- The word “feudal” refers to the economic, political, and social system that characterized medieval Europe from about 1000 to 1300.
- A landowner gave vassals a piece of land in return for a promise from the person who received it.
- The people’s payment to the lord usually came by doing military service or regularly giving them produce or money.
How Feudalism Began
In 911, Rollo was the head of a Viking army. He faced the King of France, who gave him some lands in return for protection and taxes.
Rollo and his men took things from the rich Seine River valley for some time. Charles was the king of France. He was a king, but he had little money and power.
Charles, the king in France, gave a lot of land in France to the Viking leader. It became called Northmen’s land. The Viking leader swore loyalty to Charles in return.
Later on, rulers and warriors, just like Charles and Rollo had done, also made these agreements throughout Europe.
Feudalism Emerges in Europe
People in Europe thus started using this system of government called feudalism. It came from China before. In feudal Japan, the system began in A.D. 1192, and it ended much later.
In exchange for protection and other services, a lord gave land to people. A fief was land given to a vassal. People who got the land were called vassals.
In feudalism, people who owned land controlled who they gave it to and the riches the land gave back.
Hierarchies in Feudalism
The structure of feudal society was like a pyramid. At the very top sits the king with a lot of power.
Next came the most powerful vassals. They were wealthy landowners such as nobles and bishops.
At the top of society were knights. Knights rode horses and pledged to defend their lords’ land in exchange for fiefs.
There was a group of people at the bottom of the pyramid. They had to work in the fields and take care of the land.
In the past, people’s status determined how much power they had. People with higher social class usually inherited their positions.
In the Middle Ages, people were divided into three groups:
- Nobles and knights who fought
- Men and women of the Church, who prayed
- Peasants, who worked
In Europe in the Middle Ages, most people were peasants. They couldn’t leave the place where they were born.
Though serfs were bound to the land, their lords didn’t own them, which means there was no slavery. The lord could give the person a job but what they made belonged to the lord.
Consequences of Feudalism
The feudal system made it so that many different groups of people owed loyalty to one person. This person was the boss of the land, and they had absolute authority over what happened there.
When a person had land, they could give it to their child. This made a permanent difference between those who owned the land and those who rented it.
The system often favored the ruler when a noble died without an heir. The ruler could either keep it or give it to another person.
It was hard for kings to track who owned what, so they kept books like the Domesday Book.
Domesday is Britain’s earliest record. It tells about land and who owns it. It was made by William I. The Domesday Book has information about society and what happened in England before industrial times.
Unrest and Revolts
The feudal system could create a lot of unrest.
The Barons Revolt and the Magna Carta
Sometimes, a king might ask the nobles to fight in a war. But sometimes, they refuse because of other things. King John of England wanted the Barons to fight in France on their side. The Barons refused.
The nobles rebelled. They made John agree to Magna Carta on June 15th, 1215. The Magna Carta was a list of things the barons wanted from the king. They wanted to limit his power.
The barons said ‘no’ to the king and made him do as they wanted. The barons acted together, and this was a threat to feudalism. Feudalism is based on private arrangements between lords and vassals.
In England, military service was reduced to 40 days so that nobles could stay in their land and not leave for too long.
However, a king would not finish a battle in 40 days. The king had to pay mercenaries which made it difficult for the tradition of feudalism and vassalage.
The Peasants Revolt
The first great popular rebellion was the Peasants’ Revolt. Wat Tyler led the English peasants in a revolt against the hard life on manors. Their battle cry was ending laws that forced serfs to work for free and made them pay a lot of money without getting anything in return.
A manor was where the lord lived. It is on an estate. During the Middle Ages, that was how people made their living.
The manor system is a set of rules. A lord owns his land, giving some of it to serfs. Serfs have rights and obligations.
The lord usually gave the serfs housing and farmland. They also protected them from bandits. The serfs helped out by tending their lands.
Peasant women helped on the farm with their husbands.
Free peasants had to work some days for the lord too. They had to give some of their crops to the lord too.
Peasants’ Everyday Life
A manor usually had a few square miles of land. It typically had a house for the lord, a church, and workshops.
There were usually about 15 to 30 families living there on the manor. It was like a small village surrounded by fields, pastures, and woodlands.
Sometimes there were streams in the manor. Streams and ponds provided fish to eat.
The mill was where they ground their grain. The manor was largely a community that did not need to buy food from anybody else.
The only things bought outside were salt, iron, and some other objects like millstones, which were very big stones for making flour.
Serfs lived in small houses with one or two rooms. The main room had activities like cooking, eating, and doing housework. The second was a bedroom for the family.
Peasants’ houses had dirt floors. They warmed their house by bringing pigs inside at night. The family would all lay on a pile of straw that often had bugs crawling on it.
Peasants ate vegetables, bread, cheese, and soup.
William Langland wrote “Piers Plowman” in 1362. This is about peasants’ lives. Here is a fragment:
What by spinning they save, they spend it in house-hire, Both milk and meal to make a mess of porridge, To cheer up their children who chafe for their food, And they suffer surely much hunger And woe in the winter, with waking at nights And rising to rock an oft restless cradle.
Many children were put to work when they were old enough. Illness and malnutrition were a constant problem for peasants from the Middle Ages.
People used to live on average about 35 years. They never went more than 25 miles from their homes.
Even though they had a hard life, they accepted their lot in life. They believed that God determined where you lived, and they were ok with it.
Taxes and Money
In exchange for living on the lord’s land, peasants had to pay a lot of money. They had to pay a tax on all-grain they ground in the lord’s mill.
Anyone who tried to keep the bread they made in someone else’s bakery would be treated as criminal.
People who were peasants had to pay a tax when they got married. They could not get married unless they had the landlord’s permission.
Peasant families also owed a church tax. In the church tax, they had to give one-tenth of their income. This was called a tithe.
The End of Feudalism
Under medieval feudalism, lords and vassals both gave each other things. But as time went on, the relationship became more complicated.
Before this, lords owned 1 or 2 estates. But now, they can own more than one, and their vassals could be tenants of the land. People choose to show loyalty to whoever is best for them and not just one person.
Another problem with feudalism was that the population shrank when there were wars or plagues. Sometimes, peasants would revolt because they were not happy.
The crisis caused a shortage of workers. People stopped working on estates because no one could help them work.
People wanted to move from the country to the city. This happened because people wanted more jobs.
By the 13th century, merchants were doing more business and using coins more. This was affecting the way that feudalism worked.
People could now pay their king instead of doing army work.
The monarchs were using mercenaries to help fight their battles. It was so bad that the barons themselves weren’t very important anymore.
A monarch could now give money instead of land. Wealthy people became merchants and had no loyalty to anyone but the monarch, their suppliers, and their customers.
Even people born into less fortunate circumstances, like serfs, sometimes bought their freedom and escaped.
These things made feudalism based on land ownership and service weaker, even if it continued in some places.
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