I know that many people in our Society are drawn to the pomp and finery of the nobility in the High Medieval period, and I can see the appeal — such pretty outfits! — but on some level it’s hard for me to escape the gnawing knowledge that this gaudy display is only one face of a system of profound inequality.
As James Given puts it in “The Economic Consequences of the English Conquest of Gwynedd” (1989):
There is an implicit assumption in much of the scholarship on medieval political institutions that the growth of centralized, state power was a positive phenomenon conducive to the good of society as a whole… [However] the social impact of the growth of political institutions was much more complex than this. … increasing seigneurial and royal demands on the surplus of the peasant economy as an important factor in the social and economic dislocations of the fourteenth century. This is not a surprising result in a society where economic production was largely in the hands of peasant households and where seigneurial and royal revenues were spent, not on socially constructive capital investments, but on conspicuous consumption, the consolidation of patronage networks, religious practices designed to legitimate the existing social distribution of wealth and power, and such socially destructive pastimes as war. It is possible that the growth of political authority, generally saluted as one of the positive features of late-medieval society, may in reality have been one of the prime causes of the crises that afflicted Europe in the late Middle Ages.