Monday, 19 January 2015

Episode 8: Medieval society

In this episode we take a break from the political development to look at how medieval society was organised. As in other European countries it was comprised of four groups - farmers, city dwellers, clergy and nobility.

Adam digging in Ärentuna church
Farmers was the largest group by far. Serfdom never existed in Sweden. Some farmers owned their own land (most of them did), others tilled lands rented from the clergy or the nobility but they were still free men, subject to the same laws and with the same rights as self-owning farmers. The political influence of farmers was also somewhat larger than in most other European states. And the nobility was comparatively less powerful than in other countries. They were few, of course, but also genereally poorer and more "reined in" by the kingship. They didn't have serfs or the power to pass judgement on their tenants, nor (except in one case) the power to appoint priests. French and English aristocracy would probably have look at them with scornful pity.

Towns were small and city dwellers few. Acutally it was probably rahter unusual with guilds in Swedish towns in the middle ages. We know about such institutions only from the late 15th century - probably because towns were too small for it to make sense.

Eve spinning in Härkeberga church
The clergy  were more like their European counterparts since the church was an international institutions. As in other countries the wealth and lifestile of the clergy varied widely, from the ordinary parish priest sharing the life of his neighbouring farmers to the bishops and abbots, generally recruted from the nobility.

Church paintings often show farm life. Adam is often seen digging, here with an ironshod spade (new and fancy!), and Eve is spinning and caring for children. The verse "When Adam dug and Eve spun - who was then a noble man?" also exists in a Swedish version: "När Adam grävde och Eva spann - vem var då en adelsman?"