Feudalism: Origins and Life under Lords

FEUDALISM

Historical Context and Rise of Feudalism

Feudalism arose in response to various invasions that threatened Europe, namely the Viking, Muslim, Huns, and Mongol invasions. To survive, Europe was forced to militarize. Military service became the form of payment, and land gifted (fief) from one large landholder to another became the compensation.
Aristocratic, landholding knights on horses became in high demand as they were able to respond to quick invasion threats from Viking raiders; a distant king was powerless to prevent such attacks. People began to flock to these warriors, leaving behind the towns and cities, rural powers became dominant and towns and cities deteriorated.

The peasants not only received protection from these lords, but they were also given land to work and farm and, in return, a percentage of their produce (or other obligations tied to the land the lord gave them, such as military service, equipment, horses, a trade or craft, etc.) would return to the lord. The lord gained from this as he now had new production of his unused land, and since he did not have to work directly for it, it gained him more time to train. Further, he also accumulated vassals and loyal followers.

The Structure of Feudal Relationships

While lower local lords parceled out land to the peasants, they often had their own lords whose land was at one point given to them or their ancestors. Each “level” of lords owed certain obligations to those above them for the land their lord gifted them. Like the significant fief (land) holders (second tier) who owed service to the king or another great lord for their lands, their own vassals (often knights – third tier) owed obligations to them. Most people in the feudal hierarchy both had lords and were lords of others. At times, even peasants and serfs had those below them and multiple lords above them. Even kings sometimes had lords, often another more powerful king.

At times, homage was given to an overlord not because obligations were due or imposed on the vassal but to demonstrate who the land’s original owner was. As a result, it often became an honorary oath of loyalty rather than a reciprocal obligatory agreement. Further, the land was not the only gift parcelled out; it could be something as small as hunting or fishing rights or the right to collect tolls. Other times, the only requirement placed on a vassal in return for large sections of land was the willingness to be summoned to a council, the offering of prayers, or the saying of masses in the lord’s name, and other times, the land was freely gifted for diplomatic reasons, or to friends and family, or churches and monasteries. Various monks and bishops became wealthy and powerful lords able to muster large numbers of troops due to such extensive and frequent gifts from devout lords.

Lords would advocate for their customs, lands, and agreements, and peasants would flock to a good lord and away from bad ones, creating a free market approach to politics and a beneficial atmosphere for the purchaser – the lower levels of the hierarchy. Lords did not care to govern their vassals outside the obligations agreed upon, so peasants had extraordinary liberty. After the agreement with the lord, the peasants or vassals lived free of all other obligations. No kings, no legislators, inspectors, or bosses influenced them. Their only taxes, obligations, and restrictions in life were those they chose to agree upon with their lord, which were often extremely limited in scope. The peasants were incredibly freer than moderns living under a democracy. The idea of not choosing your customs and laws would indicate slavery to the medieval peasant. Thus, moderns who are forced under a government not of their choosing, that they did not vote for or even voted against, by politicians passing laws they did not directly as an individual choose would be declared tyranny, not liberty.

Even at the very bottom of the feudal hierarchy, serfs (not peasants) who were “tied to the land” (either by choice or as freed slaves—and who benefited from their lord’s protection and land), their ancestors initially chose their lord and customs. Between the ages of 14-20, you were considered to have reached adulthood and had the choice to go off on your own. Searching for an opportunity in the towns, trying a trade, finding a new lord, a plot of land, a monastery, going on a pilgrimage, joining the Church, going on crusade, or perhaps staying on the manor and inheriting your father’s obligations. In the serfs’ families, it may be the eldest son inherited his father’s commitments. In contrast, the second son moved to a town or city. His daughter joined a nunnery, and his third son chose a new lord in a distant realm. A vassal was duty-bound to his lord to fulfil certain obligations as long as he chose to receive the inheritance and maintain the obligations. Those vassals who inherited land freely gave fealty to their lord for their inherited fiefs. Free peasants maintained their ability to move and choose a lord.

Feudalism’s Societal Impact

Many critics of feudalism see the system as unjust since a hierarchy is involved, and some have more power than others. Yet, in actuality, it did the opposite; it spread land ownership and power out, and it took from the rich and gave to the poor. Power was removed from the king to the local lords, who likewise gave land to the next level of the tier. Kings lost so much power they could no longer command but were increasingly forced to give out land and gifts to keep vassals from abandoning or turning against them. During Roman times, the empire had many slaves and extremely influential senators; in contrast, during the Middle Ages, the most potent lost power, and the slaves became serfs (who were not like slaves) and free peasants. During the Middle Ages, the lowest levels rose, and the highest shrank.

Even our modern egalitarian, capitalistic, socialistic, and democratic societies are far more lopsided than society under feudalism. As capitalism replaced feudalism, people became outright “owners” of land, able to purchase as much as they could afford. Wealthy merchants, government officials, tradesmen, etc., consumed and controlled larger sections of territory than did the medieval lords, and increasingly, a smaller percentage of the population owned more and more money, land, and political power.

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Missing Monarchy: Correcting Misconceptions About The Middle Ages, Medieval Kingship, Democracy, And Liberty
Missing Monarchy: Correcting Misconceptions About The Middle Ages, Medieval Kingship, Democracy, And Liberty by Jeb Smith

SOURCES

  • Smith, J. J. (2024). Missing monarchy: Correcting misconceptions about the Middle Ages, medieval kingship, democracy, and liberty.

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