Rise of Western European Feudalism

feudalismThe rise of Feudalism as it is known today, began in the late 8th – early 9th Century A.D. in Gaul (France). The Frankish Empire had been dissoluted recently, and it was now a collection of squabbling Barons, Lords and Nobles, warring for land and attempting to unite the Empire beneath them. Charlemagne, an ambitious young Noble, saw this squabbling and had a desire to end it. However, Charlemagne was faced with a problem: the Frankish civilians were unwilling to be united, and the Barons, Lords and Nobles would listen to no one man. How then, was Charlemagne to secure their loyalty?

After the collaspse of the Roman Empire, the money system as it was known collapsed, and thus money was a useless commodity. Hence, Charlemagne could not buy the loyalties of the Barons. Charlemagne devised a plan and raised an army. He marched into a Baron’s lands, defeating him and gaining control. However, rather than leaving it at that and marching onwards, he offered the land back to the Baron in return for his loyalty, some revenue and more troops for his army. The Baron accepted, and onwards Charlemagne marched, his army bolstered and backed with funds. The next Baron fell, and was offered back his lands, accepting once again, and so on… soon he had united the lands beneath with a Feudal system keeping things under control. Hence, the previous money based economy was replaced with a land based economy.

With Charlemagne being successful in his consolidation of all the lands, he now lorded over the entire realm of the Franks and had hardly any work to do. However, the Barons were now presented with the same problems, similar to Charlemagne: how to keep the populace under control, and how to recruit troops without causing dissent. The solution: Lords; but again, the Lords were faced with problems of their own, and so the Feudal chain was created:

  • King/Emperor: The King/Emperor was at the top. He owned all the lands in the realm and controlled the armies.
  • Barons: Barons were given a fiefdom by the King/Emperor, and although they did not own it, they controlled it and could do what they wished with it. In return, they recruited troops for the King’s/Emperor’s army and were required to give the King a place to stay as he travelled.
  • Lords: Lords, Knights chosen by the Barons, were given a castle to live in, and dominion over the area around them. In return they sent the Barons one of their best Knights (that would in turn be sent to the King/Emperor), and would appoint tax collectors for the Barons. They were required to collect the taxes of produce from the peasents and send them to the King.
  • Villeins: Villeins were serfs chosen by the Lords to live on a plot of land near their castle. They did not own the land, and could not sell it, but they had a better life than your average serf. In return they worked on the Lord’s manor.
  • Serfs: Serfs were not given any land, they were tied to the land they were born on and they were required to work for their Lords. During times of war they were conscripted into the peasent militia with little more than some leather armour (if any) and a common farming implement as a weapon.

At the top, the King/Emperor lived an easy life, often travelling the country side to make his presence known, he never stayed in one area long however. The Barons prospored, Lords were fairly well off, but Villeins were downtrodden, and Serfs were utterly oppressed. In principle, the Feudal system worked because it was a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” system. The Lords were generous enough to allow Serfs and Villains to live on their lands, so they had to work, the Barons were generous enough to give the Lord’s castles, so they had to keep control and send money and knights, and the King/Emperor was generous enough to allow the Barons’ fiefdoms, so they had to bolster his army and pay him his dues. Since all the lower classes did was work for the upper classes, they were supposed to be provided for by the upper classes. This usually wasn’t the case, however.

Serfs were expected to go to war, and their Lords were expected to outfit them. The only problem was, it is much easier to outfit hundreds of peasents with old leather armour, than newer ring mail or chain mail. Similarly, rather than spending time to ensure that the Serfs’ did not live in squalor, it was much easier to simply ensure they had a dwelling, and to leave it at that. Thus, the Feudal system only worked for short periods of time, and wasn’t very productive. Over time, the lower classes would become restless unless something was done to keep them in control, and there was always problems with succession in a Feudal system. This is shown with the collapse of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire and its division into three kingdoms.

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