Unit 3: Origins of Feudalism

Political context. Europe at the beginning of the 9th century.

Europe at the death of Charlemagne

Western Europe was living an instability, insecurity and violence period from 9th century.  This situation was provoked by different issues:

  • Weakness of monarchies. Loss of kings´power
  • Fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire, after the death of Charlemagne in 814. From that date on and after the Treaty of Verdún (843), the big empire, divided in three parts became weak.
  • Seconds invasions of Germanic tribes: Vikings, Magyars, Normans, Angles, Saxons,  etc.
  • Nobility desires to increase their power and possessions (became powerful)
  • Kings tried to prevent the progressive loss of power and established different pacts with nobles. Pacification of the territory and reliance on nobles. This is the root of a new system: feudalism.

1. What is Feudalism?

This is one of the most important, complex and famous terms in History. It is considered as a big period inside the Middle Ages, in fact, it lasted around six centuries. In order to set a definition of feudalism, it would be a political, economical and social system organisation in Middle Ages, from 9th to 15th centuries, after the division and collapse of Carolingian Empire ( in the second half of 9th century). In order to keep a system to defend christians territories from new Germanic invasions (Second Invasions) and new threatens. Kings ordered their lords the defence of their lands from eastern and northern enemies.

This system was based on dependence relationships between a nobleman,  lord or king and a vassal, usually nobles that support, give advice and defend his lord in exchange of protection.
So this political, social and economic system it was based on two basic pillars: vassalage and lordship.

  • Lords: They owned the lands where the vassals worked in exchange of protection. In that lands the vassals live. They keep that manor and collected a part of the crops, that belonged to him. It was possible that a King was a vassal of another more powerful King and a kingdom was a fief to another Kingdom. (We have some examples on the Iberian Peninsula. Some of the Taifas Kingdom, or Counties, were vassals of Castile Kingdom).
  • Vassals: All the people under protection of a Lord were vassals. Vassals could be low nobility, High nobility and also kings.
    The Lord had the must to protect and give land to his peasants. And a vassal could change of Lord if the one didn´t keep their protection. When vassals died, their family kept living in the fief.

Homage and invests

With this ceremony lords and vassals signed his dependence relationship forever (even after the death of someone). The relationship go on with their descendants.

  • Homage: The vassal kneeled to the Lord and asked if he wanted to accept him as his vassal. If the Lord agreed, they made an oath in which the Lord assumed the protection of the vassal and the vassal swore LOYALTY to his Lord and to fight for him when necessary.
Homage ceremony
  • Invests: During this ceremony,  the Lord took the hands of the vassal between his and asked if he wanted to be his man: the pact was sealed with a kiss in the mouth and with the transfer of the lord of a sword, a branch of flowers or a handful of land that symbolized the delivery of land or some other object to his vassal.

    Vassals have two obligations: AUXILIUM and CONSILIUM.

    • Auxilium: The vassal must help his Lord when necessary
    • Consilium: The vassal must give advice to his Lord when he demanded it.

    Lord has one main obligation: PROTECTION

Imagen relacionada

Vassal—->Lord: Auxilium (Military support) and Consilium (Advice in government).

Lord——> Vassal:  Military protection and judicial help

Resultado de imagen de vassalage relationship vassal-lord

Resultado de imagen de vassalage relationship

2. Feudal society

A hierarchical system very closed, on the top of the pyramid: kings/queens. Nobles and clergy as privileged estate, knights and peasants on the lower estates.

It was divided in three estates: Bellatores, Oratores and Laboratores.

  • Feudal nobility: Lords and vassals. War nobility. Bellatores.
  • Clergy: They were in a very well position in the scale. They pray. Bishops, Abbots, priests and monks. Oratores It is divided in two types: Secular and Regular. 
    • Secular clergy don´t follow any rule. They are not monastic  and they made three vows: Chastity, Poverty and Obedience. Belong to this group: Priests and bishops.
    • Regular: They follow a monastic rule (ex: Benedictines). Belong to this group: Abbots and monks.
  • Peasants-serfs. They worked the land and provided food and goods to all the above social scale, the lords, kings, church. Laboratores.

Resultado de imagen de feudalism

– Tournaments: entertainment in Middle Ages.

Knights were professional soldiers trained and instructed consciously. They came from wealthy families. Its training began at eight years of age, not only in fight but it was completed in horsemanship, singing, reading, chess and falconry. They were very highly valued and held very high position in feudal society.

Feudal lords, usually organized hunting and tournaments in order to entertain themselves. In these tournaments knights practise their skills learned during their training. Could be dangerous and knights might be severely injured in there.


3. Feudal Economy. The Fief

The base of this system was the fief. The land. A fief was a large area of land that belonged to the king, noblemen or clergymen over which they ruled. They were divided into two major parts: demesne and holding.

It exists two main types of lordship, rights in feudalism :

  • Jurisdictional. Lords, the owners of this right, administrated justice in their territories.
  • Manorial. Land (fief). The owners give this land to the peasants that worked and exploited goods in there, in exchange peasants paid for it.

In every fief could find different places: buildings such as, castles, manors, villages, forests, churches, etc. In the fief they made all the economic activities: agriculture, livestock and logging ( work in the forests). It was different types of fiefs.

Resultado de imagen de feudo
parts of a fief
Imagen relacionada
another type of fief

– New agriculture techniques were developed in this period:

  •  Roman plough was substituted by the mouldboard plough, which could move land deeper.
  •   Some previous tools were still used by peasants: hoe, sickle, and scythe.
  •   Horseshoe became common for horses.
  •   Horses and oxen were better yoked to ploughs.
  •   New hydraulic techniques developed:
    • Watermill used water streams to grind cereals.
    • Foundries were located next to rivers to produce better iron tools (mainly sickles and axes).

Crop rotation was established as a three-field system:  Oats and barley were sown in spring.

  •   Wheat and rye were sown in autumn.
  •   Legumes (peas, beans…) became common in agriculture.

Some parts of the land were left fallow so that it may be more fertile.

– Many forests were ploughed up to increase farming lands. (Deforestation)

Production and population grew thanks to these new techniques.

There were almost no trade during this era. A rural society, rural economy. Self-production.

An interesting video related to this contents:

Further information: Feudalism (spanish)


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