History 1002 – Essay 3
A Feudal Society without the Feud
The Middle Ages were characterized by a chronic absence of effective central government and the constant threat of famine, disease, and foreign invasion. In this state of affairs, the weaker sought the protection of the stronger; and the true lords and masters became those who could guarantee immediate security from violence. The feudal society was an institution of the Middle Ages that grew out of the miseries and robberies that succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire in the ninth century. Feudalism is a situation where there is no dominant political power or effective central leadership. In a feudal society, power is treated as a private possession; there is no effective state. The feudal system was designed to do a number of things, including participation in local government and military support of the king. Feudalism is based on mutual obligations. The feudal system was not planned but, rather grew and developed in response to the social chaos that followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It provided order where there no longer was any, and it created new chains of command to replace those that were gone. In exchange for military protection, a lord or landowner granted land, which was called a fief. The person receiving the fief was called a vassal. This was a great concept when considering the need for self-sufficiency; moreover, a basic government was forming. The lords of the lands would provide all of the necessary means of survival, which led to a strong sense of loyalty between the nobility and their vassals. It was this bond that made protection of the land, harvesting and dispensing of food, and ultimately life possible after such a harsh period before this society. Mutually beneficial relationships evolved into long-term loyalty and attempted to set the precedent of reliability from the kings all the way down to the serfs.
Warlords dominated the feudal society of the Middle Ages. Lesser men pledged themselves to powerful individuals, warlords or princes, recognizing them as personal superiors and promising them faithful service. Large warrior groups of vassals sprang up and ultimately developed into a prominent professional military class with its own code of knightly conduct. The result was a network of relationships based on mutual loyalty that enabled warlords to acquire armies and to rule over a territory, whether or not they owned the land and had a royal title. The emergence of these extensive military organizations was an adaption to the absence of a strong centralized government and the predominance of a noncommercial, rural economy. The feudal system is a legal and military obligation to the king, who usually happened to be a warrior as well, always out to conquer and defend his kingdom. The king granted large amounts of land to lords, or Barons. In return, the lords and Barons pledged military support to the king in the form of knights, who happened to have land granted to them by the lords and barons. Then there were commoners, who were able to live on the knight’s land as long as they farmed it and took care of it. The lowest of the hierarchy were the serfs, who were willing to farm the land and pay taxes ad long as they were offered protection and legal justice from the knights. Knights were offered the same protecting from their lords, or Barons; the Barons or lords were offered the same protection from the king. Jurisdictional and political power was in the hands of “private” individuals, nobles who held franchises, which meant decentralized rule under a weak king. In this feudal system, the king possessed more authority then actual power.
The landed nobility, like kings, made every effort to acquire as many vassals as they could for the obvious reason that military strength during this period lay in numbers. It was absolutely impossible to maintain these growing armies on what was provided by the lord’s household alone or to support them by payment. The kings started to use a practice of granting the vassals land as a benefice, or fief. The vassals were expected to live on that land, maintain their horses, and supply themselves with weapons of war. Peasants inhabited the fief, and the crops that they raised provided the vassal with means of support. Vassalage involved fealty to the lord; moreover, to swear fealty was tantamount to promising to refrain from any action that might threaten the well being of the lord and to perform personal service for him at his request. The primary service was military duty as a mounted knight. This involved a variety of activities: a short or long military campaign, escort duty, or standing guard. Feudal arrangements nonetheless provided stability throughout the early Middle Ages and aided the difficult process of political centralization during the High Middle Ages. The genius of the feudal system lay in its adaptability. Contracts of different kinds could be made with almost anybody, as circumstances required. The process embraced a wide spectrum of people, from the king at the top to the lowliest vassal in the remotest part of the kingdom. Feudal bonds provided protection from outside predators and allowed for a more comfortable, stable lifestyle.