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Feudalism Explained

Updated on October 17, 2011

What is Feudalism?

Feudalism is a system of government in which land is granted in return for service. It can also be thought of as a political and social pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is a king or chieftain. Next below him are nobles/lords, such as counts, barons, and dukes; these people are often related to the king/chief by blood or marriage. Below them are knights or warriors. Knights may or may not own land of their own. Below them are peasants or serfs/slaves; peasants may own small amounts of land (or not), but serfs and slaves never own land.

The Evolution of Feudalism

Feudalism began in the barbarian Germanic tribes. In the beginning, it was a simple system. Those who could fight fought and earned a living by taking from others. Those who could not fight busied themselves with farming or some form of craftsmanship in order to have an income. It soon became obvious, though, if you were a farmer or carpenter, you would not be able to keep food on the table if warriors kept coming in and stealing it from you. Seeing how the best offense is a good defense, weak people began hiring fighters to defend them against fighters who were coming to steal. A defending warrior could suddenly earn a living without having to leave home.

Of course, this is all overly-simplistic, but you get the idea of how feudalism took root: the weak paid the strong to protect them. After a time, the warrior class became hereditary and elite: few people in the working-classes could hope to become a warrior, while the children of warriors were almost always guaranteed the status of their father. Now it was not about merely being a strong person, capable of fighting, but of being from the right family; this was the beginning of the concept of nobility. The strongest warriors gained supremacy over a group of other warriors by either beating them all into submission, or by being the only one capable of defeating a common enemy (i.e. other warriors looked to a single warrior to protect them). These people ended up becoming kings of a territory that encompassed all the lands of the people that were subject to them.

The Chain of Command

The chain-of-command does not necessarily descend through all of the ranks, but it does descend from the top down. All land in a country (for simplicity's sake, we'll assume England in the 14th century) belongs ultimately to the King. His ancestors may have granted your ancestors land generations ago, but if you ever cross the current king, he can take your land away from you. You must swear fealty (obedience and service) to your king in order to maintain possession of your land. This usually occurs every year at Christmas.

The King may give away all of the land in his kingdom to other people, but most kings keep some land just for themselves; royal forests (where Robin Hood hunted) are a common example. If some of the land can be farmed, the king will grant it to peasants. They will pay him taxes or rents on the land, and usually also perform some sort of manual labor on the land just for his benefit. They usually swear fealty once a year around Christmas to a representative of the king.

Able-bodied men were also required to do military service. Depending on when and where you are in the middle ages, military service was a yearly requirement for several weeks during the summer, but by 14th century England, you usually didn't serve unless you were drafted for a very specific military campaign. You could, however, volunteer to be in someone's retinue, where you might serve more or less full-time, which was as close as they got to a standing army in the middle ages.

If the King granted land to a duke (dukes were usually the brothers, uncles, and non-inheriting sons of the king), then the duke would in turn grant it to others in return for fealty to himself. Like the king, the duke might keep some land strictly to himself, and any peasants working the land would answer directly to him, not to mention pay taxes/rents and give labor and military service. He might give some of his land to knights. Knights usually paid him some part of their land's revenues and gave him military service. Knights might then turn around and parcel their land out to peasants, who gave them taxes/rents and give labor and military service.

So, in the longest-possible chain, a peasant will farm a piece of land and pay taxes to a knight and usually help farm the knight's own personal piece of land for free as part of his feudal obligations. When the knight drafts him for military service, he will serve as a foot soldier or archer. A knight collects taxes from his peasants and revenues from his personal piece of land and from that he will pay taxes to his lord, the duke. When the duke drafts him for military service, he will gather up some of his peasants to serve under him, and they will all go off to join the duke's ranks. When the duke has collected his taxes from his knights and the revenues from his lands, he will pay some form of tax to the king. When the king calls him into military service, he will muster his landed knights and their armies, plus marshal some peasant soldiers from his own lands, and they will all go to serve under the king.

The king, in times of need (such as to pay for war), can impose an extra tax which is levied on everyone (a head-tax) and paid directly to his treasury.

Landless knights serve as soldiers-for-hire. Because they do not hold land from the king or anyone else, they do not owe military service or taxes to anyone (outside of any head-tax by the king). They are free to serve as mercenaries in other countries, or, if someone who owes military service does not wish to go to war (e.g. widows who own land or nobles too old or sick to fight), they can be hired to serve in their place. Landless knights usually have a retinue of footmen and/or archers with them; these are the peasants mentioned earlier who more or less serve in the military permanently.

One thing that many people forget about feudalism, though, is that service did not only flow upwards; people of higher rank were expected to provide some service for people at the lower ranks. If they didn't, then no one would have ever consented to be at the bottom of the ranks (and there were many more peasants than there were knights and noblemen and kings combined). The chief duty of a landed knight, nobleman or king was to protect his people. They were expected to fight and maneuver politically to keep enemies from killing the peasants, burning their homes and crops, and raping their women.

The Middle Class and the City

One thing you might notice missing from the social pyramid are middle-class/city people. They do not fit into the pyramid because they do not hold land. They achieved their incomes not through farming land, but rather by trade or craftsmanship. Cities-where most of these people were located-were a separate beast entirely. Some cities fell under the jurisdiction of a nobleman; some belonged directly to the king; still others purchased their administrative freedom with huge sums of money. Free cities were rather like landless knights in that they weren't required to give any sort of military aid, and they paid no taxes, except when a special head-tax was levied.

Cities that were under the control of the king or a nobleman, however, paid taxes on various activities. They might have to collect a tax for every visitor that came into the city. They might have to pay a tax to erect a new building or pave a street. They might have to pay a percentage of all sales conducted in the city. And they would be required to supply a predetermined number of able-bodied men to serve in the lord's army. Cities were typically governed by an elected council of elders or burgers. These men would see to the collection of taxes from the city's inhabitants and would recruit for military service (and draft men into it if not enough volunteers could be found). They invariably taxed the people more than the lord required, and this surplus was used to maintain the city-to help build or strengthen or expand the city walls, to pay for gate or prison guards and a sheriff, to pave streets and to pay someone to clean them, to build water fountains so the citizens could have a source of water, to build and maintain the public toilets, etc. When warfare was taking place close to the city, any men and older boys who were not turned over to the lord for service would be drafted to help defend the town.

It was, of course, better to live in a free city because all of your tax dollars went to the maintenance of the city where you lived; if your city had a lord, you paid more taxes, and some of them disappeared into a nobleman's pocket.

The Feudal Church

In the middle ages, there was a saying that nobles fought for all, priests prayed for all, and peasants worked for all. This was considered a good form of social organization; everyone had a place and a job to do which helped the rest of society.

Speaking of priests, the Church was another thing that didn’t fit into the normal pyramid, although it had a pyramid structure of its own. People could gift or sell the Church land; the Church, in turn, could grant land to peasants for them to work in exchange for the old standbys of rent and labor. In the early middle ages, the Church was theoretically treated like a noble, meaning that the Church was said to own land through the king, and thus it owed him fealty in the form of taxes and military service (the Church would supply foot troops from their peasants, but would have to buy the services of a landed knight to make up for their priests and monks who could not fight). This caused a lot of tension, as the Church—namely the Pope—said that the Church did not owe service to any earthly master.

The whole episode between Henry II and Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was over this very problem: did the church pay taxes to the king, did it owe military service, and who had the right to judge priests guilty of secular crimes? In case you haven’t seen the movie Becket, King Henry lost. Ever afterwards in England, the Church operated as a pyramid separate unto itself. Monks ranked under abbots; peasants ranked under an abbot or a bishop; priests ranked under a bishop; some bishops and abbots ranked under an archbishop; archbishops and some abbots and bishops were answerable directly to the Pope. And like a king, all Church property belonged ultimately to the Pope to dispose of as he wished. Church property did not pass back into the secular pyramid unless the Church chose to sell it—at least not until King Henry VIII cast out the Catholic Church, set-up his own Church of England, and dissolved many of the churches and monasteries and took their lands back under the ownership of the Crown.

How Did Feudalism End?

Feudalism went out of style in many places slowly and without much fanfare. In fact, in many countries it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when feudalism died. It can probably be said that feudalism did not die in France until the Revolution. In England, however, it died by a thousand little cuts, not by revolution.

When King Henry II lost supreme control over lands belonging to the Church, that was a blow to his feudal authority. When King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, granting his nobles certain inalienable rights, that was a blow to his feudal authority. When Parliament was established, giving nobles the ability to barter for more freedom from kingly rule, it was a blow to the ultimate authority of the monarch. When conditions after the Plague lead to the end of serfdom, that was a blow to the feudal system. When the peasants revolted under Richard II and ultimately gained concessions that freed them from all ties to the land and allowed them to bargain for wages, that too was a blow to the entire feudal system. When more and more cities gained their independence from all lordship, that was a blow to feudalism. When middle-class peoples were, during times of fiscal crisis, able to buy noble titles, that was a blow to feudalism. When industry became larger and more important and land became less important, that was a blow to feudalism.

All of these things combined to bring about the death of feudalism, so that it was all but extinct by the time Oliver Cromwell executed King Charles I and created the Commonwealth (which means exactly what it says-wealth shared by all in common).

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A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1295-1344
A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, c. 1295-1344

This is a short, easy-to-read book about a peasant woman of the early 14th century. It covers land ownership by peasants (Cecilia, despite being a single woman, bought and owned her own land) and the village where she lived was under the direct control of the monarch.

 

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      Alan R Lancaster 20 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello MN, this is well thought-out and presented. There was a difference between Continental Feudalism and the English/Scandinavian version, although they were broadly similar. In pre-Conquest England/Scandinavia the king's succession was not altogether a foregone conclusion. The Witan in England had to confirm the king or his heirs, which was why Harold was crowned instead of the aetheling Eadgar, who had blood ties with the old king (his grandfather Eadmund 'Ironside' was half-brother to Eadward through Aethelred II 'Unraed'). Below the king were his earls, introduced by Knut in 1016 to replace the ealdormen. The shire reeve had almost equal status with the earl as administrative head of the earldom (replaced by the sheriff in Norman times). Below the earl and shire reeve were thegns and 'king's thegns', the latter being obliged to answer the king's summons to defend the kingdom.

      There were ceorls at the bottom of the free or freed ladder, and thralls were slaves although not treated badly and there was a price to pay for the slaying if a thrall, a 'wergild'. Outlawed men lived wild, as 'green men', their numbers increased after 1066-1071.

      Land was held from the Church, an Earl or the King.

      Military service outside the kingdom was conducted by the king with one or more earls and huscarls (after 1016) with chosen men. Within the kingdom a king and earl(s) commanded the fyrdmen of several shires or hundreds ('wapentakes' in the former Danelaw shires), or the 'select fyrd' and his thegns took command of units of fyrdmen. Huscarls were commanded by the king and his earls directly, a 'stallari' or marshal had overall command of all fyrd units under the king. A shire reeve in later years also held military office and could be appointed 'stallari'.

      When William took the throne he introduced the Frankish (French) civil and military system of government and defence, but adapted the English rank of Earl to a lower rank over shires rather than the earlier earldoms (like Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex).

      Enjoy your craft.

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      Alan R Lancaster 8 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Delete the dross and you might get some legit comments.

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