The term "middle class" has had several, sometimes contradictory, meanings. It was once defined by exception as an intermediate social class between the nobility and the peasantry of Europe. While the nobility owned the countryside, and the peasantry worked the countryside, a new bourgeoisie (literally "town-dwellers") arose around mercantile functions in the city. In France, the middle classes helped drive the French Revolution.[5] Another definition equated the middle class to the original meaning of capitalist: someone with so much capital that they could rival nobles. In fact, to be a capital-owning millionaire was the essential criterion of the middle class in the industrial revolution.


The setting is Medieval, vaguely European. The setting has several kingdoms. The kingdoms aren't (resource wise, politically, geographically, and economically) positioned to thrive on trade. Further the industrial revolution, in any material form, hasn't touched these kingdoms yet.

Nevertheless I'd like to justify a prosperous middle class. I'm willing to be flexible (in either way) on terms of hygiene, exact mechanics of nobility/royalty, education, and religion, but I do not want the justification grounded in a specific religion/religious philosophy, or a culture so radically unique to abandon "medieval, vaguely European" from the ten-thousand foot view.

How can I justify this prosperous middle class?

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    $\begingroup$ Can you define what properties should this middle class have? Like top 3-5 most important. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Nov 17, 2016 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ @user28434 I know this isn't the official definition, but culturally I see the main significance of the middle class is that it was/is a group of people with enough resources (of a variety of types and natures) and resource safety/assurance to comfortably move up and stabilize on the higher tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs; they've moved beyond a concern of and for the fundamentals of survival and stability. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Nov 17, 2016 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ Short answer: skip the Dark Ages. Preserving Roman technology and infrastructure would have exponentially increased the lower and middle classes' productivity. Inventions such as the Gallic reaper, hydro-powered sawmill, and the beginnings of steam technology were not matched for centuries. $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Nov 17, 2016 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ Aren't "positioned to thrive on trade." Well, they may not be well suited to trade with other kingdoms, but most commerce involves trade with other people within a community, and there is no bright line between trading with the guy next door, and the guy on the other side of town, and the guy in the country and the guy in the next kingdom over, except due to artificial political boundaries. Specialization allowing for skilled work through exchange is the root of a middle class. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 18, 2016 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ I like this question a lot. What else are you looking for in an answer? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 28, 2016 at 20:35

5 Answers 5


You don't need THE Industrial Revolution, just AN industrial revolution

The middle class grew in Early Modern Europe due to the increase in productivity caused by technological advances. While the steam engines and industrialization associated with THE Industrial Revolution were important, they are only a piece of the overall puzzle. A society without gunpowder or fossil-fuel driven machinery could achieve several of the productivity related technologies needed to create a prosperous 'capitalist' middle class while still maintaining the ten thousand foot appearance of 'medieval European'.

  1. Agricultural Revolution. An un-appreciated cause of the Industrial Revolution. The reason there was so much labor available for factories is that farming in England in the 1700s became much more productive. By shifting the 'goal' of farming from peasant self-sufficiency to commercial market-driven production, much more food could be made with much less labor. This means increased population, larger cities, and thus larger markets for other goods
  2. Putting Out System. This developed in Europe in the early modern period and largely replaced the peasant's self-sufficient cloth production before mechanization took hold. Allows a low density suburban network of in-home 'manufacturers' to generate higher quality clothing by specializing in various tasks. Higher agricultural output from 1. would allow more people to specialize in cloth-making; and clothes are always in demand.
  3. Hydropower. This excellent book argues that the higher productivity of Western European workers by the end of the Middle Ages (compared to India, China, the Middle East) was due to extensive use of hydropower. Europe is uniquely suited to using hydropower, with many steady streams that do not freeze in the winter and do not have large seasonal fluctuations. Extensive use of hydropower for milling, sawing, stone polishing, forging (driving both hammers and bellows) would increase productivity and help create a prosperous class of mill owners, builders, and operators.
  4. Infrastructure. One of the things that Early Modern Europe generally failed at was large scale infrastructure. But never fear, there were an even earlier group of Euros who did a much better job. Take medieval society and add Roman road and aqueduct building skills. Also, canal building could have advanced faster. Some pretty impressive canals (like Canal du Midi) were built before the 1700s; the technology level used to construct the canals wasn't much more than the Romans could have accomplished. With your kingdoms investing in infrastructure, intra-city travel and trade would be relatively cheap, and clean water supplies (and sewage disposal) would increase public health.

It is important to note that none of these points involve technology that wasn't demonstrated before the year 1500. All it takes is a little social re-organization into forms that didn't develop until later (commercial farming, putting out manufacturing, capitalist-style investment in watermills, kingdoms that could tax and spend on infrastructure). Also, not having a war every few years would help too.

In conclusion, if you take Medieval Europe, add some peace and infrastructure investment, maintain the economic and civic freedoms already enjoyed, and allow for some developments in civic and business organization, you can get the society you are looking for.

  • $\begingroup$ Indeed, towns and local commerce started to emerge pretty much as soon as agriculture was invented ca. 10,000 years ago. By the Copper Age, about 5,000 years ago, there was writing and there were cities although authoritarian welfare theocracies were the order of the day. Towns with middle classes were emerging by the Bronze Age ca. 4000-3000 years ago, and were ubiquitous once the Iron Age, which followed, began. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 18, 2016 at 0:11

The simplest answer, I feel, is that your story is set in the immediate aftermath of something like the black death. During that era between 50-80% of the population of various places around Europe died. Whilst horrendous, it did provide a boon for those left behind.

Suddenly their labour became considerably more valuable, and they could negotiate generous wages and even indeed roam about looking for a better lord. The cost of land went down too; allowing them to gain and hold far more wealth in the long term. This also allows them to bargain for greater legal rights and opportunities, and the elite are at this point not in much of a position to ignore them.

See here.

Moralizing exaggeration aside, the rural worker indeed demanded and received higher payments in cash (nominal wages) in the plague’s aftermath. Wages in England rose from twelve to twenty—eight percent from the 1340s to the 1350s and twenty to forty percent from the 1340s to the 1360s. Immediate hikes were sometimes more drastic. During the plague year (1348—49) at Fornham All Saints (Suffolk), the lord paid the pre—plague rate of 3d. per acre for more half of the hired reaping but the rest cost 5d., an increase of 67 percent. The reaper, moreover, enjoyed more and larger tips in cash and perquisites in kind to supplement the wage. At Cuxham (Oxfordshire), a plowman making 2s. weekly before the plague demanded 3s. in 1349 and 10s. in 1350 (Farmer, 1988; Farmer, 1991; West Suffolk Record Office 3/15.7/2.4; Harvey, 1965).

Main problem with this is inflation, which often cancelled out the gains in wages. So perhaps you'll have to implement an anti-inflationary something or other to deal with that side of things.

Another possibility is that your rich people have just won a war against someone else, looted and enslaved them; turning them into Helot equivalents and thus allowing themselves more free time, if nothing else. Time is money!

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You rotten swine! I was going to suggest a blacker death taking out a higher percentage of the population, leaving more resources and capital behind for the survivors. A smaller population would need a more productive population, leading to an early onset industrial revolution. Gave you plus one. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Nov 18, 2016 at 6:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @a4android Oink? $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Nov 18, 2016 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ There I was thinking no-one else will know this about the aftermath of the Black Death. Wrong! Nice answer, advantage yourself. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Nov 18, 2016 at 11:17

Step 1: Use an exaggerated Hajnal line

The idea is that your country would have women marrying late. Late marriage means that both partners go in with a relatively large resource endowment, and then distribute it across relatively few children.

Having relatively few children would prevent a Malthusian catastrophe, where the popluation expands into a pauperized class living at the limits of what can be supported by the land and then falls due to war or disease.

Step 2: Good property rights

Have a early and wide-sweeping Magna Carta or an Icelandic-style Althing, which is to say political representation of all property holders. Bonus points if you include women, either as widows or as pre-marriage freeholders.

Having a strong political voice by the plucky freeholders will serve to slow or even reverse the encroachment by the richer landholders against the commons or individual farms.

Step 3: Early life insurance

Widows and orphans rely on a social safety net based on insurance payments. This prevents people from slipping into poverty due to the unavoidable medical disasters of a pre-antibiotic world. There is literally nothing about this that could not have been done as far back as Sumeria, it's just that nobody thought about it before the 1700s in Europe.


To me sounds like you could model things after Roman citizen soldiers or the early American freeholder middle class. One of the most prominent reasons peasants were so poor so they didn't for the most part own there own land. I think it would be reasonable if you were to have a society with still nobles and large estates, but also a significant number of small independent land owners. For the most part I think this would still resemble a medieval society


Who collects the taxes? Who manages the estates of the nobility? Who creates art, sculpture, or music for the nobility? Who are their elite fighters? Who builds siege engines and weaponry? Who tutors young nobles? Do the nobility tithe money or land to the clergy? If bastards can't inherit and are not considered nobles, do they still get some kind of position or income from noble parents? These kind of people are your potential middle class.

Basically anyone who has the patronage of the wealthy nobles but is not noble themselves is going to fall into the middle class. This middle class won't be as large as what we see in other types of societies but would still have a reasonable presence anywhere where there are wealthy nobles. However, it wouldn't be as large a presence as in other scenarios where other factors take part in the rise of the middle class. This middle class could be prosperous but is probably not incredibly stable.


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