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According to church teachings everybody is equal unto God. It was not unusual that biblical figures were painted as ordinary Nordic human beings in everyday situations Even if there were big differences between the different classes in society in reality, everybody could go to hell. That was the equality.

The Social Structure
In the course of the high Middle Ages an extensive change in the country´s social structure takes place. The characteristic of the European feudalism´s hierarchical construction, where king, church and nobility are on top and around 90 % of the population at the bottom, worked all the way through to the beginning of the 19th century.
The ownership of Denmark´s land was divided between the three main players in the upper classes, who administered the right to use it with duties of some sort to a growing number of copyholders.
To understand this we can start by looking at the development in the squire classes.

Knights and Vassals
The magnate class took on the defence of the country, but also tasks within the administration . In exchange these noblemen were exempt from taxation and they obtained the right to use the crown´s land. In these districts the noblemen were granted freedom of action and the duties from the copyholders belonged to them.
This system, which is called the district or vassal system, was built on mutual obligations, typical of the feudal society.
Nobility had a central role in the feudal system and in many ways was able to dominate the royal power. All of Denmark was for a period in the 14th century entirely in the hands of nobility and these feudal overlords´ powers was so great that they in one period (1332-1340) chose not to have a king.
Knights. Örslev Church
Knights. Örslev Church

Clergy/The Bishops and the Priests
The clergy was divided into different social groups, ranging from the bishops, who were landowners like the nobility, to the ordinary priest, who almost shared the conditions of the peasants.
Gradually the church and monastery estates grew to a considerable amount. In Scania and Zealand for instance.
However, it was necessary for the king, church and nobility that the necessary and motivated labour was present. And here the obsolete production form of the thrall stood in the way. The thrall should be a copyholder.

The Thralls with New Freedom
In the early Middle Ages Denmark was a society where the thralls carried out the hardest work, often in connection with the clearing of forests and the building of churches.. Slaves had been recruited among war prisoners, not least during the Viking raids and were the lowest in society. The landscape laws, which were written in the first half to the 13th century testifies to a society, which had a clear division of the free and the not free people.
However, the church introduced a ban on making thralls of Christians. Thus the supply of thralls was diminished and the prices rose. The result was that farmers and magnates preferred to hire season workers. The new cultivation also made it better to let the thralls establish themselves and to cultivate new land. This gave the thralls freedom and positioned them in the lowest step in the peasant class.

Moore Copyholders
As the land of the church and the nobility was free of tax it became common that independent farmers handed over their land to the church and the magnates to become copyholders. This is why there were very few independent farmers in Denmark. Independent farmers owned only 10% of the land; in Sweden the number was 52%.

Copyholders and Male Serfdom
The duty they paid was in kind or in money. In the 15th century the magnates began to demand work, villeinage of the copyholders.
Special to Zealand and Lolland-Falster was the so-called male serfdom, which was introduced in the 15th century. This involved that the male estate population had to stay on the estate, so that the copyholders´ farms were always manned. This meant that the landowners had a more secure accession of labour, but it also entailed a sort of serfdom for the copyholders.

The Commoners
The commoners were rather a modest group in this period, however, it grew wit the increasing trade and business. A development, which meant that parts of the rural population went to the growing market towns.

The Peasants
The peasant class in the 13th century was mixed group. There were independent farmers, who paid taxes to the crown. There were also the copyholders, who made their living off the land of the crown, the church and the nobility and paid a duty. There were also smallholders, who worked on the farmers´ land, farmhands, and maids, who lived and earned their keep with others.
Adam working.
Adam working.

Class Society Takes Shape.
Gradually the social structure becomes more simple. With the establishment of the copyhold relation the medieval society begins to develop a more firm structure, a class society with a hierarchical construction, where the royal power is the top of the pyramid consisting of clergy, nobility commoners and peasants.
The King
1.rank: clergy
2.rank: nobility
3.rank: commoners
4.rank: peasants
The clergy was separated into different social groups, from the bishops, who were landowners like the nobility, to the common priest, who shared the conditions of the peasants. The commoners were a very modest group of people; however, they increased their numbers owing to the increasing trade and business in the late Middle Ages. This process also entails that parts of the rural population move to the growing market towns.

©  Øresundstid 2009