Monday, August 19, 2013

Feudalism: Life During the Middle-Ages

Diagram of a typical Feudal village

What is it that defines the middle-ages as the epoch that left its legacy on the Western world? When one thinks of the middle-ages, one tends to think of knights on horseback in combat, glorious battles of hallowed significant and decisiveness, clashes of civilizations through various crusades and diplomatic disputes, or even great kings with wisdom and sovereignty. As relevant as these aspects were in providing a description of this era, they simply don't do justice in explaining to the common man exactly how a medieval society orated itself geopolitically and interdependently. The middle-ages, like any age, is a historical period that exhibits more than meets the eye.  It is an age riddled with inflated loyalties, clerical powers of the church combating the invading warriors, and constant threats from neighbouring political entities. Initiated through the Germanic invasion, leading down to humble beginnings of principalities and local political entities, a complex system of relationships between the aristocrats and laymen began to emerge. This would become the standard form of political systems throughout western Europe until the high middle-ages, starting with William the Norman in England in 1066 A.D after the battle of Hastings, in conjunction with the fall of the Carolingian empire; feudalism slowly began to catch on throughout continental Europe and would encompass the early kingdoms of Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. As a homogenous mixture of Latin and Germanic traditions, feudalism was the practical and sensible blend of systems that formed the cornerstone of medieval society because of its robust social, economic, and relationship purposes. With this important characteristic of western-medieval Europe, feudalism, a medieval society functioned well enough to govern itself territorially and locally, and assuming that the people accept their natural order, it would continue to be a dominant system of politics throughout the middle-ages which would restore much of the nostalgic post-western Roman world to order through its prevalence.

            With part of its origins in barbaric society, feudalism fostered a much different social system than that of its Roman counter-part; this was known as a literal clash of civilizations. Normally, the Roman Empire held citizenship rights, along with documented laws, and a social ladder listed roughly in the following ascending order: slaves, plebeians, military men, aristocrats, generals, and emperors et cetera. With a centralized government, the Roman public was ultimately at the will of the Senate and Caesar, and with a complex taxation system, the government worked for the people, along with the public's mutual contributions to labour and production.

Barbaric Warrior paying homage to Julius Caesar in conquered Gual 

  The Germanic barbarians fashioned their social order much differently. With their social structure resembling mostly a tribal society, along with more dispersed and smaller clans, they had less need for centralized government rather a much suitable need for warriors and homemakers. The warriors were the ruling class in Germanic societies; they were at the top of the societal hierarchy, for they were the ones that plundered, processed, and provided for their tribes and clans. Overall, it is important to note the differences in societal structures of these two unique cultures: for with feudalism assuming direct control of Western Europe, certain characteristics of how both a Roman society and a barbaric society functioned, were adopted into the system itself.

            From a societal point of view, Feudalism had an important influence on the lives of those who were part of this medieval system of government. The social order was matched with a hierarchy that reflected previous characteristics of both Roman and Germanic societies, where the ruling class made their influence through special aristocrats known as the lords. The lords, who were made up of 3-10% of the population, held military powers that are linked by personal relationships to their followers. Lords also possessed keen high judicial responsibilities which dealt with the law of the land. The followers of the lords were known as vassals, who just as the lords themselves were also military men. Lords had the commanding powers to grant land (in the form of a fief, which was a gift in the form of territory) along with protection to their vassals.[1] The vassal's job was quite simple: they had to provide aid and service to the lord, mostly in the form of military service as well as a few minor tasks such as to take part in the lord's ceremonies, attendance in the lord's court, and providing him with counsel. On this fief that the vassal was granted, remained the other non-aristocratic 90% of the population which were known as the peasants. Some of these peasants were bound to their land permanently which were known as serfs. But from a larger perspective these peasants were under the rule of their vassals and were primarily responsible to provide a percentage of their revenue of what they reaped every year to their vassals. 

It was often the vassal's job to protect his fief against quarreling neighbors

 In return, the vassals would provide the peasants with protection, thus establishing a mutual exchange system with one depending on the other. In the case of over production of goods on the part of the peasant, they would have the privilege to sell their surpluses in their county's market. The importance of the functions of this feudal system were illustrated through its prevalence among its participants. It was a relatively well balanced social system that insured the roles of its members were fulfilled through course duty. The ruling class was meant to rule and protect, much like the peasant classes were destined to execute their responsibilities; and this was the nature of things concerning the societal order of feudalism.

            The role that feudalism had on economics during the middle-ages was quite simple in the big picture. This was partially due to the fact that there was little amount of centralized governance, like in the Roman empire, where there was need for a stronger and more prevalent taxation system along with new trading necessities. Whereas in the age of feudalism, there was no real need for all that was just mentioned before, with feudalism there was the one economic code, and the code is simple: peasants, who are provided with land to work on along with protection from the vassals, are to give a portion of their revenues to the vassal as a sort of rent to the tenure. How this was more practical was due to its roots in Germanic tradition. It is seen as more symbolic and interpersonal to give a gift of something which you produced on your own then to give money, thereby making feudal economic exchange more personal because the system put great emphasis on relationships with the lords, vassals, and peasants rather than employment or mercenary contracts. Feudalism, in a time of prosperity, allowed peasants to become small-scale entrepreneurs. Since the rate of taxation was fixed, the peasant was allowed to reap profit in a time of prosperity by selling their products, as previously mentioned, at a local market. [2] In due time, the importance of feudalism would later be unveiled; for with the prosperity of the peasants' labour in union with the protection that came from vassals and lords, came unyielding opportunity in both skills and trade and the makings of new society of merchant, craftsmen, and lawyer classes.

            Now we come to the most important yet somehow popularly unknown aspects of feudalism that in a sense, fueled its relevance and prestige, and that is none other than the relationship aspect of feudalism. This was the glue that held medieval society in an equilibrium that orated processions and rights of passages primarily among the lords and vassals. The way in which the act of homage was described between the lords and vassals was known through personal dependency.[3] Often initiated through a ceremony, the man which the lord elected to be his follower had to kneel before the lord, placing his hands between the hands of his lord, often followed by a pledge that symbolized a mutual contract of fealty. Through this procession, the aspects of submission, loyalty, and a sense of family are shown to develop which added to the whole paradigm of interdependency in these feudal links. The legitimacy of this ceremony of bestowment of vassalage was observed through a sacrament of sorts. The vassal would swear to honor and serve his lord with God being his holy witness, for the vassal would make this oath with his hand on the relics or a Bible; followed by a kiss of peace.[4] 

A lord appointing a Vassal through the symbolic procession of placing his hands between the lord's

 Among many factors that made feudalism such a connection-affiliated system, hospitality was one of those factors that was seen as something that served as a mender of fellowship between the lords and vassals. Vassals had the duty of housing the lord during his visit, and provide accommodations not only to him, but also to his entourage.  This gave leeway for the vassal to show to the lord what he has done with the land that he received from him, and to develop favor among his courtship. It is also common knowledge that if the vassals and the lords had successors such as daughters or sons, they had the right to intermarry with the other lords' or vassals' offspring, thereby contributing greatly to the continuity of lineage and networks in this feudal society. Treading to the lower end of personal networks, the relationship between vassal and peasant was seen as trivial. In a general sense, the upper classes barely noticed the peasants- except as a sources of labor and revenue.[5] However, despite this patronizing factor, the vassals, as previously mentioned, made it their life duty to protect their fiefs and their peasant inhabitants to the best of their abilities. In return of course the peasants personally provided for the vassals in the form of the products of their land such as crops or live-stock. In an age of battles and conquest, there had to exist a set of systems and principles that balanced out the hostility, and in its place, erected fellowships that united the people through personal networks and bondage. With feudalism, this was a possibility, and it would prove to be a necessary good in respect to its attributes to relationship building in medieval societies.

            The affects that feudalism had during the middle-ages was prevalent in all corners of early western culture. It served as a system for society to mark the natural order of how links between the lords, vassals and peasants functioned amongst each other. Not to mention how influential the feudal governing system structured its economics to favor both the labourers and the receivers/protectors. And it played an important role in the procession of networking along with personal relationships amongst its participants. All in all, how feudalism impacted the middle-ages was in no way a minor convenience. The middle-ages had its legacy demonstrated in history. But feudalism completely structured virtually all aspects of lay society and transcended the actions, transactions, and interactions of its members.

[1] Western Europe From 5th-15th Century Reader, page 22
[2]  Rosenwein, B. page 157
[3]  Rosenwein, B. page 156
[4]  Rosenwein, B.  page 157
[5]  Rosenwein, B.  page 157

Rosenwein, B. (2009). A Short History of the Middle Ages (3rd ed.). Toronto, ON: University of   Toronto Press.
Fianu, K. Western Europe From the 5th to the 15th Century. Primary Source

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