Feudal System

What was the Feudal System?

The Feudal system was a power structure that existed primarily during medieval times in Europe.

In this power structure, the power of an individual was directly tied to 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 the lord and lords had peasants, slaves, or serfs cultivate this land.

Medieval Vassals postion in the Feudal system

In exchange for land holdings, lords owed allegiance to nobles and helped them in wars, and nobles owed similar allegiances to the king.

Understanding the 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 The Feudal Pyramid Image

Feudal Society

In a feudal society, the social relationships between different classes of the society were dictated by their landholdings.

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 labor to the landowner and in some cases was allowed to hold some land.

Reeve and Serfs - Medieval Farming

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

What was a Feudal Tenant in the Feudal System?

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.

Image of a Medieval Vassal or Lord in Medieval Times

Medieval Lord *Vassal of a King

The tenant was a unique landholder in the feudal society in that he didn’t have another lord above him on 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.

Medieval Nobility Medieval Baron Oliver St John 1st Baron St John of Bletso

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 frankalmoigne.

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 a portion of the expenses for the knighting of his son, and this money to be paid fell under feudal dues.

Medieval Squire becoming a Knight

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.

Medieval Serf in Fields

Feudal System Hierarchy

Feudal hierarchy refers to a social structure where the influence and power of an individual are determined by the amount of land he holds.

So a greater higher in the feudal hierarchy held a greater amount of land while one lower in the social ladder had lesser land. At the top of the feudal system was the King, who could grant or take away the land.

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Feudal System 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.

fief land lord manor

Everyone had to pay taxes on land holdings, and in return for land fealty and allegiance were owed to the person who granted the land.

Feudal System Pyramid

The illustration shows how the Feudal system worked in medieval times

Feudal Life

Life in feudal society was centered on the manor estate. A typical manor comprised of a village surrounded by the farmland, 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.

Feudal Manor

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.

manor house

Feudal Lord Definition

A feudal lord is someone in a feudal society who owns 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 on the other hand.

Medieval Lord Robert Dudley

Medieval Lord Robert Dudley of Leicester in official attire

Feudal System – The 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.

Medieval Vassal Medieval Men Clothing

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.

Medieval Kings and Vassals in Feudalism

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 labor 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.

Feudalism Fast Facts

  • 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
  • Middlemen called Vassals collected the taxes and took them to the lord
  • Vassals also protected the lord’s lands as part of the deal

Mens Medieval Clothing

  • 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 the Feudal hierarchy in order were the king, Barons, Bishops, and Knights
  • In the middle of the feudal system in order were craft-workers and merchants
  • At the bottom of feudal society were foot soldiers, servants, and peasants

Medieval Peasants & Medieval Reeve

  • 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 the 1200s due to the use of money