Social mobility in the Middle Ages: could medieval people improve their station?

Professor Chris Dyer explains to David Musgrove whether medieval people could improve their lot, or whether they were stuck in the life they were born into

A 14th-century depiction of bakers at work.

Could medieval people, particularly those born into serfdom or the broader peasantry, do anything to improve their lot? That’s a question I asked Professor Chris Dyer, an expert on medieval social history, during a podcast interview on daily life in the Middle Ages.

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“I think people have a conception, which is partly true, of a rather rigid, compartmentalised society in which people had defined roles and very strong formal commitments, and where their actions were very limited,” says Professor Dyer.

“About 40 per cent of the English population in the middle of the Middle Ages (in the 13th century) were serfs. So they were unfree, and it is easy to represent them as being a very oppressed, very limited, very controlled group who had to work for their lord and had limitations on their freedom of marriage, for example. At the same time, the people at the top of society, the aristocracy, were also defined by law. They had rules and conventions: they were a well-defined group and had particular roles in society and government and in war.”

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However, despite these apparently clear restrictions and conventions, Professor Dyer feels that there were ways to subvert the social order. He tackles the question of control of marriage partners, for example.

“The rule was that a servile woman could not marry without the lord’s licence,” he says.  “You might think that meant that the lord chose who she married. But in fact, she went to the manorial court – and it was the woman who often did this – and offered a sum of money for the licence. The lord was very happy with that because he wanted the money. So off she went and married the chap she had met in the next village and all were happy. So, though there were these dreadfully constraining rules and regulations and demands as you might think, there were ways out of them or around them.”

So the question is, then, was it possible for a serf or peasant generally to break out of the place and position they were born into? According to Professor Dyer, one avenue that might have been available was the church.

“One route – which was only taken by a small minority, but still an important one – was to become a clergyman. Peasant men would go to their lord and seek permission for their son to go to school. There were schools in almost all the small towns, so schools were accessible. They cost money, of course, so it was only the better-off people who could afford this; as well as having to pay for their school fees, families were also losing their labour because boys worked. So it was only the relatively well-off peasant who would have been able to afford to do that. The son would become fluent in Latin, which is the qualification, and then he could be ordained as a clergyman. There is an example of a peasant’s son who became a bishop. In theory, you could rise up into the very top of the church. For a small minority, there was that avenue of mobility.”

One route – which was only taken by a small minority, but still an important one – was to become a clergyman

Perhaps more common than this approach was simply to move to a different location, in the search of a better life.

“For most people the main way out of their village, or out of the relative poverty in which they lived, was migration,” says Professor Dyer. “You see people moving to a town or to another village where opportunities were better. To give one example, there is a very nice case of a lad from Ombersley, a village in north Worcestershire, who at the age of 16 moved to Coventry, which is a journey of about 30 miles, quite a long way. His father was a peasant, so if he had stayed at home, he would have ended up as a peasant, or working on the land anyway.”

But instead the boy became a servant to a baker in the city, “a very high-powered wealthy baker selling bread to the richest people in Coventry from a shop in the centre of the city,” says Professor Dyer. “And this lad became a servant and presumably learnt how to become a baker. We don’t actually know whether he did become a baker. But he was well set to end up as a prosperous baker in Coventry, which would’ve been a lot better than a peasant in Ombersley.”

Personal choice?

Taking that further, there clearly was an element of personal choice in the way people pursued their lives, as is shown when you examine how far sons followed their fathers in the same trades or careers.

“Sons did tend to follow their fathers in the same sort of work. The key to this was training: a peasant would have trained his son on how to be a farmer; how to shear sheep and how to plough a field and all the other skills that you need for agriculture. But in the towns, fathers would have trained their sons in the trades they were in. This does provide another side to social mobility, the way in which individuals could make different choices.”

The records of the city of York allow us to understand this more deeply, as they include the lists of freemen of the city, where you can track whether sons followed the same trades as their fathers, says Professor Dyer.

“About half of York bakers’ sons themselves became bakers. Baking was a steady trade. Everyone wants to eat bread, so it was quite a good living. But they didn’t all want to spend their lives kneading dough, heating up ovens and so on. It was not always a comfortable job.”

You can track whether sons followed the same trades as their fathers

Being a carpenter also wasn’t a very good job. “It was not very well paid. It had a low status,” explains Professor Dyer. “And it involved a lot of hard work and heaving great beams of wood around. So only a quarter of carpenters’ sons succeeded their fathers. The others got other jobs.

“At the other extreme, York had a number of wealthy goldsmiths. Goldsmiths made a good living. The work wasn’t very hard, and there were all sorts of opportunities to make money on the side. It was a good profession. So you find three quarters of the sons of goldsmiths became goldsmiths.”

Hard work, aptitude and luck also afforded possibilities for self-improvement as well, according to Professor Dyer.

A medieval church construction
Being a carpenter also wasn’t considered a very good job in the Middle Ages, says Professor Chris Dyer. (Image by Getty Images)

“If they were skilled at selling their produce, if they were able to make a bit of money from extra activities like working in a craft, peasants could accumulate a bit of money and acquire more land. And so, someone who started with only 20 acres of land, could buy another 20 acres of land and therefore become considerably better off.

Just occasionally, says Professor Dyer, a person could rise up and join the aristocracy. “The bottom of the aristocracy was not entirely sealed off. You can spot them because they’ve got ordinary names. If you find someone called Smith becoming a gentleman, you know that their father or grandfather was just an artisan. It was possible by luck, judgement and skill to acquire more wealth and to pass yourself off as being suitable for inclusion in the aristocracy. The most famous example was the Spencer family. They were sheep farmers on a fairly small-scale in the middle of Warwickshire in the 1450s, who acquired more and more land and more and more sheep. And eventually, in the early 16th century, they became lords of the manor of a place called Althorp in Northamptonshire. And they ended up as earls, and they did join the big-time aristocracy. So, it is a tiny number, but there are stories of individual families who could rise.”

Given that perhaps the most famous modern member of the Spencer family, Lady Diana Spencer, married the Prince of Wales and was thus on course to become the queen, that is rather good evidence of the far-reaching consequences of social mobility in the Middle Ages – if only for those blessed with luck, skill, and good timing.

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Chris Dyer is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Leicester. He was speaking with HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove, you can listen to the full conversation on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.