Feudalism Essay, Research Paper
The system of feudalism was developed gradually between the eighth and eleventh centuries. It grew up in an age of disorder, when the central government was helpless to protect their people. It s beginnings can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Roman Empire. In the early feudal stage, when a freeman gave up his title to his land he became the lord s “man” and promised him his loyalty. For the most part, feudalism involved only the noble classes. The system rested, however, on the work of the serfs, or villeins, who supported the lords and their knights. Officially the serfs were “unfree.” They, however, were not the property of other people, like slaves. They were bound to the land and not to any particular lord who held it in fief. They could not leave the place where they were born; but neither could the lord send them away.
Feudalism had five major sections to it. First there was the king, who was above all. Then in descending order came the lord, vassal, knight, and then finally the peasants. Each part or section had their own set of responsibilities for another, which was the basis of feudalism. The most important of which was the relationship between the king and his lord and then between the lord and his vassal. The only real job that a king had was to keep his people safe and to be fair to them if they were deserving. If they served him well, then they would get his protection in return. The lord and the vassal s relationship had a lot more to it.
The lord – vassal relationship at all levels always constituted an honorable relationship between free men and did not imply any sense of servitude. Since kings could no longer provide security in the midst of the breakdown created by the invasions of the ninth century, the system of subinfeudalism became ever more widespread. While a fief was a landed estate held from the lord by a vassal in return for military service, vassals holding such grants of land came to exercise rights of jurisdiction or political and legal authority within these fiefs. Fief – holding also became increasingly complicated as subinfeudalism developed. The vassals of a king, who themselves were great lords, might also have vassals who would owe them military service in return for a grant of land from their estates. Those vassals, in turn, might also have vassals, who at such a level would be simple knights with barely enough land to provide their equipment.
Since the basic objective of the fief – holding was to provide military support, it was no surprise to learn that the major obligation of a vassal to his lord was to perform military service. In addition to his own personal service, a great lord was also responsible for providing a group of knights for the king s army. Also, vassals had to furnish suit at court; this would mean that a vassal was obliged to appear at his lord s court when summoned, either to give advice to the lord or to sit in judgment in a legal case since the important vassals of a lord were peers and only they could judge each other. Many vassals were also obliged to provide hospitality for their lord when he stayed at a vassal s castle. This obligation was especially important to medieval kings because they tended to be highly itinerant.
Finally, vassals were responsible for aids, or financial payments, to the lord upon a number of occasions. Among them was the knighting of the lord s eldest son, the marriage of his eldest daughter, and the ransom of the lord s person if the lord had been captured.
In return, a lord had certain responsibilities toward his vassal. His major task was to protect his vassal, either by defending him militarily or by taking his side in a court of law if necessary. The lord was also responsible for the maintenance of the vassal, usually granting him a fief. As this system of mutual obligations between lord and vassal evolved, certain practices became common. If a lord acted improperly toward his vassal, the bond between them could be dissolved. Likewise, if a vassal failed to fulfill his vow of loyalty, he was subject to forfeiture of his fief. Upon, a vassal s death, his fief theoretically reverted back to the lord since it had been granted to him to use, not to own as a possession.
A vassal might take the oath of fealty to numerous overlords, who did not necessarily owe fealty to one another. Thus the system led to endless conflict. In spite of the incessant turmoil, there was progress in commerce and industry, and money came into increasing use. As towns grew in wealth and importance, the feudal system became intolerable. The new middle class, as well as the church, wanted law and order and supported the king. Larger revenues enabled kings to maintain national standing armies. Also, at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War armored knights on horseback yielded to foot soldiers armed with pikes and longbows. Then gunpowder came into general use, making the great stone castles conquerable. In the 14th century, before the Middle Ages ended, national states were taking the place of feudal governments.