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!
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.
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.
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.