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15 Facts About Feudalism

Since graduating university, Paul has worked as a bookseller, librarian, and educator. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida.

Feudalism was an was a fascinating social and economic system to live under, read on for 15 interesting facts...

Feudalism was an was a fascinating social and economic system to live under, read on for 15 interesting facts...

Feudalism was a land based economic system that combined certain social and legal customs in Europe during the Middle Ages.

Feudal society was split into strict hierarchies with each group having obligations and expectations from the groups above and below them.

At a basic level, the local lord and manor of a local community owned all the land and everything in it. He would provide his peasants with safety in return for their service.

The lord of the land, in return, was obliged to provide the king with soldiers or taxes when requested.

Below are 15 facts about Feudalism.

15 Feudalism Facts

  1. Feudalism began in the 9th century in Western and Central Europe.
  2. It began in England with the Norman invasion in 1066.
  3. Feudal economies are based on land ownership. The legal system revolves around a strict social order.
  4. Your position in society, be it serf, peasant, baron, lord, or royalty was fixed for life.
  5. The leader of a feudal society was the king, who split up the control of his territories between barons.
  6. Men could be "called to arms" at times of war by the king and were expected to be available to fight for forty day.
  7. Medieval Kings believed that their right to rule came from God.
  8. The Catholic Church was very wealthy and politically powerful in Medieval Europe.
  9. Barons ruled large areas of land known as fiefs. They split local control of land among lords who ran individual manors.
  10. Knights were given land by lords and they guarded the lord and his family. In times of war, knights fought for the king.
  11. Lords owned everything in their manor, the peasants, crops, and buildings, as well as the land.
  12. Most people who lived in feudal societies were peasants or serfs, they lived tough lives and usually died young.
  13. Some European feudal peasants had their own businesses and worked as carpenters, bakers, and blacksmiths.
  14. The feudal system had pretty much disappeared from Western Europe by the year 1500 AD, but it continued for much longer in Eastern Europe.
  15. There are three main reasons why the feudal system ended: the Black Death, the replacement of a land-based economy with a money based one, and the establishment of a centralized government.

I will explain each fact in more detail below.

1. The Feudal period began in the 9th century in Western and Central Europe and then spread to other parts of the continent. It ended in the 15th century in Western Europe, but elements of feudalism continued for longer in Eastern Europe.

2. Feudalism arrived in England in 1066 after the Anglo-Saxon King Harold was defeated by William the Conqueror from Normandy at the battle of Hastings. It led to a full scale invasion, with England being ruled by William and his barons, and a feudal system being imposed upon the country.

Image from the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror (also sometimes referred to as William the Bastard) with his half-brothers. William is in the center, Odo is on the left with nothing in his hands, Robert is on the right holding a sword,

Image from the Bayeux Tapestry showing William the Conqueror (also sometimes referred to as William the Bastard) with his half-brothers. William is in the center, Odo is on the left with nothing in his hands, Robert is on the right holding a sword,

3. Feudalism brought with it a land-based economy, and a judicial system with lots of rights for barons and lords, but far less rights for serfs and peasants.

The Château de Falaise in France.  Castles were an effective way to provide protection for people and wealth.  In particular they provided safety to the lord, his family, and his servants and as a refuge place from rampaging enemy armies.

The Château de Falaise in France. Castles were an effective way to provide protection for people and wealth. In particular they provided safety to the lord, his family, and his servants and as a refuge place from rampaging enemy armies.

4. The system had a very strict hierarchy where everyone knew their place. You were born into your social position, whether you were royalty, a baron, lord, knight, serf, or peasant, and you kept that position until you died.

5. At the top of the pyramid in the feudal social hierarchy was the king. The king could not control all his land by himself in practice, however, so the territories were split between barons, who pledged allegiance to the king. When the king died, his firstborn son would inherit the throne.

With the advance of feudalism came the growth of iron armor, until, at last, a fighting-man resembled an armadillo.

— John Boyle O'Reilly

6. At times of war, when the king needed an army, there would be a "call to arms" and troops were raised by the Feudal Levy. Men were generally expected to fight for 40 days (although under certain circumstances this could be extended to 90 days). The limited time period was meant to make sure that the land would not be neglected for too long.

Effigy of King Henry III in Westminster Abbey c. 1272. The king was at the very pinnacle of the social order under the feudal system. He relied on barons to rule his lands on his behalf, however, with the barons swearing allegiance to him in return.

Effigy of King Henry III in Westminster Abbey c. 1272. The king was at the very pinnacle of the social order under the feudal system. He relied on barons to rule his lands on his behalf, however, with the barons swearing allegiance to him in return.

7. Medieval kings believed that their right to rule was divine, that's to say, given to them by God.

Manuscript illumination dating around 1490 showing Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont (1095), where he preached the First Crusade.  The catholic church and the papacy were very powerful in the feudal period, often rivaling or usurping royalty.

Manuscript illumination dating around 1490 showing Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont (1095), where he preached the First Crusade. The catholic church and the papacy were very powerful in the feudal period, often rivaling or usurping royalty.

8. The Catholic Church was very powerful in the majority of Medieval Europe and the only real rival to the power of the king. The representatives of the church were the bishops, who each managed an area called a diocese. As well as having political power, the church also received a ten percent tithe from everyone, making some bishops incredibly rich.

9. The barons ruled large areas of land known as fiefs and had a lot of power. They split local control of land among lords who ran individual manors. The barons were usually expected to maintain an army that the king could use when required. If they did not have an army, often they would instead pay the king a tax known as shield money.

10. Knights were allotted land by lords on the understanding that they would undertake military service when requested by the king. They also had a duty to guard the lord and his family, plus the manor, from attack. The knights used as much of the land as they wanted for themselves and gave the rest to serfs. Knights were the lowest level of the feudal elite, they were not as wealthy as lords, but still relatively rich.

English and French knights fighting at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. The king could call on his barons to form an army at times of war. Knights and nobility would normally be mounted on horses, while the peasantry went to war on foot.

English and French knights fighting at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. The king could call on his barons to form an army at times of war. Knights and nobility would normally be mounted on horses, while the peasantry went to war on foot.

11. Under feudalism, the local manors were run by lords. Lords could be called up for war by their controlling baron. The lords owned everything in their manor, including the peasants, crops, and buildings, as well as the actual land.

12. Most people who lived under the feudal system were peasants or serfs. They owned nothing and worked hard, six days a week, often struggling to get enough food to feed their families. Many died before the age of thirty.

Japanese Feudalism

Some people use the term "feudalism" to describe the social system of Japan from the medieval period up until the late 19th century.

At the top of the system in Japan were the Daimyo, the large landowners.

Underneath them were the Samurai. In times of conflict, they formed the warrior class, in peacetime most Samurai served as bureaucrats.

Many historians think that the term feudalism should not be used for Japan, however, as there are too many differences from the European version.

Photo of a Samurai with a sword, taken around 1860.  The Samurai were the warrior class in the Japanese social system and beneath the large land owners in the social hierarchy.

Photo of a Samurai with a sword, taken around 1860. The Samurai were the warrior class in the Japanese social system and beneath the large land owners in the social hierarchy.

13. Some European feudal peasants ran their own businesses and were considered free, such as carpenters, bakers, and blacksmiths. Others were essentially slaves. All had to pledge themselves to the local lord.

14. By the year 1500, feudalism had pretty much disappeared in most of Western Europe, but it continued in parts of Eastern Europe right up into the middle of the 19th century with Russia not abolishing serfdom until 1861.

The First World War, and especially the latest one, largely swept away what was left in Europe of feudalism and of feudal landlords, especially in Poland, Hungary, and the South East generally.

— Emily Greene Balch

15. Feudalism declined for a number of reasons. In England, for instance, the causes included the devastation and upheaval caused by the Black Death, the evolution from a land-based economy to a money based one, and the establishment of a centralized government.

Victims of the bubonic plague in a mass grave in Martigues, France.  The Black Death was one of the the most devastating pandemics in human history. It arrived in Europe in 1347 and played a part in bringing about the end of Feudalism.

Victims of the bubonic plague in a mass grave in Martigues, France. The Black Death was one of the the most devastating pandemics in human history. It arrived in Europe in 1347 and played a part in bringing about the end of Feudalism.

© 2015 Paul Goodman

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