Medieval Society: Quick Overview of Feudalism and Manorialism

Medieval society was divided into three groups, those who work which consisted of serfs/peasants, those who fight which consisted of knights, vassals and their lords, and those who pray which consisted of all positions related to the church. There were three main kingdoms of Medieval Europe the French, the English and the Holy Roman Empire. Medieval society was based on a barter system, from one manor or village to the other. Each village tended to specialize in a commodity. Villages were spread apart by miles making them rural and they had to supply their own food stuffs making them agricultural. Medieval society with its feudalism and manorial system are the beginnings of the modern city, state, country government that we see today. It was an attempt for kings to gain control over their kingdom and the ability to protect large amounts of land and people.

The political structure of medieval society was the Feudal system which was hierarchical with serfs at the very bottom, followed by vassals, then lords. The serfs/peasants provided the work force, the vassals advised and counseled, collected taxes, oversaw the courts/laws and provided the men for the military. The Lords made the overall promise to kings to be loyal (homage) and faithful and were given offices by the king (investiture). The king provided land (fiefs) to the Lords and the Lords divided that land for the vassals. These upper positions were the “government” of medieval society.

The Manorial system, though political, was the basis of the economic and social system of medieval society by which peasants/serfs lived by. More city/state government if it were compared to today. On a Lord’s fief, existed a manor (self-sufficient landed estate) Peasants were entirely dependent on their lord for all of their needs and in turn they provided the work force. Initially this lifestyle was very beneficial to all parties. The peasants provided all of the needed labor on a manors grounds including farming and building, some were even specialized to produce specific goods in mills, ovens and smithies. In turn the lord provided a place for them to live, a place to work and oversaw local law and defense for his subjects. The peasants were still required to pay rents and taxes from their earnings. A manor itself was comprised of a manor house, parish church, cemetery and peasant homes making a village. Peasants were supplied land to build homes and have small kitchen gardens. They were also given plots in the common fields to work, in addition to the fields that they worked for the lord.

Jews had no place in the Feudal system because it was based on Christianity and the swearing on Christian relics that a person would be loyal and faithful to the lord above them. However, they were considered initially to be protected because they had witnessed the crucifixion and shared origins of the Christian church. Jews had separate governing and legal systems further distancing them within the community. They were also unable to own any land of their own. Because of the differences between the religions the interactions between Jews and Christians limited the cultural understanding between the two peoples causing the Jews to be outcasts.

The Manorial System declined significantly during the black plague, and changes eventually brought forth a system of commerce and the selling of goods and services. The Feudal System held until the 15th Century, and ended as Kings began to pay their armies a wage.

Image: Reeve and Serfs, Medieval illustration of men harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks, on a calendar page for August. Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII)(Wikimedia Commons)

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