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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

The Rise of Feudalism

ca. 850 - 1000

Feudalism is a term invented in the sixteenth century by royal lawyers to describe the decentralized and complex social, political, and economic society out of which the modern state was emerging. The word is based on the German vieh, or "cow," the measure of wealth among the early Germans. It gave rise to the medieval word fief, which generally meant "something of value." In the agricultural world of the time, "something of value" was usually land.

In the isolation and chaos of the 9th and 10th centuries, European leaders no longer attempted to restore Roman institutions, but adopted whatever would work. The result was that Europe developed a relatively new and effective set of institutions, adapted to a moneyless economy, inadequate transportation and communication facilities, and a constant threat of armed attack by raiders such as the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens. The most well-known of the institutions were manorialism (the organization of the peasants), monasticism (the organization of the churchmen), and feudalism (the institution of the aristocracy)

We are accustomed to a capitalist economy, good communication and transportation, and to solving our problems at the state or national level, so we tend to think that decentralized authority is primitive and ineffective. This is not necessarily so, and feudalism is not completely foreign to American society. Let me try to discuss feudalism from two different aspects. The paragraphs in italics will refer to an example of American feudalism with which most of you are familiar, if only through films and TV.


ineffective central government

Feudalism is a decentralized organization that arises when central authority cannot perform its functions and when it cannot prevent the rise of local powers.

The Carolingian imperial government, embroiled in civil wars, was unable to maintain law and order at the local level, to provided government direction of the economy, or to protect local areas against raiders.

At the close of the First World War, millions of young men, trained to fight and laden with "war souvenirs" returned to an America in which there were not enough good jobs for them to fill, and in which the government was busily engaged in cutting expenditures (such as for policemen) and was engaged in a constant struggle to stop people from drinking alcoholic beverages (Prohibition)

In a feudal society, civil and military powers are assumed by local landowners or other people of wealth and power.

Much as churchmen assumed governmental authority with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, local leaders, such as Count Robert of Paris assumed the role of local leadership. Other individuals in other areas gathered retinues of fighting men and took over the role of the government in those territories they could control. Often enough these were imperial officials whom the imperial government could no longer keep in check, but others also emerged as local leaders.

In American cities in the 1920's, neighborhood gangs often arose. Since the neighborhoods were often ethnic, the gangs tended to be dominated by Italians, Irish, Germans, or whatever group was dominant in the district. These gangs claimed jurisdiction over their neighborhood, "territory," or "turf," and collected taxes in the form of "protection money" for the services they performed.

The local leaders and their retinues begin to form a warrior class distinct from the people of their territory.

The local leaders who emerged during the decay of the Carolingian Empire were generally armed men, particularly armed men mounted on horseback and possessing a fortified residence. The Carolingians had created this force and had paid it with grants of land from the territories into which the empire had expanded. When the empire ceased to expand, these fighting men still needed lands, since they were a growing class, and were forced to take it. They first took control of the lands on which they were resident, then gained whatever lands they could from the imperial estates, and finally, began to seize nearby church lands. For the most part, the people of these lands welcomed the takeover, since they were exchanging a distant and ineffectual imperial government for a familiar local, and effective one.

Municipal governments at first tried to curb the growth of the gangsters, but their police soon found that they were outclassed. The gangsters drew from the trained fighting men of the demobilized army and built and used fast armored cars, submachine guns, hand grenades, and were often highly disciplined. The city governments were no more able to keep them from organizing their territories, than the highway patrols were able to overtake their supercharged cars.

The distinction between private rights and public authority disappears, and local control tends to become a personal and even hereditary matter.

Perhaps the "aristocracy" that emerged as the local leaders in the feudal age were doing no more than the Merovingian and Carolingian monarchs had done by considering their "territory" their private possession. This was not unusual during the middle ages; Various kings named Louis frequently signed their names "FRANCE." In any event, the feudal leaders began to treat governmental functions as private possessions, which they could loan, give, away, or pass on to their children. This allowed a feudal structure of society to emerge as local leaders gave their followers the income from some governmental post in payment for their services -- which could vary considerably.

Perhaps the gangs simply followed the pattern set by city governments of the time, which put their political workers on salary by giving them a position in the city government where they could enjoy a regular income while still devoting their full time to advancing the political fortunes of their bosses. In any event, the gang leaders, or "bosses" that emerged began to divide up their territories, giving their followers, or "boys" the right to a share of the income from a given district.

The feudal leaders often take over responsibility for the economic security of their territories, and dictate how resources are to be used, while at the same time establishing monopolies over some activities. This strengthens their presence at the local level and also makes their possessions even more valuable.

The feudal lords of Western Europe, through the men to who they had distributed fiefs, began to exert economic control over the villages and districts under their control. The woods became the lord's possession, and hardwoods -- useful for building and weapons -- could not be cut. All fuel had to be used sparingly, and the lord was paid for wood taken from the woodlands, game caught there, pigs put to pasture there, and so on. The lords also build overs, baths, grain mills and the like as monopolies. Villagers had to patronize the lord's monopolies and pay for the privilege. This gave the lords the opportunity of granting fiefs other than land, such as the income from a mill in a certain village, or the revenue from fishing rights in a certain stream.

THE gangs were soon aware that people wanted things that the government did not want them to have -- primarily alcohol, gambling, and prostitution -- and that the government could not prevent the gangs from providing those amenities. They were soon "licensing" or actually establishing illegal activities within their territories -- brothels, the numbers game, casinos, and, most of all, saloons ("speakeasies"). The gangs grew wealthy enough so that they could purchase the services of underpaid local officials, increase their own full- time personnel, and still have considerable income left over to invest in "legitimate" businesses

The feudal aristocracies are usually organized on the basis of private agreements, contracts between individuals

By the 900's, some local lords -- the duke of Aquitaine, the count of Toulouse, the count of Flanders, and other -- had become powerful enough that they began to absorb the lesser lords and territories around them. Sometimes this was a simple matter of conquest, but more often the result of a feudal war was an agreement between the two opponents in which one turned his lands over to the other and received them back as a fief in exchange for service.

In many cities of America, various territorial gangs absorbed their lesser neighbors, and began to take over the turf of their more formidable adversaries. This process, known as "muscling-in," usually took the form of attempting to infringe on one or more of one's neighbor's monopolies, such as the sale of whiskey, but it often led to open warfare. The war in Chicago between the Italian and Polish gangs of the South Side under the leadership of Al Capone against the North Side Irish-German mob of Dion O'Bannion and his successor, Buggsy Moran, were particularly bloody and famous, ending with the St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 14 February 1927. Within a few years, each major city was under the control of a single individual -- the "Godfather" -- who managed the boys in his "family" and conferred with the Godfathers of the families of other cities to keep the peace and work together effectively. It was in this fashion that the "syndicate" emerged.


The private agreements that formed the network of mutual services were called contracts of homage and fealty, "homage" because one of the contractants agreed to become the servant (homme, or "man" of the other, and fealty, because he promised to be "feal, faithful" to him. Homage and fealty became formalized, romanticized, and overlaid with symbolism, but it is most easily understood as a simple contract.

The Party of the First Part (the dominus, often translated as "lord," but just as easily translated as "boss") made an arrangement with the Party of the Second Part (the vassal, a word derived from the Celtic word for "boy," or miles, a word meaning "soldier). The Party of the First Part gave the Party of the Second Part "something of value" (a fief, something that would produce an income in services and kind over a long time), and promised him "respect" (meaning that he would not interfere with his enjoyment of the fief except for a very good reason) and justice (meaning that he would protect him both against other lords and against others of his vassals.

The Party of the Second Part promised a number of things in return. The three main items were "relief," a payment of some sort that he gave the Party of the First Part for having agreed to take him on; "aid and counsel," which obligated him to attend the court of the Party of the First Part whenever he was called upon to do so, and to support and advise him; and "vassalage," which was usually but not always a period of military service when called. Some men got fiefs for service as accountants at the Treasury, or for acting as diplomats, or even for some rather silly things. One English noble held a nice fief on condition that he appear before the king each year at his Christmas court and simultaneously whistle, hop, and break wind. English kings were not noted for the subtlety of their humor.

The Party of the Second Part often owed one or more of a number of traditional services: to give the lord and his retinue 3 nights hospitality if they were in the neighborhood; the help ransom the Party of the First Part if he were captured in battle; to help with a present and money in the wedding of the Party of the First Part's eldest daughter and the knighting of his eldest son.

There was frequently a ritual of bonding once the contract had been agreed upon by both sides. The Party of the Second Part would kneel before the p, who would take both his hands between his own, and the Party of the Second Part would promise to love and respect the Party of the First Part, and in turn, the Party of the First Part would promise to honor and protect the Party of the Second Part. They would then both rise, kiss, and exchange gifts, the Party of the Second Part giving the Party of the First Part the relief payment, and the Party of the First Part giving the Party of the Second Part a sword or something similar. The vassal then became a member of the lord's "familia" (family).

This was a powerful bond. Many of the medieval legends and tales turned upon the relationship between the lord and vassal; Lancelot's tragedy was that his love for Guenevere conflicted with his love for Arthur. The rituals of homage and fealty, for instance, have persisted in the traditional manner of offering marriage (remember Cher in "Moonstruck"?)

Many people think of feudalism as a primitive and inefficient system, but it did not appear to be so. Organized in this fashion, the Western Europeans succeeded in holding off the raiders and restoring a measure of peace that permitted a revival of trade and commerce about 1000. Besides, the Mafia uses the same organization (and even the same customs and terms) and are not considered either primitive or inefficient. Note also that most franchise enterprises, such as MacDonald's, uses essentially the same system.

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