The Rise of Feudalism in Medieval Europe

Landlord and his Serfs, 1853. Found in the collection of State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Artist : Trutovsky, Konstantin Alexandrovich (1826-1893). (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Feudalism was the main kind of socio- political organization in medieval Europe. It was a system in which a person worked for a lord in exchange for land and the lord was given land by monarch in exchange for military service. According to Perry Anderson, this system of division of power is ‘ parcelization of sovereignty’ in medieval Europe.

There are various factors responsible for the emergence of Feudalism in the medieval Europe-

1. Carolingian Cavalry And The Stirrup

The Feudalism or Feudal Social Formation contained both the Roman and Germanic elements. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire paved the way for Roman landed aristocracy and Germanic chiefs to assert their power in respective areas. The Carolingians who came to power in 751 replaced the Merovingians as Frankish rulers. Charlemagne, who came to power in 768, conquered the rest of France, then Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, creating an enormous European empire.

According to Marc Bloch, a French historian, the introduction of the stirrup around the eighth century in the Carolingian cavalry was one of the factors for the rise of Feudalism. But, he gave prominence to the cavalry which was shifting from infantry in the Frankish army of Medieval Europe.

2. Vassalage

Maintaining the horses, training mounted soldiers and equipping the cavalry with armours and weapons was very much expensive. So, powerful lords were given lands in exchange for furnishing military responsibilities. The lords, in turn gathered some peasants and made them Vassals by giving them ‘fief’ ( grant of and kind but mostly land ) . The Vassals pledged personal loyalty to their lords and were obliged to serve the lord militarily or otherwise. Heinrich Brunner had defined European feudalism as a way of organizing society for ‘instant warfare’. Brunner has considered the Battle of Poitier (733) with the Arabs, as a major turning point in the transformation of the Frankish army and the rise of feudalism with the continuation of these methods.

3. Coloni

The emergence of the coloni (free peasants, tenant farmers and hired agricultural workers) in western Europe in the second century AD due to heavy taxation in the Roman empire became a factor for the foundations of the later feudal social formation. The emergence of coloni created possibilities for overcoming the crisis triggered by the crisis of the slave mode of production. The coloni had become the mainstay of agricultural production in the western Europe from the eighth century.

4. Decline of Mediterranean Trade

Henri Pirenne, in his book ‘ Mohammed and Charlemagne’, has explained the rise of feudalism in terms of the decline of Mediterranean trade following the expansion of the Arab conquest in the eighth century. The self- sufficient areas of the western Europe such as France escaped the adverse consequences of the decline of long distance trade. The economy was agrarian and there was virtual absence of monetary exchange along with low level of urbanization.

5. Man of Another Man

By the beginning of the tenth century, a decentralized structure with hierarchical distribution of power had aquired concrete shape. In this system, each hierarchical chain consisted of lords who were linked to one another. Every lord was at the same time someone else’s Vassal or ‘Man’. A lord would have an overlord above him and the overlord would have their own lords- the nobles. At the top and the immediate overlord of nobles was the king.

An elaborate ceremony called ‘homage’ was organized in which the Vassal would take a vow to serve the lord all his life. Marc Bloch states that in the feudal period, it was common to be the ‘man of another man’.

7. Manorial Estate

The lords had their landed estates which dominated the agrarian economy. The landed estate was the manor which was the total of all the land in a locality over which the lord had superior rights. The Manor was divided into two parts. One portion was under the direct management of the lord and was called ‘demesne’. The other portion was the tenement of dependent peasants. Production on the demesne was carried out partly by household serfs ( bonded labourers) and partly by the peasants.

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