What were the social classes in the Middle Ages?

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kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the Middle Ages, society was divided into three distinct social classes which historians often call the tripartite division of society. In essence, this consists of:

  1. Those who pray (the Oratores): this group is made up of clergymen, from priests to the pope, and they were responsible for society's spiritual welfare.
  2. Those who fight (the Bellatores): this was society's warrior class and it consisted of knights and other noblemen who fought in battle, like dukes or earls. 
  3. Those who work (the Laboratores): this was the largest group in Medieval society and consisted of serfs, who toiled on their lord's manor, and peasants who farmed their own lands. 

It is important to note that these social classes were dependent on each other: those who fight, for example, were expected to protect those who work and those who pray. Similarly, those who work had a duty to produce enough food to feed those who fight and those who pray. It is this relationship which bound each class together and made the Middle Ages so unique. 

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gbeatty eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While there was a small or limited middle-class, consisting of merchants and skilled trades people, broadly speaking there were two general social classes in the Middle Ages. The much smaller class, the class everyone wishes they were part of when I think about the Middle Ages, is the upper class or the nobility. This would be the local lords, the dukes, and of course, the kings and queens. The much larger class is the lower class or peasants. These peasants, who made up the overwhelming majority of the population, worked the land directly. That is to say they farmed from morning to night. 

Aside from these classes, the clergy might be considered semi-independently. For the most part, the higher ranks of the clergy equated to the nobility. A bishop would be like a duke.