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The middle class of freemen which inhabited the cities of the middle ages accounted for less than twelve (in many occasions less than 5) percent of the total population of a kingdom, but without them the social structure would have collapsed.
Not a serf and not of blood
A Freeman (or Franklin) was one who was not bound by feudal obligation, and paid tax (in coin) to the local Lord. If a freeman man owned land, he had full rights to it, including inheritance rights for his children. The land of a freeman (free tenant) could have been a piece of farmland (much bigger than any villein’s (serfs) or it could have been land within a city (Freemen were called Burghers of a Borough in this case). Yeomen were freemen in paid service of a noble or in other administrative positions.
Freemen, in rare occasions, were also owners of a Manor (essentially owning a land which had serfs and slaves bound to it). Although they were not nobles of peerage (blood), some freemen were awarded the title of Baronet, which was a hereditary title of nobility. Gentlemen, Esquires and Knights also hail from the middle class of freemen but, as with the baronets, are not classified as such.
Artisans, artists, merchants and traders were all city- or manor-dwelling free men. Through the merit of their skills they could, in many cases, become rich and famous and accumulate wealth that occasionally matched the riches of nobles who owned whole of counties. In most of these cases by that time, though, they would have been awarded some noble or military honorific title like Baronet or Knight etc.
Educated at least in their trade/art, freemen held a very important role in society since their status was hereditary but their wealth was only dependant on their talent to survive in a very unforgiving society. In many cases Artisans and Artists would sell apprenticeships to young children of other freemen or nobles of the land. On rare occasions, an artisan would find an amazingly talented son of a villein/serf and would buy the rights to them from their parents and local lord of the manor.
Free tenants were farmers and livestock keepers who kept a significant amount of land, much more than a villein family (5 acres at least but 10 to 15 acres in average) and most of the time less than a Manor House (which averaged 2000 acres).
Did you know?
During the middle ages, a human needed around 2 acres of land per year in order to survive. Currently only 1/3 of an acre is required.
According to the land tenure charter of England, a freemen had to pay a Quit-rent (in effect, a kind of land tax) in exchange for freedom from all other feudal obligations. By paying this tax, they excluded themselves from military and serf-work obligations to any local lord. In addition to that, Quit-rent allowed freemen to make use of the local manor’s facilities (if one was present) and rights to hunt within some set boundaries. A Free tenant did not enjoy the military protection of a local manor unless it was otherwise stated by a copyhold (a tailored manorial record).
Failure to pay Quit-rent, or some judicial punishments, would mean that a freeman would have to undergo the ceremony of bondage, essentially relinquishing his Freeman status and becoming a serf. This practice is stipulated to be on of the reasons that times of drought or military invasions drove the number of serfs up.
Burghers and Yeomen
Burghers (later on also known as bourgeoisie) were the city and town-dwelling middle class of the middle ages. As with the free tenants, Burghers had to pay tax to the local lord in the form of coin and they were exempt from all feudal obligations. Artisans, artists, soldiers, merchants, traders, scholars, lawyers and administrators populated the ranks of the middle class. Although a very small portion of the population, their position was key since no-one else had the skills to fill the roles which were essential to the smooth running of the kingdom.
In most cases, Burghers would be found in towns (market towns) or fortified cities (close/under castles) and would pay their taxes to the local lord. A slight, but very important deviation from this were the Burghs of Scotland and North England, which also gave their name to the class.
A Burgh was an autonomous administrative entity, led by a Mayor (somewhat like a Manor) which had its own internal organisation. A freeman inhabiting a Burgh was classed as a Burgess (this did not include apprentices and servants). The population of burgesses could be roughly divided between merchants and craftsmen, and the tensions between the interests of the two classes was often a feature of the cities. Craftsmen were usually organised into guilds. Merchants also had a guild, but many merchants did not belong to it, and it would be run by a small group of the most powerful merchants. The class of merchants included all traders, from stall-holders and pack-men to shop-holders and traders of considerable wealth.
A baronet is a freeman who was awarded a baronetcy honourary title. Baronets were addressed as “Sir” and “Dame” in the manner of Knights, though the title was hereditary (unlike most Knights). However, Baronets did not hold the prestige or the vast lands that came with a Knight’s title, and were considered as gentry but not nobility. As with Knights, Baronets were commoners since they had no blood connections with the royals. The title of Baronet implied ownership of land such as a Manor House (or in some occasions, more than one).
Freemen were what we today term the middle class. Their success could ascend them to great riches and titles, whilst their failures or misfortune fuelled the feudal machine with new serfs. As the intelligence behind a kingdom they became the movers and shakers who would, eventually, become the downfall of Feudalism which would give rise to Constitutional Monarchy, Democracy and Communism.
References and Further reading
J.P. Sommerville on Medieval English society (accessed 16th Februray 2015)
Harrison, F. Annals of an Old Manor House: Sutton Place, Guildford. London, 1899, p.27
Wikipedia on Burghs (accessed 16th Februray 2015)
The Baronetage of England, Or the History of the English Baronets By William Betham