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The Middle Ages
Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages
The centralization of the Carolingian state was not long a source of
political stability in western Europe in the early Middle Ages. In those areas
where the Carolingian Empire had little impact, and even in the regions which
were at some time controlled by Carolingian rulers, personal safety and
security were the primary concerns for most individuals. In circumstances that
make strong central government impossible, individual security must be
guaranteed by other means - usually through local custom and practice.
Historians have used the term feudalism to apply generally to these individual
patterns of decentralized government. The diversity of political structure in
the early Middle Ages was great, and varied from region to region. We must be
aware that in using the term to describe medieval political structures, we are
attempting a simplification of an extremely diversified and complex set of
Feudalism can be described as a type of government in which political
power is exercised locally by private individuals rather than through the
bureaucracy of a centralized state. It is seen as a transitional stage which
may follow the collapse of a unified political system. The term has been used
to describe political practices in various areas and times in world history -
in ancient Egypt and in twelfth-century Japan, for example - but the most
famous of all feudal patterns emerged in France following the collapse of
In general, medieval political institutions involved three basic
elements: (1) a personal element, called lordship or vassalage, by which one
nobleman, the vassal, became the loyal follower of a stronger nobleman, the
lord or suzerain; (2) a property element, called the fief (usually land),
which the vassal received from his lord in order to enable him to fulfill the
obligations of vassalage; and (3) a governmental element, meaning the private
exercise of governmental functions over vassals and fiefs. The roots of these
three elements run back to late Roman and early Germanic times.
By the fifth century the Roman emperor was no longer able to protect his
subjects, and citizens had to depend on the patronage system, by which a Roman
noble organized a group of less powerful men as a personal bodyguard and in
return looked after their wants and interests. A similar arrangement existed
among the Germans - the war band or comitatus, described by Tacitus.
Vassalage, the personal element in feudalism, arose from the combination of
the use of patronage and the comitatus.
The origin of the property element, the fief, also derives from Roman
practices. In the late Roman Empire the owners of great estates (latifundia)
added steadily to their already extensive holdings. Unable to manage their
large tracts directly, the nobles granted the temporary use of portions to
other people in exchange for dues and services. Such land was called a
beneficium, or benefice (literally, "a benefit"). As an example, in late
Merovingian times, when mounted warriors rather than old-style foot soldiers
were needed to deal effectively with Muslim raiders from Spain, Charles Martel
granted numerous benefices to compensate his followers for the added expense
of maintaining horses. During the civil wars and foreign invasions of late
Carolingian times, the competition among Charlemagne's successors for the
available supply of mounted knights led not only to the wholesale granting of
benefices but also to making the benefice hereditary. On the death of the
vassal, the benefice passed to an heir instead of reverting to the king.
Hereditary benefices were commonly called fiefs.
The third basic element, the exercise of governmental power by private
individuals, also had antecedents in late Roman times. As the imperial
government weakened, the powerful Roman landowners organized their own private
armies to police their estates and fend off governmental agents, particularly
tax collectors. The emperors also favored certain estates with grants of
immunity from imperial authority, a practice the Germanic kings often followed
and that became the rule with Charlemagne's successors in their competitive
efforts to fill their armies with mounted fief-holding vassals. And where
immunity from the king's authority was not freely granted, it was often
With the combining of these three elements, a definable, although highly
complex and variable, governmental pattern emerged in the West by the end of
the ninth century.
The Theoretical Feudal Hierarchy
In theory, feudalism was a vast hierarchy. At the top stood the king, and
all the land in his kingdom belonged to him. He kept large areas for his
personal use (royal or crown lands) and, in return for the military service of
a specified number of mounted knights, invested the highest nobles - such as
dukes and counts (in Britain, earls) - with the remainder. Those nobles
holding lands directly from the king were called tenants-in-chief. They, in
turn, in order to obtain the services of the required number of mounted
warriors (including themselves) owed to the king, parceled out large portions
of their fiefs to lesser nobles. This process, called subinfeudation, was
continued until the lowest in the scale of vassals was reached - the single
knight whose fief was just sufficient to support one mounted warrior.
Subinfeudation became a problem when a conflict of loyalties arose. Since
the Count of Champagne, for example, was vassal to nine different lords, on
whose side would he fight should two of his lords go to war against one
another? This dilemma was partially solved by the custom of liege homage. When
a vassal received his first fief, he pledged liege or prior homage to that
lord. This obligation was to have top priority over services that he might
later pledge to other lords.
Except for the knight with a single fief, a nobleman was usually both a
vassal and a lord. Even a king might be a vassal; John of Britain was vassal
to King Philip of France for certain French lands, yet he in no way thought
himself inferior to Philip.
By maintaining a king at the head of the theoretical feudal hierarchy,
custom kept the traces of monarchy intact. Although many feudal kings were
little more than figureheads who might be less powerful than their own
vassals, the institution of the monarchy was retained out of tradition.
Relation of Lord and Vassal: The Contract
Basic to political order was the personal bond between lord and vassal.
In the ceremony known as the act of homage, the vassal knelt before his lord,
or suzerain, and promised to be his "man." In the oath of fealty that
followed, the vassal swore on the Bible or some other sacred object that he
would remain true to his lord. Next, in the ritual of investiture, a lance,
glove, or even a clump of dirt was handed the vassal to signify his
jurisdiction (not ownership) over the fief.
The contract entered into by lord and vassal was usually considered
sacred and binding upon both parties. Breaking this tie of mutual obligations
was considered a serious offense, because the agreement was the basis of
feudalism and hence of early medieval society. The lord on his part was
usually obliged to give his vassal protection and justice. The vassal's
primary duty was military service. In some instances, he was expected to
devote forty days' service each year to the lord without payment. In addition,
a vassal could be obliged to assist the lord in rendering justice in the
lord's court. At certain times, such as when he was captured and had to be
ransomed, the lord also had the right to demand money payments, called aids.
Unusual aids, such as defraying the expense of going on a crusade, might not
be levied without the vassal's consent.
The lord also had certain rights, called incidents, regarding the
administration of the fief. These included wardship (the right to administer
the fief during the minority of a vassal's heir) and forfeiture of the fief if
a vassal failed to honor his obligations.
The final authority in this era was force, and the general atmosphere of
the time was one of violence. Defiant vassals frequently made war upon their
lords. But warfare was also considered the normal occupation of the nobility,
for success offered glory and rich rewards. If successful, warfare enlarged a
noble's territory; and, if they produced nothing else, forays and raids kept
one active. To die in battle was the only honorable end for a spirited
gentleman; to die in bed was a "cow's death."
The Church and Feudalism
The inclusion of the church in the sytem became a political reality. The
unsettled conditions caused by the Viking and Magyar invasions forced church
officials to enter into close relations with the only power able to offer them
protection - the barons in France and the kings in Germany. Bishops and abbots
thus became vassals, receiving fiefs for which they were obligated to provide
the usual feudal services. The papacy fared even worse; during much of the
tenth and early eleventh centuries the papacy became a political prize sought
after by local Roman nobles.
In time, the church sought to improve the behavior of the warrior
nobility. In addition to attempting to add Christian virtues to chivalry, the
code of knightly conduct, (see ch. 10), the church sought to impose
limitations on warfare. In the eleventh century bishops called the attention
of the knights to the Peace of God and Truce of God. The Peace of God banned
from the sacraments all persons who pillaged sacred places or refused to spare
noncombatants. The Truce of God established "closed seasons" on fighting: from
sunset on Wednesday to sunrise on Monday and certain longer periods, such as
Lent. These regulations were generally ignored.
Medieval society essentially consisted of three classes: nobles,
peasants, and clergy. Each of these groups had its own role. The nobles were
primarily fighters, belonging to an honored society distinct from the freemen
and serfs who made up the peasantry. In an age of physical violence, society
obviously would accord first place to the man with the sword rather than to
the man with the hoe. Members of the clergy came from both the noble and
peasant classes. Although most higher churchmen were sons of nobles and held
land as vassals under local custom, the clergy formed a class that was
considered separate from the nobility and peasantry.