A Medieval Life

Main Ideas

Motifs

Main Ideas Motifs

Family

Bennett’s constant references to Cecilia in the context of her kin emphasize the central role that family played during the Middle Ages. Not only was family the basic unit of social organization, but it was also the most significant determinant of an individual’s path in life. Since a person’s social standing was primarily determined by birth, his or her destiny depended entirely on the family into which he or she was born. Cecilia’s wealthy parents enabled her to succeed by providing her with the capital to purchase her first parcels of land; by nourishing her better than other families could nurture their own children; and by acquainting her with Brigstock and Stanion’s more important citizens. Cecilia was especially fortunate to have the parents she did, since custom did not require peasants to provide for anyone but their first-born sons. In this light, family is an even more powerful force in an individual’s life: it is the economic and social wellspring from which an individual emerges and the basic network through which an individual comes into contact with others.

Those Who Work, Those Who Pray, Those Who Fight

The mantra “those who work, those who pray, those who fight” appears in various forms throughout A Medieval Life and clearly shows the social order of the Middle Ages. From an early age, Cecilia put the people around her into three categories: the peasants, who labored for the benefit of others; the clergy, who tended to the salvation of others’ souls; and the knights, who provided protection. This system of stratification was a solid, absolute law of existence, and people were expected to follow it as if God had ordained it. Indeed, in many cases the clergy did offer this tripartite scheme as divinely inspired, explaining that the three orders were interdependent and that each order worked for the other two orders’ benefit. In practice, the social harmony engendered by this system of social organization was fallacious because peasants were deemed of lesser value than the other two orders. This inequality led to the exploitation of peasant labor by the ruling classes. This tripartite idea reinforced a peasant’s understanding of him- or herself as one whom God put upon the earth to work.

The Number Three

Aspects of medieval life are often neatly divisible into three parts, and people probably considered the number three to have magical significance. Cecilia’s world is nearly entirely divided in threes: the social order consisted of three parts; the main political establishments entailed three overlapping institutions (village, parish, and manor); and there were three main economic markets (land, labor, and trade). The root of this fascination with three probably comes from the Bible, in which the number three is fraught with special meaning. The clergy surely employed this reasoning when relaying the Three Orders to the peasants, perhaps arguing that the organization of clergy, elite, and peasants was as natural as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The peasants demonstrated that they absorbed the weight of this concept when they devised a three-field system of farming, in which peasants rotated crops among three fields each year. If anything, this phenomenon suggests that the people of the Middle Ages tended to live in keen observation of and conformity to ritual and religious teachings.