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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.

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,

15 Feudalism Facts

Below are 15 facts about Feudalism.

  1. The Feudal Period Began in the 9th Century
  2. Feudalism Arrived in England in 1066
  3. Feudal Economies are Based on Land Ownership
  4. Your Position in Society was Fixed for Life
  5. The King was Top Dog
  6. You Were Expected to Fight For the King When Requested
  7. Medieval Kings Believed That Their Right to Rule Came From God
  8. The Catholic Church Also Had Political Power
  9. Barons Ruled Areas Known as Fiefs
  10. Knights Were Given Land in Return for Military Service
  11. Manors Were Run by Lords
  12. The Majority of People Were Peasants or Serfs
  13. Some Peasants Ran Businesses
  14. Feudalism Lasted Longer in Eastern Europe
  15. There Were Multiple Reasons Why Feudalism Ended

I will explain each fact in more detail below.

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.

1. The Feudal Period Began in the 9th Century

Feudalism 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

The defeat of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold at the battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror of Normandy led to a full scale invasion. England was then ruled by William and his barons, and a feudal system being imposed upon the country.

3. Feudal Economies are Based on Land Ownership

There is an element of free market economics in that surplus goods produced could be exchanged for other goods or sold for currency. Feudalism brought with it a judicial system, which provided lots of rights for barons and lords, but far less rights for serfs and peasants.

4. Your Position in Society was Fixed for Life

Feudalism 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. The King was Top Dog

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.

6. You Were Expected to Fight For the King When Requested

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 Came From God

This gave them both a political and religious legitimacy. It derives from a particular metaphysical framework in which a monarch is pre-ordained to inherit the crown prior to their birth.

8. The Catholic Church Also Had Political Power

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. Barons Ruled Areas Known as Fiefs

The barons had a lot of power. They split local control of their 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.

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

— John Boyle O'Reilly

10. Knights Were Given Land in Return for Military Service

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.

11. Manors Were Run by Lords

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. The Majority of People Were Peasants or Serfs

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.

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.

13. Some Peasants Ran Businesses

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. Feudalism Lasted Longer in Eastern Europe

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.

15. There Were Multiple Reasons Why Feudalism Ended

Many pressures came to bear on Feudalism, including disease, economic, and political. In England, for instance, Feudalism was eventually ended by 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Paul Goodman

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