Essay About Feudalism

From the ninth to the early eleventh centuries, invasions of the Magyars from the east, Muslims from the south, and Vikings from the north struck western Europe. This unrest ultimately spurred greater unity in England and Germany, but in northern France centralized authority broke down and the region split into smaller and smaller political units. By the ninth century, many knights and nobles held estates (fiefs) granted by greater lords in return for military and other service. This feudal system (from the medieval Latin feodum or feudum, fee or fief) enabled a cash-poor but land-rich lord to support a military force. But this was not the only way that land was held, knights maintained, and loyalty to a lord retained. Lands could be held unconditionally, landless knights could be sheltered in noble households, and loyalties could be maintained through kinship, friendship, or wages.

Mounted armored warriors, or knights (from the Old English cniht, boy or servant), were the dominant forces of medieval armies. The twelfth-century Byzantine princess Anna Komnena wrote that the impact of a group of charging French knights “might rupture the walls of Babylon.” At first, most knights were of humble origins, some of them not even possessing land, but by the later twelfth century knights were considered members of the nobility and followed a system of courteous knightly behavior called chivalry (from cheval, the French word for horse). During and after the fourteenth century, weapons that were particularly effective against horsemen appeared on the battlefield, such as the longbow, pike, halberd, and cannon. Yet despite the knights’ gradual loss of military importance, the system by which noble families were identified, called heraldry, continued to flourish and became more complex. The magnificence of their war games—called tournaments—also increased, as did the number of new knightly orders, such as the Order of the Garter.

Michael Norris
Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001

The Feudal System

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"The Feudal System"

      The feudal system was a political, military, and economic system based on the holding of land. The system was developed since the whole entire basis of rule from all the civilizations before the Middle Ages was lost. Early Europe was in desperate need of such a system since they were constantly being raided by the Vikings and other outsiders.

     Man was lonely during the Middle Ages. Life was very harsh and everyone worked except the king. The usual life expectancy was 35. People lived in small farming communities. Everyone lived in constant fear of being raided by foreign invaders such as the Vikings. When they were not worrying about being invaded they were scared of plague and other living conditions. Man's position in the world was unknown. Knowledge, wealth, and governing body had to be recreated. Cities were far and few between and much less populated and developed like today's cities. The Middle Ages was a religious age. Man clung to God as creator. People painstakingly built churches. Religion was what was the most important to people for a long time, and to be excommunicated was horrible.

     As time progressed the feudal system was created. It was designed to divide the lands and protect from attack. The king first gave a fief or a piece of land to a royal vassal. As proof for this exchange in land a vassal would swear to the lord to be his man all the days of his life and protect him against "all men who may live or die." Next came investiture. Investiture was a symbolic gesture when a King or a lord presented a royal vassal or a vassal a stick, a small rod, or a clod of earth to show that he has given him a fief. Now this royal vassal was in charge of a huge piece of land. In order to defend it he would then divide his land into smaller pieces. He would take these smaller pieces and give them to warriors or who agreed to be his own vassals. Thus, the royal vassal became a lord to other vassals. The vassals now under this lord would now divide their lands and grant fiefs to warriors of their own. Last in the dividing of land was the knight whose parcel of land was too small to be divided.

     Everyone in the feudal system worked except the king.

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A lord could demand 40 days of battle from his knights in a time of war. During peacetime a vassal had to hold courts of justice, charge tolls on bridges, collect taxes, and much more. A peasant lived on a manor or a small estate from which the lord's family gained everything it needed. A peasant farmed the land and did lots of jobs for the lord. Serfs were kind of the same as a peasant except at birth they were bound to the land and could not leave. A free peasant might have become a serf if a bad harvest took place in exchange for bread and protection.

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