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Feudalism is a decentralized organization that arises when central authority

cannot perform its functions and when it cannot prevent the rise of local



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

The most well-known of the institutions were:

In a feudal society, civil and military powers at the local level are

assumed by great landowners or other people of similar wealth and prestige,

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 previously exercised by government officials at the local level. 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.

These 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. As the Frankish empire conquered their neighbors, the

Carolingian monarchs had to develop a means of holding and governing these new

territories. They accomplished this by entrusting aspects of local government to

favored followers and paying them with grants of land and revenues in the

territories they were expected to fortify, garrison, defend and govern.

When the empire ceased to expand, these "class" of fighting men still needed

new lands. They had been accustomed to raising large families so that, if one

son were to die, there would be another to inherit the father's position.

Consequently, their numbers steadily increased, and they found themselves forced

to seize the lands of others to provide for their second and third sons. They

first took control of the lands on which they were resident and, by doing so,

weakened the monarch still further. They then took 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 change, since they were

trading a distant and ineffectual imperial government for a local and effective


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

as FRANCE. In any event, the feudal leaders began to treat governmental

functions as private property that they could loan, give, away, or pass on to

their children. It should be noted that money -- silver or gold coins -- had

gradually vanished from use and that Europe and had adopted a barter system to

meet their basic economic needs. Without legal tender, however, it was

impossible to hire someone to provide needed services. The fact that the feudal

leaders could lend someone a territory from which he could derive rents

and renders in kind and services was an important factor in the new organization

of Western Europe. The feudal structure of society emerged as local leaders gave

their followers the income from the dues owed by the residents of a given

territory in payment for their services -- which could vary considerably.

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



The feudal lords of Western Europe, through the men to whom 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 except with the

lord's express permission. 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 ovens, 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 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.




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 (and accurately) 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 against both other lords and, if necessary,

other vassals of his.


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. It is said that one

English noble held a nice fief on condition that he appear before

the king each year at the royal 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 might additionally pledge to render

one or more of a number of traditional services: to give the lord

and his retinue three nights hospitality if they were in the neighborhood;

to help ransom the Party of the First Part if he were captured and held

prisoner; to contribute presents for the wedding of the Party of the

First Part's eldest daughter and the knighting of his eldest son, and

to contribute money to help defray the cost of the festivities.

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 Party of the First Part, who would take both the

vassal's hands between his own as the vassal promised to love and

respect the lord. The lord, in turn, would promise to honor and protect

the vassal. 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 some similarly "honorable" gift. 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, while king Alfonso, the Cid's lord, consistently failed to keep

his promises to love, respect and protect his outstanding vassal.

Indeed, the feudal tie was so powerful that the rituals have persisted

in many Western societies. The rituals of homage and fealty, for instance,

have persisted in the traditional manner of proposing marriage.

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.