Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Huzzah! Knights, Kings and Living the High Life

Town square anchored by medieval church in Astorga, Spain. The city began life as a Roman outpost, then town, and is now a major stop on the Camino de Santiago.

This is the second of a six-part series about the Middle Ages with the goal of giving casual readers of medieval romances a better understanding of the time period.  Eventually, we’ll talk about why there were no damsels in distress and why a knight is shining armor isn’t a good sign but first… we’re going to discuss The High Middle Ages, which is pretty much what people think of when you say “medieval.”


In First the Fall, Then the Babarians, we discussed the macro trends of the early medieval period and how they set the foundation for the Early Middle Ages. In short, these trends were the breakdown of the Pax Romana followed by mass, sometimes violent, migrations that led to the establishment of dozens of small kingdoms in which kings vowed to protect while those around him pledged loyalty and service. 

Today, we're talking about kings and knights.

High Middle Ages (~1100 to 1400) 

For most people, Medieval travel was disguised as a "pilgrimage."
The High Middle Ages started about 1050 A.D. (shortly after the millennium came and went without the world ending—yes, medieval Europe had a Y1K scare) and lasted until about the 1348. After that date, repeated waves of plague, war and economic troubles inexorably altered society. The period between the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance is typically called the Late Middle Ages. From an academic point-of-view, I prefer to call it a transition period, but that’s me.

During the High Middle Ages, the barbarian invasions ceased, the Vikings got religion and grew roots, and Europe became more politically organized and—most importantly—politically stable, which leads to wealth, leisure, scholarship, art and architecture and travel. Politically instability leads to the loss of those key social components.

Key Trends

  • Population growth. The population reached levels in the mid-13th century that wouldn’t be seen again for 600 years.
  • A warming trend from the 10th to the 14th century bolstered crop yields and saw wheat grown in Scandinavia and wine grapes raised in England
  • Food production increased due to the use of a heavier plow, horses instead of oxen, and a three-field system.

This population boom also contributed to the growth of urban centers and in industrial and economic activity during the period. This period brought us spinning wheels (an improvement over the distaff), magnetic compasses (major impact on navigation and trade) and movable type (which made possible the printing press—arguably the most significant advance of our species).

Bumper crops contributed to increased trade and learning, which created an outburst of creativity in art and architecture. In part because of the Crusades, the learned rediscovered Aristotle. The philosophical giants of the age included Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch). 

Political leadership was in the hands of the likes of Pope Gregory VII, Henry II, and Emperor Henry IV, and the power struggle between church and state reached its apex. The era also gave us chivalric role models such as Richard the Lionheart, William Marshal, and Edward, the Black Prince.

On the downside, the social structure solidified with titles, occupations and place becoming inherited. What this meant for most people is if their father were a tanner, they would be a tanner.

Knights also became common baronial accouterments. Technically, these armed men served the king (each vassal owed the king so many lance fees depending upon the size of his lands) but these knights also kept royal power in check as the king couldn’t always force his vassals to do as he bid. Under weak kings household knights amounted to a private army and contributed to the Anarchy of the English Civil War and kept the Capetian Kings’ influence limited to its power base in and around Paris. 

A Good King

Unlike the early Middle Ages when the king had to be a good warrior, warrior kings could be disastrous during this era. The most extreme case is probably Richard I, who didn’t pay attention to the administrative details, didn’t leave an heir before traipsing off on crusade and bankrupting England during his 10-year reign. 

His brother John, on the other hand, had the makings of a good king because he was an able administrator. He failed, though, because he inherited a bankrupt kingdom from his brother and was extremely unpopular with his nobles and subjects. In my opinion, he neither liked people nor was liked by them, so the ability to build relationships, which is critical to good governance in any era, eluded him.

The Good Fight

The Crusades stimulated the economy, reviving trade and banking, weakened many noble families (who were bankrupted or destroyed by the crusades), which in turned strengthened crown and miter, and energized learning, contributing to the growth of universities. Another benefit, less easily traced but one that we can assume is a certain refinement that came from the lords and knights who did return from the Holy Land. Travel tends to change how one thinks. It was true then. It’s true now.

Leisure time was a benefit of political stability. Society could build the great cathedrals, people could afford to go on pilgrimages, and families could survive having a son spend years at one of the universities. Leisure time also allowed for the growth of jousts or tournaments, the football (soccer) of its day.

If you've never seen the Heath Ledger movie A Knights Tale, watch it. The anachronisms are legion. But the movie captures the spirit of a medieval tournament, and is good brain candy.

Note: these tournaments were similar to today’s modern rodeo, a celebration of skills that are no longer needed in everyday life. With this in mind, we’ll talk about the Ideals of Chivalry vs. Realities of War next month.

Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. Her books are available from Prairie Rose Publications and Amazon. For more information on her stories, visit her Amazon page, her website, or Facebook.


  1. Hi, Keena! I didn't realize your last post was part of a series. Great idea! The medieval time period is more complex then the way it's lumped together and presented to us in school. You're doing a great job breaking it down. I'm particularly interested in how the warming of Europe changed lifestyles. And as we know what's coming up next in medieval times? The Little Ice Age! Very interesting stuff. And, by the way,walking the Camino de Santiago is on my bucket list!Thanks for doing this series for us.

    1. Patti, walking the Camino changed my life. Sounds trite, I know, but it does. God willing, I'll walk it again (all of it) one day. And the Medieval era is vey complex not just over time, but over geography during the same time, so I'm keeping to England and broad themes just to avoid publishing a book on the blog. :-) I'm glad you're enjoying it.

  2. Keena,

    As you said, the movie "A Knight's Tale" is fabulously over the top with purposefully crafted anachronisms. It's so entertaining to pick them out.

    I cringe every time I watch the jousting scenes. Those are some hard hits they give each other. The final jousting showdown between Ulrich/William and Count Adhemar is brutal.

    Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You can find references and complaints to the violence of the tournament and its corrupting influence on people in surviving sermons, chronicles, and letters of the time period. Up until this time, saddles had a high cantle, much higher than what saddles have now. The height was reduced, in part, because of tournament-related injuries. Knights would get knocked back against the cantle and if they didn't "go with it" and tumble off the horse, they could break their backs. Many did.

  3. Keena, I so enjoy your posts on Medieval history as well as your books. I feel I can only focus on one era of history if I plan to write more than one book a year, but even though I haven't delved into writing about Europeans in the era when my ancestors lived in England and continental Europe doesn't mean it doesn't fascinate me.

    Thanks so much for this post. Very insightful.

    1. Thanks, Robyn. Nothing wrong in focusing your writing in one era. Makes it easier to avoid saying "huzzah!" when you meant, "dagnabit!"

  4. High Medieval is a fascinating time. I wonder if my love of Early Medieval is due to a love of the history of war. (Perhaps I'll ponder that one in my quiet moments. *smile*) Still, a great overview and so easy to understand. I look forward to the next installment.

    "A Knights Tale" is brain and eye candy for me. I fell in love with the acting style of Paul Bettany in that movie. Doris

  5. I was wondering what happened to those bad ol' Vikings--religion. If that don't beat all.
    I have heard that war stimulates the economy so I can truly understand the Crusades stimulating it as well. What a shame peace doesn't do the same thing.
    I didn't know there was a high Middle Age. See? I can learn a new thing or two.
    Good blog, Keena.

    1. Ha, Sarah. I was a begin a little tongue-in-cheek with the Vikings, although those who settled England and France did convert to Christianity rather quickly (relatively speaking). Christianity, as a religion, was the greater unifying force in Western Europe and its influence can still be seen. And war is good for the economy, to a point. Then, as now, a small sliver of the population at the very top wins while the rest suffer.

    2. Um...that should be I was being. I know how to spell, but I'm not always so good at the typing. :-)