8 March 2015
At the start of the middle ages, most of Europe’s many nations lacked any source of structure or government. Things were very chaotic, and when the king of France realized that his civilization was crumbling, he decided to do something about it. He started a system in which he rented out his kingdom’s land in return for money, labor, or military service. This system is known as feudalism. In many ways it was a very beneficial system, but it had its faults. Over the middle ages, feudalism spread all throughout Europe. And even though it eventually failed, feudalism grew into one of the most powerful and well known political systems in history. Feudalism originally grew out of the chaos amongst the empires within Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries. Cities and states were struggling with each other and feudalism was a cure to their problems. It was a way to gather and organize an army of men and keep them on hand to restore and keep order in the land. The feudal system consisted of vassals, someone who serves, arranged in a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid was the largest group, the peasants or serfs that provided food and services. Above them were the merchants and craftsmen that served the lords and knights. The knights and nobles served the barons, bishops, and other officials. At the peak of the pyramid sat the king, who ruled everyone. Although this “pyramid” may resemble the social and political structure of previous societies, such as ancient Egypt, the classes within the feudal system proved to be beneficial, almost reciprocal for all members of the society. The feudal structure began as a simple plan and grew more complex. When the feudal system began to form, small communities grew around a lord and his manor. The lord was granted land by the king. The lord then owned and controlled all of the land and everything on it. The manor consisted of a large house or even a castle which could often provide protection when the village was attacked. The village that surrounded the castle would contain a church and small homes. On the outskirts of most villages were the farmlands, maintained by the peasants. Peasants were motivated to stay and serve the lord because in return for their service to him, the lord provided a home (the land and buildings) and protection (organized army) for the servants. While the lord ruled over the local village, his property was within a larger piece of land called a fief. The fief was ruled by a baron. The baron’s primary roles were to govern the lords by passing down decrees from the king and to collect taxes from the villages in his fief. The barons reported directly to the king and were a powerful ruler in the land. The king benefited from this system because he could not control all of the land without help. He divided his land among barons that pledged their loyalty to him and carried out his laws. Although the king sat at the top of the “pyramid”, he believed that he was serving God and that God had given him the “divine right” to rule the land. Therefore, the king had absolute power over the entire state within a feudal system. The benefits of feudalism were that it brought order in a chaotic land where people didn’t feel safe from thieves and other criminals. It also made a way for every individual to make a life for themselves. Although it may have been a life of servitude, security, a steady food supply, and peace of mind outweighed the drawbacks. . It is ironic that the benefits that feudalism brought were also a natural part of its demise. Feudalism brought growth and fostered trade. During the feudalism period, roads were built, money systems replaced bartering and the economy grew and provided a variety of new jobs and employment opportunities. However, roads that were built eventually reached distant places and brought opposing viewpoints and cultures that contradicted feudalism. The access to money and jobs created an economy that lessened the dependence on the upper classes. Also, as time passed and the feudal system grew more complicated, even more rigid, the connections between the king and the barons grew weaker. The king couldn’t maintain personal relations with them all and they broke their allegiances to him. In addition, money replaced the original obligations of military service. And finally, the religious institution that dictated much of the laws and rules became overbearing to a community that no longer aligned themselves with the same belief systems. Eventually, less and less people relied on the king, eliminating the sovereignty of the monarch. So, although feudalism provided many benefits to a state, those benefits would eventually destroy the very need for feudalism. In some places, kings were able to successfully run a feudalistic society for several years. For instance, in both France and England, where a long succession of male heirs maintained the dynasty, feudalism lasted. However, in Germany, the king was weak and unable to maintain his authority over his elected officials. The feudal pyramid and all of its’ temporary glory crumbled beneath him. Feudalism was a solution to a real set of problems and originated in 9th century medieval France. After the fall of the Roman Empire, chaos grew in the land. In order to create security, many European kingdoms accepted the ideas of feudalism to protect them from the German/Islamic invaders. Feudalism was also credited for beginning a long line of Christian religious revolutions, which strengthened the feudalistic set-up of the European Middle Ages. As feudalism started to spread outside of France, it moved to Spain, Italy, Germany, and eventually Eastern Europe and England. It was then extended to the northeast from England into the Scandinavian countries. Although the major features of feudalism were the same throughout the lands, there was definite national differences. Feudalism continued all over Europe until the end of the 15th century. In England, the feudalistic system was established by William the Conqueror after he led the defeat of the English Anglo-Saxon army. As a reward for their services, William awarded some of his high-ranking soldiers with fiefs. He divided the land of England and distributed more fiefs to his allies, making them lords. Every lord received a piece of land that was around 1200 acres and included a forest, a village, a manor house, and a church. The lords were also given many special privileges such as hunting and judicial exceptions that allowed them to act outside of the law. The owners of the land were forced to take an oath stating their allegiance to the king and they were expected to train troops to help the kingdom if they ever needed to go to war. The feudalistic principles were originally based on a set of military and legal rules among the soldiers of the nobility. The system was a result of needed security for not only the members of nobility, but also for the serfs and peasants of the land. However, the church also played a great part in shaping the feudalism system. Although the design of the medieval church was not a lot like feudalism, their lines of hierarchy were somewhat similar to one another. Just as the lords in the feudalistic societies, the churches owned a lot of land that was held by their monasteries. Most of this land had been given to the church as a gift for members of the nobility, and therefore it carried feudal obligations. Because of this, many of the clergy then participated in the feudal system. This connection between feudalism and the church brought a lot of controversy throughout Europe. People worried that the church had too much influence. The decrease in feudalism began when the concentration of power in the hands of only a few became disruptive to the feudal system. The powerful monarchs such as France, Spain, and England began to break down in the late 14th century and the whole organization slowly died down until it was completely destroyed in the late 17th century, the start of the French revolution. Many elements of feudalism still exist, and this historical way of life has influenced a large portion of the institution in present day. Although the feudal system no longer exists as it once did, some of the feudal customs still remain. For instance, political sections such as towns, cities, counties, and states within a country and local offices such as sheriff, constable, and bailiff come directly from the feudal system. Even many rules of etiquette came from the feudal knight's code of chivalry. In the beginning of the middle ages, a large portion of Europe’s nations were without any government or source of structure. Amid the chaos, a system of order grew. Feudalism, although very beneficial, had its fair share of problems which eventually led to its demise. While it lasted, feudalism spread from France into all of Europe. And even though feudalism eventually crumbled, it is now recognized as one of the most powerful and influential political systems known to man. We can still see the remnants of the feudalistic society within modern western societies, even in the United States.
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