Medieval European Society During 14th Century

Image from The Medievalist –

One surname type is that of occupations, and these can be traced back to Medieval times across Europe.

The surname of Smith refers to someone who worked with metal. The surname Silversmith was used by someone who worked with silver. In German speaking parts of Europe, someone who worked with metal was called Schmidt, which translates to Smith.

Someone who worked with wood often had the surname of Carpenter, those who spoke French, were called Charpentier and those who were in German speaking areas, called Zimmerman. Those who made wooden furniture could were often called Joiner, which in French translates to Joignour.  You could ask why the need for a separate name, such as joiner, but the reality is that surnames began because we needed to distinguish one person from another. The diversification of joiner from carpenter, could be quite simply the use of wood in a specific way – the general carpenter, took that name in the simple form, whereas the chap who made his living making furniture selected the name joiner, because he quite simply did literally that, he joined wood.

A baker in England often had the surname of Boulanger in France, or Becker in Germany. A butcher in England often took the surname of Bouchère (female) or Boucher (male) in France, in Germany the name was Metzgerin (female) or Metzger (male); and in Italy the name translates to Macellaia (female) or Macellaio (male).

Surnames though do not exist in isolation, they represent people who were living their lives and in order to consider those people, it is useful to add some context to their lives, and the times in which they lived; essentially setting the stage.

At this period of time, the chances are, we may not be able to identify “our people”. That very much depends on their social standing, their country of origin, occupation and any other identifiable marker, that could be potentially found in historical records. For most of us they are likely to not be available, but if they are then that is a win.

In Medieval times, society was primarily comprised of three elements – Christianity, agrarian and feudal.

Christianity – Broadly speaking, it was very likely that England, France, Italy and Germany were all similar during the 14th Century.

The Church of England was no different to the State in Medieval Europe. The church was an important part of everyday life, and its functionality was that of a governing body. During 14th Century it was simply inconceivable that the Church and State were two separate entities.

The church owned a significant amount of property and coupled with business interests, and its involvement with various levels of education, the church played a significant part in the affairs in Medieval society.

The church organised the timings of festivals, and feast days, as the seasons passed – Lent for example was organised by the church when the granaries dried up and meat was a shortage. Easter was seen as a celebration of the resurrection of Christ, but the festival took place when the grains were refilled and vegetables could be harvested.

Agrarian – Every household in the 14th Century had a self sufficient vegetable garden and space for small animals. Subsistence farming had become a dominant way of life after the urban centres of the Roman Empire collapsed.

Villages followed the Open Field System, thin long strips of the field outside of village centres. The planted fields were kept for as long as possible as they were ploughed by Oxon, and later by horses. Farms gave assistance to neighbouring farms with planting, ploughing, harvesting and other agricultural measures.

The farmer took care of the crops and field rotations, enabling nitrogen in the soil to go back into the ground and the land given the time to adjust. At key times even the children assisted.

There were disputes being villagers and there are as a result of this some fascinating court documents that are able to shine a light on the nature of the disputes and how the situation was ordered to be addressed. These disputes could be things like individuals ploughing too much in their neighbours strips, or adjustments made to what was agreed to be grown.

Feudal System – This flourished during the 14th century, establishing a social hierarchy in the community. The tip of the structure was the King, with the Nobles, Earls, Vassals, Peasants all situated beneath the King, with varying levels of servitude.

The King pledged support and protection to the Nobles and granted them land and titles. The Nobles in turn vowed loyalty to the King, promising to provide military service.

Vassalage System – This was the lower ranking men who pledged their loyalty to the Nobles, and entered into a mutual obligation.

The peasants agreed with their Lords on the amount of harvest or the number of days labour and earnt the right to retain a portion of the harvest.

Medieval society was organised on a Three Estate Model, which essentially divided the community and society into three social orders:

  • Those that ruled or fought
    • Those that fought and were supposed to protect the others in the social order
  • Those that prayed
    • Those protecting humanity for committing sins
  • Those that worked (representing about 90% of the people)
    • Those that supported the members of the two groups above which together represented about 10% of the people.

Social Movement – The eldest son born into the family of the First Estate inherited the titles, lands and income of the family. By the 14th Century Nobles and landowners realised the practice of Primogeniture was the only way to retain power and legacy.

The solution to the problem was to send children to pray as Monks and Nuns. Children born into the First Estate would become part of the Second Estate and lead comfortable lives. The Clergy, Nobility and Peasantry constituted the Three Estate Model.

A typical village in the 14th Century consisted of houses, a church, and trade shops. They would be gathered together in a cluster that would be surrounded by ploughland, called the Open Field System. which followed a Three Field System, whereby two fields were planted and the third field rested, or lay fallow for the year.

Better farming methods, produced more food. In turn that meant that people had more to eat and were better able to resist illnesses and diseases, living longer and as a consequence populations grew. The more people there were, the more there was a need to expand a naming process, as we needed to be able to identify one person, from another as I have outlined in the beginning of this post.

For those who perhaps want to explore their surnames, the Introduction to One-Name Studies begins next week, details can be found HERE.

About Julie Goucher

Genealogist, Author, Presenter, native Guildfordian, avid note taker and journal writer. Lover of Books, Stationery & History; Surnames, Butcher & Orlando One-Name Studies. Pharos Tutor for all One-Name Studies/surname courses as well as Researching Ancestors from Continental Europe.
This entry was posted in 14th Century, Historical Time Periods, History, Medieval Period, One-Name Studies, Surnames. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.