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Social Order in the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages started after the fall of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century and lasted well into the 15th century. During this time, a term called feudalism developed which denoted the use of land ownership. In a sense, a social hierarchy developed from feudalism in which certain individuals would serve under others.
From this needed demand, the title of "lord" came into being. A lord is a part of the nobility and is commonly known for owning and renting out plots of lands called fiefs. A lord in medieval times would contribute to the social hierarchy by being the middleman between the lower classes and the king.
For example, a vassal (a free worker) would often work a lord's fief in return for a lord's protection. Likewise, a lord from the middle ages would serve under the king by acknowledging the king's royalty as well as providing taxes for the kingdom. Since the majority of society lived in poverty, many peasants and vassals would often work in a lord's fief for protection while also working their own plots of lands in order to sustain themselves. From this interaction, many lords became a source of power.
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Types of Lordships
The hierarchy of lordships is a complex system. For the most part, there are two types of lordships that were the most common. The first is known as a "landed" lordship while the second is called a "banal" lordship.
A "landed" lordship simply refers to a lord owning a tenure of land called a "fief" or a "reserve" while also lending out other tenures to peasants and vassals. In return for giving these tenures, a lord would dictate that the peasants and vassals would have to work on the lord's reserve for a given amount of time. A "landed" lord also had the power to dictate taxes from his employed peasants and vassals in order to pay for the kingdom. In return for lending out these plots of land, a lord would offer military protection for his employees.
The second type of a lord is called a "banal" lordship. A "banal" lord can be thought of as the supreme administrator in a particular region. These lords had the ability to control all other lordships as well as obligate the lower classes to do certain tasks. For example, if a particular castle needed maintenance or if a particular crop needed to be grown, a banal lord had the authority to authorize these actions. Like a landed lord, a banal lord also had the ability to levy taxes.
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Possibilities of Exploitation
With these various forms of power, it is not surprising that many lords exploited their peasants or vassals for their own benefits. For example, many landed lordships often tried to expand their fiefs in order to gain more taxes and tenants. If this meant that certain peasants or vassals would be relocated to less arable lands in order to gain profit, a lord had the opportunity to do so.
Like landed lords, banal lords also had much authority in exploiting the lower classes. For example, since a banal had the utmost power, they could pass laws that a peasant had to obey, however this lord could profit indirectly by levying taxes if the laws are broken. In addition, banal lords could institute services that peasants or vassals must adhere to no matter the cause.
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"Feudalism." Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/205583/feudalism
Fourquin, Guy. Lordship and Feudalism in the Middle Ages. New York: Pica Press, 1976.