Monday, January 15, 2018

Monks and Serfs: Building the Civilization of Middle Ages

When looking at the achievements of Medieval society, it’s tempting to focus on the people at the top: the scholars who laid the foundations for modern mathematics and physics; the artists and architects who created masterpieces which people today admire in museums and cathedrals; the royalty who formulated administrative patterns which freed citizens from the harsh absolutism of the Roman Empire.

But, as Bertolt Brecht would remind the reader in his Fragen eines Lesenden Arbeiters, the actual work of building a civilization is done by lots of ordinary people.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., social structures would gradually emerge in which much of the creative and productive work was done by two classes of people: the serfs on the one hand; on the other hand, monks and nuns.

The monks did a wide range of tasks: brewing beer and making wine; teaching the Greek and Latin languages to preserve the texts of classical antiquity; managing great libraries which preserved the writings of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Tacitus, and many other ancients; distributing food and clothes to the poor; providing counsel to those facing grief or hardship; managing agriculture; caring for gardens which grew medicinal herbs; and more.

The serfs did large-scale agricultural work as well as woodwork and other basic forms of manual labor. While the upper classes often faced marriages which were either arranged or at least made with an eye to the financial and political implications of the prospective union, serfs were often free to marry for love.

As historian Irma Simonton Black notes,

Outside the monasteries of the church, where monks worked for the glory of God, fields were plowed and harvests were gathered by peasants. A few of them were free men, but by far the greater number of workers were “serfs.” The word serf comes from the same Latin word as “serve” and “servant.” The serfs were not exactly slaves. A noble could not buy and sell them at will the way he could his cows, for instance.
Although the Middle Ages are sometimes depicted as the ‘Dark Ages,’ it is documented that the scholars in central and northern Europe, as well as on the British isles, were conversant not only with Latin but also with Greek.

Medieval scholars also had the texts of Virgil, Homer, and Aristotle. The thinkers of the Middle Ages did not have to wait for the Renaissance for some alleged ‘rediscovery’ of the treasures of antiquity. Those texts were present and accessible for the medieval monks.

The serfs enjoyed a life which represented an advance of the absolute rule claimed by the Roman emperors. While the Roman system asserted an total authority for the emperors, the feudal system articulated two-way obligations: to be sure, the serfs owed certain duties or payments to their feudal lords, but the lords also had commitments to the serfs, and the serfs were even able to make claims against a feudal lord who failed to carry out his responsibilities.