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In this lesson, you’ll learn about the historical background, basic structure, and general nature of feudalism as practiced in Medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries.

Feudalism

Feudalism is a term used to describe the type of economic and political arrangement that dominated the highest levels of society in Medieval Europe.

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It influenced the political structure and the way wars were fought during that time. In feudalism, a lord gave his most trusted men, known as vassals, land and power over all the people living there, and in return they swore loyalty to him and promised to give him a share of their taxes and provide military support whenever called upon.To get a better sense of how feudalism worked, imagine a successful retail store. The owner of the store might watch a good employee work himself up to positions of more and more responsibility until finally that person becomes an assistant manager.

A new store opens up, and the owner sends the employee there to run it. The new manager promises to send along all the profits of the new store to the original owner and also promises to maintain all of the company’s policies in return for the new position.

How Feudalism Worked

At first, becoming a vassal was an honor given to the best and most loyal warriors and was based on a personal bond between lord and vassal. When you read about King Arthur or Roland, you are glimpsing some of those relationships as they were meant to be. A ceremony would be performed, and both lord and vassal would make a pledge of homage, where the vassal would promise to give aid when called upon, while the lord would promise to protect his vassal from any external threat. This was followed by an oath of fealty, a promise of loyalty given by the vassal to his lord.

Should the vassal die, his son might be given the same estate out of kindness, but his personal bond would be much weaker. If a succession like that continued for a few generations, it would be considered hereditary. When that happened, the vassal had no reason to be loyal other than tradition and the implied threat that his lord would enforce loyalty if it was not given freely.

As long as the ruler was strong, the system worked, but if he was ever unable to enforce loyalty, then it could collapse. That’s where the analogy to a retail store works again. As long as the government (or the business) runs smoothly, the bureaucracy can keep each vassal (or the store) in line, but if the king (or the management) falters, then his vassals (or the stores) might decide to go out on their own.

A vassal wasn’t necessarily just a vassal, however. He might, in turn, parcel out his own land and be a lord to a group of warriors even as he is a vassal to a more powerful lord. In their turn, his men might give out portions of their land to other warriors – as long as there was enough land, divisions could be made further and further, and as all of those divisions became hereditary, meaning all those loyalties were no longer automatic. It created what might be called a decentralized government, where power was not exclusively focused on a single ruler or king but was dispersed. In addition, a person could be a vassal to more than one lord. Through inheritance or his own personal accomplishments, he might add to his family’s estates, thus becoming a vassal to a number of lords who value him, which could further disperse power.Heredity would eventually add a new wrinkle to feudalism, and that occurred with the English kings in the 11th century.

William I of Normandy, or William the Conqueror, was a vassal to the king of France because of his land holdings, but when he conquered England, he also became the king there and an equal to the French king. He was both a king and a vassal! Because of the often complex nature of the lord-vassal relationship under of the feudal system, it’s theoretically possible that kings could even have been vassals to barons during the Middle Ages.

The End of Feudalism

Feudalism was a land-based system, which made it a more logical choice of government during the Middle Ages when the economic system was weak and bartering was heavily used. However, with the rise of the middle class during the Middle Ages and the subsequent development of money as the standard exchange, land became much less important, and the system of feudalism collapsed.

Lesson Summary

Feudalism was the economic and political system of Medieval Europe. It was land-based and built upon the system of loaning a loyal person land in return for military service and taxes.

It depended upon loyalty and the use of land as wealth. When loyalty was no longer present, the lords had trouble ruling, and when land was undermined by coin, the system fell apart.

Notes on Feudalism

In feudalism, power was given in exchange for loyalty
Medieval depiction of feudal relationship
  • Kings gave power to vassals by granting land for loyalty
  • Vassals lorded over their people and could give power to lesser lords or warriors
  • Titles were passed on through inheritance which weakened the power of the original loyalty ties
  • Feudalism created a decentralized form of government

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished, you should be able to:

  • Describe the feudal system and how power was granted from the king
  • Explain how feudalism created a decentralized form of government
  • Discuss the problem with a power system based on loyalty

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