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Middle Ages Main Page 


page 2

Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages


page 3

The Church In The Early Middle Ages


page 4

Conclusion to Pages 1, 2 & 3


page 5

The Making Of Modern Britain

page 6

Beginnings of the French Nation

page 7

Re-conquest of Spain

page 8

Government in Germany & Italy

page 9

The Crusades

page 10

The Rise of Trade and Towns

page 11

The Church in the Middle Ages I

page 12

The Church in the Middle Ages II

page 13

The Intellectual Synthesis Of The High Middle Ages

page 14



Additional Topics

Dancing In The Middle Ages

Castle Life

Cultural Expression

Dynamics of the Middle Ages

Influences of Christianity

Monks and Monasticism

Monetary System

Peasant's Life

The Rise of Towns


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

local practices.




     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

Charlemagne's empire.


     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.


Class Structure


     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.


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