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Medieval European Society ca. 1000 A.D.
"Feudal" relationships, rights, and duties - political, military, legal arrangements
Because of the great danger posed by the Viking, Saracen, and Magyar invasions of the 9th century, and the
powerlessness of the kings to be everywhere at every time, Europeans began to reorganize their societies for purposes of
protection. Among the aristocrats, a variety of relationships had developed by the year 1000 which were based on land in
exchange for military service. A powerful lord, who had a great deal of land, granted part of his land to a lesser lord who
in turn fought in his army when called upon. This lesser lord was also an aristocrat, and he was called a vassal.
The exchange of land for military service was often made official in a ceremony called homage. During this ceremony, the
vassal kneeled in front of the lord, placed his hands between his lord's hands, and took an oath of loyalty. The relationship
was meant to be a reciprocal one. As long as the vassal was faithful to his lord, he could keep the land. But the lord had
to act faithfully toward the vassal as well, and help him with the settlement of legal disputes. Otherwise the whole deal
was off, and the vassal could rightfully attack the lord.
The development of these relationships between lords and vassals has long been called "feudalism" or even "the feudal
system." But in recent years, modern historians have come to question and even reject the use of these terms. What's
important to know is that these relationships were not systematic, and there was tremendous variation in political
arrangements across Europe. Not all parts of Europe developed these relationships, and the terms "feudal" or
"feudalism" are best used to describe what happened in much of France during the 9th and 10th centuries. It probably
also fits England after 1066, when the French duke, William the Conqueror, became king of England and superimposed
feudal elements upon English society. But even then there was a great deal of variety because of the local, personal, and
usually unwritten nature of these relationships. Meanwhile, in Germany and Italy there were fewer signs of feudal
arrangements. (Which is something to keep in mind when we study the Italian Renaissance.)
That said, "feudal" is a term we will use in this class (along with "feudalism") because it's a handy one, and because it's in
such widespread use today both in schools and in popular knowledge.
Manorial relationships, rights and duties - social and economic underpinnings
Often lumped together with "feudalism" are the relationships between nobles and peasants. And certainly relationships
between lords and vassals were often intertwined with relations between nobles and peasants. But it's actually more
accurate, and less confusing, to describe the mutual relationships between lords and peasants as "manorial" or as part of
"manorialism." Here's how these relationships arose.
In the late Roman world most peasants were free; that is, they owned their land and had rights more or less equal to
others in society. But over time and as a result of the 5th century Germanic invasions and the later 9th century invasions,
peasants began to turn over their land to the nobles in exchange for their protection. Also over time, these arrangements
became hereditary; that is, the nobles held onto the land even though the peasants and their descendents continued to
live there.
Thus by about 1000 A.D., most European peasants had become serfs. Serfs were not slaves, but they were tied to the
land and their lord, legally obligated to him and unable to move away. But like the feudal relationships among aristocrats,
manorial relationships were also reciprocal. Lords spent most of their time fighting, training to fight, settling legal disputes,
and administering their lands. That's why they depended upon the serfs to farm the land, providing the lord with food and
a variety of other services and fees. For instance, serfs had to pay for such things as the use of the lord's mill, and they
were to help with repairs of village assets, such as roads and bridges. In exchange for their labor, the peasants received
the lord's protection. They also had a right to his justice, even serving in peasant courts to hear cases concerning their
fellow peasants, and they had a right to plots of land on which they grew their own food. While they didn't have equal
rights to the nobles, they did have rights.
"Manorialism," as you can probably guess, is based on the word "manor." We tend to think of a manor as a house or
estate. But in the Middle Ages, a manor was the plot of land held by a lord or vassal. Often lords held more than one
manor in the countryside.
Like the peasants, the clergy survived the collapse of the Roman Empire and the invasions of the 5th and 9th centuries
by forming reciprocal relationships with lords and peasants. In exchange for the clergy's prayers, lords gave them
protection and peasants often provided them food and other services. So the clergy, too, along with the churches and
monasteries in which they served, were integrated into th web of feudal and manorial relationships, just like the lords and
peasants. Lords also donated land to churches and monasteries for the clergy's prayers for their souls and as an offering
to God for the forgiveness of sins. Thus as a whole, the Church came to own a considerable amount of land.
As the center of European society shifted to the countryside after the collapse of the Roman Empire, cities still existed ca.
1000. But they were under-populated, with no central political or economic function, except in Italy where cities remained
more vibrant (and less feudal) during the Middle Ages.
Meanwhile how did medieval people view themselves around the year 1000? They thought of themselves as part of what
they called The Three Orders: those who fight (the lords), those who pray (the clergy), and those who labor (the
peasants).
Just to make things more confusing, a manor was not necessarily the same thing as a village, that is, a village might be
divided into one or more manors. Unfortunately, it's just kind of hard to generalize too much about medieval culture--it
really was a very diverse and complex society.
Also, the above descriptions of feudal and manorial relationships describe how things were supposed to be. Of course,
as we know from our own society, things didn't always work the way they were supposed to, with conflicts, disputes, and
corruption occurring at times.