Nobility in the Middle Ages

Nobility in the Middle Ages

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Nobility in the Middle Ages

The definition of who was or who was not a noble(aristocrat) varied from place to place. For example, in Italy a noble was likely to be a wealthy banker or merchant/tradesman. Aristocrats in Italy lived behind walls in high fortresses. In the 1200's there were over 275 of these towered fortresses within the city of Florence alone. Many of them were 200 feet in height and surrounded by moats for protection. The moats were also used as the castles sewage system. Money was not the only way that one could attain the social status of a noble. Gallantry could also allow for upward social movement. Brave fighters were sometimes knighted and given large tracts of land for their bravery.

Directly below the king and queen of the country were the princes and princesses. They were the daughters and the sons of the king and queen. Below them were the dukes who governed a province. The dukes' wife was called a duchess. Below the duke was a marquis. Originally, marquis was the title for a military officer of high standing, but over time it became a rank of nobility. The marquis' wife was called a marquise. Below a marquis was a count and his wife who was a countess. They were usually members of the royal court. In England this title was equal to an earl. Earl was followed by viscount(viscountess), and then baron and baroness.

The base of noble life was the family and the family's interests came before an individual's interests. Marriage was not something that was done for love, but instead for alliances. Very few nobles had residences that had more than three rooms. English kings were known to hold court in their bedrooms due to the lack of space. There was little privacy in a castle or manor, and few cared about cleanliness. Most people took only 2 baths a year. Children usually slept with their parents. At the same time, the child mortality rate was exceptionally high, and as a result noble women married as young as 12 years of age and they bore three times as many children as women do today.

Nobles spent the vast majority of their time in the castle hall. It was there that they ate, conducted business, held court, and entertained guests. Castles were usually cold dingy smoky places with little light. Fireplaces and chimneys were unknown until the 1200's. Until that time they simply built a fire on the bedroom floor for warmth. Torches were used for lighting, and they were usually very smoky and smelled terribly. Also, tallow candles were in great use. Nobles were known to decorate their walls in enormous tapestries in an attempt to warm the room. These tapestries usually depicted a Biblical scene or hunting scene. Everyone except the noble of the house slept on the floor on straw. The lord and lady slept in wooden frame beds which were usually very nice. Most used the finest linen.

The most popular sports among the nobles were hunting, hawking, and falconry. Great care was taken in the training and feeding of the falcons. Hawks were fed doves, pork, and chicken. Knights and ladies alike were known to carry their favorite hooded hawk on their wrist. Knights never slowed down. They exercised and rode horses all of the time. Knights also participated in jousting tournaments using spears 20 feet long and weighing 20 or more pounds. The idea was to charge at each other at full speed with the spear leveled and knock the opponent off his horse by hitting him squarely in the head or shoulders.

Procession of Knights

Bethrothal of Maxillian to Mary of Burgundy