Feudalism – Feudal System
Feudal System – a political, economic and social system, which prevailed in Western and Central Europe during much of the Middle Ages, and in Eastern Europe during the Modern Age.
What is Feudalism?
Feudal system was characterized by the fragmentation of political power and by the establishment of ties of personal dependence that linked free men of different categories. Feudo-vassal relations were established between them, which determined obligations for both the lords and their vassals.
The establishment of feudalism responded to the insecurity caused by the invasions of Vikings, Slavs, Magyars and Saracens, at a time, the 9th century, characterized by the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire and the weakness of state institutions.
Features of Feudal System
Among the main characteristics of feudalism the following can be highlighted:
- The authority of the kings of each state was very limited and it was the local lords (dukes, counts and marquises) who exercised power in their territories.
- To ensure the loyalty of these lords, the king had to give them lands in fiefdoms, in exchange for which the local nobles swore allegiance and promised to provide military aid when the monarch required it.
- In each fiefdom, the local lord monopolized the functions of the State, such as, for example, legislating, collecting taxes and tolls, administering justice, and meting out punishments.
- The local nobles controlled fortified castles in rural areas transformed into centers of power as a result of the depopulation of the cities that took place after the dissolution of Western Roman Empire.
- The fiefdoms were inhabited by peasants who became servants of the land lord, to whom they owed work benefits and the delivery of a part of the harvest in exchange for protection.
Causes of Feudalism | Reasons for Feudal System
The causes that led to the emergence of feudalism were the following:
- The inability of the kings to defend their states from the foreign invasions of the 9th century, which forced them to entrust the defense of the kingdom’s territories to the local powers.
- The importance assumed by local officials (counts, dukes and marquises), to whom the kings had to give lands in fiefdoms to ensure their loyalty.
- The claim of the local lords to leave their titles and the lands they administered as an inheritance to their descendants.
- The need to protect the populations of villages, fields and cities that, given the weakness of state institutions, turned to the powerful of each region to protect themselves from incursions and looting.
Social Structure of Feudalism
Feudal society was hierarchical and dominated by two privileged classes that did not pay taxes: the nobility and the clergy. The lower class was made up of the peasants.
The characteristics of each estate were as follows:
- The nobility: their function was to fight to protect the community from the attacks of infidels and pagans. It was made up of royalty and dukes, counts, barons and marquises. The king was considered the first among his peers. This means that he was not above the rest of the nobles and that he had to ensure his loyalty by handing over land as fiefdoms. There were nobles who were more powerful than others, so it was common practice for a duke, for example, to be a vassal of the king, but, in turn, lord of a baron or a marquis. This estate also included the knights, those who had the necessary means to provide themselves with a horse, weapons and armor. The knights were part of the personal armies of the feudal lords.
- The Clergy: formed by archbishops, bishops and abbots (high clergy) and by monks, priests and priests (low clergy). His essential mission was to pray for the salvation of all souls. There were members of the clergy, such as bishops or some abbots, who were very powerful, since they owned land and servants and appointed knights who defended them. The priests and priests lived in humble rural parishes and the members of the mendicant orders, like the Franciscans, took vows of poverty.
- The Peasants: they were those who with their work maintained the privileged classes. They had no privileges and many obligations. They could be servants of a lord and be attached to his land (which they could not abandon) or free peasants. Servants had to pay taxes to the king, tithe to the Catholic Church and pay tribute in products or work to the lord of the land they worked. This sector also includes artisans such as blacksmiths or carpenters, who were both peasants, since they had to work the land to ensure their livelihood and that of their family.
The Catholic Church was the one that offered ideological legitimacy to this social hierarchy, by affirming that the orders or estates were commanded by God and, therefore, social borders that no one could cross.
Economy of the Feudal System
The feudal economy was rural and based on the extent of the land. In this scheme, the main economic activities were agriculture and livestock.
Each fiefdom was made up of well-defined sectors: the stately or dominical reserve, made up of the lord’s lands; the meek, that is, the lands that the serfs worked to obtain their own sustenance and that of their families; the allodios, which were the lands that belonged to the free peasants; and common pastures and forests, where cattle grazed. In the forests there used to be delimited sectors, called hunting grounds, where only the lord and his knights could access.
Each fiefdom was an economic unit that consumed almost everything it produced, since only the seeds necessary for the next sowing were separated. As there was no surplus production, trade was very limited (barter predominated) and there was practically no monetary circulation.
The End of Feudal System
In Western Europe, feudalism began to break down during the 14th century due to a combination of factors, including:
- The depletion of the fertility of the land, due to its constant use and despite the use of the crop rotation system.
- The repopulation of cities, from the increase in population that occurred since the 11th century.
- The spread of the bubonic plague that, between 1348 and 1353, killed a third of the European population. The high mortality affected mainly the peasants and left many fiefdoms without labor with which to work the land.
- The revitalization of trade promoted by the Crusades and by pilgrimages to holy places (Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela)
- The gradual rise of a new social sector, the bourgeoisie, which based its wealth on finance, sophisticated handicrafts (goldsmithing, watchmaking, etc.) and long-distance trade. The bourgeoisie gradually pressed for tolls to be reduced or abolished and to guarantee equality of standards in the territories where they carried out their work.
- The gradual concentration of power in the hands of the kings who, thanks to the economic help of wealthy bourgeoisie, managed to impose their authority on the local lords.
Entering the Modern Age, Western and Central Europe were already undergoing a slow transition from economic feudalism to capitalism and from feudal political fragmentation to monarchical absolutism . However, it was the French Revolution that at the end of the 18th century ended what was left of the feudal legal structures.