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With the breakup of the Caroligian Empire Europe slowly divided into a series of individual territories governed by great aristocratic families. Politcal power was local it was private and was passed from generation to generation. This is what is meant by feudal society.
To defend the feudal powers a new artistocracy came forth- the knighthood. They were responsible to the local lords. The lords would give the knight a piece of land and in return the knight would fight for his lord.
With feudalism went Manorialsim. This invovled the relationship between the peasant and the local lords. The free farmers needed defense, thus they surrendered themselves and their lands to the lcoal lord. In return he the peasant received protection. He was obligated to turn over a percent of his annual harvest to the Lord. The peasant slowly but surely became a serf and part of the lords permanent labor force.
Under feudalism, taxes were not paid with money. They were paid in products and services. Presents and taxes had to be given to the lords by their vassals.  At harvest time, the vassals gave shares of their crops to the lords. The vassals would grind their grain at the noble's granaries. They would give part of the grain to their lord. When animals were killed for food, part of the meat was given to the lords. The lords promised to give protection, peace, and safety to their vassals.
Manors were completely owned by the nobles. They were given from one generation to another. The noble's firstborn son took it all when his father died.  Each manor had its own pasture lands, mill, wine press, church, and village.  A manor had to let many people live there. Lords gave their servants food and a place to sleep, but they did not pay their servants money. 
The villein was in a poorer class. They had to serve the lords, but were free in other ways.  They had work to do for the lord or the town. Then they went back to their little houses with floors made of earth and a thatched roof. On the walls of their houses, the villeins hung meats, tools, and dried vegetables. 
A villein was more free than slaves or serfs, but they still were not completely free. They could not move or marry if the lord didn't say yes. They also could not leave the manor lands if the lord said no. If they escaped, they could run away to a town where they could try to live quietly without being known, until he is discovered. If they did this, they become a free men.  If they wanted to help the Catholic Church, they needed special permission. As a member of the church, their position could get higher. However, if this did not work, they could join a band of outlaws. 
The serfs were in the lowest class. They were only a little better than slaves. They could not be sold away from the land, but were always sold with the land. 
But villeins and serfs had rights as well. They could cultivate grain and vegetables for sale, and the lord had duty to protect them and provide them land to cultivate. If they got wealthy enough, they could buy their freedom from the lord. They also did not need to serve in levy (that is: army mustered up by conscription) and they did not need to pay state taxes. They usually paid 10% of their income to the Church and 10% to the feudal lord, which was called a tithe.
According to Karl Marx, feudalism was the stage of society before capitalism and after slavery. When the lords and the serfs fought, feudalism ended and capitalism came into being. However, instead of the lords exploiting the serfs, now it was the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat.
Feudalism: Top 9 Features of Feudalism &ndash Explained!
Feudalism was a novel social system. It had several features.
The Castle was the chief characteristic of feudalism. The feudal Lords lived in huge castles or forts. The living house and court of the Lord existed inside the castle.
Image Source: 435729.medialib.glogster.com/thumbnails/9164a49ff08f0abc59e029e674e69041ae80a0fd11ca0af84cf5b5dcdc3bb644/feudalism-ashlyn-hardwick-source.jpg
The Lords stored arms and weapons and found grains inside the castle. At the time of external invasion, it provided shelter to the common people. There was strong and high wall with towers at intervals around the castle. In some cases the castles were surrounded by wide ditch or moat.
From towers one could watch the movement of enemies. The gateway of the castle was very strong. Deep ditches were dug around the castle and filled up with water. This was connected with a bridge.
During the attack, this bridge was lifted off Mild the enemy could not enter into the castle. A feudal Lord had many castle and he lived inside different castles at different time.
Another significant mark of feudalism was Manor. The land associated with the castle was known as Manor. This was like a small estate. The castles, cultivated land, dwelling houses of barons and Church were associated with it. A feudal Lord had one or more manors. According to the possession of Manors, the strength of a feudal Lord was known.
Another feature of feudalism was ‘Demense’. After distributing the land among his serfs whatever land remained with him was known as Demense. This law entirely belonged to the Lord which he could use according to his whims and caprices.
4. The Feudal Society:
The division of a feudal society followed a pyramidal pattern. This society was largely an agrarian society. The ‘King’ was at the top of the society and he was quite powerless. Below him was placed the ‘Feudal Lord’. Then came the ‘Vassels’ or ‘Independent Farmers’. They could resort to independent profession and move from one place to another according to their own hill.
The lowest stratum in the society projected the ‘Serfs’. They had neither the land of their own, nor they were independent. They worked in the land given to them by their Lord. In one day of the week, they worked in the field of their Lord without payment which was known as ‘Forced Labour’. They remained inside small huts with their domestic animals like cows and pigs in a very unhealthy condition. They had to lead a miserable life.
5. The Knight:
Another characteristic feature of the feudal society was ‘Knighthood’. A Knight took oath to fight with enemy and to protect the weak. Generally, the sons and relatives of a Lord received education and training to be a Knight. When one wanted to be a Knight, he had to work as a ‘Page’ or servant near another Knight. When he could serve property, he was appointed as a ‘Squire’ or body-guard of that Knight.
During that period he learnt how to clean the weapons and prepare a horse. After he achieved mastery in these works, he was to be appointed as a Knight. He had to spend a night inside the Church in prayer.
Then he had to kneel down before priest who would deliber a light blow of his palm on the young man’s neck with the blessings-“Be a Valiant Knight”. This act was famous as ‘Accolade’. After becoming a Knight, he had to purchase horse and arms for himself. By exhibiting chivalry he could save an old man, destiture, weak man from the clutches of injustice and tyranny. A Knight also respected a lady. They also spent their time in different plays and gymnastics. The medieval European literature sang the glory of these Knights in no uncertain terms.
6. The Rights and Duties of Feudal Lords:
The Lords had many duties to perform. Most of them were employed in the work of the Government, army and diplomacy. They also looked to the administration of estates, draining of swamps and trade and commerce. Their main duty was to save their subjects from the invaders. The Lords enjoyed certain rights too. A Lord became the owner of the land of a vassal who died leaving a minor son.
This ownership was called ‘Wardship’ and it continued till the minor came of age. In that case, the land was to be handed over the heir on payment of a sum known as ‘Relief, when a Vassal died without the heir, his fiefs was taken over by the Lord. This was called ‘Escheat’. Thus, the feudal Lords had many duties which they discharged and they also enjoyed certain rights inside the society.
7. Duty of Vassals:
In the feudal society, the vassals or subjects had certain duties towards the Lord. The vassal had to be present in the court whenever the Lord needed. The Vassal rendered compulsory military service to the Lord for forty days in a year. He accompanied his master to the battle field and guarded his castle.
The vassal had to pay money to his Lord or Master on the occasion of his eldest daughter’s marriage, when the Lord’s eldest son became a Knight and when the Lord became captive in the hands of his enemy and was to be released. The vassals had to render these duties because the Lord guaranteed them security of Life and property against external invasions and gave them justice.
8. Ceremony of Homage:
The leading feature of feudalism prevailing in Europe was the Ceremony of Homage. This Ceremony was organised to cement the bond between the ‘Lords’ as ‘Vassal’. After assembling in the castle of the noble each man used to Kneel down before the Lord with uncovered head. Then each one placed his folded hands on the hands of the Lord. He then took the oath to be his “man” or “Vassal”. This ceremony was famous as “Homage” in which the Vassal took vow to remain loyal to his Lord.
After the Vassals showed homage, then the Lord raised him up and kissed them. He recognised them as his ‘Subject’ or ‘Vassal’. Then the Lord placed in the hands of the Vassal a little earth or some leaves or a sword as a token of gift. A legal document concerning ‘fief (land given to vassal), a staff and a flag were also handed over to the Vassal. This Sanction was termed as Investiture.
Characteristics of feudalism
Among the most representative characteristics of feudalism we can cite the following:
- The king or emperor was the highest authority.
- Society was divided into three strata. The nobles, the clergy and the servants. There was no class mobility, whoever was born a servant died a servant.
- In the feudal period in Europe, many castles and forts were built to protect the nobility from external enemy invaders from other territories.
- Wealth came from agriculture and livestock.
- There was no trade, no industry.
- The servants paid tribute in species to the nobles for the right to live on their lands or for clergy maintenance.
- Political, legal, and economic powers were administered only by feudal lords and clergy.
- Economic growth took place through wars, since by winning them, they conquered territories that could be exploited to produce more food or goods for the kingdom.
- The figure of the knight appears to serve the king and conquer territories for the Kingdom he serves. The knight is also linked to the Catholic faith and its promotion.
- The power of the Catholic Church was superior to that of the monarchy, since it came from God and therefore was unquestionable. Only the high officials of the Church could clothe the kings and with a crown.
The incentives for feudalism
While Kings fought each other on the stage of the wider world, it was often difficult within a given kingdom to keep the Dukes happy with each other, and even within a Duchy it would be difficult to keep the Counts on good terms. The reason was simple: all of these people were essentially heads of their own mini-states, and as such could tax their subjects directly, and raise armies to defend themselves and their subjects – and conquer new lands.
The core reason that feudalism worked was that the oath of fealty a vassal swore to their liege (e.g. Count to Duke or Duke to King) included a provision that the subject would pay a tax to their liege – usually some combination of cash and military service – and, crucially, that their liege would defend them from any foreign threats. Thus, there was something significant in it for both parties: the weaker party was protected, and the stronger party was paid.
However, the liege would often not be in a position to intervene in wars between his own subjects, or the subjects of his subjects, and furthermore would not always be required by feudal law to do so – the relationship only goes up one level. A Baron who is vassal to a Count pays taxes to that Count, not to the Duke to whom the Count is a vassal, and likewise the Duke will not necessarily be particularly interested if another Baron within his domain declares war on the first Baron to take his castle – that’s for the Count to deal with.
And so complex webs of alliances and familial ties were formed in the feudal world, to ensure that every noble could be sure that their territorial claims were backed by military force.
The fact that subjects within a kingdom conquered other subjects within the same kingdom, along with the fact that titles were inherited based on often-complex family lines, led to strange things happening in feudal Europe. For instance, a German Electorate within the Holy Roman Empire inherited the entirety of Great Britain at one point, giving us the royal family that rules the UK today.
Feudalism - History
The basic government and society in Europe during the middle ages was based around the feudal system. Small communities were formed around the local lord and the manor. The lord owned the land and everything in it. He would keep the peasants safe in return for their service. The lord, in return, would provide the king with soldiers or taxes.
A Feudal Knight by Unknown
Under the feudal system land was granted to people for service. It started at the top with the king granting his land to a baron for soldiers all the way down to a peasant getting land to grow crops.
The center of life in the Middle Ages was the manor. The manor was run by the local lord. He lived in a large house or castle where people would gather for celebrations or for protection if they were attacked. A small village would form around the castle which would include the local church. Farms would then spread out from there which would be worked by the peasants.
King - The top leader in the land was the king. The king could not control all of the land by himself, so he divided it up among the Barons. In return, the Barons pledged their loyalty and soldiers to the king. When a king died, his firstborn son would inherit the throne. When one family stayed in power for a long time, this was called a dynasty.
Bishop - The Bishop was the top church leader in the kingdom and managed an area called a diocese. The Catholic Church was very powerful in most parts of Medieval Europe and this made the Bishop powerful as well. Not only that, but the church received a tithe of 10 percent from all the people. This made some Bishops very rich.
Barons and Nobles- The Barons and high ranking nobles ruled large areas of land called fiefs. They reported directly to the king and were very powerful. They divided up their land among Lords who ran individual manors. Their job was to maintain an army that was at the king's service. If they did not have an army, sometimes they would pay the king a tax instead. This tax was called shield money.
Lords and Knights - The lords ran the local manors. They also were the king's knights and could be called into battle at any moment by their Baron. The lords owned everything on their land including the peasants, crops, and village.
Medieval Castle by Fred Fokkelman
Most of the people living in the Middle Ages were peasants. They had a hard rough life. Some peasants were considered free and could own their own businesses like carpenters, bakers, and blacksmiths. Others were more like slaves. They owned nothing and were pledged to their local lord. They worked long days, 6 days a week, and often barely had enough food to survive.
Structure of the Feudal State in England
Feudalism in 12th-century England was among the better structured and established systems in Europe at the time. The king was the absolute “owner” of land in the feudal system, and all nobles, knights, and other tenants, termed vassals, merely “held” land from the king, who was thus at the top of the feudal pyramid.
Below the king in the feudal pyramid was a tenant-in-chief (generally in the form of a baron or knight), who was a vassal of the king. Holding from the tenant-in-chief was a mesne tenant—generally a knight or baron who was sometimes a tenant-in-chief in their capacity as holder of other fiefs. Below the mesne tenant, further mesne tenants could hold from each other in series.
Feudalism: History of Feudalism in Europe
The feudal system first appears in definite form in the Frankish lands in the 9th and 10th cent. A long dispute between scholars as to whether its institutional basis was Roman or Germanic remains somewhat inconclusive it can safely be said that feudalism emerged from the condition of society arising from the disintegration of Roman institutions and the further disruption of Germanic inroads and settlements. Of course, the rise of feudalism in areas formerly dominated by Roman institutions meant the breakdown of central government but in regions untouched by Roman customs the feudal system was a further step toward organization and centralization.
The system used and altered institutions then in existence. Important in an economic sense was the Roman villa, with the peculiar form of rental, the precarium, a temporary grant of land that the grantor could revoke at any time. Increasingly, the poor landholder transferred his land to a protector and received it back as a precarium, thus giving rise to the manorial system. It was also possible for the manorial system to develop from the Germanic village, as in England.
The development of fiefs was also influenced by the Roman institution of patricinium and the German institution of mundium, by which the powerful surrounded themselves with men who rendered them service, especially military service, in exchange for protection. More and more, this service-and-protection contract came to involve the granting of a beneficium, the use of land, which tended to become hereditary. Local royal officers and great landholders increased their power and forced the king to grant them rights of private justice and immunity from royal interference. By these processes feudalism became fixed in Frankish lands by the end of the 10th cent.
The church also had great influence in shaping feudalism although the organization of the church was not feudal in character, its hierarchy somewhat paralleled the feudal hierarchy. The church owned much land, held by monasteries, by church dignitaries, and by the churches themselves. Most of this land, given by nobles as a bequest or gift, carried feudal obligations thus clerical land, like lay land, assumed a feudal aspect, and the clergy became participants in the temporal feudal system. Many bishops and abbots were much like lay seigneurs. This feudal connection between church and state gave rise to the controversy over lay investiture.
Feudalism spread from France to Spain, Italy, and later Germany and Eastern Europe. In England the Frankish form was imposed by William I (William the Conqueror) after 1066, although most of the elements of feudalism were already present. It was extended eastward into Slavic lands to the marches (frontier provinces), which were continually battered by new invasions, and it was adopted partially in Scandinavian countries. The important features of feudalism were similar throughout, but there existed definite national differences. Feudalism continued in all parts of Europe until the end of the 14th cent.
The concentration of power in the hands of a few was always a great disruptive force in the feudal system. The rise of powerful monarchs in France, Spain, and England broke down the local organization. Another disruptive force was the increase of communication, which broke down the isolated manor, assisted the rise of towns, and facilitated the emergence of the burgess class. This process was greatly accelerated in the 14th cent. and did much to destroy the feudal classifications of society.
The system broke down gradually. It was not completely destroyed in France until the French Revolution (1789), and it persisted in Germany until 1848 and in Russia until 1917. Many relics of feudalism still persist, and its influence remains on the institutions of Western Europe.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Ancient History, Middle Ages and Feudalism
Development in the 19th and 20th centuries
In the 19th century, influenced by Adam Smith and other Scottish thinkers, Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95) made “the feudal mode of production” one stage in their visionary reading of Western historical development the feudal model followed “the ancient mode of production” and preceded capitalism, socialism, and communism. Marx and Engels rejected the traditional understanding of feudalism as consisting of fiefs and relations among the elite and emphasized the lords’ exploitation of the peasants as the essence of the feudal mode of production. Marx and Engels did not try to establish that the feudal period had existed universally they formulated for Asia the idea of a specific Asiatic mode of production. Still, by incorporating “the feudal mode of production” into their design, they endowed it with seminal significance. Their followers came to view the feudal stage as a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of socialism, and socialist scholars and activists sought traces of it throughout the world.
Marx and Engels’s model of Western historical development indicates how popular the feudal construct had become by the middle of the 19th century. Their modification of the construct to serve their own purposes demonstrates its pliancy. However, they were not unique in having shaped the feudal construct to suit their particular perspective. The Australian medieval historian John O. Ward isolated 10 different sets of phenomena that historians had associated with feudalism. Some employed narrow legalistic definitions like those elaborated by 16th-century lawyers. Others, following the English historian Thomas Madox (1666–1726/27) and the French historian Marc Bloch (1886–1944), equated feudalism with feudal society. They saw feudalism as encompassing many if not most aspects of medieval society: peasants, whether free, unfree, or semi-free a ruling warrior class with subordinates compensated for military service by grants of land rather than money fragmentation of power and disorder—yet with the family and the state retaining their importance. The American historian Joseph R. Strayer (1904–87) laid special emphasis on the splintering of political and public power and authority, and he believed that systematized feudal institutions and customs were compatible with the formation of large political units, which he viewed as recognizable precursors of contemporary nation-states. Although Bloch and Strayer employed the feudal construct throughout their careers, both admitted the idiosyncrasy of the various definitions of the feudal labels that have been proposed, and both acknowledged that focusing on the construct inevitably obscures the human beings, both individuals and groups, whose actions historians are dedicated to comprehending.
Some new publications in medieval studies avoided the term altogether others used it sparingly, focusing on actual laws, land tenures, and legal agreements instead of on the model. Some books on medieval society refrained from characterizing that society as "feudal." Others, while acknowledging that the term was in dispute, continued to use it as a "useful shorthand" for lack of a better term, but only as far as it was necessary.
But some authors still included descriptions of feudalism as a valid model of medieval society, with little or no caveat. Not every medievalist had read Brown's article or had a chance to consider its implications or discuss it with colleagues. Additionally, revising work conducted on the premise that feudalism was a valid construct would require the kind of reassessment that few historians were prepared to engage in.
Perhaps most significantly, no one had presented a reasonable model or explanation to use in place of feudalism. Some historians and authors felt they had to provide their readers with a handle by which to grasp the general ideas of medieval government and society. If not feudalism, then what?
Yes, the emperor had no clothes, but for now, he would just have to run around naked.