Feudalism in the Early Middle Ages


Feudalism, as a generalization, describes those forces in Western Europe during a period of transformation following the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The so-called “feudal society,” however, can refer to various elements of that transformation period, including social relationships, the economic and legal systems, and the impact of Christian influences. The notion of a feudal lord and his vassals, for example, is part of that overall system, although the specifics beyond generalizing must account for geographic differences as well as other factors.

Attempting to Define the Feudal “System”

Feudalism in France was different from feudalism in England, and this, according to medieval historians, may account for the eventual emergence of societies tied to different concepts of law, social relationships, and royal power. Hence, feudalism cannot be properly understood simply as a generalization or through the prism of independent historiography focusing solely on one aspect of the system.

A partially relevant example might be the discarded use of the term “Dark Ages” to label the period of the Early Middle Ages. In rudimentary form, feudalism was a part of those dark ages. But historical research demonstrated that the presuppositions governing the use of the term dark ages were false: Western Europe in the Early Middle Ages did experience a degree of learning; trade had not ceased and law prevailed – albeit a legal system influenced by the Church, the barbarians, and scraps of Roman law.

Historian Steven Ozment states that, “As large numbers populated the countryside, there evolved that peculiar fusion of Germanic, Roman, and Christian practices that we speak of today as “feudal society.’” Feudalism represented the relationship between lord and vassal. By the 9th and into the 10th Century, those relationships governed detailed obligations, often over-lapping between various lords, and defined by property, law, and inheritance.

Feudal Relationships and Obligations

Some historians note that the feudal system was like a pyramid. At the top was the king while the knight or chevalier was found at the bottom. The granting of land (a fief or benefice) entailed service to the lord. Tierney and Painter note that increased Viking raids following the death of Charlemagne in CE 814 may have contributed to the military aspects of the system in order to emphasize “locally improvised protection.”

Large armies that took time to organize were ineffectual against the swift raids of Vikings. Hence, early medieval communities relied on localized forces to combat the Vikings when they struck. But this is only one piece of the puzzle that made up the greater fabric of feudal obligations as they related to military and social considerations. This relationship was both complex and pliable, changing through the centuries and adapting to new constrictions such as a hereditary fief.

The obligations of a vassal to his lord involved fidelity and homage. Dante Alighieri, the great poet of the Middle Ages, reminds readers that the greatest sin was the act of treachery, the betrayal of one’s lord. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the lowest level of hell is occupied by Judas who betrayed Christ and Brutus who betrayed Julius Caesar. An early 12th Century account of the “murder of a feudal lord” includes the terrified statement of a young knight: “Heaven forbid that we should betray our lord and the count of our land…”

Vassals were bound by the contractual obligations that established feudal relationships. These obligations included military service, hospitality, castle defense, and payments to the lord during times of festivities. The lord not only provided land and servants (slaves, serfs, etc.) but was obligated to dispense justice. According to Alcuin of York, for example, Charlemagne heard “cases” every morning.

Feudal Obligations and the Christian Church

Within feudal society, the Church established legal principles such as laws concerning marriage (celibacy was always considered the more perfect way). While the church owned vast estates, her bishops and abbots as well as individual monastic communities were part of the system of obligations. Church corruption, until the coming of the Cluny reforms, was often tied to the sale of benefices, bishoprics, and other ecclesiastical offices.

According to Susan Reynolds, “The relation of a bishop or abbot and the tenants of his church’s land was different from the relation of a king or lord and his warriors…” Church land was always retained by the Church, impacting the role of its vassals, something Reynolds calls the “union of vassal and fief.” The differences of obligation also impacted legal principles, resulting in separate courts and, in later centuries, competing laws.

The Role of Feudalism in Building European Societies

Although termed “haphazard,” the feudal system, according to historians Tierney and Painter, reflected a “process of constructive state building.” Toward this end, the system of vassalage benefited and encouraged the rise of powerful lords and kings. At the same time, this evolving process may have also played a role in diminishing the overall authority of the Church. Such growing conflicts may be evidenced, for example, by the Investiture crisis, epitomized by the struggles between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire.

Feudalism is best understood from the many original source documents describing a system not equal to generalization of definition. Historians still debate to what extent certain changes reflected an evolving system at any given time. What is commonly understood, however, is that feudalism was a bridge between the remnant parts of the Roman Empire and the eventual emergence of a pre-modern or early modern European system in which the silhouettes of nation states and powerful rulers could be discerned.

Other differing factors include geographic placement as well as ecclesiastical influences. As recent historians note, this may point to a system vastly more complicated than the “three orders” typically used to simplify the feudal period. French historian Marc Bloch, for example, sees the term “feudalism” in respect to these transformations as “ill-chosen” in his work analyzing feudal society. Bloch’s analysis focuses on an explanation of “a social structure and its unifying principles.”

Feudalism is therefore a multifaceted term that, in its parts, encompasses a variety of elements. It is not solely defined in terms of fief and vassal but as a complex system that produced differing results not always identified simply through peasants and lords.