Feudalism was a political and military arrangement between a lord of the Middle Ages and his vassals. A decentralized form of governing, it began in France approximately 900 AD and eventually reached England, Spain and the rest of Western Europe. In the mid-1400s, England and France began to develop strong centralized governments, stripping the landed nobility of some of its power; a strong monarchy in France and a more representative form of government in England. As these centralized governments grew, feudalism declined.
How Feudalism Worked
Under feudalism, the lord would grant his subjects, or vassals, land in return for various services. Paramount among these services was the military protection provided by the vassals to the lord. The importance of this protection stemmed from the way in which feudalism had developed.
Feudalism had grown out of the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Lands once controlled by the Romans were taken over by warring Germanic tribes. There was little organization until the 700s AD when Kings, and their lords and nobles established some order in the land through the system of feudalism.
Feudalism comes from the Latin word for estate or land, fief, and is sometimes called a system of fiefdoms. Both lords and vassals were considered aristocrats and the system of feudalism did not include peasants directly. However, peasants came with the land. Under this arrangement, the nobles took on authority that had previously belonged to governments.
The system of feudalism consisted of a king at the top who had lords and nobles serving him. A vassal was a noble in service to a lord who ranked higher than him. Vassals took an oath of loyalty to their lord in a ceremony known as homage. They would pass their fiefs down to their sons. A lord could be a vassal and vice-versa creating conflicting loyalties and frequent violence.
Castles were built by all nobles for protection and are probably the most recognizable effects of feudalism. Another familiar result of feudalism is the knight. The sons of nobles would begin training at age seven to become a knight. Nobles would supply knights to their king as warriors during the Middle Ages. Many of these kingdoms would become nations we know today that grew out of a government of feudalism. Examples of such countries include Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Hungary and France.
The Magna Carta
Feudal nobles became concerned when King John lost some English land to France and yet continued to tax them heavily. In an effort to preserve their feudal rights, an assembly of nobles met at Runnymede in 1215 AD. They developed the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, which ensured freeman the right to trial by jury and limited royal power. The King could no longer collect taxes without the consent of the Great Council.
Under Henry III, John’s son, the population grew and with it the development of towns and a new socioeconomic status, the middle class. The middle class did not exactly blend into feudalism as its income came from business, not land.
Henry III recognized the power of both the towns and middle class and added knight and burgesses (prominent townspeople) to the Great Council; by this time, it was called Parliament. This body would be split into two houses by 1400 AD: the House of Lord (nobles and clergy) and the House of Commons (knight and burgesses).
The noble’s efforts to secure their power had led to a representative government ensuring the rights of all English people, one of the surprising results of feudalism. Many of the principles of the Magna Carta can be found in our own Constitution, such as trial by jury, no taxation without representation, and the protection or property. In fact, it might be fair to say we would not have the American Constitution and Bill of Rights the way we do today without feudalism and the resulting Magna Carta.
Constitutional Rights Foundation, https://www.crf-usa.org/foundations-of-our-constitution/magna-carta.html
Nelson, Rebecca, (2004). The Handy History Answer Book. Barnes & Noble Inc.
Karls, Farah, (2003). World History: The Human Experience. Glencoe-McGrw Hill.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Wyrdlight, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Runnymede.jpg