Feudal System

What was the feudal system?

The Feudal system was a power structure which existed primarily during the medieval times in Europe. In this power structure, the power of an individual was directly tied with the amount of land he held. Moreover, relationships between different classes were based on land exchange. The King granted land to nobles, the nobles granted land to lord and lords had peasants, slaves or serfs cultivate this land. In exchange for land holdings, lords owed allegiance to nobles and helped them in wars, and nobles owed similar allegiances to the king.

Feudal Pyramid

In the classical form of feudalism, the power structure was shaped like a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the King who was considered the true owner of all land. Under the King came the vassal of the King, who was usually a baron or a lord. The King directly granted land to this vassal. Under the vassal came the mesne tenant who was mostly a knight and only occasionally a baron. The vassal granted land to these mesne tenants. A Mesne tenant could further portion his land between further mesne tenants.

Feudalism Key Points:

  • Feudalism was brought to England by the invading Normans
  • Peasants worked on the land that was owned by lords or chiefs in earlier times
  • Peasants had to pay rent to the lord to stay on the land
  • Middle men called Vassals collected the taxes and took them to the lord
  • Vassals also protected the lords lands as part of the deal
  • Vassals themselves were rewarded with monies or lands for their loyalty
  • Vassals made sure that peasants who paid taxes were protected from attacks
  • At the top of Feudal hierarchy in order was the king, Barons, Bishops and Knights
  • In the middle of feudal system in order were craft-workers and merchants
  • At the bottom of feudal society was foot soldiers, servants and peasants
  • Under the feudal system in England William the Conqueror kept a quarter of England’s land
  • All landowners under the king had to swear loyalty and allegiance to him
  • All landowners under the kings had to pay taxes to the king
  • Each lord controlled his own lands and his word was law
  • The feudal system began to collapse in 1200s due to use of money

Feudal Society

In a feudal society, the social relationships between different classes of the society were dictated by their land holdings. The social status of any given individual was derived from the amount of land he held. The peasant was at the lowest rung of the social ladder, who provided labour to the landowner and in some cases was allowed to hold some land. A characteristic feature of feudal society was the private jurisdiction of a noble or lord on the land he owned. Moreover, the military formation of the society greatly depended on the feudal system where each lord or noble on the lower rung of the ladder was to provide fighters for the lord or noble above him.

Feudal System Cartoon

Feudal System Cartoon that gives information on how the Feudal system worked

Feudal Tenant

The term feudal tenant referred to a person who was granted land directly by a king or prince under any of the various land tenure agreements. In return, the tenant was required to provide knights directly for the army of that respective king or prince. The tenant was a unique landholder in the feudal society in that he didn’t have another lord above him in the social ladder but was directly responsible to the king or the prince. Sometimes, the tenants would hand out portions of his lands to further sub-tenants. The land held by the tenant was considered his for a certain tenure and the king or prince who had granted it could take it back in the future.

Feudal Tenure Definition

Feudal tenure refers to the agreement or contract which overlooked the land granted by the king or the prince directly to an individual. Different forms of feudal tenure existed in European feudalism. The highest among these was the barony, under which the land was granted to a feudal baron who provided military service and fighters in return. Similarly, other feudal tenure came with the condition of service as a knight or as a castle guard at the local castle. The fee-farm kind of feudal tenure allowed an individual to collect revenues on a certain portion of land and pay a fixed rent to the Crown. Clerics were granted tenure under a different category called frankalmoinage.

Feudal Dues Definition

Feudal dues referred to the various taxes that were imposed by the king or the other sections of aristocracy on landowners below. For instance, a king imposed a number of special taxes on the lands of his own tenants. A King could ask his nobles to pay portion of the expenses for the knighting of his son, and this money to be paid fell under feudal dues. The weight of the feudal dues was felt most by the peasant or the serf who cultivated land and paid rent on it to the landowner.

Feudal Hierarchy

Feudal hierarchy refers to a social structure where the influence and power of an individual is determined by the amount of land he holds. So a greater higher in the feudal hierarchy held greater amount of land while one lower in the social ladder had lesser land. At the top was the King, who could grant or take away land.

Feudal Laws

Feudal law referred to the basic assumption of feudalism: that all land belongs to the King. This law further forms the basis of a political system where land was distributed into a hierarchy of lords, nobles and landowners, the position of each determined by the amount of land he held. Everyone had to pay taxes on land holdings, and in return for land fealty and allegiance was owed to the person who granted the land.

Fuedal System Pyramid

Illustration that shows how the Feudal system worked in medieval times

Feudal Life

Life in feudal society was centred on the manor estate. A typical manor comprised of a village surrounded by the farm land, the castle of the owner of the manor who was usually a vassal, and the church. Peasants lived in the village and worked on the land, often in return for the grant of small portions of land. They had to pay taxes not just to the vassal owning the land but also to the church. In return, the lord of the manor ensured the protection of the peasants.

Feudal Lord Definition

A feudal lord is someone in a feudal society who own vast swathes of land and hands ownership of these lands as fiefs to his vassals. The vassals, in return, owed their allegiance and fealty to the lord on one hand and hired peasants to work on their lands at the other hand.

Feudal Vassal

A feudal vassal is someone who is given land by a superior, normally a lord. The vassal in return owes fealty and allegiance to the lord, and helps him gather enough soldiers during wartime. In most manors, a vassal was the lord of the manor.

Feudal Peasant

The feudal peasant received land from the lord of the manor which they cultivated on their own. In return, these peasants cultivated the land of the lord. Moreover, the peasants paid a portion of their annual produce to the lord of the manor and the church in lieu of taxes.

Feudal System Summary

In a feudal system, the King was the de facto owner of all land in a country. He portioned out the land to his nobles, who further portioned it out to their vassals who in turn could grant it to other vassals or hire peasants to work on it. The vassals protected their peasants in return for their labour and owed fealty and military service to the noble who granted them the land. The noble reciprocated similar fealty and allegiance to the king in return for the land.

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