Feudalism is defined as a social, economic and political system of Western Europe in the middle ages. In this system, vassals gave military and other services to their lords in exchange for protection and the use of the land. Vassals paid homage and allegiance to the lords and were from then on supposed to serve the lord and their country in as far as military aid was concerned. Although there was the presence of the king, the position was irrelevant in the country. The lords held the supreme authority over the area. The king’s position was basically a formality. It was just to make the lords feel as though they were not inferior to each other.
This paper seeks to analyze and discuss this issue. The medieval period in Europe was characterized by hereditary systems of governance. This was one of them. The paper will seek to give a clear and concise outlook of the system by looking at the characteristics and the features of the system. Factors that led to the collapse of the system will also be looked at briefly. The conclusion will then be given based on the comparison between the feudal system and the present system of authority.
Features of the feudal system
The social structure in the country in such a way that power was not vested on a single entity. Power, in this case, was vested in the lords and barons. They owned estates and large tracks of land. It was the lords that administered justice, levied taxes and demanded military service from the vassals. The vassals, as mentioned in the introduction, were the persons who paid homage and pledged allegiance to the lords in exchange for the piece of land. The system was built upon a relationship of obligation and mutual service between the vassals and the lords.
What was the relationship between the vassals and the lords?
The relationship between the vassals and the lords was base on an understanding between the two parties. It was basically a win-win situation for both parties. A vassal held land, also known as fief, from the lord in exchange for his service in the army or in combat. In the even of the vassal’s, the one in contract with the lord, death, it was his heir’s obligation to see to it that he has renewed the contract. This was to be done publicly in an oath of faithfulness (fealty). The public oath was referred to as “homage”.
The vassal was expected to perform some duties and responsibilities for as long as he was bound by the agreement. One, and the main, of the responsibilities was that he was expected to provide ‘aid’ or military service to the lord. It was expected that, having entered into agreement with the lord, the vassal would respond to a call of military duty whenever the lord thought it to be necessary. That was the end of his bargain. Another responsibility to the lord was to provide him with counsel whenever the lord needed advice or assistance from the vassals. A good instance was during war. The lords would not be sure, whether or not, to engage in combat with another country. This is where the vassals came in. They were to provide an unbiased opinion to the lord. The vassals were also expected to feed and house the lord whenever his majesty traveled across his land. Another obligation vested upon the vassals was that they were to contribute money if need be.
The lord’s obligations to the vassals were more or less of the same nature. One and most importantly was that he to grant land and its revenues to the vassal. Although the land was loaned to the vassal, it was now under his control. All the produce and revenue generated from the track of land belonged to the vassal and his family. The responsibility of maintenance of the land was also charged on the lord. Since he had only loaned the land to the vassal in exchange for the military service, it was expected that he would maintain the land and cater for all the resources and needs that are required in the land. The lord was also expected to provide security, give military aid and guard the vassals and their children. In an instance where there was no son to inherit the land, it was the vassal’s daughter who did so. In this case, it was the lord who organized and arranged her marriage. In those instances where there was no child to inherit the land, the lord disposed it off as he chose.
From the obligations addressed above, it is clear that each party had a principle interest at heart. For the lords, the primary reason why he entered into a feudal relationship was because of the security and military assistance provided for by the vassals. The vassal, on the other hand, got into the relationship primarily because they were to receive a piece of fief from the lord. This kind of relationship was recommended for the growth and security of the country.
The hierarchy in this system was not easy to understand. There were different levels of lordship and vassalage. For instance, the king was a lord who loaned fiefs to aristocrats, who were his vassals. The aristocrats were also lords to their vassals, the knights. Knights on the other hand, were vassals and lords at the same time of the peasants who worked in the lands. The amazing bit was that the kings were also vassals. As all the land was owned by the emperor, he loaned the land to the kings who were then regarded as his vassals.
The decline and collapse of the feudal system
Theorists have argued that the growth of anything in the world will eventually lead to its collapse. The growth trend is regarded as , from small to big, from big to bigger, from bigger to great, and finally from great to greater than we can handle. This was the case in the feudal system of administration. The system grew bigger than the people could handle.
One of the reasons that led to the collapse of the system was the migration of the peasants and servants from the rural areas to the cities where they were seeking better employment and higher revenues. The cost of living kept on increasing. As the cost of living increases, so should the income of a person. This was not the case of the peasants who worked in the fiefs. They therefore sought better employment to meet their costs of living. The effect of this was that it led to a decrease in the number of workers in the large tracks of land. The land’s potential was therefore not utilized. Revenues decreased and the vassals also started to sought better and higher revenue generating systems.
Another reason that led to the decline of the system was that the population kept on increasing while the tracks of land remained the same. Eventually, there was no land to give to the vassals. The lords thought of another way of getting into an agreement with the vassals. This is what led to the money system. In this system, the vassals pledged allegiance to the lords and in exchange they were paid at the end of the year.
The decline of the feudal system led to the introduction of the money system. In my view, the feudal system was a better system of administration. From an economic point of view, land is a better asset compared to money. The value of land keeps of increasing regardless of economic situation in the country. Money on the other hand loses its value as time passes on.
Be that as it may, the feudal system played a major role in contributing to the livelihoods of many people then. From the relationship between the lords and the vassals, it is clear that they all relied on each other for their protection and sustenance. This was some kind of symbiotic relationship. All in all, the system was the best form of organization that could be thought of and could be put into place then.