The End of Europe's Middle Ages

Feudal Institutions

In the Middle Ages, networks of personal agreements formed the basis of the political, economic and social systems. How these agreements developed and how they were utilised during the early Middle Ages are currently topics of scholarly debate. Nevertheless, by the late Middle Ages, the terminology and concepts that are implied in the designation of a feudal society had been defined by the legal profession and can be applied to the time period of this tutorial.

  Origins of Feudal Institutions
  Book Reviews of "Fiefs and Vassals" by Susan Reynolds

For noble and peasant alike, the family was the single most important social unit of the Middle Ages and the basis for other relationships. Functioning as a form of social security, the family provided protection and care to the children, the aged and infirm. Family alliances of blood and marriage were utilised to strengthen feudal ties and to increase power bases. In order to prevent the splintering of family property, the law of primogeniture was adopted across most of Europe. Under this law, the eldest son received the full inheritance of the father, leaving younger sons to make their own way.

In the Middle Ages, one of the most common paths for younger siblings was to enter into ecclesiastical service. This tied the Church into the feudal network as family loyalties remained intact for clergy and the hierarchy of the Church mirrored the social structure of a patriarchal secular society. Noble bishops and abbots increased the prestige and political clout of their natal families while the presence of a royal member within a monastery benefited the entire spiritual family.

Feudalism is the term applied to relationships between members of the aristocracy. The basic unit of these feudal arrangements was the fief, a section of land granted for temporary use. The vassalage agreement was between the owner of the fief, the lord, and the recipient of the fief, the vassal. Technically, ownership of the land remained with the lord but the vassal received "use of the fruits", or usufruct, in exchange for fealty to the lord. Over time, these land grants became hereditary and ownership of the land seldom reverted back to the lord, except in cases of contumacy or absence of an heir.

  Oath of Fealty
  Obligations of Vassalage Agreements

The structure of these feudal arrangements was fluid and cannot be forced into a defined hierarchy. Depending on the lands that a man held, he could be vassal to more than one lord and lord to more than one vassal. This condition, called subinfeudation, illustrates the amazing complexity and flexibility of feudal institutions. To deal with the potential for conflicting loyalties that subinfeudation could create, documents were often written to outline the precedence of the various lords by which a vassal may be bound, defining a single overlord as liege lord.

  Order of Loyalties

All feudal relationships were based on a perceived, if not an actual, imbalance of power and the mutual exchange of goods, lands or services. Use of the term feudalism is typically restricted to the relationships between members of the nobility. However, relationships between the nobility and the peasantry, manorialism, reflect a similar power structure.

Developing from the Roman villas of late antiquity, the manor became the basic agricultural unit in the early Middle Ages and reflected the system of personal bonds seen in feudal arrangements. In the manorial system, however, the bonds were between lords and serfs and were defined by conditions of protection, labour and economic support.

In the Roman villa, gangs of slaves worked the land of the owner. As the supply of slaves dwindled between the fifth and eighth centuries, a new class emerged from the combination of free peasants and slaves, the serfs. Faced with shortages of slave field labour, landowners began to grant plots of land, called tenures or hides, to serfs in exchange for tithes on crops, service in the lord's own fields and various other types of taxes. In exchange, the lord was obligated to provide military protection and justice for his tenants. Althought serfs had no real status under law, social customs prevented excessive exploitation. Combined with the co-operative agricultural styles that developed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, these ties of mutual personal dependence came to be defined as manorialism.

While outright slavery had ceased to exist virtually everywhere in Europe by the twelfth century, most of the peasant labour force consisted of serfs who were tied to a lord and, often, to the land. The shift from serf to freedman occurred through manumission. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries increased amounts of cultivable lands with higher productivities combined with opportunities for manumission and placed large areas of farmland into the hands of the non-nobles.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Europe was faced with a series of agricultural, economic and demographic disasters. The arrival of a colder and wetter climate meant that large areas of previously fertile land became unproductive. Crop failures and famines were common by the early fourteenth century and the arrival of the Black Death further decimated the population. At first, the depopulation opened up lands for the survivors but successive sweeps left few to maintain even the best farmlands or to preserve feudal patrimonies.

  Description of a Manor House

A precarious land grant of a fief was not the only form of property agreement in the Middle Ages. Minor landholders often held their own lands called allods. During the seventh to ninth centuries, Europe was enveloped in a period of almost continuous warfare and these small landowners sought protection from powerful lords by commendation. In exchange for this military and judicial protection, minor landholders granted ownership of their lands to an overlord. The use of the land normally returned to the former owner as a tenant under specified conditions and this type of grant often required renewal whenever the tenant or the overlord changed. Since tenant farmers were not trained soldiers, their obligations seldom included military service. Because ecclesiastical nobles were usually better organised, had higher levels of literacy and were less likely to be engaged in wars, bishops and abbots (secular clergy with military powers) were often the preferred lords for commendation. The Church acquired vast tracts of land by this method in the early Middle Ages.


Obligations of Commendation

  Homage Ceremony

In the late Middle Ages, the social classes underwent a period of fluidity. Economic conditions favoured the merchant and craft classes, and even the peasantry could demand better circumstances. Feudal obligations between lord and vassal were being replaced by contractual agreements based on payments of money. The economy expanding from an agricultural base to include commercial and manufacturing interests. Also, Europe was no longer in a constant state of warfare and even the Crusades had ceased to be a focus for the energies of the martial nobility. In an attempt to close ranks and protect social status, the noble elite turned their military attributes towards elaborate forms of "mock battle" such as jousts and tournaments, and the martial and moral aspects of feudal society were ritualised into chivalry. This diversion of military prowess developed the romantic ideals of courtly love and knightly honour that have been immortalised in the literature of the time. It is ironic that the fanciful picture of the dignified knight and his lady that will forever be associated with the knights of the Middle Ages was created by the demise of the very systems that shaped it.

  The Crusades

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
Copyright © 1997, The Applied History Research Group