The Feudal System


Figure 1.--

After the fall of Rome, the Feudal system developed in Europe. The Feudalism was an economic, social, and economic system based apportionment of land in exchange for the provision of fealty and service. The system was based on the king granting land to his important noblemen who became barons. These land grants became heritary. The king also granted land to the Church. These nobels in exchange pledged loyally to the king and to provide soldiers and supplies in time of war. The great nobels in turn divied their fiefdom among lesser lords or knights who became his vassals. This system ws based on the laborof the lowest rung of the social order. Most Europeans were peasant farmers working on the land of a Feudal nobleman--the lor of the manner. They did not own their land, but allowed to work it in exchange for a hare of the crop and labor when required. As the Feudal system developed, the peasants or serfs became tied to the land, not allowed to leave it without permission of the lord of the manner. The Feudal system began to weaken in Western Europe by the 16th century, but persisted much longer in Eastern Europe. The serfs in Russia werenot legal freed until the 19th century and it was not until the Revolution in the20th century that the still essentially Feudal estates were broken up.

Chronology

After the fall of Rome, the Feudal system developed in Europe. Europen feudalism arose with the collapse of central authority after the fall of the Roman Empire and the breakdown of all social institutions except the Church. Feudalism was the central European social system overning Europe during the medieval era. The chaos rought by waves of barbarian invasions throughly destroyed the established order. Gradually Roman institutions were forgotten. Society splintered into large numbers of small, isolated communities. The new institutions which involved in Europe involved a moneyless economy, limited transportation, rstrictive communication facilities, and a complete absence of effective central government. The war loards of the 5th centuy evolved into the monarchies of Christian Europe. The new kings were not just warlords, but rulers annoited by God a responsible for preserving the Faith as well as the security of his subjects. The dual role invested the king with political, religious, and culture responsibilities. Security continued to be an ongoing ptoblem. People turned to the king and his local representative th lord of the manor to protect them from pilaging neighbors and an even greater threat from war-like raiders such as the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens. The European response three important institutions. Peasants were organized on manors. Monestaries were organized to support priests and nuns. Social relationships were organized around a new social institition that we now call feudalism. The Feudal system began to weaken in Western Europe by the 16th century, but persisted much longer in Eastern Europe. The serfs in Russia werenot legal freed until the 19th century and it was not until the Revolution in the 20th century that the still essentially Feudal estates were broken up.

Land

The Feudalism which developed throughout Europe was a decentralized economic, social, and economic system based apportionment of land in exchange for the provision of fealty and service. In principle, the monarch owned all land but individuals of his choice to use portions of it, as tenants, in exchange for fealty and service. The basis of the Feudal system was thus the allocation of land in return for service. The king granted land to his important noblemen who became barons. In turn the barons parceled out shares of the land to their retainers.

Security

Security was at the center of the Feudal system as it originally evolved. The early Medieval era was a very dangerous one. People banded together in small communities around a lord or master. The European population was essentially rural and most people lived on a manor, which normally would have at its center castle or fortified keep. These varied significantly in size and construction. There importance can be seen in the fact that two of Europens most important royal dynasties were named after the castles of minor local nobels (Hapsburgs and Hollenzollerns). Nanors also normally had a church, village, and the surrounding farm land that supported the community. The peasants on these isolated mannors rarely traveled and left the mannors they were born on. There might be occassional visits from traveling merchants and peddlers, minsterals, religious pilgrims, churchmen, or knights.

Ceremonies

The king would grant nobel titles at special ceremonies. They would neal before the king and swear an oath, "Sire, I become your man."

Sevices

The Feudal nobility redenered a wide variety of services in exchange for grants of nobility and land. These services could be anything from military service to 'sergeantry' which might mean delivering grain or other produce. The principal services that the nobility supplied the king was military assistance in time of war. In other times a share of the produce from the fiefdom helped support the royal court. As the Medieval economy developed and became more sophisticated, these services evolved into modern taxes.

Power Struggle

The nobility in many countries vied with the king over control of the country. The results varies. In England it was the beginning step toward democracy. In Poland it meant the death of a powerful country. In Germany it mean continuing division. In France the defeat of the nobels meant royal absolutism. Land was also apportioned to the Church. The Pope in Rome appointed the nobels of the Church (bishops and Rome). As kings became more powerful, a conflict developed between the pope and kings over the appointment of bishops and control of national churches.

Hereditary Basis

These land grants became heritary.

The Church

The king also granted land to the Church. The Christian Church developed in the Roman Empire. The supression of Christians was a constant theme during the reigns of many emperors. The early Church fathers (Peter, Paul, and many others) operated in this hostile environmnt. Finally with Constantine, the Church became the official religion of the Empire. Early Chiurch theologiand like Augustine lived at a time that the Church was not only tolerated, but the official religion of the Empire and a rligion that acted to supress other rival creeds. The Church was thus significantly influenced by the Empire. Much of the Church's organization (pope, cardinal, bishop, ect) was a relection of how the Roman Empire was organized, although the modern organization of the Church and the primacy of the Pope only developed over time. The political structure of the Empire was reflected in how Christian diosceses were set up. Even before conversion, important local officials (Roman, Celtic, and Germanic) might protect or even endow monastaries and convents seeing it beneficial to have "a powehouse of prayer" in their territory. [Brown] One remarkable aspect of the triumph of Christianity in Europe was the fact that Christianity was the religion of the defeated Empire, yet it was gradually adoped by the victorious barbarians. The story of medieval conversions is a fascinating one. Actual conversion took many forms. Very few European people were Christianized by conquest. Rather conversion occurred by coverting leaders, primarily by persuasion. This process took many forms (missionary zeal, princly fiat, election, and shamanistic vision). Many features of the modern Church were not aspects of the early Church. One of the most important is the cult of the saints. Another is the confessional, intitially only practiced by the most deeply pious. One aspects of the confessional was tariffed penances based on penitentials. Surviving medieval penitentials provide a wealth of information to sociologists concerning the intimate details of everyday life. [Brown]

The Nobility

These nobels in exchange pledged loyally to the king and to provide soldiers and supplies in time of war. The great nobels in turn divied their fiefdom among lesser lords or knights who became his vassals.

Peasants

This system ws based on the labor of the lowest rung of the social order. Most Europeans were peasant farmers working on the land of a Feudal nobleman--the lord of the manner. They did not own their land, but allowed to work it in exchange for a hare of the crop and labor when required. As the Feudal system developed, the peasants or serfs became tied to th land, not allowed to leaveit without permission of the lord of the manner.

Social Class

The fashions that we discuss here during the Medieval era are to a large extent the fashions of the nobility in the courts of Europe. Only gradually did commoners like successful merchants aquire the ability to dress fashionably. The fashions worn by nobels and wealthy merchants changed slowly, especially in the early Medieval era. The nobility was a very narrow stata of society. Throughout the Medieval era the vast mass of the population were peasants eeking out a subsistence existence in rural areas and rarely venturing more than 50 miles from where they were born. Life for European peasants was very difficult. Few had money to actually purchase their clothing. Cloth was spun and woven by hand in peasant hovels. The principal material was wool. Linnen was made from flax, but ws expensive. Cotton was unknown in the early Medieval era and fter its introduction in the late Medeval era, very expensive as it was imported fom the East. Another imported fabric, silk, was also reserved for the wealthy. Even the most basic implements like needles were difficult to obtain and very expensive. Clothes made by pesants at home, because of the effort involved, were made as simply as possible and the fit was thus very loose. There was in thge early Mediueval era little difference between the dress of the nobility and the peasantry, although the material and workmanship usually differed. As time went by greater and greater differences developed. Fashion changes occurred first with te wealthy and only slowly fitered down to the peasant classes. Europen peasants primaarily wore wool and linen garments. Notonly were these the available fabrics, but sumptuary laws were passed restricting what different social classes could wear. English peasants in 1363 were limited to coarse materials, a plain linen girdle, and prohibited from wearing any fur. Peasants made what dyes they used from local roots and flowers which because they often were not strong provided only soft hues to their clothes rather than brightly colored clothes that the nobility often which were made with more refined and expensive dyes. [Crush]

Towns

With the fall of Rome there was also a dispersal of population into the countries side. A much smaller poroportion of the population lived in urban communities and the size and number of important cities declined. One of the reasons for the decline of urban centers was a decline in the volume of trade. Without the Roman Empire the maintenance of the Roman roads declined. It not only became increasingly difficult to transport goods, but without a powrful Empire to control bringanage and piracy, it bcame increasingly dangerous to transport goods. Urban life never ended of course and towns continued to exist. Trade was what made towns essential and wealthy. Towns were centers where trade could be conducted. Agricultural produce could be bartered for items made in the towns or importd from other ares. The towns were initially part of the king's or important nobel's domanin or fiefdom. As the town's grew in size and importance, townsmen began to desire to have some control over civic affairs. This same development occurred throughout Europe, but the process and outcome varried. In some areas such as northern France the process was violent as towns attemopted to become independent "communes". The pricess was less viloent in England where townsmen agreed to pay a set fee annually for the privlidge of governing themselves. Many medieval towns achieved the right to make their owns laws and raise taxes. Many of these towns received royal charters. The townspeople became known of "burgesses," or free citizens. (Americans will recognize this term as the first Virginia legislature was the House of Burgesses.)

Sumptuary Laws

Sumptuary laws were laws controlling personal purchases to prevent extravagance. Commonly in the Medieval era these were laws enacted to prevent commoners such as rich merchants from dressing like the nobility. There was no concern with the nobility dressing extravagantly, although some colors (purple) or furs (ermine) might be reserved to the king or emperor. It was the commoners that were the target of sumptuary laws. These las were designed to perpetuate class and social distinctions and for a variety of economic and political purposes. Thee laws developed especially in the late Medieval era when the economy was expanding and increasing numbers of commoners, especially wealthy merchants, acquired the wealth to purchase fine clothes. With the coming of the Reformation sumptuary Laws with religious motivations appeared.

Sources

Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 2nd editioin (Blackwell paperback: 2003), 625p.






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Created: August 13, 2003
Last updated: August 13, 2003