A Brief History of Feudal Society
The year was 476, flames leapt through the crumbling buildings of Rome. Once the beating heart Western Civilization the former capital now lay in waste, it’s emperor defeated by barbarians. What was to be the fate of Europe? With Western Rome gone, the only classical power left lay far to the East with the Byzantines. Without any centralized power, Europe fractured into chaos. Hundreds of small dutchies independent of any higher authority began to spring up. These small countries organised into an entirely new class system: where once stood the emperor in supreme authority now came thousands of feudal lords, wealthy merchants, and the catholic church. Thus dawned the medieval era; a thousand years of darkness unto Western civilization yet, at the same time, the formation of a new identity and shared history that would lead into future empires. To understand these changes, this paper will delve into the daily lives and culture of medieval society. The life, literature, and politics of a people free to build a new world for themselves in the shadow of the old.
The first new development of the medieval era came through widespread prevalence of feudalism. In essence, Feudalism was the glue that held medieval society together. By depriving most of the population of any ability to own and farm land, it created a rigid class system via which wealthy members of the nobility could keep the peasants, the majority of the populace, in a constant state of subjugation. Most peasants had no other option than to become serfs under a noble lord, a state which was essentially slavery. Serfs worked land owned by the lord in return for a portion of the food which they grew. Without any ability to raise money themselves they were given no opportunity to work and improve their social status. While the nobility became rich off the work of their laborers, even the most powerful of lords still had to be wary of the Church. Centered from the pope in Rome, the catholic church had an iron grip on Europe for hundreds of years after the Empire.
Members of the nobility had little choice but to contribute to the church for fear that otherwise they would face the wrath of God, or worse, excommunication by the pope. This is precisely what happened the Henry IV who had been the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire until has excommunication in 1105 after which he was forced to abdicate his throne. Due to his uncomparable influence on others in Europe the pope was probably the most powerful person on the continent. At least until Martin Luther came around, but that’s out of the scope of this paper. For the majority of Medieval Europeans the church stood for their only hope of ever achieving salvation. Since most peasants could not read at all, much less understand latin, they needed the many priests and churches to have a chance at eternal happiness. As the old saying goes, when eternity is on the line, best to pay your dues to the church. It was this iron grip on the populace which gave the Catholic church the funds to rival even the largest power blocks of nations including the Holy Roman Empire.
Due to the rigid system imposed by Feudalism members of different classes rarely interacted with each other in real life. However, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides an interesting look into the lives different professions of the dark ages, each hailing from a different cast. This is done in the form of a pilgrimage during which a band of varied travelers engage each other in a story telling contest. From a chivalrous knight to a stone faced monk, Chaucer portrays the daily lives of those from the medieval era. Yet, through these relatable characters, Chaucer tells stories from a bygone era. For instance, the knight’s tale tells of Theseus of Ancient Greece. Yet, in retelling the tale Chaucer tries to bring in themes popular in the medieval era.
Theseus is represented as a chivalrous knight, one of virtue and honor. In his judgement of the two brothers Arcite and Palamon, Theseus, who at first succumbed to rage in their imprisonment, decides to refrain from taking the brothers’ lives and instead has them challenge each other in honorable combat. In this way, through the knight’s tale, Chaucer gives the ancient myths of Greece the trappings of Medieval chivalry. References and stories from the old empires of Rome and Greece are prevalent throughout all of Chaucer’s tales. While the Roman Empire reigned over Europe no more, it seems that its legacy still remained at the center of Medieval literature.
For all the Canterbury Tales genius, it is fair to assume that, during their time, they would not have been widely read. In fact, it would be fair to say that no books were widely read during Medieval times. This is largely due to two main factors. First, there simply weren’t a lot of books. Since Europe wouldn’t see the printing press for centuries after Chaucer’s death all books had to be copied by hand. This meant that obtaining a book was virtually an impossible task for the common person. Only the rich or noble could afford such luxuries. Even when there were books, most people in dark ages were illiterate. Since education was both expensive and time consuming, it was out of reach to most of the population. Just as it was in obtaining books, only those with power and wealth knew how to read them. It is amazing and easily taken for granted how in modern times how easily we have access to almost unlimited amounts of information. This simply was not possible in the Medieval Era and had a large influence on Feudalism. After all, it is much easier for the ignorant to be ruled by the educated than vise versa. Education also allows for class mobility, something that was not possible during Feudalism. Illiterate and uneducated most of the population had little option but to submit to the rule of the clergy and nobility.
Medieval politics were truly complicated. Unlike today, a map of 11th century Europe looks like a fractured mess of small independent countries. Large nations like France, England, and Germany had not yet truly consolidated their power under a single crown. However, there was large conglomeration of power known as the Holy Roman Empire. The origins of the Empire laid in the pope’s crowning of Charlemagne as emperor in the 9th century. This coronation, however, was largely symbolic as the HRE (Holy Roman Empire) didn’t actually exist yet and no one besides Rome recognized the title as important. In contrast, by the 12th century, the HRE was centered in what would be modern day Germany and held almost as much influence as the papacy itself. Still, while the HRE had empire in its name, it wasn’t truly a new Rome. While the emperor had some central authority, the empire was composed of hundreds of small states each ruled by separate princes.
Unless the empire was in a large war or crusade, these small states were largely autonomous. Truly, while the HRE was a large power in Europe, it was not truly a new Roman Empire. During the 14th century the empire suffered another blow. The last emperor to be crowned by the pope was Henry the VII after which new emperors were chosen through an elective monarchy controlled by German princes. With its last connection to the papacy gone the Empire became far more secular than before and could be best described by this quote from Voltaire, “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” Once the center of European power, the empire had become nothing more than German politics signaling the end of the last vestiges of Roman tradition.
The medieval era, however, did not end peacefully. For hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, Europe was cast into the shadows of the world. The fragmented kingdoms lacked anything near the dominance Rome had once projected over the area. At the beginning of the 11th century Europe was becoming more organised. Both under the papacy and through the HRE, states now had at least some form of central leadership. The crusades were perhaps the most ambitious feat of Europe since the Roman times. The first crusade began, as most atrocities do, with an impassioned zealot’s speech. In 1095, Pope Urban II presided over the council of Clermont where he urged militants to gather in a Crusade to the holy land (Britannica, 2018). Thus began the centuries long history of the crusades and thousands upon thousands of needless deaths.
While the complete history of the Crusades is beyond the scope of this paper, let it suffice to say that Jerusalem was sacked, burned, and looted many times. Some crusading armies never even reached the holy land and instead occupied themselves with burning and killing local Jewish populations. The ability of the church to muster these large forces to combat heretics shows how much influence it had in Medieval Europe. Through Catholicism, the pope had an authority over everyone from the most humble laborer to the most powerful king, and the ability to command an army united through Europe. It was this unity, formed during the crusades, that would change Europe’s position in the world and help form the great empires of today.
From the ashes of the Roman empire came Medieval Europe and, as it seems fitting, the end of the dark ages came from the blinding light of the Renaissance, a rebirth and rediscovery of classicism. The HRE, once the bastien of christendom, was now decayed beyond any real power, making way for the new empires of France, England, Italy, and Germany. The blind faith in the catholic church would too soon be challenged as new philosophy and religious ideas were born. And yet, while the political institutions of Europe were reborn, what of the common man? What of the peasants and surfs? While serfdom was abolished in England during the 16th century, the majority of peasants faced the same economic conditions they had laboured under for the past one thousands years. If anything, the nobility only increased in power and influence, benefiting from the deep system of entrenched inequality. The nobility of the medieval era became the Dukes and Princes of the Enlightenment, the Governors of Colonialism, and the great capitalists of the Industrial Revolution.
The influence of the medieval period on European history lies, in the end, more in the social structure of modern society and less in the political. After the protestant reformation, colonial empires, and two world wars, little remains of the HRE, papal state, and feudal fiefdoms. However, our modern ideals on wealth and poverty can be traced back to the Feudal System. Today, we still live in a society ruled by class. Millionaires and Billionaires stand at the top benefiting from the labour of the lower classes. Yes, the common man is better off, but still many people work for less than a survival wage. The dark ages were defined by Feudalism; a society suffocated by class. As we strive to create a more equal, modern society it is worth looking back on the forces of history: the popes, empires, religions, and lords who dictated the suffering of millions. The inequalities of the Medieval era are still worth remembering because they still exist today. In finding new solutions for society today we must learn from the mistakes of the past. In the end, perhaps we will be able to finally create a society in which wealth, class, and religion cease to play a domineering role in our lives.