We have heard the term ‘feudal system.’ It is one of the most important terms in the history of the world. What is the feudal system?
In times of Medieval Europe(9th-15th Century), there existed the system of feudalism. It was a pact between a lord and his vassal.
Vassal or vassalage refers to the land and the noble/knight who comes under the protection and pays revenue to its lord. In contemporary times, the term ‘client state’ means the same. The only difference is that countries that are subjugated by other countries and are under its protection and have to pay it tribute are called as client states.
A King ruling over a large kingdom in medieval Europe will face multiple challenges in looking after each and every section of the kingdom. It wasn’t humanely possible for him to visit and look after each region personally. Therefore, the King would divide his kingdom into different parts that were given to the most trusted subjects/followers of the King, these were mainly the nobility. In return for managing the land assigned to the noble, he would keep a part of the revenue as his own income and give the rest to his lord i.e. the King.
The land that was given to the noble, in itself was also very large and therefore was impossible for him to look after it personally too. Hence, the land was further divided into even smaller parts/regions and they were assigned to Knights. These men were the commanders in the lord’s army (lord here refers to the Noble and not the King as the Knight serves the nobleman and not the King therefore his lord is the noble), experience soldiers who were rewarded by giving a piece of land for his services to the lord.
On these lands worked the people of the kingdom. They too were of two types, one was the ordinary labour who was free to leave his lord’s estate considering there were no dues and the other type, called Serfs or the bonded labourers more appropriately termed as slaves. The people were supposed to work on the estate/lands of his/her lord and provide their services and in times of war serve in the lord’s army.
Social order in the Feudal System, was as follows King>Nobility/Nobleman>Knight>Serfs/Labourers
Estates/Lands were to a certain extent, self sufficient. They had everything that was required to sustain the land in case there were blockades or isolation from the rest of the kingdom due to enemy activities or other reasons like natural calamities. The land consisted of water bodies to take care of the irrigation purposes of agriculture and for the people themselves. Specialists like masons and blacksmiths who could work on the buildings and make weapons for the lord’s buildings and army. Even religious sentiments were taken care of, with the existence of a church that looked after the religious matters of the people and in times of calamities help the people with the donations it got from the lords.
The Estates which were given by the King, were hereditary in nature, i.e. the sons of the noblemen could claim their ownership over the lands of their fathers without having any kind of problems related to successions (in case of many sons there were internal struggles of succession otherwise not). People on these lands therefore became loyal to the family that ruled the estate instead of the lord itself.
People, who worked on the land did not have a very good life. The ordinary people, as stated above were also divided into two categories, the free and the serfs or slaves. These people did not even have the most basic rights like the choice of marrying someone of their own choice. If they wanted to do so, they had to pay their lord a fee in exchange for the choice. The serfs were further more deprived in comparison to the free labourers. In case of free labourers, they could move out of the land with permission from the lord and without any dues pending, in case of serfs they couldn’t even have that as they were bonded labourers.
Though there was a way for them to be free of the lord, if they were to run away from the estate and stay hidden from the lord for 1 year and 1 day they would become free of the lord. If they were discovered in that time period, the result was usually not good for the serf, the result was usually harsh punishment.
Now the Feudal system had the advantage of division of the land into different parts allowed the individual attention the lands required from the administration to look after the production and the people. It also allowed much efficient development of the land to improve the infrastructure and productivity due to the individual attention that each part of the land was receiving.
On the other hand, the Feudal system had the following disadvantage. Each vassal, subject of the lord had his own army, and the men serving in the army weren’t loyal to the King, but instead their lords. It meant that in case a nobleman became too ambitious and declared independence from the King, he could have the forces to defend his land and also maybe, expand and annex other pieces of lands of other nobles. Though these weren’t very prevalent as the King never gave out land to anyone and just to his most trusted followers.
This is the Feudal system, as it was in Medieval Europe.The Feudal system was an important feature of the European society and how it was organized. Similar systems are also seen across the world including the Indian subcontinent though with minor variations. Feudal system was a harsh period for the ordinary people and therefore it is a marvel that the European society has managed to come out of it.