The economic, legal, political and social relationships that existed in Europe in the medieval era are collectively called feudalism. Feudalism is a kind of agricultural production which is based on the relationship between lords and peasants. The peasants cultivated their own land, as well as the land of the lord. The lord provided military protection in lieu of peasant’s services. The lords also had extensive judicial control over the peasants. In fact, feudalism went beyond the economic to cover the social and political aspects of life too.
France and England
Gaul was a province of the Roman Empire. From the sixth century, this region was a kingdom ruled by Frankish/French kings. The Franks (a Germanic tribe) gave their name to Gaul, making it ‘France’. The French had very strong links with the Church. The link was further augmented when in 800 the Pope gave King Charlemagne the title of ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ to ensure his support. The island of England-Scotland was conquered by a duke from the French province of Normandy, in the eleventh century.
The Three Orders
The three orders of society were broadly the clergy, the nobility and the peasantry.
The Second Order: The Nobility
The nobility had a central role in social process because they controlled land. This control was the outcome of a practice called ‘vassalage’. The kings of France were linked to the people by ‘vassalage’. The big landowners (the nobles) were vassals of the king, and the peasants were vassals of the landowners.
The noble enjoyed a privileged status. He had absolute control over his property, in perpetuity. He could raise troops called ‘feudal levies’. The lord held his own courts of justice and could even coin his own money. He was the lord of the people settled on his land. His owned vast tracts of land which contained his own dwellings, his private fields and pastures and the homes of his tenant-peasants.
The Manorial Estate
A lord had his own manor-house. A small manorial estate could contain a dozen families, while larger estates might include fifty or sixty families. Almost everything needed for daily life was found on the estate. The estate had extensive woodlands and forests where the lords hunted. There were pastures for cattle and horses. There was a church and a castle for defence. From the thirteenth century, some castles were made bigger for use as a residence for a knight’s family.
From the ninth century, there were frequent localized wars in Europe. The amateur peasant-soldiers were not sufficient, and good cavalry was needed. This led to the growing importance of a new section of people – the knights. The lord gave the knight a piece of land which was called ‘fief’ and promised to protect it. The fief could be inherited. A fief extended to anything between 1,000 and 2,000 acres or more. A fief contained a house for the knight and his family, a church and other establishments to house his dependents. It also had a watermill and a wine-press. The land of the fief was cultivated by peasants. In exchange, the knight paid a regular fee to his lord and promised to fight for him in war. A knight was free to serve more than one lord, but his foremost loyalty was to his own lord.
The First Order: The Clergy
The first order was composed of bishops and clerics. Most villages had their own church. Everyone could not become a priest. The Serfs, physically-challenged and women could not become priests. Men who became priests could not marry. The bishops had the use of vast estates, and lived in grand palaces. The Church was entitled to a tenth share of peasant’s produce. This tax was called ‘tithe’. It also received money in the form of endowments made by the rich.
Some deeply religious people chose to live isolated lives. They lived in religious communities called abbeys or monasteries. Abbeys were generally in places very far from human habitation. Monks took vows to remain in the abbey for the rest of their lives and to spend their time in prayer, study and manual labor. This option was open to both men and women. Men became monks and women became nuns. Generally, there were separate abbeys for men and women. Monks and nuns did not marry. From small communities of 10 or 50 people, monasteries grew to communities often of several hundred. Such monasteries had large buildings and landed estates, with attached schools or colleges and hospitals. They contributed to the development of arts.
The Church and Society
In spite of becoming Christians, the Europeans still held on to some of their old beliefs in magic and folk traditions. Christmas and Easter became important dates from the fourth century. Christmas, celebrated on 25 December, replaced an old pre-Roman festival. The date of that festival was calculated by the solar calendar. The date of Easter was not fixed, because it replaced and older festival to celebrate the coming of spring, dated by lunar calendar. As per tradition, on that day people of each village used to make a tour of their village lands. Overworked peasants welcomed ‘holy days/holidays’. These days were meant for prayer, but people usually spent them having fun and feasting. Many people went on long journeys to shrines of martyrs or to big churches.