on income from agriculture, which was the basis for wealth in the pre-industrial world.

The Three Orders of Medieval Society

Educated observers in Bartholomew’s era divided society into three segments:

  • those who fight
  • those who pray
  • those who work.

These were functional fixed classes with mutual obligations to the other social orders that in theory provided a just balance of privilege and duty. The knight was supposed to be a professional fighter: a mounted warrior bound by the elaborate rules of chivalry that are so persistent in our image of the Middle Ages.

Monks and priests lived somewhat apart from the world. Priests were more closely involved in the lives of ordinary Christians than monks, who were supposed to flee the world for a life of contemplation. But all the clergy were considered intermediaries between God and the population. Their prayers on behalf of the people and their performance of sacraments brought the sacred into contact with the world (baptism, communion, marriage) were necessary for salvation.

If the clergy prayed for the other orders and the knights fought to protect them, the peasants were engaged in tedious agricultural labor to feed the privileged minorities. Given the relationships of power and exploitation, this idealized picture never conformed to reality. Contemporaries, although they upheld the mutually beneficial hierarchy as an ideal, were aware that knights generally used their position to extort or aggrandize and that the clergy secured their own wealth and interests.

What the social theory of the “Three Orders” did not readily account for was commerce and the emergence of a merchant class that was already prominent in the thirteenth century. The Middle Ages saw an extraordinary growth of population, towns, and trade from the tenth to fourteenth centuries. The “work” of these townspeople was not toil in the fields but rather a more intellectual and profitable activity. They were not so firmly subordinated to the interests of nobles and clergy.

The Medieval Economy: Trade

Though agriculture was still the fundamental engine of the economy, by 1200 it was producing a sufficient surplus to allow an expansive trade in basic as well as luxury commodities. Money increasingly replaced barter. Sophisticated instruments of business emerged first in Italy and then throughout Europe:

  • insurance contracts
  • partnerships
  • letters of credit
  • lending at interest.

The Church viewed charging interest in most circumstances as immoral usury. Nevertheless lending and borrowing money to finance business ventures in the thirteenth century were already the basis for trade and investment. An extensive and prosperous international trading network emerged, which is perhaps best understood in terms of its impact on a single country. Since Bartholomew was born in England we will focus the remainder of our discussion on English trade, universities, and government, with occasional mention of other parts of Europe.

England was rich in its agricultural production and although it was not by any means completely at peace, it usually managed to fight its wars at some distance from its center, in places like the Welsh and Scottish borders. Its important commercial cities included London and ports such as Dover and Sandwich.

The main English export in the thirteenth century was wool. English sheep produced the finest quality wool. The leading center of wool cloth-weaving, Flanders (modern Belgium and north-eastern France), imported immense quantities of English wool. Woolen cloth was something of a luxury product. It was affordable only for those above the level of subsistence, but it was also nevertheless a relatively affordable luxury. Wool was different from silk, jewels or spices that had to come from Asia and were fabulously expensive.

Other widely-traded commodities in the North Sea and English Channel regions were salted or smoked herring (at least 90 days a year in the Christian calendar prohibited eating meat), wine (English preferences were for Bordeaux and Rhine wines), and ship-building materials and supplies (timber, pitch, rope). We know that Bartholemew visited France and Germany and presumably saw some port cities where exports such as wine were loaded on vessels for England or where English wool was off-loaded.

London was the capital of both commerce and government. The City of London, the modern financial center just west of the Tower of London, was given over to commerce and enjoyed substantial autonomy and rights of self-regulation. A few miles further west along the Thames, the City of Westminster was the seat of the courts and the royal abbey. During the thirteenth century, it also came to be the place where Parliament, the English representative assembly, met. London's division into two urban nuclei was typical of medieval towns that tended not to have a planned but rather a spontaneous economic function along with a more institutionalized governmental center.

The Medieval Economy: Agriculture

More than 90% of the population was engaged in growing crops and tending animals. The agricultural cycle penetrated into towns. City dwellers kept gardens and animals: livestock were driven to urban markets (the neighborhood of “The Shambles” in York has the remnants of the medieval slaughterhouse and butchering establishments). The productive fields began just outside the town wall or precincts.

Agricultural laborers (peasants) not only fed themselves, but also at the same time supported the members of the privileged classes: nobles, rulers, clergy, merchants, and scholars. Peasants tilled land over which they had certain rights. However, they did not own their holdings in the modern sense of private property. They rented fields from a landlord. The landlord in turn might himself or herself not really own them either.

Rather the landlord held the property as a gift or fief from someone even higher in the social hierarchy to whom they in turn owed payments. Tenants in chief held their lands from the king himself. The king was responsible for defending the realm and administering royal justice. On occasions when his tenants believed the king had misused his powers, they imposed limits on his power, such as those stated in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests.

fief: military grant

Land represented wealth in a society that dealt partly in money, but also often in actual agricultural produce - sheaves of wheat, hens, or sides of bacon - as means of exchange. In theory, an individual peasant family obtained the right to plow, sow, and harvest specific pieces of land and to receive protection from their landlord. In return, they rendered not only what we would call “rent” (as with renting an apartment) but other payments that came to symbolize an attachment to the land or to their lord. These were not simply a business arrangement. Peasants made substantial payments by reason of their lords’ jurisdiction. Lords were able to:

  • judge their tenants' disputes
  • punish bad (or from the lord’s perspective inconvenient) behavior
  • demand tolls
  • hold monopolies on taverns, mills or ovens.

The Lord's monopoly meant that you had to buy ale from the lord, and you were compelled to mill your grain and bake your bread on the estate, all for a significant fee.

Extensive surviving accounts from the village of Warboys, for example, show tenants paying money rents to the landlord, the Bishop of Ely. Additionally, tenants made miscellaneous payments that were once in the form of fish or wine but were later (at the very beginning of the fourteenth century) rendered in coin. The accounts also record fines for:

  • women marrying without the consent of the bishop
  • assaults (infractions of the peace)
  • stealing poultry
  • taking wood from the forest without authorization
  • failing to fulfill an obligation to transport the lord’s goods
  • damages caused by horses to the lord’s meadow.

Restitution for dozens of other infractions also profited the Bishop of Ely.1

Medieval Peasants

Up to 50% of what an agricultural tenant family grew went to sustain the lord - who might be a great nobleman, a monastery, or a landowner of more modest station. The latter included newly-rich townsmen who sought status and security in land to offset the risks of trade and industry.

There is considerable debate among historians of England as to the actual economic and social condition of the peasants. An immense quantity of documents drawn up by agents of the landlords survive because they record land transfers. Since these transactions did not involve goods that were immediately consumed or transferred (like meat or grain or money), these records were deemed worth preserving long before anyone thought they might have historical interest. The records describe peasant tenants as residing on manors, estates with a great house, a village, mills, and other craft buildings (such as a blacksmith’s forge), all surrounded by cultivated fields, pastures and woods.

The peasants were often considered “villeins” or “serfs.” They were subordinated to their lords and so were deprived of the freedom to negotiate better terms for themselves. Villeins were in some sense the property of their lords. Though the fact that they contracted marriage and could not be moved around at the lord’s will differentiated them from slaves, the villeins were considered unfree: deprived of the right to appear in the king’s court and so to protest any form of exploitation or ill-treatment at the hands of their masters.

However, the real picture is more complicated even than what the documents convey: England was not divided up into neat manors and villages but into all sorts of settlements from isolated farmsteads to villages without manors. Lords did not usually have very coherent properties and some peasants “belonged” to more than one lord who divided the revenues of their labor. The fact that the peasants were on the land while the lords were usually away tending to wars, other properties, or even pursuing university careers, made the village more complex and gave more initiative to peasants than might at first appear.

There were well-off peasants of low (villein) social status just as there were many impoverished although technically free landless laborers who moved around looking for work. England was dense with villages in a way difficult to imagine now. Aerial surveys of fields show that at least 3,000 thirteenth-century English villages were eventually abandoned beginning with the Black Death of 1349, an epidemic that wiped out at least a third of the population. The abandoned Yorkshire village of Wharram Percy is among the sites that has been extensively excavated.

Medieval Government

The English kingdom was closely and efficiently governed by medieval standards. Medieval society generally tended towards decentralization and its most powerful elements were the secular aristocracy whose dominance was based on:

  • possession of land
  • military capability
  • prestige of birth
  • title
  • alliance with other noble families.

In much of Europe the nobles were able to wage war on their own, to collect tolls, regulate coinage, exercise judgment and in general to acquire the kind of power we associate in modern times exclusively with the state. The ambiguous border between private and public power is one of the most obvious characteristics of medieval society.

Modern Germany, for example, was part of an awkward hodge-podge of over 300 separate principalities including autonomous towns, bishoprics, and various teritories ruled by nobles. In the thirteenth century the German emperors lost much of their power and ability to control the nobles of what was a theoretical grand but in fact makeshift empire.

The English kings also suffered many setbacks especially for their overseas ambitions in France and Sicily, but within England the king was relatively successful and powerful. He was able to prohibit private warfare - although when the king was weak, as was the case during the disputed succession between Stephen and Matilda in the early twelfth century, or at the end of the Middle Ages in the Wars of the Roses, the nobles violated this prohibition with impunity. The English king reserved for himself many kinds of judicial disputes, collected considerable amounts of money from customs tolls on export commodities such as wool. He also appointed sheriffs in the sub-divisions of the kingdom (the shires) who tended to obey him rather than powerful local aristocrats.

Medieval states were dynastic rather than national. They were defined by family, marriage, and inheritance rather than by language or ethnicity. The English kings not only held substantial amounts of French territory but spoke French. In fact, until the late thirteenth century they probably did not understand English at all. The language of learning was of course Latin, and the language of law and administration was for the most part Latin or French. The flowering of Middle English, the era of Chaucer and his literary contemporaries, came in the late fourteenth century.

We speak of medieval England as a separate kingdom and geographical expression, but its rulers also had interests and titles beyond the confines of the realm. Starting with the Norman Conquest of 1066, the kings of England held territory on the European continent in some nominal loyalty to the king of France. Normandy itself, from which the invasion was launched, was a duchy to which the French king claimed overlordship. The complexity of royal ambitions, marriages, and political claims ensured a series of wars between the rulers of England and France over the lands ruled by England but claimed by France.

With the marriage of Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine in the mid-twelfth century, the new Angevin Dynasty that controlled England also ruled over what is now the western half of France. This was a territory running from the western Pyrenees to Brittany in the north. By the thirteenth century the French were able to wrest most of that land from England, but the southwestern regions of Gascony and Guyenne remained part of the territories controlled by the English monarchs.

Towards the end of the thirteenth century, English expansion turned increasingly towards the Celtic frontier as Edward I conquered Wales and attempted, with less success, to impose English rule over Scotland. England's claims on lands located in France finally culminated in the series of conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War. It lasted from 1337 until 1454 and ended with the English crown losing its continental lands.

Church and State

The Church was supposed to be immune from the king’s taxation and jurisdiction. Great battles were fought between the popes and secular rulers over the degree to which the state could interfere in the affairs of the Church. This was not so much an issue of religious orthodoxy as a question of money and political power. The Church owned considerable amounts of land with its own peasants, mills, sheep, and other sources of revenue. It received tithes and other dues from the faithful even if they were not Church tenants.

By Bartholomew’s time some of these issues had been settled. In the 1170s King Henry II claimed rights to tax and to judge clerics. He was bitterly opposed by Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whom the king in exasperation had ordered to be murdered. This act made Becket the chief martyr and saint of England and forced Henry II to back off from his demands. But in many respects the English king still controlled the Church - he greatly influenced the election of bishops and he could negotiate “voluntary” Church contributions.

King Henry II had been eager to appropriate church revenues because, as always, the state needed money for wars, administration, regulation and the expansion of its authority. This chronic lack of financial resources could not be remedied simply by raising taxes. The king, as a great property owner with his extensive private revenues, was not customarily allowed to tax except around the margins of society. He could receive fines from those found guilty of judicial offenses, and he could collect customs dues for merchandise entering or leaving the country. He could even extort tributes as a feudal lord (for example in giving widows of noble tenants permission to re-marry for a fee). But there was no income tax, and taxes on property could only be exacted in exceptional circumstances.

The era of Bartholomew was of key importance in balancing the demands of the state to organize society and the ability of the king’s subjects to discuss and consent to taxation. The nobles of the realm forced King John to agree to the Magna Carta (“Great Charter”) in 1215. It was in effect a detailed list of things that the king could and more significantly could not impose on his subjects. View pictures of the parchment Magna Carta .

Magna Carta served as the fundamental grounds during the thirteenth century and beyond for limiting the king’s ability to tax at will. It enshrined a notion of consent to taxation that would serve as the foundation of parliamentary authority in the face of royal power. The right of the populace to consent to taxation meant that the king had to consult a body representative of the lords of the countryside, but also members of the towns.

The Medieval University

Clerical immunity from secular judgment was rigorously observed. This privilege applied to masters and students in the cathedral schools and eventually universities, since even students (all of them male) with no intention of becoming priests were considered clergy. In 1209 an Oxford student murdered a woman in the town. He managed to flee, but in an example of collective punishment, his roommates were hanged by the town government.

This violation of clerical and university immunity resulted in a kind of strike: most of the faculty and students left Oxford (some for Cambridge which from this point becomes visible as the second great university of the realm). Only in 1214 was an agreement reached, restoring clerical immunity and requiring fines and penance from the townsmen who had hanged the young scholars.2 Clerical immunity is the distant origin of the autonomy of today’s North American colleges, to the extent that they enjoy some self-regulation and lack of interference from the local police.

Schools, cathedrals, and the early universities depended on income from land and revenues from the mass of the population who worked the soil. Surrounded by rural spaces, they served as lords in much the same way as knights. Fellows of the colleges comprising the universities of Oxford and Cambridge administered lands belonging to their colleges. They periodically surveyed their properties and received payments from tenants. For example, William Heytesbury, one of the group of logicians and natural philosophers at Merton College (Oxford) visited lands belonging to the College in the north of England to audit accounts, oversee the harvest, and collect dues owed by tenants.3

To this day faculty of Oxford and Cambridge colleges are much more intimately involved in the finances of their institutions than their counterparts in the U.S., Canada or elsewhere in the U.K. Much of the endowment of Oxford and Cambridge colleges is still in land, although peasants are now pretty much a thing of the past.

The intellectual life of the scholastic thinkers and their students was thus built on the labor of peasants and the favor of monarchs and aristocrats who found the organization of learning useful for their purposes. Not all students became philosophers or theologians. Education in the schools created an elite skilled in disputation, judgment, and administration. The early universities trained preachers and others who dealt with the populace, as well as a more speculative professorial group who remained in the privileged sanctuaries of the schools.

Academic systems of thought were by no means isolated or without impact. Preachers, teachers, definers of orthodoxy, geographers, scientists and experts in politics - the scholars of the thirteenth century enjoyed a prestige and impact on government and society that today’s professors can only envy.

1. For more of these records, in modern English, see Edwin Brezette DeWindt, A Slice of Life: Selected Documents of Medieval English Peasant Experience, Kalamazoo, 1996.

2. This incident is described in Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075-1225, Oxford, 2000, p. 514

3. As noted by Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century, Cambridge, 1998, pp. 34-35.