The Medieval Social Hierarchy - Imagined and Real

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1. Medieval Society as imagined by medieval writers.
2. Medieval Society As Imagined Today
3. Force, Love, and Ideology
4. The Two Kinds of "Love" - Charity and Cupidity
5. From Analogy to Allegory

Medieval Society As Imagined By Medieval Writers (diagram on the left)

The "triangle", or hierarchy on the left above is a crude pictorialization of the way medieval society was imagined by medieval writers and as it was universally thought and taught. Reflecting the hierarchical structure of the Created Universe, the King/Prince was at the apex, and the people beneath. Ecclesiastical and secular thinkers disagreed over whether the Pope or the Emperor should logically be supreme, in theory, but in reality the secular rulers had the force and the issue was never really in doubt after the twelfth century.

Medieval Society As Imagined Today (diagram on the right)

I have drawn the "triangle" representing the "imagined" society of the Middle Ages very regularly in order to suggest that the medieval conception of society was not entirely false -- else nobody would have believed it -- but highly idealized and stylized. The diagram on the right is drawn in the form of a graph, to represent: an attempt at a more scientifically accurate viewpoint (as the graph is associated with mathematics and science).

If the "Y" axis charts social status, or wealth, or power, and the "X" axis charts population, then it is clear that medieval society must be represented by the kind of curve shown above (looking in the upper right quadrant of the graph). A very small number of people held a great deal of wealth, prestige, and power -- the landowners. They called themselves the"aristocracy" (from the  ancient Greek landlords' flattering name for themselves, meaning "the best people rule") or "nobility" (which means about the same thing in Latin). That is, if any high point (denoting great wealth/power/prestige) on the "Y" axis is chosen, its coordinate point on the "X" axis will be a very low number (a small number of people). Likewise, a very large number of people, the masses of the population -- the peasantry and the mass of townsfolk -- have very little wealth/power/prestige.

If we imagine drawing the curve with very wet ink, and then folding the graph along the "Y" axis, we would get a diagram such as that on the right. We would do this only so we could contrast the resulting diagram -- a "triangle" with heavily curved sides -- with the idealized one on the left. This is meant to suggest that the imagined society of the Middle Ages did capture some elements of reality -- namely, the inequality -- but in an abstract and idealized form.

Force, Love and Ideology

What "held Medieval society together"? In one sense, it was similar to contemporary society: shared values.

Today these values are mainly secular political notions, such as "this is a democracy," "we have more or less equal opportunity," "hard work is rewarded, while the poor are lazy," and others like them. In short, what retains citizens' loyalty in modern society is some concept that the society is legitimate. Ultimately, the force and violence of those who rule determine the matter, but these are of limited use when the notion that a social order is illegitimate is widespread among the population.

In the Middle Ages the notions or ideas that legitimated the social order were religious ones (religious values are not insignificant today, but they are not as important as "secular" ideas such as "democracy", and so on). The social hierarchy was said to be "good" because "ordained by God" and, by analogy with the overarching hierarchy of the Created Universe with the all-powerful God in control. Obedience "flowed upwards," with those below obeying those above them in the social order, while authority "flowed downwards," with those above commanding those below. This was said to be a direct reflection of the divine will, since it was analogous to the relationships in the Universe itself, where God commanded and everything and everybody else obeyed.

The Two Kinds of "Love"

1. "Caritas" The Two Kinds of "Love"Divine Love -- "L'amore, che muove il sole e l'altre stelle"  (Dante, Il Paradiso)

"Love, that moves the sun and the other stars." By "love" was meant the God-ordained relationships between God and His creations, and among the creations themselves. The force binding the Universe together was said to be "love." "Divine love" kept the sun, moon, planets and stars rotating in their place around the earth.

Divinely-ordained, hierarchical, "ordinate" (hierarchy = "order", remember) relationships were said to be relationships of "Love," reflecting God's love for His creation and His creatures, especially Man. So the King/Prince showed his "love" by exercising just authority, by "ruling justly", while the peasantry, the subjects, showed "love" by submitting humbly to this rule even when it was unjust.

In this sense it was as Dante said: "Love" moved the heavenly bodies, kept them in their place, just as "love" kept the Medieval subjects in their place in society.

Conversely, anyone attempting to change social relationships, or doing things that resulted in a threat to change them, was acting contrary to the will of God, and in an unloving, or "hateful" manner. So this concept of "Love" served to support a highly exploitative and authoritarian social structure. Once again, we see that the political value of traditional Christian ideology was (and is) highly conservative, even reactionary.

2. "Cupiditas", or Sinful Love

Any attempt to change social relationships was, by definition, bad, because a violation of "God's love," an attempt to create an "ungodly" state of affairs. It was a "sin" - because "sin" is anything that goes contrary to God's will. And "sin" is a "lack of love", or -- to put it another way -- "hatred."

Or, to put it yet another and important way -- "lust," a carnal, that is, "Fleshly" (Latin carnis = "flesh, meat" and so "The Flesh") love, a "love according to the Flesh, not according to the Reason."   Because the imagined  Medieval Social Hierarchy -- the diagram at the left, above -- stands in analogous relationship to all the other divine hierarchies (see the discussion of Reason and the Flesh on a separate page). Divine, or "spiritual", or "Rational" love pertains to the Reason, as earthly, carnal, fleshly love pertains to The Flesh.

From Analogy to Allegory

So, caritas is to cupiditas as Reason  is to the Flesh, as Man is to Woman, as the King is to his Kingdom, as Adam is to Eve, as God is to His Created Universe... and so on. This is how the system of analogies works.

Logically, this is not far from having one hierarchy "stand in for", or represent, another. Since all hierarchies are analogous to one another, it's easy to see how the heir to the throne of France could be called a "Dolphin." So, if you depict a Dolphin in a poem, it could be made to represent the heir to the throne. A poem about the society of fish could easily be understood as a poem about human society, rather than about fish.

Similarly, all hierarchies are analogous to that of "Adam" and "Eve". And the overturning of any hierarchy, the upsetting of any order, could be seen as recapitulating, or repeating, reiterating, etc. in the present the Original Sin of Eve's yielding to the Serpent and "seducing" Adam to disobey God by eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Since all sin is "love according to the Flesh" or an abandonment of Reason, therefore, all sin could be viewed as "adultery," which is "love according to the Flesh" in a very literal sense. Therefore it's common to see any kind of sin discussed in terms of "adultery" -- i.e., as a form of   "irrational Love," or "love according to the Flesh," or "love not sanctioned by God."

All sins could be, and were, viewed as "perverted Love": love of money (avarice); of food (gluttony); of "your neighbor's wife" (lechery); of one's physical self (pride, vainglory); and so on. And, similarly, adultery, a very literal form of "perverted Love" (Latin perverto = "to turn away from the proper direction," i.e. "away from the divinely-sanctioned path") could be a "figure" -- a representation, whether verbally or pictorially -- of any kind of sin (since all sin is love of something that should not be loved -- see the pages from St. Augustine's On Christian Doctrine). | | created 22 Jan 99