Service has kind of a bad rap now a days. Perhaps it’s due to the tumultuous period in semi-recent history where various modern cultures took advantage of class disparity… but there was a time when domestic and labor service wasn’t a bad thing on principle. Even in the high middle ages, when there was a hard social difference between the gentry and the common classes, service was a respectable way of life. And not just for the peasants and serfs, if you think about what being noble really means in medieval society it comes down entirely to service.
The aristocratic types such as titled nobles, untitled gentry, and knights had a feudal military obligation to the crown in times of war. In fact, if they refused to participate martially when called they were penalized with fines. I’ve not done enough research to know exactly how hefty the tax was for skipping out on war and if it was actually cheaper than martial service; presumably it was enough to help finance levies and hiring soldiers. Generally, however, wealth and influence was compensation for being beholden to their lords for martial service. Though the commoners could be levied and pressed into service, it wasn’t the primary method for amassing troops. They weren’t paid a tremendous amount, but commoners brought to war were generally paid in cash by their direct superior such as a knight. Part of the tremendous expense of being a knight or other nobility was the burden of providing these troops if called upon.
The knight or lord himself wasn’t paid by the crown to muster his lance (the military unit, not the weapon). The crown granted him lands with which to develop income and the social influence to have peasants and vassals. Beyond that, it was the gentleman’s responsibility to ensure that he had the appropriate tools to go to war if called upon, such as purchasing his armor, maintaining a horse, and buying a lance (the weapon, not the military unit). This included hiring soldiers and archers and ostlers and other assorted entourage that was essential for operating on campaign.
So lords were in service to the crown, lesser gentles in service to their lords, yeoman and other free commoners owed land service to their superiors, and at the bottom you had villains or other beholden peasants owing direct service to their owners. But despite this tradition of service, even though popular culture today likes to portray serfs and knaves as destitute slaves to arrogant lords the zeitgeist of medieval culture was far less oppressive. Servants were generally not powerless slaves to the nobility’s sadistic whims and direct service to powerful lords or even royalty itself was a proven method of improving one’s station within their social class.
On the other hand, a servant represented your status as a lord. Most people, outside of the highest circles, interacted with your servants far more often than they did with you yourself. That made them an an extension of your presence and reputation. A great display of wealth is being able to decorate not just yourself, but the wardrobe of your wife, and children, and the people you owned. A laborer had to make due on their wages alone, but a peasant in service to a household could expect at least the comforts of their patron’s estates. Even if they were never as wealthy as the lord, service to wealthier people had residual benefits.
Residual benefits, mind you. I doubt that any lord’s valet earned enough coin to buy a hood edged in jewels, but there were sumptuary laws against commoners wearing stones. What necessitated such a law? The price of the stones themselves must not have been deterrent enough. The late 14th century was the beginning of the decline of feudalism in western Europe, but the most famous sumptuary laws predate the topple of the aristocracy. The writing may have been on the wall, and the laws were probably motivated primarily by an attempt to suppress the burgeoning “middle class” of wealthy merchants. The kind who, though technically common, were rich enough to afford the accouterments of the nobility. However, a complete personal opinion, I suspect there was also an attempt at saving a lesser noble’s pride when a greater noble’s servant was dressed better than him.
I know I would do it, if I could afford it. Nobility in 14th century Europe was almost exponential in how wealth increased up the chain. A Duke’s income was an order of magnitude greater than the next rung down on the hierarchy. The culture of the day was to dress to impress. You adorned yourself in fine fabric and expensive ornamentation to show off how wealthy you were. But it didn’t end at your coat-tails. You draped your horse in magnificent barding, bedazzled your wife with jewelry, and campaigned in a flamboyantly painted tent with long streaming flags. By that reasoning, the better your servants looked, the better you as their lord looked. If I had the cash and no one telling me not to, I wouldn’t think twice about dressing my servants up as richly as I could afford. I could also see this rubbing the gentry beneath you the wrong way.
Even if your lord didn’t shower you with magnificent clothing, the better a servant you were in appearance and conduct, the better a lord you could expect to enlist as your patron. The dark ages and high middle ages weren’t representations of the most altruistic times in our society, I don’t want anyone to misconstrue what I’m acknowledging here. It was a brutal time and people’s lives were harsh, hard, and it’s far nicer to be alive today than it was back then. But mobility within a social class was possible, even if changing from one cast to the next was not.
Even keeping in mind that the best servants of the day were treated in a way that we, today, would consider exploitative: service was a mechanic that, taking into account the the social dynamic of the day, was about as mutually beneficial as one could hope for. And though the upper class (obviously) benefited more than the peasants, I find it most interesting that even the nobles spent time in direct service. Below is an excerpt from the book Daily Life in Chaucer’s England (page 39 if you’re curious) in regards to service among the upper class to the upper class.
“Even a young aristocrat might spend time in service in some noble household, a boy as a page and later as a squire, a girl as a lady-in-waiting, acquiring social polish and learning the skills appropriate to their class.”
I am willing to conceded that I am not necessarily what you’d consider a “young aristocrat” by my physical age, but I do consider myself to be in the youth of my portrayal as a gentleman of the late 14th early 15th century. I have quite a bit to learn about customs and qualities of this social station through research online and in print. There is also a unique and established culture among reenactors specific to this time period and this region of the country which I have to navigate and learn.
So, while out at Days of Knights I found myself with a unique opportunity. As I’ve mentioned in my recap, I tried to perform as many historically oriented actives, overtly or personally, as possible to enhance the living history aspect and augment my own experiences and portrayal (future and present.) Surrounded by some of the giants of our corner of the living history world I was able to observe first-hand the way these individuals interacted with each other in a living history context. However, I also made a point of keeping myself available, as much as possible, to assist the others on the list field. Hammering stakes, repairing the perimeter fence of the list field, fetching water, getting people in and out of armor; while I was no one’s squire (that’s a post for a different day) I was very much in service to the fighters there during the course of the weekend.
The pinnacle of this service was Saturday night over supper when our camp, The Medieval Swordsman Guild of Kansas City, had the fortunate happenstance to host the members of La Belle to a meal at our table (metaphorically, there wasn’t enough room so we carried their table over and put it adjacent to ours.) Saturday night was the night of the feast that wasn’t a feast. In years past I hear DoK had a feast provided by the city for the reenactors, but this year that part of the event was cancelled due to budget. Instead there was an informal pot-luck / get together type event. We had prepared some food to bring, but the actual shindig was quite a long walk across a dark field and there were some concerns about the logistics of porting cast iron cauldrons of bubbling pulled pork; among other foods.
In the end we decided to just eat at camp instead, and maybe join the larger party for revelries after we were full. About the time we were getting ready to sit down and eat, I noticed that some of the members of La Belle, who were camped just a few hundred feet from us, were milling about their table loaded with food all with head-scratching looks resembling us five minutes before we decided to give up on joining the feast part of the feast that wasn’t a feast. (Fun fact: I never did make it to that feast or the revel.) I invited them over to our camp for dinner, so that they could march their food the short distance to our sun fly instead of all the way across the field like it was obvious they were somewhat reluctant to do.
To my personal delight they accepted, and after a few short minutes of carrying stuff we had Peter, Ian, Robert, Erci, and David from La Belle to dinner with us. Bob, Garrison, and Stan were there. Todd and Heidi were in company and so were the adopted routier we had collected over the weekend such as Kari and Jason. These guests were in addition to the KC Sword Guild itself: Trevor, Bruce, Alyson, Reece, Todd, Ben, Danielle, Richelle, Elizabeth, and Justice.
Suffice to say, it was quite the soiree. As everyone was still busy getting seated and settled and introduced I had a light bulb moment (flint and steel moment? Candle flame moment?) in regards to the food. None of the food, except for what La Belle brought, was on the tables. La Belle‘s food was on their table by virtue of having been transported to our camp that way. Ours, however, was still in pots in the dug out fire pit in the center of camp. Todd had started serving and a few of the eager and the hungry were going over to the fire pit to gather up food, but this was a fancy dress party and many of our guest were done up in their nicer gear.
I went and started to gather people’s plates and deliver them their grub. We had large pitchers and ewers of drink that I took around the table to offer people their refreshments and pour it for them. I didn’t even spill on anyone! (That was not, necessarily, the case with water during the day…) Periodically during the meal I checked on beverage levels, offered to gather people’s seconds, etc. I didn’t make a big deal of it, that wasn’t what it was about. If I made a spectacle of it, the purpose would have been defeated. My goal wasn’t to draw attention to myself and get a big pat on the back for it. It was a great way to socialize as well, since large parties tend to naturally pair off into smaller groups of the two or four people adjacent to you at the table. Moving around allowed me to participate in more of these small conversations and with far more of our guests than I would have if I had kept my seat all night. It was a chance to develop my impression by performing a little genuine living history in my own way. I got to interact with, care for, and facilitating a nice meal for people I socially admire.
I had no interest in shifting the focus away from that, and instead took pride in emulating, in a small way, the type of service a young lord may have completed in his youth. I like to think that this will add substance and depth to my impression once I get to the point where I can really and firmly call myself a esquire, knight, or lord in respects to the hobby. It’s something to think about if you, too, are developing an authentic aristocratic persona. There is a wealth of background skills and experiences that a genuine gentle or noble of the time would have taken for granted in the same way I take for granted how much growing up with modern technology influences my basic outlook and perspective on how the world functions. While we can never replace our basic programming in pursuit of a historical impression, I find things like these to be thoroughly enjoyable ways to provide perspective and sharpen my presentation.
SOURCE: This is an opinion piece, and mostly reflects my feelings and impressions. However, developing these opinions draws heavily from Daily Life in Chaucer’s England by Jeffrey L Forgengand Will McLeon in addition to general common themes I’ve found recurring among the hive mind of blog articles, forum posts, history books, and conversations with other reenactors.