Feudalism

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Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste.

Feudalism was a social and political system. It existed in Europe during the Middle Ages, between the 9th and 15th centuries. Under feudalism, the king owned all of the land in his kingdom. However, the king would give gifts of land (called fiefs) to the lords or nobles and they would enter into an agreement with a vassal. Vassals would allow peasants called serfs to live on parts of their land. Vassals would also protect serfs from violence. In return, a serf had to pay taxes and work without pay in the vassal’s fields.

Characteristics[change | change source]

Under feudalism, taxes were not paid with money. Instead, they were paid in services (like free labor) and products (like crops). A serf had to pay taxes of grain to their vassal. A vassal had to pay taxes of grain to their lord. They had to use the lord’s granaries to grind the grain. A vassal also had to give other taxes and gifts to their lord.[1] When a vassal killed animals for food, they gave part of the meat to their lord. When a vassal fished on the lord’s land, they gave some of the fish to the lord.

In return, the lords promised to give their vassals protection, peace, and safety.

Nobles[change | change source]

Nobles owned and governed manors. Each manor had its own church, village, mill, wine press, and pasture lands.[1] Lords allowed many people to live and work on their manors. These people got food and housing, but did not get paid in money.[1]

Manors were given from one generation to another. When a noble died, his firstborn son got everything his father owned.[1]

Villeins and serfs[change | change source]

Villeins were in a poorer social class. They had more freedom than slaves, but they were not completely free.[1] A villein was legally tied to their lord or his manor. They could not move or marry unless the lord approved. They could not leave the manor without their lord’s permission. They also had to work for their lord. In return, villeins were allowed to live in small houses on the manor, with floors made of earth and a thatched roof. On the walls of their houses, villeins hung meats, tools, and dried vegetables.[1]

Some villeins tried to escape from their lords’ manors. However, outside the manor, their options were limited. They could run away to another town and live quietly, without being noticed. A villein could become a free man this way.[1] A villein could also move up in society if they helped the Catholic Church. However, they could not do this without special permission. Some escaped villeins also joined bands of outlaws.[1]

Serfs were in the lowest social class. They were farmers or workers who did not own any land. Like villeins, serfs worked on a lord’s land. In exchange, they were allowed to live on the manor and grow crops there. Serfs had little more freedom than slaves. They could not be sold away from the land, but were always sold with the land.[1]

Rights[change | change source]

Villeins and serfs did have some rights. They could grow and sell grain and vegetables. The lord had to give them land to grow crops. The lord had also had a duty to protect them. Villeins and serfs did not need to serve in levy (an army created through conscription). They did not have to pay state taxes. However, they usually paid 10% of their income to their lord. Most serfs and vassals also paid another 10% of their income to the Catholic Church. This was called a tithe.

If they got wealthy enough, a vassal or serf could buy their freedom from the lord.

Marxism[change | change source]

According to Karl Marx, feudalism was the stage of society before capitalism and after slavery. Feudalism eventually ended because of fighting between lords and serfs. Capitalism appeared next. Marx said that people were no better off under capitalism than they had been under feudalism. Instead of the lords exploiting the serfs, now it was the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat.

Notes and references[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Ethel Hofflund, Elizabeth Loeks Bouman, Howard Stitt, Alan Christopherson (March 2001). "The Feudal System". In Rirchard W. Wheeler, M.A.Ed. (ed.). History & Geography 604 Life in the Middle Ages. 804 N. 2nd Ave. E., Rock Rapids, IA 51246-1759: Alpha Omega Publications, Inc. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-0-86717-554-7. Retrieved 19 March 2010.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link) CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  • Philip Daileader (2001). "Feudalism". The High Middle Ages. The Teaching Company. ISBN 978-1-56585-827-5

Other websites[change | change source]

Bibliography[change | change source]

  • Bloch, Marc (1961). Feudal Society. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-05979-2.
  • Francois-Lois Ganshof, Feudalism. Tr Philip Grierson. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
  • Jean-Pierre Poly and Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200., Tr. Caroline Higgitt. New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1991.
  • Reynolds, Susan (1996). Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford University Press on Demand. ISBN 0-19-820648-8.
  • Normon E. Cantor. Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth century. Quill, 1991.
  • Alain Guerreau, L'avenir d'un passé incertain. Paris: Le Seuil, 2001. (complete history of the meaning of the term).