Features of Feudalism

Feudal practices varied in different regions of Europe and at different times. The features of feudalism listed below are characteristic of 11th- and 12th-century France, and are considered typical.

Lord and Vassal

The feudal hierarchy was an arrangement of rank resembling a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. In the feudal relationship the king was the suzerain, or lord, of a group of dukes and counts who were his vassals. Each of these vassals was in turn lord to lesser vassals, who had even less important vassals. At the bottom of the pyramid were the knights, who had no vassals.

Lord and vassal owed certain obligations to each other. The vassal pledged to perform certain services for his lord, and in return the lord granted him a fief, or fee.(The fief was also called a feud, or feod, from which historians derived the term feudalism.)

The Fief

A fief was anything that was considered useful or valuable. Usually, a fief was a piece of land, jurisdiction over the peasants who lived on the land, and ownership of the goods they produced. All fiefs were technically owned by the king, but a vassal held, in effect, all the rights of ownership of the fief as long as he performed the services required by his lord. (This method of holding another's land is called feudal tenure.) The entire kingdom was divided into fiefs, except for the land held by the king personally.

Feudal tenure was hereditary. When a vassal died, his heir did homagefor his fief and swore an oath of fealtyto his lord, promising to be faithful and render service. In the ceremony of investiture, the lord handed his vassal some symbol—such as a sword or a clod of earth—in token of title, and promised to defend the vassal's fief.

If a vassal died leaving a minor heir, the lord usually became the guardian of the fief and managed it. If the heir was an unmarried daughter, the lord could select a husband for her because only a male could perform the services of the fief.

Feudal Services

The services that a vassal owed his lord varied, but the following were common:

  • Military, or Knight, Service. A vassal was expected to serve his lord in war. Usually he served 40 days a year at his own expense if engaged in an offensive action against his lord's enemy. In a defensive action the term of service was unlimited. A knight was expected to furnish only his horse and armor, but great vassals had to supply hundreds of knights and men-at-arms.
  • Court Service. Vassals had to serve, when summoned, in the lord's court. They were called upon to give the lord advice. They also met in assembly to settle disputes between vassals. This was the origin of the principle of trial by a jury of peers, or equals. (Commonly, however, disputes between vassals were settled by combat.) Vassals were also summoned for ceremonial occasions, such as investitures.
  • Financial Obligations. They included:
  • A relief, or gift, to the lord when the fief passed to an heir. It amounted usually to a year's income.
  • Aids, payments made by vassals when their lord needed additional resources. A common aid was to help ransom the lord when he was taken prisoner in war. Other aids were given when the lord's eldest daughter was married and when his eldest son became a knight.
  • Obligation to entertain the lord when he paid a visit.

A great lord would sometimes ennoble officials in his household and give them fiefs in return for their services. Among these officials were the sheriff, steward, bailiff, constable, marshal, butler, and chamberlain of a large estate. Their obligations consisted of the fulfillment of their responsibilities as household officials. They enjoyed the same feudal rights as other vassals. This type of tenure was called sergeanty.

Feudal Warfare

A powerful vassal who did not fulfill his obligations could usually withstand his lord's wrath if he owned a strong castle, since medieval castles were almost impossible to overrun. Forty days' service—the usual limit for knights in the attacking force—left insufficient time for siege operations.

Private warfare between nobles who were neither lord nor vassal to each other was common in France, since the king could not control the vassals of his vassals. The church sought to limit strife by forbidding warfare on certain days of the week and during church festivals. Chivalry developed as a code of conduct for knights.

The Manorial, Or Seignorial, System

The social and economic organization of a fief was based upon the manor, a district held by a feudal lord (seigneur). A manor could be an entire fief or only part. Generally, it included a village and fields, barns, mills, granaries, and sources of water. From the manor's production, a lord derived the resources he needed to support his family and to meet his obligations to his lord. For peasants, the manor provided protection and basic necessities.

The non-noble residents of a manor belonged to two main classes, freemanand serf.Various classes of peasants, at different times and in different places, were called villeins.Depending on time and place, a villein's status ranged from that of freeman to that of slave.

  • Freeman. Freemen were tenants of the manor who paid rent, usually in produce. Sometimes they had to perform labor service for the lord. They were free to leave the manor, but while living there were subject to the lord's jurisdiction.
  • Serf. Serfs were semifree peasants who worked a feudal lord's land and paid him certain dues in return for protection and the use of land. They were subject to the lord's jurisdiction at all times. A serf could not be married or leave the manor without the lord's consent. A serf's personal possessions could be taken by the lord as taxes. However, serfs were not slaves and could not be sold. Most peasants in western Europe during the Middle Ages were serfs.

The Manorial Economy.The manor was a self-sufficient economic unit. Artisans made essential goods. The land was divided into closed(fenced) and common(shared) lands.

Closed Lands

consisted of two or three fields, one of which was left fallow in rotating order. The lord's land, called the demesne, was between one-third and one-half of the total. Serfs usually owed from one to three days a week labor on the demesne. The remaining area was divided into many strips and distributed among the serfs so that they could farm it for themselves. In all a typical serf had perhaps 30 acres (12 hectares) of farmland. A certain amount of the serf's crops went to the lord as rent.

Common Lands

included the meadows, pastures, and forests. The serfs harvested hay from the meadow for the lord's livestock and, in return, were permitted to harvest some for their own use. A similar arrangement existed for the gathering of firewood. If a serf's cow grazed on the pasture, the serf paid a fee to the lord in the form of meat or dairy products.

The lord owned all the mills and ovens in the village. Operating a private mill or oven was illegal. Thus, peasants had no choice but to grind their grain in the lord's mills and bake their bread in his ovens. For each of these services, they had to pay a fee in the form of grain or bread.

The standard of living on a manor was poor, even for nobles. Castles and manor houses were damp and poorly heated. Peasants lived in flimsy huts with dirt floors and no windows. Diet varied, but if the harvest was bad, the entire manor suffered.

Seignorial Jurisdiction

The lord was the sole authority over the residents of the manor. He presided over the manorial court, where disputes between serfs were settled and individuals accused of committing crimes were tried. The rank of a feudal lord was reflected in the types of punishments he was permitted to impose; low justicemeant that the lord was limited to ordering punishment for misdemeanors, while high justiceallowed him to order punishment for serious crimes. Lords in France could impose the death penalty. In England, only royal courts could impose this sentence.