Manners and Customs of the Noble and Powerful

There were about a hundred families in Europe that were indisputably at the top of the food chain. Not individuals so much as families. Individuality was, during this period, very much subordinated to the ties of family and feudal obligation. Indeed, among the nighest nobility. family names were rarely used. If your given (or "Christian") name was Robert, and you happened to be the Duke of Normandy, you were commonly referred to as "Robert, Duke of Normandy." In French, this would be, "Robert, Duc de Normandie." It went farther than that, as when you were among other nobles you would often be referred to simply as "Normandy." In some circles, these practices continue .

What we currently think of as good manners originated as a collection of customs to keep the nobility of Europe on peaceful terms with one another. Remember, the Medieval nobility were a warrior class. Their entertainment consisted of hunting and tournaments, in other words, their idea of fun was hurting and killing animals or people. There was no United Nations to arbitrate disputes between the great nobles, that's what armies and battlefields were for. These nobles thought highly of themselves and expected others to do likewise. This attitude could quickly produce real or perceived slights which, among commoners would be settled by a shouting match, a brawl or, at worst, a knife fight. But among great nobles, such disputes could lead to war. So there developed an ever more elaborate panalopy of mannerisms that were meant to defuse situations that might lead to bruised egoes among the rich, well titled and well armed.

Since not all nobles could be expected to learn all these good manners, it came to be a job for lesser, but ambitious, nobles to do the work of keeping the situation in court under control. Every noble household had one or more fellows who could be best described, in modern terms, as "glad handers." If His Highness was in a foul mood, then you sent in Sir Ralph the Well Spoken to cheer the fellow up before he developed a murderous rage. One could say, with some justification, that these cheery and fast moving chaps were the first Public Relations experts.

While aristocrats were rich, the wealth did not come automatically. If the nobles did not pay attention to their extensive properties, the flow of cash would diminish to nothing. By the 12th century, it was becoming clear to many lords that they could not safely ignore getting involved in administrative matters. Of course, some nobles were always eager to oversee the management of their lands and found pleasure in going over the account books. But many lords were more interested in, well, living like a lord, not acting like an accountant.

As economic conditions continued to improve in the 11th and 12th centuries, there was more cash money around and increasing opportunities for nobles to try and borrow their way out of their bad habits. Many, borrowing from Jewish moneylenders, thought they could simply repudiate their debts because a non-Christian could not force a Christian to repay. They were wrong. The Jews who lent money to nobles were not stupid. As non-Christians in a Christian (and often violently anti-semitic) world, these wealthy Jews made friends with the clergy. The clerics were often educated men, who respected the Jewish reverence for learning and enjoyed the company of wealthy, educated Jews. Out of this relationship, or simply because of the financial opportunity, came the practice of Jewish moneylenders selling their uncollectable debts, at a discount, to abbots. These clerics, powerful feudal land holders in their own right, could then collect the debts with all the power and authority a great abbot could muster. This often had the effect of bankrupting the profligate noble and adding some, or all, of his lands to that of the abbey holding his notes.

The Crusades , were a major undertaking for most nobles during the 12th century. Life had been good in Europe during the 11th century. The weather was better than it had been in the past, a trend that would continue until the early 14th century. This produced longer growing seasons. Improved agricultural practices led to unprecedented population growth and an increasing amount of land under cultivation. Since a feudal lord's wealth was proportionate to how much productive farmland he controlled, and how many subjects he had to work the land, it was a good time to be a noble. The popes played upon this prosperous, and religious minded aristocracy to stir up a wide spread and long lasting enthusiasm for crusading. But going off on an expedition to the Holy Land was an expensive proposition. Many nobles had to borrow money to do it, often by mortgaging some of their lands. Few nobles made much profit (via plunder) from their crusading activities and many were killed in the process, returned crippled, or even got themselves captured. This last fate often led to a crippling ransom paid by their kin. Their families had a difficult time getting out of debt, and many never made it.

Going into the 13th century, most nobles had a new found respect for where their wealth came from, and were keen on holding on to it. But expenses always seemed to run ahead of income. Exposure to the riches of the East gave nobles more things to spend their money on. While the Crusaders were warring with the Moslems, the Italians (who made a bundle out of transporting the Crusaders to the Holy Land) were eager to trade and managed to provide a steady, if often limited, supply of luxuries from the East. Often it only took a few samples of some luxury item from other regions to allow European artisans and farmers to reproduce the item at home. Silk, for example, was being produced in Italy by the 12th century. With more lush items to buy, many noble families could not help themselves. The men would go for expensive clothes, horses, armor and jewelry. Their wives proved just as eager to keep up with the aristocrats down the road, thus transferring many a noble fortune to the strongboxes of enterprising merchants.

By the 14th century is was almost fashionable to be seen diligently managing one's estates. Nobles even entered manufacturing and commerce, often through intermediaries so that they wouldn't stain their escutheons with common trading. Some even became bankers with the millions of ducats they piled up from their other activities. Yet an aristocrat was expected to disport himself as a nobleman. Leading troops in battle was looked apon much more admiringly than leading dozens of clerks, bailiffs, and other officials in making your lands productive. Wars were few, the welfare of the noble's family and subjects required daily attention. A noble was surrounded by a lifestyle and atmosphere that called for spending money thoughtlessly, not piling up riches. This, more than anything else, was the attitude that eventually brought the Medieval aristocracy to extinction.

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