Government in the Middle Ages – Feudalism
The prevailing system of government in the Middle Ages was feudalism. Though the actual term “feudalism” was not used during the Middle Ages, what we now recognize as a feudalist system of government was in control in Medieval Europe. Feudalism was a way for the Kings and upper nobility to keep control over the serfs and peasants.
There is no universally accepted modern day definition of feudalism. The word “feudal” was coined in the 17th century, some 200 years after the end of feudalism in Europe. The term “feudalism” was coined later still, in the 19th century.
After the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown’s The Tyranny of a Construct, many scholars have found the term “feudalism” troubling and have wanted to drop it, not just as the title of government in the middle ages, but as a term altogether.
Feudalism is mainly used in discourse today as a comparison or analogical term applied to governmental structures in history. This is known as “semi-feudal.” The term has also been brought up in discussions of non-Western societies today whose governments resemble the feudal system in medieval Europe, but this use of the term is often deemed inappropriate.
The Structure of Feudalism
Though class played an important role in feudal society in the Middle Ages, the more important relationship in feudalism is between the Lord, the Vassal and the Peasant. The Lord was the overseer of the entire government.
He was the monarch who controlled all of the land and people. The vassals were the nobleman who had been granted land by the monarch, and in exchange for that land provided military service or money. The peasants made up the majority of the population. They were very poor, or, in the case of serfs, had no money.
-The most important player in a feudal system is the Lord. The Lord is the ruling monarch who has complete control over all the land in the country.
-Vassals included anyone who was not a monarch and not a peasant who was granted land by the King or another vassal. In exchange for the land the vassals were granted, they either had to pay money, rent out their land, provide military service, or perform other various duties to show loyalty to the monarch.
-The vast majority of the feudalist government system in the Middle Ages in Europe were made up of peasants. There were three types of peasants: Slaves, who could be bought and sold, serfs, who had no rights politically, and freeman, who had a few rights and sometimes owned small shares of land. Freeman may have been artisans who worked in or owned a store.
The Feudal system of government was comprised of five main class sections: The King, Barons, Knights, Serfs and Clergy. The King, who had complete control over his country, had too much land under his control and not enough time to travel that land.As such,he granted land to his most trusted barons.This granted land was known as a fief.
The barons then provided the King with knights, who provided the Barons with military service. The serfs living under the feudal system, who made up approximately 90% of the population, lived on the fiefs of the knights, and provided the knights with labor, service and food.
-The King owned all the land and had complete control during the Middle Ages. He decided which barons were chosen to own land.
-Once the baron was granted a fief from the King he became a vassal to the king. He had control over the land that was given to him by the King. He was also able to set his own tax laws and print his own money.
A Baron’s land was known as a “manor” and a Baron was known as the Lord of the Manor. In exchange, the vassal had to pay rent on that land, serve on the royal council and provide knights to the king for military service. They also had to provide food and housing for the King and his royal court when they travelled in close proximity to the Baron’s manor.
-Knights were granted land by Barons in exchange for providing military service when demanded by the King. The knights were also required to protect the Baron, his family, and his manor from attack.
-Sometimes referred to as villeins, serfs had no rights. They were required to give any service, food or labor to the knight whose land they lived on. They also had to ask permission before they could marry or leave the manor on which they lived. Normally about 15 to 30 serf families worked on each fief.
-Clergy often came from wealthy aristocratic families or became nobles because of their clerical status. Because of this, men involved with the church were often vassals.
The Rise and Fall of the Feudal System in Europe
Feudalism first came to England as an idea for King William to control his rebelling people and his large amount of land at once. He needed a quick fix and did not realize that a government system from which only he benefitted would not work for the long term. While feudalism was supported by many nobles and the Christian church, it was oppressive to peasants and especially oppressive to women. It made women into “the instrument of evil.”
Feudalism fell with the rise of the artisan class, changes in attitudes towards religion and the introduction of knightly chivalry. The rise of the merchant class or “rise of the cities” was a time in which the population grew and the economy was boosted.
Learn more about government in the Middle Ages.
The introduction of knightly chivalry changed Medieval men’s attitudes towards Medieval women, and women who could work in “work-at-home” trades such as weaving were valued higher than ever before. The economy surged, which brought on a new wave of religious worship, in which the people called for more beautiful churches with stained glass windows depicting Bible stories. By the 15th century, a feudal system of government no longer existed in Medieval Europe.