Feudalism is something that everyone has heard of but that few understand beyond the implication that there is a king, knights, and nobility. In reality, feudalism was a simple but effective (at least at first) form of governance that evolved quite naturally from the chaotic tribalism of Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
So natural, in fact, was this evolution, that people of the time did not have a word for it – it was simply how life went. The term “feudalism” only started appearing in the 19th century or so, long after feudal society’s heyday in the 9th to 15th centuries; as historians, economists, and lawyers were trying to describe the systems and structures of the past.
Feudal hierarchy – Emperors, Kings, Dukes, Counts, and Barons
A castle built in an extremely strategic location in what is now South West Switzerland. Castles were the locations from which nobles would typically rule their fiefs, as it was necessary to ensure that the court was located somewhere defensible enough to prevent any immediate danger.
The basic rundown is thus: There is a King. He owns, personally, the entirety of his realm, to lesser or greater extents depending on the time and place in history.
However, one man cannot govern an entire country. And so, he delegates: Dukes are granted territory within the King’s dominion to rule as their own personal subdomains (referred to as fiefs). The Dukes rule their Duchies (pronounced “dutch-ee”) in exactly the same way the King rules his Kingdom. The King is a lord, and the Dukes are his vassals.
Fiefs within fiefs within fiefs…
But a Ducal fief is typically still too much for one man to personally rule. So the Dukes delegate in exactly the same fashion, granting fiefs to Counts – this is why in many places a geographic division encompassing a city or two and some towns is referred to as a county. The Duke is lord to his vassal Counts.
But again, a county’s worth of towns, villages, cities, and castles is too much for one man to govern. So the Count grants fiefs to Barons – a town here, a castle there, plus some outlying villages.
A Baron will then often delegate further, village by village. However, at this level, the feudal system gives way to more varied forms of local governance – how one town is ruled might be different to how its neighbour is ruled, one village might elect leaders, one might be ruled by a knightly family. The dominant form of social organisation at this lowest rung, however, was manorialism, which was very much in the same vein as feudalism.
A historian’s drawing of the typical layout of a medieval manor. All of this land would be the property of the Lord of the Manor, with the peasantry renting most of it from him.
On the lowest rung of the noble ladder, below Baron, and right above peasants, serfs, and villeins, is the Lord of the Manor. This is equivalent to the title of Junker in Germany, or Seigneur in France, and all sorts of other local titles elsewhere. A manor in this system comprises not just the fancy house, but more importantly many acres of farmland and woodland. The lord owns the entire estate, but of course can hardly go tilling all the fields himself. And so, surprise surprise, he delegates. This is where the peasants come in. Typically, the lord grants some form of lease to a peasant, whereby the peasant can work the land as if it were his own, but must pay some form of regular tax to the lord – although how often the tax is paid varied widely, with some rents being due as lump sums once per generation.
As with other feudal contracts, the form of tax varied wildly, and could even sometimes be dictated by the lord arbitrarily – although generally it was set in the terms of the lease. It could take the form of an amount of the peasant’s crop, labour from the peasant on those fields directly in control of the lord, military service in the lord’s retinue, other personal service to the lord, or, as the economy became less barter-based, simple cash.
The lord, as per usual, was obligated to protect his subjects militarily, and arbitrate judicial disputes.
Very importantly, leases were as binding as other feudal contracts, in that they were mostly-hereditary two-way agreements. A peasant owning a lease could no more abandon the leased land than a Duke could abandon his duchy. That is, it would be considered illegitimate and illegal without the permission of his lord. The children of a peasant would usually go on to hold the same lease he did.
Naturally, having the lowest social class be tied to land and unable to move where they like caused some serious chafing over the centuries, and it’s the reason why you often hear “freedom of movement” mentioned among the fundamental human rights.
Other very important nobles
There is another, very important feudal rank that has not yet been mentioned here: Emperor. An Emperor is held as being above a King in the same way that a King is above a Duke. As such, it’s quite an important distinction, and one that allows an Emperor to wield significant political influence if they are recognised as such.
Additionally, in any given country, there are always branches of the nobility that answer directly to the head of state – Knights being the most common example. Even though a knight would usually own only a manor and some surrounding farmland, knights typically owed their allegiance directly to the Monarch. In the Holy Roman Empire, many nobles of varying rank and territory were granted Imperial Immediacy, meaning that they answered directly to the Emperor instead of to a whole chain of higher ranking nobles.
It’s worth mentioning here that Emperor, King, Duke, Count, Baron is a commonly accepted rundown of the main feudal titles, but it is no mean an exhaustive list of the titles that occupy those specific spaces in the feudal hierarchy. For instance, Counts are roughly equivalent to English Earls, and Emperors are also referred to as Kaisers and Tsars depending on where you are.
The feudal system
The vast majority of independent feudal countries worth mentioning were kingdoms, but there were a considerable number of independent duchies and counties throughout history, particularly in Italy, and the importance of history’s Empires goes without saying.
So, in the end, a King would only directly rule a very small portion of the land in a given country. It would be reasonable to expect approximately three quarters or more of the land to be ruled by Dukes, with a small portion of the remainder given over to Counts, and the vast majority of the individual holdings (towns, castles) in the King’s personal domain to be ruled by various Barons. The king himself might directly own a handful of castles and towns and their surrounding lands, but not usually more.
The idealised coronation of a King, from a religious text belonging to Charles the Bald, c. 870. Unsurprisingly, the ideal king pictured is thought to be a representation of Charles the Bald (historians think the nickname might be a bit tongue in cheek).
The majority of positions in feudal society were hereditary. So the title of King gets passed on to the eldest living son (or, if there are none, the eldest daughter usually), as does the title of Duke, and Count, and Baron; as well as most or all of the land associated with that title depending on inheritance laws in the realm.
So if, for instance, an enterprising count were to marry his eldest son to the eldest daughter of a Duke, and if that Duke’s sons then tragically died, his grandchild would stand to inherit both his own County and the Duchy in question.
However, it’s worth mentioning that this system of inheritance, primogeniture, only became the norm later in the medieval period. Earlier tribal law tended to have a parent’s property split between their descendants (much like most inheritances today). This meant that entire countries as well as fiefs of every level were frequently broken up between siblings, often leading to concerted efforts by the siblings to conquer the full territory from each other. There was no less incentive to marry well however, as an advantageous marriage could still result in your children gaining large territories, nevermind that they would then have reasonable cause to go to war to conquer more.
As you can imagine, the political marriages got very complex very fast. This was compounded by the fact that alliances were typically ratified by a marriage, so there was a lot of incentive to marry your kids off. Which brings us to a key component of feudalism, war – and also taxes.
The incentives for feudalism
While Kings fought each other on the stage of the wider world, it was often difficult within a given kingdom to keep the Dukes happy with each other, and even within a Duchy it would be difficult to keep the Counts on good terms. The reason was simple: all of these people were essentially heads of their own mini-states, and as such could tax their subjects directly, and raise armies to defend themselves and their subjects – and conquer new lands.
The core reason that feudalism worked was that the oath of fealty a vassal swore to their liege (e.g. Count to Duke or Duke to King) included a provision that the subject would pay a tax to their liege – usually some combination of cash and military service – and, crucially, that their liege would defend them from any foreign threats. Thus, there was something significant in it for both parties: the weaker party was protected, and the stronger party was paid.
However, the liege would often not be in a position to intervene in wars between his own subjects, or the subjects of his subjects, and furthermore would not always be required by feudal law to do so – the relationship only goes up one level. A Baron who is vassal to a Count pays taxes to that Count, not to the Duke to whom the Count is a vassal, and likewise the Duke will not necessarily be particularly interested if another Baron within his domain declares war on the first Baron to take his castle – that’s for the Count to deal with.
And so complex webs of alliances and familial ties were formed in the feudal world, to ensure that every noble could be sure that their territorial claims were backed by military force.
The fact that subjects within a kingdom conquered other subjects within the same kingdom, along with the fact that titles were inherited based on often-complex family lines, led to strange things happening in feudal Europe. For instance, a German Electorate within the Holy Roman Empire inherited the entirety of Great Britain at one point, giving us the royal family that rules the UK today.
The role of the Church in the feudal system
The Church and the Papacy played a tremendous and varied role in day-to-day feudal life, and one which often brought the Papacy and its supporters into violent conflict with rulers of sovereign nations. Most of the time though, the Church was a huge help in keeping the public in line – it was preached that Kings were chosen by God to rule and protect their kingdoms. Local churches would organise countless festivals, feasts, and festivities to keep the public happy and content, and they would keep record of births and deaths in the towns and villages, giving nobles access to information vital for good governance (and thorough taxation).
In addition, secular nobles were not the only ones able to hold fiefs. Even if they didn’t hold a fief, members of the clergy were expected to extract for themselves and the Church a hefty tithe from the people under their jurisdiction, making it frequently quite lucrative to be a clergyman.
For every title mentioned thus far, with the possible exception of Emperor, there is a clerical equivalent. The Pope is of similar rank to a King, or even an Emperor depending on who’s judging. An Archbishop is roughly equivalent to a Duke or Count, and a Bishop is approximate to a Count or Baron. Monasteries and abbeys very often took the place of a Lord of the Manor and his retinue in what were otherwise manorial estates.
Once in their position, much like nobles, clergy would nominally rule for life – although no de jure hereditary positions were ever created within the clergy, so they still needed to be chosen for their position somehow.
While they were most often a parallel authority to the nobility, governing spiritual matters while the nobles governed temporal matters, the clergy frequently held significant territory directly, even in contest with each other. Whether due to military action, a childless noble, rewards from a lord, coming into clerical office while already being a landed noble, or simple purchases of land and titles, clergymen frequently managed to amass significant territories. These territories would be attached to their office, and so get passed on to their successor, who could potentially continue to snowball the territories in question.
The Pope himself controlled the Papal States, a significant power in Italian politics until the Modern Period, and one which was frequently very aggressive in conquering its neighbours.
Clergy, being holders of feudal titles, frequently had their own feudal subjects. In many ways, the clergy behaved like just another brand of nobles. Indeed, most of the high-ranking clergy were from noble families anyway, regardless of how they got to be in their clerical position. Which leads us to investiture – the question of how people get into clerical positions.
The question of investiture
A King investing a new Bishop with his symbols of office. While this was standard practice up till the 11th century, the Pope fiercely contested his right to choose Bishops everywhere thereafter. Van Ness Myers, 1905.
A matter of crucial concern was that of investiture. Investiture is the process by which bishops are selected to administer religious affairs in regions, approximately on the level of baronies.
The monarch’s perspective
While the core of the feudal system worked, it did not effectively concentrate power in the hands of the monarch, because the people in charge of governing the vast majority of the country would be hereditary nobles with a vested interest in improving the position of their family, and who technically were not beholden to the monarch to receive their titles.
Bishops and other members of the clergy performed many duties conducive to good governance, including conducting population censuses, collecting taxes, keeping the public happy, and promoting the belief that the government has the approval of God.
Not only that, but Bishops often managed to amass large territories to their offices, to the extent that (Arch-)Bishoprics were often equivalent to Counties or even Duchies in territory, power, and rank. Much better, for a monarch, if those Bishops could be selected personally by him for their loyalty and efficacy, to shore up public support and to ensure efficient governance – as well as to secure a loyal head for often large subunits of territory within his country.
Or, on a baser level, much better for the monarch if he can get some cash out of giving the office to someone willing to pay.
The perspective of the Pope
To the Papacy though, it seemed clear that the right to appoint the organs of the Church should lie with the Church. And it would also be nice to get some cash out of it. By the way, the practice of accepting bribes in exchange for church offices is referred to as simony, and it was widely practiced, universally reviled, and one of the biggest causes of anti-Catholic sentiment at the time of the Reformation.
A monarch would want anything but to have the Pope directly appointing important members of the administrative apparatus, as that would give the Pope direct access to the public within the country, which would allow the Pope to wield incredible influence over the internal affairs of the country – just as appointing the Bishops himself would allow the monarch to wield influence. Remember that at this time, the Pope did not rule a tiny corner of one city. He ruled a wide swathe of central Italy centered on Rome, one of the richest cities in the world during the medieval period. The Papacy was a major player in worldly politics, wielding an actual army and willing to declare wars of conquest against other Christian states to expand its power and territory.
Naturally, war ensued.
The end of the crisis
The question of investiture was eventually solved, around the 13th century – the late Medieval period – when the secular nobility and the clergy had come to an amicable arrangement. In most countries, the King had the right to grant fiefs to whoever he pleased; but that did not necessarily convey any clerical authority. Clerical authority could only come from the Church.
Henceforth, church and state coexisted mostly comfortably and symbiotically until the Reformation – the Church in particular became much too comfortable.
Last thoughts on Feudal Europe
The three estates of feudal Europe represented in an illustration from a 13th century French text. The clergy, on the left, the nobility, in the center, and the labourers, on the right. They were sometimes referred to as those who preach, those who fight, and those who work.
Feudalism was more than Kings, Queens, and knights. It was a fundamentally different way of structuring every level of society, and a rather successful one at that.
Much like communism or fascism encompassed a whole host of things over and above just who got to make state-level decisions, feudalism touched every aspect of the life of every person in Medieval Europe, and the lives of many people all the way up till the Modern Era.
The fundamental idea was that every person was subordinate to another; one the vassal and the other the lord. The lord protects his vassals and allows them to use his land, and the vassals pay tax to their lord. Whether the vassal is a peasant and the lord a Seigneur, or the vassal is a King and the lord an Emperor. Even Emperors, under the medieval conception of religion, were vassals of God.
The Church existed as a parallel hierarchy, but one which was often interwoven with the secular hierarchy. The Church promoted, stabilised, and shaped the feudal system, even as it came naturally into existence.
Altogether, feudal society, while having strong similarities with other societies at the same point and other points in history around the world; shaped Europe’s unique struggles and triumphs, irreplaceably forming a part of what placed Europe in its unprecedented position of global dominance from the 16th century onwards.