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Authority for the Wealthy, Tribulation for the Peasants

Like Islam, Christendom had political problems – despite the piety of its people, well born and not. People were stuck in an outlook that today can be described as belonging to the Middle Ages. It was a culture that included common people being unable to read or write. People were still connected to stories by word of mouth – the old Biblical stories of happenings among the Jews and the New Testament stories about Jesus Christ. Common people considered those of the clergy who could read as having a gift from God. Those were times when common people respected priests and viewed them as above them in understanding what was happening and what it was all about. Common people were mostly peasants who, when they had not lost their senses and control in a rage of rebellion, felt they had a most humble place that included being rustic and poor. Normally, they saw God as having chosen others for a better earthly fortune, and they agree with the kingly claims that God had given their kings their right to power. They accepted this right as dynastic, not as something earned but as a right passed from God-appointed king to his sibling. It was another instance of what was being seen as meant to be.

Politics in what today are France, Italy, Germany was in the 700s still fragmented among small kingdoms. And the little kings were likely to be figurehead leaders, landowners in alliance with other landowners who were inclined to assume as much local authority as they could. Wealth was largely in land and the agriculture it produced. Common people worked land owned by the wealthy, and they paid for their place on it by giving the landowner a good percentage of the crops they grew. The wealthy feasted on dazzling presentations of food in their castles while common people lived in huts, arose at dawn and bedded down with the setting of the sun. It was rare for a common family to have candles to light their home. In the early evenings they might have light from their fireplace. They had no chimney, smoke rising through the roof. Light through glass windows was had only by the very rich, and churches with the stained glass. Also, the common people had no running water for cooking or drinking or sanitation. Water had to be fetched.

Writing about life expectancy in the Middle Ages, Sarah Woodbury (author and historian with a degree in anthropology, sarahwoodbury.com) writes:

For starters, infants and children died at a horrific rate (some say up to 1/3 of all died before the age of 5) and a significant percentage of women died in association with childbirth: 5% perhaps from the birth itself, often dying with the child, and a further 15% from childbed fever–the infections that followed a poorly managed delivery (by our standards).

Following that, if a person made it out of childhood, they could be expected to live into their middle forties, provided they maintained good health and weren’t killed in war.

Kings did better. The mean life expectancy of kings of Scotland and England, reigning from 1000 A.D. to 1600 A.D. were 51 and 48 years, respectively. Their monks did not fare as well. In the Carmelite Abbey, only five percent survived past 45. This site says wealthier people would have a life expectancy of more than forty years.

It was common to see their struggle to live as a fate bestowed upon them by a righteous god. The poor were tolerant also toward the crude and violent men of authority over their lives. These authoritarians were men removed from the old tribal culture that had governed their manner of behaving within their tribe. The old tribal spirit of these Germanic people had been more equality-based (including more equality between the sexes than in the civilizations of Romans or the Greeks). But the tribal bonds of previous generations had been broken by conquest, new identifications and new authority. The new Germanic men of power exercised their authority as suited their passions, taking and discarding wives and concubines as they pleased and believing that they had the right to deflower a commoner's bride before he was allowed to consummate his marriage (a practice in Latin called the droit du seigneur. It seems absurd among modernized people today, but it was common in the Middle Ages because of the docility of the poor and pious.

CONTINUE READING: Migrations, Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire and Feudalism

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.