Monday, January 18, 2016

To be Free in the Middle Ages, or, How Little Rights Can Mean a Lot.

I must admit my title is different than those I usually post; I normally do not have a two part title. This one applies to this post, and I got the idea from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.

In the last couple posts we spoke about the social order of commoners. We touched upon slaves, and then serfs, not it is time to look at the Free Tenant.

A Free Tenant, or Freeman, was the highest of the lower orders in the medieval society. If you were a commoner in the middle ages, the best you could hope for was to be a Free Tenant.

A Free Tenant was in a contractual contract with royalty, or the manor lord, this meant he rented the land.  He could pay the lord with a portion of his crops, or in other forms of payment; however, he was separate from the serfs and slaves in that he had more rights.  When the contract was up, the Free Tenant could leave his property and move away.

The free tenant, unlike a serf, also had more choices.  A free tenant could live in a town where he could be engaged in commerce or enter a trade. If he wanted the free tenant could sell his product, and if they could afford it, move to another kingdom or area.

Free Tenants made up a small percentage of the population, maybe between 10-12 %.  This number varied over time, and even what made a Free Tenant changed throughout the period of the middle ages and in different locations.

There had always been an importance of owning, or renting land, that defined an individual.  This was not only appropriate in the medieval ages, but also modern times.  The right to vote in the United States was given only to white men WHO OWNED LAND.  In 1788-89 (It took a year to do the election) there was a total of 3 million people in the United States, of these 43,000 were allowed to vote.

Land ownership was also used in the Jim Crow laws, trying to keep African Americans from voting in elections. In the last couple years, land ownership has been tried to be established to limit voting rights; In 2010 the Tea Party Nation President, Judson Phillips, stated that it made a “lot of sense” to restrict voting rights to those who owned land. His reasoning was that if you owned property you had more of a vested interest in laws and policies than those who didn’t. Land ownership as a requirement was established by state legislators, this was a way to control political power in their jurisdictions.

To counteract the ability of certain states to determine who could vote, the 17th amendment was ratified to the constitution.  This amendment established how vacancies in the senate would be handled, but also removing the rights of state legislators in electing their senate in favor of the popular vote.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), former Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) have all advocated for repealing the 17th Amendment, which would end direct election of U.S. Senators and return Senate elections to the purview of state legislatures. People who are not familiar with history (or who are and want a political edge) may not understand that the repeal of the 17th amendment can reinstate the restriction to voting. By having a state legislature elect your senator, you remove the popular vote of the population.

Previously to the 17th amendment, the 14th and 15th Amendments restricted the states from limiting the states from denying people the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was meant to enforce these amendments. In modern times the Supreme Court had basically nullified the sections of this law, making it easier for states to make their own regulations and requirements for voting without Federal oversight.

I mention so much about voting rights in the U.S., because I wanted to compare that to the feudal system. In the feudal system, there was class structure, what level you were born into you stayed there for the rest of your life as did your children and their children. Political, cultural and even religion all enforced this structure, making it impossible for the serfs, slaves and freeman from obtaining any social mobility and as a result limited their power.

Voting is one of our few rights that we having in the United States, and to restrict that right, means we are also establishing a class order; a modern feudal system where the few wealthy, or politically powerful, determine the rights of the majority.

Let us not forget the history of the serf, slave and tenant; keep your rights intact.

Next time:  The Saratoga Springs Film Festival.

W.A. Rusho is a professional wrestler, historian, and author of the medieval fantasy novel; Legend of the Mystic Knights.


  1. I am interested in history and at the same time thankful that I did not live in that era. The poor really were looked down on and oppressed. To some extent, they still are in today's society.

  2. You know William, when I was reading this I thought about what I heard on the news last night. There are 67 people who have as much wealth as the rest of the world combined. If this true, are we not in reality Free Tenants - while we may own or rent our homes, how much say do we really have? The 67 influential people can set the rules for the rest of us to follow - kind of scary actually.

  3. A lesson not only in history but in civics. Today we call the freemen farmers and they are indebted not to the manor lord but to the bankers.

  4. Very interesting William and I agree with your point about valuing the right to vote. Sadly a lot of people choose not to exercise that right which means far too many of the politicians who make decisions on our behalf are elected by default and then those same people complain about how ineffectual government is. It's a cycle of self fulfilling prophecy that "the people" have helped to create. Truman may not have been the best President we've ever had, but I live by his slogan - The Buck Stops Here.

  5. Many states are trying to make it difficult for voters -- their targets are primarily minorities, the poor and Democrats -- to vote by requiring ID and moving polling stations far from where the voters live. Many don't have access to transportation. I've always advocated for declaring election day a national holiday so that everyone has the whole day to vote. Doesn't that make sense? We celebrate Independence Day but not the day that will help us all to be able to cast our vote in support of our freedom and our rights as citizens.

  6. Unfortunately neocons and neoliberals in the US has been trying for decades to make sure all power and wealth rests with the top 1%. And they have been really successful. It's because of them that an abundance of Americans have not had a raise in salary since the 70s. They also made the Supreme Court equal a company with a person which has made it impossible for anyone to be elected to anything in your country without massive contributions from these "corporate persons". Then comes payback...

  7. In a roundabout way your post brings to mind the Tolstoy short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Power continually shifts, but no matter how much most people work, the great majority of wealth really does lie with a few. We live under the illusion of freedom, but really aren't that free at all.

  8. Great, provocative post, William. As someone who definitely plans on not owning a home one day and who believes wholeheartedly in her right to vote, I'm shocked that anyone would think it'd be okay to repeal the 17th amendment. We need more people voting and not being apathetic about our voting rights. Maybe this would be a wake up call? Happy to share this on Twitter.

  9. Interesting look at history of free tenants and modern parallels. I think there is already a class order in the US (and other western countries) with the small percentage of very rich calling a lot of the shots. Trying to restrict who can vote helps them concentrate and retain that power. I am Canadian and although I did study some US civics and history in school, I didn't know the history of how Senators were appointed/elected. I also was unaware that they is a movement to change that.

  10. It really would be horrible to restrict voting to only land owners. But the politic climate is such that I think many politicians feel they need to "rock the boat" to build their political career. I live in a major city where land is super expensive. A 2 bedroom, somewhat outdated apartment will sell for a minimum of $500,00 in most areas. Most 2 bedroom apartments that don't need a lot of work are $600,0000 to $900,000. So owning land where I live is so different than owning it someplace more rural. So only the very wealthy would be able to vote.

  11. Two points:
    (1) Opponents of the 17th Amendment will tell you that they want to restore a balance of power between the individual states and the federal government as per the intentions of the founding fathers, but I suspect most of these people would support the prerogative of Washington to ride roughshod over the states if the president were a Republican.
    (2) I actually wouldn't have a problem with restricting the vote to whoever in a household does the grocery shopping. ;-)