The Second Estate: a nobleman protects the two others (17th-century gable stone; Amsterdam)

The growth of a princely capital and the transition of the administration into a bureaucratic, professional and centralized organ were radical developments; yet they were not the most important innovations of the Late Middle Ages. One of the most radical administrative innovations of all times was the coming into existence of the Meeting of the Estates.

As noted, rulers had to ask the opinion of all free men, or at least of their vassals, when difficult issues had to be solved. We saw, however, that the power of the nobles had been seriously curtailed by the emergence of a small group of professional advisers. Administrators now ran the risk that there would no longer be a broad basis of support for any unpopular measures they might have to take. Influential nobles would either give them a cool reception or even resist them outright. Thus, from the fourteenth century onwards, consensus-forming meetings of the so-called Three Estates took place all over Europe.

According to the beliefs of the Middle Ages, the stability of a society rested on God’s blessing and it was the task of each individual to obtain that blessing. In the first place, there was the clergy (First Estate) whose task it was to look after the spiritual welfare of society. The nobles (Second Estate) had to defend the Church against foreign enemies and criminals. All the rest made up the Third Estate: they kept the economy going, enabling the clergy and the nobles to conduct their auspicious tasks properly.

These three estates came together in the Estates Meeting. Noblemen had a right to express their opinion and that also applied to the higher clergy. These two estates already made up a much larger group than would have been present at a meeting of feudal vassals. The representatives of the Third Estate were the town administrators. The peasants, more than eighty percent of the population, were not represented. That is not to say that the peasants were ignored, because in those parts of Europe where the peasants were still serfs, the aristocracy seriously tried to look after their interests. Noblesse oblige.

It is clear that such a broad-based assembly of people was a useful instrument for creating consensus. If the Estates Meeting agreed to a policy proposal, that was sufficient support for a monarch. The meeting which took place in France in 1302 is a good example: the Estates gave the king permission for a very unusual action, the kidnapping of the Pope. Yet, no matter how broadly-based the Meeting of the Estates was, it remained only a representative body. This went against the sense of justice of every free man who was not present at the meeting and they wanted rectification of the situation.

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