Medieval Christendom – As Members of Just One Body

A retrospective analysis of the European Middle Ages, with its admirable order and sweet harmony between social classes, allows us to glimpse traces of the perfect society, resulting from the realization of the Reign of Christ on earth.

In order to better understand the process that Dr. Plinio analyses in his masterful essay Revolution and Counter-Revolution, it is essential to take a look, albeit superficially, at the order of things that the Revolution has worked to destroy for the past five centuries: medieval Christendom and its vestiges that still remain today.

How did Christian civilization arise after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the chaos created in Europe by successive waves of barbarian invasions?

Organic society, the pinnacle of social harmony

The expression organic society evokes the image of the harmonious inequality that exists in the human body, about which the Apostle wrote: “there are many parts, yet one body. […] If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:20, 26).

In fact, by analogy with the body, in human society there are those who exercise the function of head, that is, of government. Others, because of their mission to radiate vitality to others, are like the heart: these, in particular, are the members of the clergy, on whom falls the immense responsibility of acting as authentic ambassadors of God, preaching and administering the Sacraments.

And so each organ, however simple its role, is in its own way indispensable for the proper functioning of the whole organism.

Consequently, the perfect harmony of the elements – whether in the body or in society – leads the whole to a natural, healthy growth without distortions or divisions; an organic growth in the fullness of the term.

The European Middle Ages were like a golden hyphen linking Antiquity and Modernity, a time that could well be called the Age of Light

When reflecting on the elements that make up a true organic society, it is essential to refer to the historical period that is often unjustly called the “Dark Ages”. Far from meriting this misleading epithet, the European Middle Ages were more like a golden hyphen than a sombre hiatus linking Antiquity and Modernity, and would be better called the Age of Light. Proof of this was the development of the feudal regime, which saw harmonious relations between lords and subjects, superiors and subordinates on the social scale, shine as never before.

With feudalism was born the medieval order

At the end of the 9th century, Europe was ravaged by a new wave of terrible barbarian invasions: from the west, the Saracens; from the north, the Normans; from the east, the Hungarians. Wherever they went, the invaders sowed death and terror: they destroyed churches, sacked villages and burned crops. In view of this, the inhabitants of Europe at the time took refuge in “the only shelter that nothing can destroy, because it has its foundations in the human heart: the family.1

From the beneficial influence of the Holy Church was born one of the healthiest social orders in history: feudalism

Spread throughout all of Europe – often in inhospitable locations in order to avoid the barbarian hordes – entire families came together to form small “states”. They were led by a natural leader, a kind of patriarch, reminiscent of the ancient pater familias of Roman law. Gradually, around this man and this princeps family, other fleeing families began to gather, forming small social units that were naturally monarchical and domestic. These micro-societies, brought together to defend themselves from a common enemy, were called fiefdoms. This gave rise to imposing castles and fortresses, built precisely as a refuge against barbarian invasions.

Illumination representing the order of medieval society – Arsenal Library, Paris

Within this context, a truly exemplary relationship developed between subjects and lords. The patriarch, the feudal lord, was concerned with the defence and protection of those who entrusted themselves to him. The latter, called vassals, were bound to their liege by filial sentiments and duties. A son owes his father obedience, looks after his lands and crops, and is prepared to defend them in the event of an invasion. It is a natural and laudable exchange: those rendering obedience receive protection.

With the passage of time, this interdependence extended to a larger sphere: weaker fiefdoms were defended by the more powerful ones, and these by yet others, until reaching the dominion of the king or emperor, thereby creating a hierarchy of feudal lords. Medieval society was naturally set up like a pyramid, in which those at the top, instead of oppressing those below them, supported them.

We can therefore understand how there is “nothing more in keeping with the natural order, human nature and the sacral than feudalism.”2

An effect of the Precious Blood of Christ

An observation is in order here. It is difficult to conceive how such a perfect social organization could have arisen just by force of circumstance, spontaneously. When we analyse history, we come to the conclusion that, in the midst of generalized chaos, the stability of the ecclesiastical hierarchy present in the most diverse quarters was a fundamental point of reference and, consequently, a source of beneficial influence. It was through the influence of the Holy Church, then, that nascent medieval society was able to withstand so many calamities.

In fact, not only was it saved from imminent ruin, but it gave rise to something extraordinary: from the sum of tremendous misfortunes was born one of the healthiest social orders in history. And this becomes even clearer if we consider not only the relationship between lords and vassals, but also the respect that reigned in all other sectors of society.

In short, it was the powerful effect of the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ which, under the guidance of His Mystical Bride and by the providential course of events, shaped an entirely new world, over the ever more distant remains of Antiquity and with the support of the various barbarian ethnic groups, whose members were converting to the Catholic Faith and beginning to live in God’s grace.

Clergy: sanctification, education and corporeal health

As a result of these circumstances, society in the Middle Ages was basically made up of three classes: the clergy, the nobility and the people. If the first two had certain privileges, these stemmed from their loftier, more arduous and sacrificial roles. Nothing could be more natural and just.

The representatives of the spiritual order constituted the first rank and were seen as the foundation of civilization, the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Mt 5:13-14). The members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy guarded the deposit of faith and healed souls through the administration of the Sacraments and the religious formation of the faithful, above all through preaching.

Alongside the sacred ministers, the religious orders played a fundamental role. As well as drawing divine graces and benefits upon society through their virtue, and their continuous prayers and penances, monks were responsible for education and the preservation and development of the human sciences. Thence sprang universities, the cultural and scientific bastion of today’s society.

Monks were also responsible for public health and, in particular, for caring for those most in need. Hospitals, of which a countless number were founded by the Catholic Church in Europe, especially between the 7th and 10th centuries, were maintained with utmost zeal by the clergy and religious.

Nobility: government and warfare

At the apex of the civil sphere was the nobility, which constituted the second class of medieval society.

Its organization was similar to that of the clergy. At the top were emperors – among them the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the highest title in Christendom – and kings, as heads of each state. Next came the various hierarchical ranks of the nobility: dukes, marquises, counts, viscounts and barons.

In medieval society there was a perfect transition between the strata of social hierarchy, like the colours of the rainbow

In addition to overseeing the order and infrastructure of their fiefdoms, the function of these eminent figures was to fight in times of war. The nobleman was obliged to enter combat, to pay blood tax, then all the more onerous because of the precarious means in place for the treatment of the injuries and mutilations resulting from clashes, a danger that did not affect the commoners, who were generally exempt from battle. There were therefore reasonable grounds for the exemption of nobles from paying certain taxes.

Reproduction of a scheme used by Dr. Plinio during meetings on “Revolution and Counter- Revolution”

The people: production and economy

The third estate – that is, the people – comprised various categories. Some devoted themselves to intellectual work, such as teachers, lawyers and merchants, to which could be added the long list of other liberal professions. Others engaged in purely manual labour.

Among the latter, it is worth highlighting the existence of guilds of different trades in cities. These were associations in which employers and workers in each trade organized themselves with the utmost freedom to exercise their respective professions, creating particular laws, which were recognized by the government. In some places, the rule of the city itself – although still subject, of course, to royal power – was exercised by the commoners, through a participatory system of members of the various guilds, of which countless variations could be described according to their regional peculiarities, in a variety that gave a special tone to life at that time, when the values of Religion enjoyed so much more consideration than they do today.

How much freedom – true freedom – there was in this historical period, when the personal and institutional bonds of vassalage were the normal mode of relationship between the different ranks of society!

In sum, there was a perfect transition between the different strata of the social hierarchy, like the colours of a rainbow merging into one another, because, contrary to popular belief, no class was completely sealed off from the others. Its members could ascend or even descend this scale, according to the circumstances of life and the gifts with which God had endowed each one.

The harmonious social relations in Christendom

Some examples bequeathed by history prove the harmonious relationship that existed in the diversified unity of medieval society.

It is well known that any member of the public had easy access to the nobles and even to the king, which lasted until the French Revolution in the 18th century, when the monarchy was overthrown and the social, political and religious system changed considerably.

The nobles used to receive the common people in audience, to listen to their requests and attend to their needs and, in this regard, two 13th century monarchs left an edifying example of this relationship.

St. Ferdinand III, King of Castile, would allow his subjects to enter his palace so that he could be available to those who wished to speak to him. His cousin, St. Louis IX, King of France, used to sit under a huge oak tree in Vincennes, where he would receive the people, listening to their requests and complaints, judging cases and disputes.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that monarchs and nobles were not omnipotent, as is commonly thought, but their power was kept within its rightful limits by various control mechanisms, which the absolutism born of the Renaissance would later abhor.

Such was Christian monarchy in its highest expression of paternity and goodness.

Historical examples prove that the relationship existing between the different classes was an entirely harmonious one

This organization was suffused with a seriousness that was not opposed to a healthy and balanced joy, a love of sacrifice based on true devotion to the Cross of Jesus Christ, which directed the main efforts of earthly existence towards the conquest of eternal life.

Thus it was, in essence, the time that Pope Leo XIII defined as one in which “States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel,” and “the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom had diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society.”3

A question arises

In view of this historical analysis, can medieval Christendom be taken as an example for our times?

Foix Castle (France)

The question arises. After all, is it not overly anachronistic to present as a model for the 21st century a society organized in a manner so different from that of today?

The harmony of the Middle Ages was not simply the result of a spontaneous process, but of a natural and organic order, deeply founded on the teachings of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, whose members lived – in a much more generalized and frequent way than today – in the grace of God. It was “the disposition of men and things in accordance with the doctrine of the Church, the teacher of Revelation and of natural law […]. This disposition of men and things is order par excellence,”4 in Dr. Plinio’s words.

Now, fidelity to the Church will never imply an anachronism. Only when society is founded on it can it develop organically, generate the most excellent fruit and move towards the establishment of the Reign of Christ on earth.

It thus becomes clear that this beautiful edifice began to be ruthlessly eroded from its foundations by a mysterious process as early as the 14th century… This is what we will see in the following pages. 



1 FUNCK-BRENTANO, Frantz. Le Moyen Âge. 3.ed. Paris: Hachette, 1923, p.4.

2 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Conference. São Paulo, 10/6/1966.

3 LEO XIII. Immortale Dei, n.21.

4 RCR, P.I, c.7, 1, E.



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