The Feudal System

Figure 1.--The 'Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry' is an illustrated manucriopt/book of hours, meaning a calendar. It was commissioned by John Duke of Berry, the third son of King John II of France, thus a French nobel at the peak of the fedual system. (The Duke’s brothers were King Charles V, the Duc d’Anjou and the Duc de Bourgogne, and his nephews were King Charles VI and the Duc d’Orleans.) The book was cimmissioned about 1410. It took almost a hundred years for the book to be completed. It was the work of the Limbourg brothers (Pol and Hermann) probably with some assistance. This page of the calendar page for September showing the Château de Saumur in the background, and peasants harvesting grapes in the foreground, the typical labor of the month in France. These and the other pages provide a view of feudal France just as the country was emrginging into the modern age. As might be expected, it is an aristocratic view. Notice how the imagery was dominated by a magnificent castle. In reality society was based on the peasantry whose labor oproduced the agricultural bounty of medieval France. And unlike the impression of a few serfs, the peasantry was the vast proportion of the population.

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.


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.


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 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.


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


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]

Feudal Society

Feudal scociety was broken down into three groups: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. Control, influence, and wealth was in the hands of the nobility. The greatl bulk of the population was the commoners whivhj in ghe early middle ages was almost entirely the peasantry, but as time went on cradysmenn and merchants became important in the growing cities. Stull agriculture was the primary source of wealth and as it was labor intensive, the peasantry dominated both the populstion anbd the commoners. All of this changed over time anbd from country to country. It is impossible tgo be precise about the population and numbers in each segments. Modern statistical systems did mot exidt. Historians have found soime data and havbe made some rough estimates. The historical consensus is nobility (including the lower nobility) about 5-10 percent. The clergy was 1-2 percent. Commoners primarily made up of the peasantry about 85-90 percent. Other estimates exxist, but will not vary radically from these estiumates. Estimates for individual countrues can vsry quite significantly. And the percentage of commoners that wer peasants especially serfs was declining by the end of the medieval era, at least in Western Europe.


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. The nobility constituted some 5-10 percent of the medieval populstion. The average was someyhing like 5 percent. It should not be thought that all the nobility was ruch and ciontrolled cast estates and a great castle. The greater proprtion of the nobility while better off than most commoners had only small fiefdoms and in some cases no land at all. This was especially the case as time went on and nobel familes had many children. The fiefdom went to the eldest son or was split among the sons. In such cases we have scions of nobl families with limited resources. The proprtion of the nobility varied widely from country to country. In some places it mjigh have been only 1-2 percent, but in frontier regions such as the Iberian Peniunsula or Poland where conflict was involved it could be much higer. Some sources estimate tht in Poland it was simthing like 15 percent.


The clergy was the smallest group, on the order of 1-2 percent. They had, however, enormous influence. And after the Pope banned marriage and monastaries expanded came to cointrol much of the land. In somne cases up to 30 percent oif agrivultural land. And that lnd was exempt from taxation.


Commoners were the lowest-rung of the socisl order and by far the largest group. Estimates generally put them at 85-90 percent of the population and some estimtes are even higher. Feudal Europe had an econmy based om agricultural which was labor intensive requiring a huge wokforce. Most Europeans were peasant farmers working on the land of a Feudal nobleman--the lord of the manner. They were serfs that did not own their land, but allowed to work a plot of land and labor servive to the lord when required. As the Feudal system developed, the peasants became bound the land--serfs. The were not allowed to leave it without permission of the lord of the manner. The Black Death siginifantly uoset the balance of piwer in favor of the peasantry (14th century). Over time some serfs were able to buy their freedom and land. Some peasants who had acquired land even had a few servants. Some had greater wealth than the more impoverished among the nobility. Other peasants run away to the growing cities. Thus not all commoners were agricltural laborers. Here they could become craftsmen or merchants. Craftsmen might include blacksmiths, brewers, coopers, millers, tailors, tanners, weavers, ect. They organized gulds to protect their interests. The peasantry was becoming increasingly restles toward the end of the fedual system. There were peasant rebellions in Germany (17th century). And the peaantry pived to be a major force supporting the French Revolutionn (18th century).

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]


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.


Feudalism is today seen as not only unjust, but backward and inefficent. This is a mistaken historical outlook, judging the past with the values and perscpective of the present. In fact, feudalim dominated Europe for a millenium and was a sucess. The chaos of the era afterv the fall of Rome gradually evolved into a mote stable system. It provided a structure for Christisnity and cwith bit both Roman and common law to develop. Islam was blocled in both the East (Austrian and Russian Empire) Eastern Europe) and the West (Spain). The modern economy, science, universities, and as strange asit may seem, democracy grew out of the feudal system. The feudal system was not a system of eastern absolutism. The king not ionly ruled, but had has responsubilities and obligstions. Even the serfs had legal rights and protections. Out of this system democracy would grow, albeit slowly and fuitfully. The decline of the feudal system began as serfs were able to acquire their own personal wealth by engaging in trade. Lords began to have money issues. They began renting out their lands to tenant farmers. Serfs acquiring wealth were able to purchase their freedom and rent land. The free peasntry begsn to grow. (12th-13th century). This process was accelerted by the Black Death (14th century), but u larghe measure would be the result if its success. The stability of the system would provide the basis for economic growth and trade and growth of cities. The opportunities created proviuded lterantives for the serfs. Msny began running sway from their feudal lords and disappeating beyond their reach. This was especially the case of oppresive lords. Feudal lords could never conrol the city population as they controlled theor manorial serfs. And this proved a fundamental weakness. It would b rising cities that would prove key to Europe's future in economic, culturl, intellectual and political development. Anf here the bmonarchy would dominate. Cities received royal charters placing them bryond the rule of feudal lords. The growing wealth and prosperity allowed people to improve their lives and society as a whole. As monarchical power in the West (England, France, and Spain) increased, the power of the nobility declined. This also weakened feudalism because it was the nobility (feudal lords) who were enforcing the system. Major economic changes undercut the feudal system which was based on sgriculture. The increasing importanbce of the cities and the expndsion of trade and manufscturing meant a shift in economic power. England abolished feudalism (1660). France was slower, but the system collspsed with the French Revolution (1789). Germany lagged behind because the Emperor was never able to coinsolidate power. Rather the feudal system was replaced by a few major sttes and a large number of small prin cipalities. The feudal lords who once ruled over the serfs became the aristocracy with a range of legal constraints. .


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: 2:56 AM 7/24/2018