We are inclined today to romanticize the Middle Ages as a time when things were simpler, but in reality medieval society was highly complex. Modern societies are structured by documents and constitutions, and many of their pivotal relationships are defined by abstract institutions like governments and corporations. In the Middle Ages, society was shaped by personal relationships like kinship and patronage; these structures were perpetuated not by abstract institutions but by the personal ties of inheritance. The force of tradition gave these personal relationships some stability, but they were never static. Relationships changed over time in response to changing circumstances, and the actual social structure at any given place and time was an intricate network reflecting a whole history of personal relationships. One peasant might enjoy more rights than his neighbor because one of his forebears had been particularly assertive in his relationship to the manor lord; a baron might be required to provide extra knights for the king's service because his great-grandfather had been a poor negotiator.
The more we study the medieval world, the more complex it becomes. In later chapters of this book we will look at specific settings to see something of the complexity of local conditions, but to understand these settings we need a frame of reference. Medieval society was in many ways profoundly different from our own, and in these first three chapters we will look at some of the general features of the medieval world to help orient the modern reader in this alien territory. These features derive from common factors that gave the diverse manifestations of local life in the me-