I have recently been reading into the European Middle Ages, where one of the challenges is the limited sources available. I have often seen seen this described as a source bias towards the elite perspective, but I was wondering what exactly defines an elite during this period. Obviously, kings and aristocracy form part of this elite, but does this also include all those who are educated? What about village priests? I've also seen monks referred to as elites, are all monks part of the social elite? If anyone could define the term 'elites' in this context, or answer any of these questions, I would be very grateful!

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    Not only you need a literate person who writes the source, also you need a place and people that preserves (and copy) the ancient text during centuries. If a merchant from the elite wrote something, that text had less oportunities to survive than a text written by a monk working in a monastery.
    – Santiago
    Dec 2, 2019 at 20:32
  • Thank you! Would you be able to expand on the effect that has on a historian investigating these periods? Do you know what kind of perspective monastical sources tend to come from, and what information they tend to include? Don't worry if you don't have time to answer these! Xx
    – bthistory
    Dec 2, 2019 at 20:46
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    To a certain extent, "elite" depends on your POV - a local lord would be elite to a medieval peasant, but not in the King's Court. An amusing modern British take on this parallax effect can be found here "In Heaven, an angel is no-one in particular."
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 3, 2019 at 1:31
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    I doubt that it is possible to provide an authoritative answer to this question. The answer will depend on the context of the question - an answer that may be perfectly useable for one context will be meaningless in another.
    – MCW
    Dec 3, 2019 at 9:36
  • @Santiago I agree with the first part, but not the second. Many monastic records survive because 1) monks were well educated and thus writing a lot and 2) they transcribed and copied a number of documents. Of the few sources we have from the Middle Ages, a surprising many are written by monks. Dec 5, 2019 at 12:31

3 Answers 3


If I'm going to address this in context, the general point is that all we have to go by is written records, and in eras of low literacy, that means all we get is the perspective of the few literate people.

The early Middle Ages (aka: "Dark Ages") were definitely a period of low literacy in Europe, and in this case the few people who had the ability and inclination to write new things were going to be Priests and Monks. That doesn't mean they were the richest folk around, or the most powerful, but it does mean they were "elite" in the sense that they were writing historically useful stuff for us, and almost nobody else was.

This means what we are getting during this period was history from the perspective of Clergy. If we had histories written by Moneylenders, Cobblers, housewives, or peasants, doubtless the historical record would look quite different.

  • Thank you! Would you be able to expand on the effect this has on the perspective we have of this period? What kind of information does this historical record give us? Are priests' records conducive to a microhistorical approach? Don't worry if you don't have time to answer these, thank you for your answer!
    – bthistory
    Dec 2, 2019 at 20:48
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    @bmhistory - That's honestly debatable. I know a lot of folks today like to think this meant Church hierarchy kept all information dissemination under an iron thumb of Theology, but I honestly don't see a ton of evidence of that kind of overt repression in what we do have. However, we definitely don't have the wonderful worms-eye-view of events that we get of say the US Civil War via ordinary soldiers diaries and letters.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 2, 2019 at 20:54
  • Thanks so much! How would you recommend looking for such ground level perspectives then? Is it simply impossible?
    – bthistory
    Dec 2, 2019 at 21:04
  • Also, are there any gaps in the narrative surrounding the Civil War? Sorry for the interrogation! Xx
    – bthistory
    Dec 2, 2019 at 21:05
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    @bmhistory - The art and science of reading in between the lines is what we call the Historical Method.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 2, 2019 at 21:07

An excellent example is Lollardy in England.

Today many people read the Lollards through a lens of modern left wing movements. Ironically this is a useful reading: the Lollards were educated intermediaries who were incensed with moral outrages and tried to harness a movement of ordinary working people for their own benefits. We know more about the Lollards than the peasants’ unrest because the English ruling classes perceived the Lollards as a greater threat and dedicated more time to the spectacle and recording of their punishment. When people kept oral histories, copied or later printed texts, the Lollards were more replicated than stories of the peasants. When people recorded “folk” culture they were biased towards central stories and oral traditions also tend to lionise heros better than the norm.

This reads much like the relationship of revolutionary intellectuals with the proletariat. Ironically the same reading bias is in effect in both cases: a submergence of the real struggle. Think of how left wing heros tend to have degrees and not be working class. The great beards of Marxism is a trivial example.

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    Underrated answer. Reading up on the Lollards made me wonder how many other peasant rebellions during that era were suppressed and never noted by history because there was no scary new religious movement to blame them on.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 3, 2019 at 14:45

You won't get a clear definition, as this changes from century to century, from area to area, and also in the eye of the beholder.

  • Village priests were often poor, illiterate or barely literate, and clearly not an elite unless compared to rest of the village.
  • Same for monks and nuns.
  • Priests in more important churches, bishops, and priests who also served in the administration of the monarch might be characterized as elites.
  • Merchants might have qualified as elites, at least the more important, long-distance traders.
  • Within a city, the craft guild leadership would have been part of the elite.
  • Then there were landholders, noble or otherwise.

As a very rough ballpark figure, nine out of ten people worked the fields and flocks. Those who did not might be seen as elites by the field workers. Look at the medieval use of sheriff and gentry in England, or Vogt in Germany. Those who lived at a king's court would see them as rural ruffians.

  • Thank you! Regarding monastical sources, if monks aren't elites, could they be characterised as history from below, considering there was often a level of distance between the monk and the villagers? What are the problems with monastical sources? Don't worry if you don't have time to answer these, your first answer was extremely helpful!
    – bthistory
    Dec 2, 2019 at 20:44
  • @bmhistory, you are still trying to apply modern concepts to a non-modern society. Monks were not history from below, compared to court scribes they were history from sideways. Unless we're talking about the abbot of a rich monastery, or those who wrote on their orders.
    – o.m.
    Dec 3, 2019 at 5:39
  • Most villages didn't have their own church or priest - people would travel from all the nearby villages to the local church (this can still be seen in England by the sizes of civil parishes). "Priest" was a common role for a "third son" of the local Lord - well respected, but without infringing on the domain of the heir & spare - who would have been taught to read from a young age, or for commoner children from large families or orphans, who were 'given' to the church, and raised from a young age to be priests - including being taught how to read. Dec 3, 2019 at 12:41
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    (This is why priests traditionally doubled in roles such as Notaries and Registrars - specifically because most of them could read and write, albeit in Latin rather than English, so they could fill out records of Births and Deaths, et cetera. During the Middle Ages, mass would always have been said in Latin, so we know a priest would have required a modicum of education) Dec 3, 2019 at 12:43
  • @Chronocidal, there were examples of more churches than priests (i.e. a priest walking the circuit between several churches) and examples of priests who clearly did not understand the latin liturgy.
    – o.m.
    Dec 3, 2019 at 15:51

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