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Feudalism in Medieval Europe

When people think of the Middle Ages, all sorts of images might be conjured up. It might be Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone duelling in ‘Robin Hood’. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, it might be Graham Chapman as King Arthur in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. (By the way, there were no anarcho-syndicalist communes in the Middle Ages. Sorry to disappoint.) Stories about the Middle Ages are full of tales of chivalry, of brave knights riding off to rescue damsels in distress, of the strong upholding the rights of the weak. Unfortunately, such tales have as much basis in reality as anarcho-syndicalist communes.

The Middle Ages was a class-based society just like the present day. Like now, the surplus labour of the many was extracted for the benefit of the few. Like now, it was a brutal, misogynistic society. Like now, religion was used to underpin and justify the exploitation and the violence that went along with it. It was used to give the system a gloss it neither earned nor deserved.

However, the class system—feudalism— was fundamentally different to that which is in place today—capitalism. Capitalism is the rule of bosses—the owners of factories, mines, banks and so on. In theory, there were three distinct groups—known as estates—within the feudal society. There were the nobles—those who fought, the clergy—those who prayed, and the serfs—those who worked. These divisions were said to be immutable and ordained by God. In reality, feudalism was the rule of a hereditary nobility.

According to the nobility and clergy, a serf agreed to work in the lord’s fields in return for receiving the lord’s protection. In fact, a serf was legally tied to the lord’s land. A serf could not move elsewhere without the lord’s permission. If a serf wanted to get married, he had to get the lord’s permission. If serfs wanted their grain ground, they had to do so at the lord’s mill and to pay the lord for the privilege.

What did the lord give in return? Nothing. They were too busy fighting other lords to offer any protection. That was because, like all class-based societies, one section of the nobility was looking to expand its share of the spoils while, at the same time, making sure that another section did not do the same thing to it.

So feudalism was a brutal, at times barbaric society. Hence, the constant warfare between sections of the ruling class. That is why the Crusades were fought and why, with the sole exception of the First Crusade, they were unsuccessful. The crusaders spent more time fighting each other than the Muslims. But that will be the topic of a future blog.

Despite the claims of immutability and divine ordering, feudalism was a system riven with contradictions and, as a consequence, one that evolved and changed over the centuries.

At its core, it was a system where a noble held his land as the vassal of his liege lord. That is, he—it was very, very rarely she—was subservient to his overlord. However, he could own one parcel of land as the vassal of one liege lord and another parcel as the vassal of another lord who was the enemy of the first. That, of course, put him in a contradictory position.

Equally, he could hold lands in fealty to a lord but use the strength of his position to claim the lands were rightfully his alone. For example, Henry II of England ruled the County of Anjou as a vassal of Louis VII of France. Louis also made him Count of Normandy in recognition of Henry’s claim to rule Normandy through his position as successor to William the Bastard (the Conqueror) as king of England. At the same time, he ruled Aquitaine through his marriage to Eleanor—who happened to be Louis’ ex-wife. Henry refuted Louis’ claims to Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine and made good his position through the strength of his army. The wars they fought were to be re-fought many times over in the centuries to come.

It was an unstable system and could only survive while there was nothing to challenge it. It could maintain the illusion of immutability while movements like peasant uprisings could be crushed. However, lower down, change was in motion. The 11th and 12th centuries witnessed the rise of towns. At first, they were established and ruled under a charter from the local lord. However, successful towns soon challenged that rule. As they grew, they became centres of capital accumulation independent of the lord’s control and thus rivals with the nobility for political power. This was especially true of the cloth towns of Flanders, towns that hosted important trade fairs like Troyes in Champagne, and the city-states of Italy like Florence, Genoa and Venice. To a lesser extent, it was true of the towns of southern France that profited from trade around the Mediterranean Sea.

The shift in political control was helped along by the fact that wars are expensive affairs. Nobles took out loans to pay for their military adventures, both offensive and defensive. Those loans hung over the nobles’ heads and could be—and were—used to extract concessions. ‘We’ll loan you money—or extend the term of a loan—provided you…’ Then a list of conditions was placed before the lord. If the lord did not agree, the money was not forthcoming.

The towns played another important role. There was a saying: ‘town air is free air’. I mentioned earlier that a serf was legally tied to the lord’s land. However, there was another law. It stated that if a serf could escape and avoid recapture for a year and a day then he or she was free. While there was nowhere to escape to but another lord’s estate the law was little more than a legal fiction. With the rise of the towns, there was now somewhere to escape to and hide. The merchants and master craftsmen that ran the towns loved the situation. Runaway serfs were a source of cheap labour. They were unskilled so they could be paid a lot less than artisans. That meant they could be more ruthlessly exploited.

So feudalism was a system in flux. It would take centuries of gestation for a new class to arise that could challenge the nobility for power. During those centuries, there were many skirmishes as both sides—the nobility and a nascent capitalist class—flexed their muscles.

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