Information and Society – The Late Middle Ages

Toward the Next Information Revolution – The Press


Before we leave the Middle Ages we should look at conditions just before the introduction of the printing press. There are two areas of focus the first is the perception of books and the second is production.

As with previous information revolutions we have a challenge in seeing “how it was before”. This is both important and difficult because the people who invented capitalism and changed the world were not members of the elite. And it is the elite – kings, politicians, generals, aristocrats – who are generally the subjects and the writers of history.

Our first focus – the book – is important because we are used to seeing books as authoritative and as a major part of learning and adulthood. But for most people of the Late Middle Ages books were not part of learning and people in authority were more important than books. In addition, books themselves had problems that we aren’t familiar with. So it is necessary for us to examine the book as a thing and learning as an activity.

Our second focus is production. Today we think of capitalists as business men and women who invest in businesses to make money but initially they were people who changed the way goods were produced and made information work for them so they could invest capital to improve production.  But in the Late Middle Ages production was just part of what happened in daily life in the context of family life. This had implications for class and gender relations.

Books Before the Press

Since we will be examining the impact of the press we need to understand something about books and the written word during the period before its invention.

All books had to be hand lettered; all maps and drawings had to be hand copied. This, of course, made books and other materials very expensive. Only the very wealthy could afford large libraries.

Any individual book might not the same as other copies of the same work so books were not seen as reliable as they are today. There were several sources of possible error.

First, were miscopying or misunderstanding. Some books were simply the result of how people were educated. Education often meant a lecturer reading aloud from a book while students wrote it down. Depending on the understanding and attention of the individual student, errors often were introduced and then passed on to others.

Second, there was what Eisenstein calls “scribal drift”.[1] An individual book became whatever the scribe wrote. Over the years copies of the same work would differ markedly from each other because mistakes were copied and were the basis for new mistakes, and slight paraphrases were then paraphrased again and again. “Truth” was changed like in the children’s game of telephone.

Third, as Bart Eherman says of the scribes of the early Christian era (2nd and 3rd centuries) in his book, “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture”:

…scribes occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christian who espoused aberrant views [2]

Arguments over what would be included in the orthodox canon were heated and the scribes were part of the controversy.

The documents of this new canon could be circulated, of course, only to the extent that they were copied. And they were copied by warm-blooded scribes who were intimately familiar with the debates over doctrine that made their scribal labors a desideratum. It was within this milieu of controversy that scribes sometimes changed their scriptural texts to make them say what they were already known to mean (original emphasis).[3]

This can be applied to other books as well. The scribe might not really understand a passage and hence write down the passage as he or she understood it rather than as the author intended.

The existence of these sources of error led people to have more faith in the authority of the individual speaker than in what they learned from books. The individual scholar was a continuing entity that could be held accountable whereas the book was a disassociated item for which no one was accountable.

For most people, knowledge was an oral experience and was associated with things that could be observed as part of the speaker, like age, office, or credibility. Just as people had the notion, before the agricultural revolution, that it was part of the natural order that a tenant’s piece of land was just large enough to support a family, it must have seemed part of the natural order that those in authority knew things and others had to accept what was said.

Both the Church and secular authorities supported this notion. Respect for authority was an extension of the doctrine of divine right.

Production, Business, Class, and Gender in The Late Middle Ages

In one sense the notion of divine right was extended to all classes. The class into which a person was born determined the life they would lead and because they were born to the kind of life they led they saw it as part of God’s plan. Their economic life was part and parcel of where they were in the social order – what class they were born into. The gentry, the aristocracy and the common folk knew who they were because of their birth – their place in the social order

Agricultural Production Was Ordered by Class Distinctions.

Agricultural workers were born into the tenancy their family held or made a contract with some large land owner (the lord, abbey, bishop, or freeholder) that defined the person as belonging to the owner of the land and owing service to that person.

The villein service that a farmer owed the lord who owned the land was a social relation. It had its roots in service in kind rather than on money or rent paid for the use of land[4]. The lord might require his villains to work on his own estate to fulfill his villain service or he might want the service to be paid for with part of the crop or with money.

Economically, everything was tied, in one way or another, to nature. Most fortunes, including those of the nobility, were based on the land. Those who were making money through trade were still in the minority and they were dependent on the vagaries of tide and weather. People tended to have an attitude of fatalism in the face of nature’s vagaries. There was little sense of social or economic mobility.

Craft Production

Craftspeople were born to the crafts they practiced. It might be that a weaver might make an agreement to have his son apprenticed to a tailor but the class of the boy was determined regardless of how much money he made.

We can still see the impact of this kind of identification of the person with the skill in many last names – Smith, Baker, Cooper, Goldsmith etc. The social identity of the person as a member of the society and the craft he or she pursued were one and the same.

For the most part, throughout The Middle Ages for the vast majority of people, the activities related to production of goods were not alienated from other activities of daily life – they were embedded in the ordinary activities of living. Because of this, there was little or no distinction made between tasks related to production and tasks related to running a family, apprentices and journeymen did domestic tasks as well as producing goods for sale. A journeyman might be asked to work in the garden, run errands, make up the fire, or defend the house against intruders. Serving girls might be asked to mind the shop, help with production or mind the children.

Both men and women participated in the care and training of children as a normal part of their daily tasks. Masters taught their children the trade along with apprentices and their wives oversaw any other education an apprentice might need, including personal and spiritual education, along with her own children. The household was the focus and the foundation of life and the economy.

There was no public/private distinction. There was little adult/child distinction.[5] Business was essentially a family affair, just as today we don’t measure what the “worth” of domestic tasks economically such as cooking dinner, taking out the trash or the chores a child does to help out.

This world-view makes no distinction between the individual as a worker or producer and the individual as a member of the social group. The journeyman or serving woman were subject to their master and mistress and they worked at their tasks because of where they were in the social circle not because of the money they were paid. Their labor wasn’t for hire – it wasn’t alienated from their social position. A contract between a master and apprentice or journeyman was an agreement to a social relation, out of which, production occurred.


With few exceptions, merchants sold the goods they made, so they were also artisans. They generally also farmed a small patch or tended a garden which helped them made a subsistence living in a traditional manner. Most were illiterate and knew little about arithmetic.

There were some merchants who were exceptions – the great merchants of Italy and some Jewish merchants – but business was still a family affair, and there was no notion that business expenses were separate from household expenses. The books of a medieval merchant not only recorded the things that we would consider business transactions but also recorded money donated to the church and money spent on materials for the household and ribbons for the merchant’s daughter.[6]

As the medieval period progressed there was a growing awareness that learning was a valuable. Werner Sombart tells of a German merchant sending his son to Italy to learn long division.[7] This illustrates both the poor quality of the existing education and how far people were willing to go to obtain, what we would consider, a small amount of mathematical knowledge.


During The Late Middle Ages women were relatively more equal to their men. Class was more of important than gender. This relative equality was true across class lines. Both upper class and common women were relatively more equal to their men then they have been since. As Elise Boulding says, “Women have yet to recover from the Renaissance.”[8]

There was little distinction between domestic and income producing tasks. Women were a necessary part of the economic welfare of the household, the craft shop, or the manor. The family was a productive as well as reproductive unit and there was little business/home distinction.

For members of the lowest classes, the unskilled laborers, the test of adulthood in pre-press times was simply biological maturity. There were no special skills necessary to simply be an adult. [9] Skills were learned through imitation and experience. Because the culture was largely oral, anyone in the vicinity could hear and learn. This was true of both boy and girl children. There was no special education for the vast majority of people. Though men had tasks in their sphere and women had theirs both boys and girls learned by watching their parents, if a girl occasionally wanted to plow or a boy to stay and help with the younger children it was allowed by many families. This kind of learning meant that women were able to take over when their men folk were dead or incapacitated, because they had participated, as helpers, first as children and then as wives. During The Middle Ages women ran every kind of enterprise from brewing to house building and textile manufacture. [10]

The crafts producing class was, for the most part, better off than laborers. And as such they tended to learn more. A master craftsman’s wife was the managerial partner in a crafts shop and the husband was the production partner. Men and women generally married within their own guilds – in their own trades. However, because running of a shop was more a more general skill than was production, women born to a family in one craft learned how to manage a shop and supervise apprentices and journeymen in that context and they could easily transfer those skills to running a shop and household in another craft.

Because the wife possessed managerial skills, the shop could continue to function if the husband died. The widow could run the shop with a hired journeyman to do production. Widows took over the voting rights of their husbands in their guilds. On the other hand, guild records show that masters who were widowers, and had no woman to run the shop, often reverted to journeyman status. The vote belonged to the shop not the individual. The husband was the agent for the whole and in his absence his wife became the agent. Women belonged to guilds, made contracts, ran and worked at every kind of enterprise.

Marriage, as much as skill, defined who was and who was not a master craftsman there was a situation where a journeyman could set up or take over a shop and was ready to become a master he married a woman from his guild and his status changed accordingly.[11]

Women were also traders. They participated in the economic life of their town and beyond. Claudia Opitz writes of Life in the Late Middle Ages:

Urban women too were active as traders, either of goods they had produced themselves of wares they had bought or imported. …women traders were granted a limited capacity to transact business in their own name. The volume of trade varied enormously, and it was above all the women organized in guilds (primarily for long-distance trading) who acquired considerable wealth. … In early medieval times, when the volume of trade was not yet regulated, one family might carry on both wholesale and retail trade in a particular item. In such cases the men would frequently travel to make the larger purchases, while the women of the family took care of the retail shop.[12]

Upper class women were responsible for the running of the manor. The manor was the major economic and social unit women supervised production of everything from beer and butter to fine tapestries.  They collected the villain service or rents from tenants and serfs who served the manor. David Herlihy writes:

Women, in sum, maintained a stable, continuous administration of household and estates. Their services freed elite males for their preferred activities, high politics and war.[13]

And war wasn’t only a male activity. If their husbands were off serving their masters, waiting on the king, or fighting crusades or other wars, women were responsible for the defense of the manor. In the absence of their husbands, women raised and commanded armies, waged wars, and concluded peace.

During the much of medieval period education was a matter of class than of gender. As many upper class women as men were literate. From the late 7th century on Aristocratic women ran convents and contributed to scholarship. Many abbeys were founded by women who used them as independent power bases. Elise Boulding writes:

By 800, German Saxony was one of the strongest centers of religious women, and the traditions began in the great convents of Herford, Gandersheim and Quedlinburg (Essen) flowered in the work of Hrotswitha … [She] was a transitional figure, belonging both to the earlier days of less demanding monastic scholarship and to the new era of intellectually more sophisticated medieval scholarship…Throughout the Middle ages Germany continued as the major intellectual center of women’s monasticism.

Some of the women who were leaders in the Church have been remembered like Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Heloïse, Catherine of Siena. Many more have been lost to history. Be that as it may, there were women who founded abbeys and convents ran them and were powerful actors in the world of their time. Many abbeys were founded by members of royal houses who chose to act for themselves within the church rather than accept a political marriage. Membership in many of these houses was limited to the daughters and widows of the elite. Other houses, notably the Poor Claires were founded for poorer women who were thus able to act in the world without the necessity of marriage.

In the Mediterranean world it was possible for women to lead active lives without either being married or being associated with the church. Christian women worked alongside Muslim women in Italian universities. Boulding writes:

There were women professors in many of the major schools in the Moslem world at this time, in Baghdad, Cairo, Kairouan, Cordova, and Toledo as well as in Constantinople…in 1083 Anna Comena founded a new medical school in Constantinople and taught and practiced medicine in addition to writing history. Even in conservative Persia, where women were very secluded by the thirteenth century, Princess Gevher Nesibe built a famous medical school and hospital in 1206. [14]

There are French court records from the 13th century of women being tried for practicing medicine. This suggests that they had, in previous times been free to practice medicine and were still doing so but that the authorities had begun to see this as a problem – the society was becoming more restrictive.

Jewish women in Paris in particular were doubly at risk for being doctors and Jews but they were defended by their high born clients. Despite the restrictions Jewish women doctors were still in demand in both Italy and in France. In other countries, however, women were permitted to practice. In Frankfurt Germany 15 women were licensed to practice medicine and in the Netherlands the Begunes, an order of lay women, practiced medicine without interference by the authorities.

Women taught mathematics and law in the universities. Boulding writes:

At the University of Bologna, where women shone in law, in the 1300s Novella d’Andrea frequently took her father’s place and lectured on canon law. Her predecessor, Bettina Gozzadini, is described as one of the greats in the field[15].

All in all, even in the later Middle Ages, women in all classes were more equal to their men and were able to practice their crafts or professions through much of the medieval period.

Discussion and Conclusion

During the Late Middle Ages books were rare, expensive and subject to inaccuracy. People did not see books as authoritative as we do today. They saw authority as part of who a person was and that authority was seen as part of how God had ordered the world

The social and economic world of The Late Middle Ages was defined by social relations. People knew who they were as a consequence of their birth into a social group and they did what they did to make a living based on what their family did. Both men and women were educated according to their social station. Life was governed by the class, guild, or the manor to which one was born. This tied economics and occupation to nature and God’s plan.

In the kind of business situation, where there is no boundary between business and family, we would expect that it was difficult for farmers, merchants or craftspeople to see business, as separated from their households. This makes the practices that are being used to produce goods seem like part of the nature of things and part of The Divine Plan, rather than things that can be changed and improved.

Just as class determined what a person did, literacy and education were associated with social class rather than with gender. Upper class women read and wrote and often received higher education. Women of all classes participated in the economic life of their household, the castle, manor, farm, tenant farm, or craft shop. For all classes there was little distinction between the public, economic and the domestic sphere.

In the next chapter we will examine the dynamics of information and then go on to see how that plays out in each of our information revolutions.

[1] Eisenstein, p.596.

[2] Ehrman, B. D.
1993 The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford University Press, Oxford UK p. xi

[3] Eherman, p xii

[4] Marx, K.
1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (M. Nicolaus trans.) Penguin, NY

[5] Postman, N.
1994. The Disappearance of Childhood. Vintage, NY

[6] Eisenstein, E.
1980. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Volumes 1 and 2 in One) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

[7] Sombart, W.
1953. Medieval and Modern Commercial Enterprise. In Enterprise and Secular Change, F. C. Land and J. C. Riemersma (eds) Richard D. Irwin, Homewood, IL 86-101

[8] Boulding, E.
1992. The Underside of History: A View of Women through Time, Sage Publications, London, (Revised Edition) Vol.2

[9] Postman, N.
19?? The Invention of Childhood

[10] Herlihy, p.49-50

[11] Boulding, Vol. 2 p.75


[12] Optiz, C.
1992. Life in the Late Middle Ages in A History of Women: The Silences of The Middle Ages C. Klapisch-Zuber, (ed) Harvard University Press, Cambridge p.295-296

[13] Herlihy D.
1995 Women, Family and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays, 1978-1991, Berghahn Books, Providence RI p. 51

[14] Boulding,  p 61

[15] Boulding, p.63