Feudalism in Europe During the Middle Ages

From the fall of Rome until the rise of absolute monarchies, western Europe was dominated by feudal states. Feudalism is a system based on reciprocal relationships between individuals, as opposed to institutions. Both of these aspects are key to understanding feudalism. Reciprocity lies in the fact that the senior party to any relationship provided land and oversight to the junior party, who in turn was expected to provide his lord with economic and military support. The personal aspect of the system is found in the traditions of investiture and homage, which bound a vassal personally to his lord.

Simply put, feudalism functions on every level except the lowest in these one-on-one terms. A lord owns land, but cannot oversee the exploitation of all of it, or is in greater need of military support than of a certain measure of wheat and rye, and so he confers some of his land to another. This second figure, the vassal, can use this land largely as he wishes, including conferring a portion of it to vassals of his own, provided that he does not use it against his own lord’s interests.

To enforce the latter point, a lord has the powers of a magistrate in judging the behavior of his vassals. In return for this land, the vassal gives back to his lord, or liege, a specified amount of economic and military support. Economic support can be in coin, grain, or both; military support is typically given by the vassal’s own service in the lord’s campaigns, along with such knights and common soldiers that the vassal can raise for this purpose, but especially later in the feudal period, money for the payment of mercenary soldiers can be given instead. Feudal arrangements were a form of contract, and generally specified in detail the number of soldiers that a vassal must provide, as well as the amount of economic support that he must give annually.

Feudal society can be depicted as a pyramid, with the ruler (usually a king, but sometimes an emperor or a ruling prince) at the apex and the peasantry at the base. Theoretically, the king is sovereign, and has the right to parcel out the land as he sees fit; in some cases this right comes from conquest. In practice, however, feudal kingdoms soon developed traditional duchies and counties, and while the king might modify these territories (such as by elevating a county to a duchy), he rarely starts over afresh. Generally, the king keeps some of his lands under his own control, to maintain the power and prestige of his family; such lands are known as demesne lands. When the king has land that he wishes to parcel out, and a nobleman whom he trusts or wishes to reward, he grants those lands to the new vassal in a ceremony known as investiture, because he is vesting those lands in the vassal. The vassal responds with an act of homage, demonstrating that he understands that he is bound to his liege in service.

Following this, the vassal is the lord of his own fiefdom, with a title like Duke, Count or Baron to his credit. It is likely that he has a small retinue already to aid him in his military service when the king calls upon him, but with his new status he also has greater obligations, and needs to increase his following. Raw numbers can be reached by levy among the peasants, but trained knights and men-at-arms, as well as specialists like archers and crossbowmen, are also needed.

To help fill his quota, the lord parcels out some of his land to knights and lesser nobles, giving them the resources to raise and equip the forces that they need to bring when the king calls for aid. This process is known as subinfeudation, and it can go on for several levels, allowing Dukes to assemble a strong body of forces from the lands they hold in fief.

Reciprocity is less evident at the base of the pyramid. Peasants do not receive land from their lords, but rather, they are bound to a small patch of land where they must work until they are too old to do so, handing over a large portion of his produce to the lord’s agents each fall. Neither do peasants perform an act of homage for their lord; their servitude is implicit in their status as serfs.

Technically, the peasants are under the protection of their lords, but in the event of an invasion, villages along the border of the territory are likely to suffer devastation. Note that this legal position applies only to the peasantry itself. Other commoners, the town-dwelling artisans, are not really a part of the feudal system at all. Towns have their own legal status, and are generally under the protection of one of the highest lords, if not of the king himself.

Historically, feudal arrangements have existed at many periods in many places on the globe. They tend to emerge under circumstances where agrarian, rural societies lack the technology or social organization to maintain strong unitary states. Under these circumstances, kings need to delegate most of their authority to representatives based in each region if they want to have any hope of effective rule. These representatives do not need to be warriors; in some cultures, scribes or senior priests can play this role. At the same time, countries without effective central rule tended to find themselves under circumstances of perennial conflict, which in turn favors the careers of successful warlords.

In the case of Europe, the feudal tradition began in late antiquity with the Roman practice of the foedus. During the fifth century, Rome lost all effective control over its borders, and large tribal units of northern barbarians crossed the frontiers to settle in what is now France, northern Italy, even in Spain. Unable to expel these invaders, the Romans tried to turn them to their own advantage, more specifically turning their warbands to the defense of Roman territory. Where possible, the Romans would conclude treaties known as “foedus” with these settlers, according to which the barbarians, now called foederati, were allowed to settle in a certain portion of land; in exchange, they needed to provide forces for the defense of Roman territory. As a system, it did not work particularly well; the terms were broken all too quickly by both sides, based on how they saw their own advantages. The idea survived, however, and the word “foedus” is the basis for such words as feudal, federal and confederation.

When Roman authority collapsed in the West, governance fell to the barbarian lords who had previously been foederati: the Franks in what is now France, the Goths in Spain, and the Lombards in Italy. Their military organization was based in part on their foedus obligations, and so it made sense that they preserved a basic form of what we would now call feudalism; in contrast, the Germanic people north of the Danube clung to a tribal form of organization until the 12th century. England had once been part of the Roman Empire, but when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded, these groups largely replaced the Romanized British all the way to the Welsh border.

England under the Saxon kings was a decentralized system similar in many ways to the feudalism that had developed on the continent, with Earls being comparable to Counts and Huscarls playing a role similar to knights, but it was not derived from the foedus tradition, nor was it as organized as French feudalism in the 11th century. Thus, when the Normans conquered England in 1066, they overlaid the indigenous system with the more formalized feudal structure that was practiced in France. Similarly, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa broke the tribal power of his dukes in 12th century Germany, and reorganized Germany along feudal lines.

Feudal society was not static. Because of its reciprocal nature, when the kings were weak and nobles were strong, vassals could renegotiate terms to their own advantage. The Magna Carta is the most famous example of this phenomenon, but in the long run, the more fundamental change had come earlier, when the inheritance of a father’s title by his oldest son became accepted practice.

The Church was also a player in this game, as bishops were often invested with lands as well. The power struggles that emerged from that fact, however, deserve a title of their own. What matters is that feudalism was a flexible system, able to persevere until the late Renaissance, when an increasingly urbanized society was capable of reasserting centralized control.


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