Feudalism

Within a feudal system, a person's vote did not count; however, their Count voted. If you understood that joke, great! You probably have a basic understanding of the feudal system. If not, this article will help you. Feudalism took over Europe from the 9th century and was the dominant system of governance up until the 15th century. Feudal laws were so intricate that one made it into the 21st century, with Scotland abolishing the system's remaining legislature through the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Sc) Act 2000. The feudal system served as a mechanism for kings to rule their kingdoms in an unstable medieval Europe. 

Feudalism Feudalism

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    Feudalism definition

    Feudalism is a term that refers to the socio-political system that structured society in Europe during the High Medieval Ages, ranging from 1000 AD to 1300 AD. The term was not used during this period but was coined by historians in the 18th century to easily reference the system. In short, the system was based around the ownership of land by kings and lords who would allow lesser lords, vassals, and peasants to live on and cultivate the land in exchange for legal and military commitments. A good base definition of feudalism could be as follows

    Feudalism: A term which refers to the socio-political system during the High Medieval Ages in Europe, in which the Monarch would entrust his land to nobles in exchange for political support and military services. Nobles would then parcel out this land to lesser Lords and peasants, who would pay through services, labour, and (eventually) taxation. In return, lesser Lords and peasants would also be under the protection of the overlord and his knights.

    Features of feudalism

    Feudalism was mainly due to the decentralised power structure in most medieval kingdoms. Monarchs often had to secure the loyalty and allegiance of Lords and, by extension, their knights, vassals, and peasants to maintain power and order. The feudal system was largely based on the social and political interactions of the following features:

    • Kings
    • Lords (vassals)
    • Knights (Vassals) Feudalism. Features of Feudalism. StudySmarter Fig. 1 - A pyramid portraying the hierarchy in a feudal society, 2019, Judith 018, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons
    • Peasants (vassals)
    • Fief (Land)

    In Medieval Europe, most lands were owned by the king, while some belonged to the church. The king would give large portions of his land to high-ranking society members known as 'nobles' or lords. These lords were often military leaders and held absolute power over the 'fief' (land). They would perform the administrative and judicial functions of the fief while defending the land and the people who lived there. In a sense, they had more direct power over the people than the king. In exchange for the fief, lords would swear an oath of allegiance to the king, which included a mutual set of legal and military agreements, such as providing the king with Knights for his cavalry.

    Lords would further divide the land and give possession to lesser lords, such as Knights or local lords and peasants. Anyone who received land from an 'overlord' (the person who gave them the land) could be referred to as a vassal. For example, the nobility were vassals of the king, whilst knights were vassals of the lord. In exchange for the fief distributed to them, knights would offer their military services. Peasants were allowed to live on the land under the protection of the lord and his knights and cultivate the fief for food. In exchange, they would offer a range of services to the lord and knights, from providing labour or payment in the form of money or produce. A lower class of peasants were also known as 'serfs'; they would commonly belong to the lord and be tied to his land for generations doing challenging labour until they died or were transferred or sold to another lord.

    Types of feudalism

    Within the system of feudalism, the fief was given to vassals by overlords in exchange for some form of payment. These were called feudal land tenures, where the vassals were tenants on their overlord's land. There were two types of tenures, free and unfree. Free and unfree land tenures would determine how the vassal was to pay for their tenancy on the land.

    Free tenures:

    Free tenures were generally reserved for the higher classes. They were free because the vassal would pay the overlord in the form of a predetermined service. Furthermore, free tenures came with terms and conditions. For instance, if a vassal committed a felony or passed away with no heir, under the escheat law of tenure, the fief would be returned to the overlord. If the vassal passed away with an heir, the heir could pay a predetermined amount of money in relief duty to the overlord and inherit the land.

    There were various forms of free tenures, for example:

    • Religious Tenures: Members of the clergy, such as bishops and priests, would be given land in return for religious duties. They may have been required to pray for the overlord, his prosperity, and his bloodline and act as religious leaders for feudal societies.
    • Militant Tenures: These tenures were given to those of courage, often Knights who would fight in their overlord's cavalry (and the overlord of their overlord, i.e., the king). Another form of military tenure was in serjeanty, which required the vassal to carry out specific tasks for their overlords, such as debt collection, craftsmanship, or other military duties, such as being a messenger.
    • Socage tenure: The terms for a socage tenure either included financial payment to the overlord or payment in the form of an agricultural service performed for a predetermined amount of time. For example, a vassal could be required to cultivate and care for the land for at least 90 days a year.

     Feudalism, Types of Feudalism, StudySmarter Fig. 2 - A peasant paying rent to their overlord, 2016, Hegodis, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

    Unfree tenures:

    Unfree tenures had no predetermined terms and conditions. Essentially, those with unfree tenures had no specified job description and could be required to do anything by their overlords. These tenures were for the lower class peasants. Villeins (or 'serfs') were peasants who lived within the manorial system under unfree tenures. They could not leave their overlords land without his permission, but could also be ejected from his land at a moments notice, without reason. They differed from slaves as slaves were not tied to the land and could be bought and sold unrelatedly. Eventually, when the royal courts became more involved with the relations between overlords and vassals in England, they ruled that villeins could not be ejected without a cause.

    Manorial system vs. feudalism

    Manorialism and feudalism are closely related; however, they do not mean the same thing. The manorial system was essentially a system that organised the economic system within the fief of the nobles concerning their vassals. This is a way to distinguish between manorialism and feudalism; feudalism describes the socio-political system of the kingdom during the medieval period, principally the relationship between the king and the nobles.

    Manorialism: Refers to the economic system within feudalism surrounding the rural organisation of manorial fiefs, predominantly regarding the relation of lords of the manors with their vassals (mainly peasants).

    Manorial System

    Under the manorial system, the king gave nobles fief. These fiefs often had multiple manor castles and houses, all of which would be under the lord's authority and would be leased to lesser lords. The manors would be the heart of the society, often placed in the center of a community, with knights and high walls to guard it. The lord would live in the manor with his family, alongside several vassals, who would maintain the house, see to the family's needs and work in the manor gardens, farms, stables, and kitchens.

    In the forms mentioned above, the lord would give smaller land tenures to people within his manorial fief and run his manor accordingly. The Knights and sergeants would provide military and protection services in return for riches in the form of fiefs, houses, and horses, while villeins would pay rent or provide services in return for living on the land. As the land was self-sufficient, villeins could cultivate the land to provide food as long as they kept their overlords happy (either by paying rent or doing whatever they were told) but could not leave. In return, they were also guaranteed legal and military safety within their lord's manor.

     Feudalism, Manorial System vs. Feudalism, StudySmarter Fig. 3 - Depiction of a peasant ploughing the outer grounds of a manors fief painted by famous Dutch miniature painter brothers, the Limbourg Brothers, Circa 15 century, Condé Museum, CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons

    Feudalism Example:

    Although feudalism can be said to have a series of identifiable characteristics, some details generally differed between feudal societies. These are best portrayed through examples.

    12th-century England had a well-organized, secure, and detailed feudal system. The highest form of feudal land tenure was of feudal barony, under which Barons would receive fief directly from the king, with predetermined legal and military obligations cited. The baron would then lease the manors on his fief to lords who would have authority within their manorial communities while often living in a manor castle himself. The baron would be responsible for all of his tenants, from the lords to the knights to the peasants, whilst the lords would be responsible for theirs and so on. The baron would also, for example, have to organise the number of knights each lord within his jurisdiction would have to provide for him to meet his tenure obligations to the king and enforce that however he saw fit.

    Another example of a feudal system was the North American colonies during the 16th and 17th centuries often referred to as semi-feudalism.

    During the 16th century, France colonised parts of North America, now Canada. As per feudal tradition, all the colonised land legally belonged to the French king. However, French kings were generally not too personally involved and allowed their nobleman to govern their overseas colonies. In 1628 French statesman Cardinal Richelieu introduced the feudal system to the French colonies, by offering a French trading and colonisation company named Company of One Hundred Associates vast amounts of land to conduct their business in exchange for the company bringing thousands of settlers to the area in the next 15 years. The company did this by further distributing the land to settlers, who were also under tenures to the company, with labour, socage, and religious duties used as payment.

    Feudalism - Key takeaways

    • Feudalism is a term that refers to the socio-political system during the High Medieval Ages in Europe, in which the Monarch would entrust his land to nobles in exchange for political support and military services. Nobles would then parcel out this land to lesser Lords and peasants, who would pay through services, labour, and (eventually) taxation.
    • The main features of a basic feudal system are kings, lords, knights, peasants, and fief (land).
    • Anyone who received land from an 'overlord' (the person who gave them the land) could be referred to as a vassal.
    • There are two types of feudal land tenures; free (religious, militant, and socage- for higher and middle-class people) and unfree (for peasants).
    • Manorialism refers to the economic system within feudalism surrounding the rural organisation of manorial fiefs, predominantly regarding the relation of lords of the manors with their vassals (mainly peasants).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Feudalism

    What is the definition of feudalism?

    The socio-political system during the High Medieval Ages in Europe, in which the Monarch would entrust his land to nobles in exchange for political support and military services. Nobles would then parcel out this land to lesser Lords and peasants, who would pay through services, labour, and (eventually) taxation. In return, lesser Lords and peasants would also be under the protection of the overlord and his knights.

    What were the main features of feudalism?

    • Kings
    • Lords (vassals)
    • Knights (Vassals)
    • Peasants (vassals)
    • Fief (Land)

    Why was the feudal system important?

    It allowed kings to rule and maintain order within their kingdoms, despite the complex decentralisation of power prevalent in medieval Europe.

    What are 5 facts about feudalism?

    - It was the socio-political system during the High Medieval Ages in Europe

    - Its main features include kings, lords, knights, peasants and land

    - The manorial system was an economic system which worked within feudal societies

    - Under feudal systems there were two type of feudalism called free and unfree feudal land tenures

    - Feudalism was carried out with some variations across Europe

    What countries had a feudal system?

    England, France and Portugal all had feudal systems in place during the medieval era. 



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