03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities

Student Series! Levels of Feudalism

Student Series! Levels of Feudalism

The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.”

-Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Life of a King

Feudalism was a social system that was used during the European Middle Ages. In this social system kings and popes fought for power, lords were provided land in exchange for military service, and peasants sought to survive. Medieval kings were the rulers of the state during medieval times. Their rulings and laws were influenced greatly by the pope, who ruled the Catholic Church and theoretically all catholics. The king’s responsibilities included protecting the land of invasion and surviving as long as he could. Battles and wars were frequent and that made the king’s life span short; the mean life expectancy of kings of Scotland and England, reigning from 1000 to 1600 CE were between 51 and 48 years old.


Life of a Noble

The nobles’ place in society was essentially to function as middlemen between the peasants and royalty. In their social ranking they were expected to be well-rounded in their knowledge of warfare, hunting, and social etiquette. A nobleman was expected to fight for their king at any moment’s notice. Nobles were also known to give land to vassals in exchange for protection, this was called a fief.

A noble lady was expected to learn proper manners and run the domestic household. Her responsibilities increased if her husband left, because then she would have to manage serfs, and their property.

Met-armor room
The armor exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum

Life of a Vassal

A vassal was a knight or a baron who owed allegiance to a lord in exchange for protection. The vassal’s fief (promised land) included serfs and peasants who tended the land. On the fief there would be a Manor house, which would house the vassal’s family.  In short, vassals became lesser lords of the land that they owned. Due to the vassal’s oath of fealty, a vassal had to supply their lord with soldiers and protect the land for the king. There was usually a ceremony where the vassal would kneel down to the king or a lord and give an oath of fealty, pledging that he will serve in warfare in exchange for land.


 Life of a Peasant and Serf

Peasants and serfs were at the bottom of the feudal system. The lifestyle of peasants was not known for its leisure, but instead it was known for its labor. Most peasants worked on the land owned by vassals year around. Waking up at 3 am in the summer and going to work on the fields was a typical day for a peasant. Tasks like reaping which involved cutting crops for harvest using a reaper, or threshing which involved beating stems or seeds were all labor intensive. Peasants were also known as “villeins” and had to pay vassals by working on their land. Peasants struggled trying to provide for their family, while working and farming crops to give to the lord.

The lifespan of an average peasant was 27 years due to their poor diet, harsh climate exposure, and labor intensity. A peasant did not have the right to leave the manor without the permission of his vassal or lord. Fortunately there were days like Sundays and holy days that would give peasants a break. Women peasants made clothes out of materials that could be easily accessible like wool.

Serfs were in a higher position than slaves but had few rights and had to obey their lord. A serf was figuratively “tied to his or her land,” a serf could not be separated from his land or made to fight. In exception to those few rights, a serf could not get married, nor leave the land without his lord’s permission. Serfs were required to work on the land and also faced hardships which included starvation in the winter and various illnesses. In some Manors, education was outlawed for serfs, the lack of education and physical labor kept peasants and serfs subdued and tamed.

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