Before the period known as the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire controlled most of Western Europe. Under Roman rule, Europe was organized and unified region. But in 400 A.D., the Roman Empire was split in two: the western half and the eastern half. Over time, the east thrived, while the west declined. Various Germanic tribes began to move into the countries of Western Europe; they lived under their own laws and under the rule of their own chiefs or kings. Without a central government, life for the people of the West changed greatly.
At the start of the middle ages, Europe was divided into small areas ruled by local lords and each of the lords made their own set of laws to follow; this often led to much conflict and disorder. During this time, the most successful ruler was a Frankish king named Charlemagne, whose empire included much of western and central Europe. Charlemagne maintained order throughout his realm and kept watch on the nobles and landlords, who were in the habit of doing as they wished. Charlemagne sent special agents into every district to see if the nobles followed his orders. He also rewarded the nobles for their military support. In exchange for providing knights, he gave nobles grants of land. This practice laid the foundation of feudalism, a system of government in which land was exchanged for military service by knights.
The rise of feudalism in Medieval Europe greatly affected the social structure, specifically the rights and responsibilities of those who were in the noble and peasant class. This rigid social structure, in turn, considerably impacted the society in different ways, ranging from the daily life of the people to the overall economy.
Feudalism is the most distinctive and significant factor of the early and central middle ages. Feudalism was the social, economic and political structure of Western Europe during this time. In the early middle ages, feudalism permeated every aspect of society and economics, determining everything from relationships between kings and lords, to how farmers grew and made use of their crops. Because Europe’s economy was agriculturally based, feudalism formed a social stratification that separated the different classes, yet, at the same time, bound them together with ties of loyalty, obligation and service.
The person of the higher social standing would offer protection and patronage. In exchange, the person on the lower level offered loyalty and promised to deliver their profits, such as crops or a portion of money earned.
During the early Middle Ages, feudalism was most prominent among rural areas of Europe, mainly in present day France, Germany, and England. The main force behind feudalism was economics. The more urban areas, such as Italy, Spain and Southern France, never fully adopted the system. Because Europe was so rural at that time, economics became synonymous with agriculture. Feudalism was directly related to land: how it was used and who received the benefits from it.
“In a period when wars and famine were incessant, service, in exchange for protection, became the keynote of society”
- Historian Marjorie Rowling
The Social Hierarchy
In the feudal system, most of the rights and privileges were given to the Upper classes. In the hierarchical structure, the kings were at the topmost position, followed by nobles, knights and vassals or peasants.
A crucial aspect of these arrangements was loyalties. A member of a given class swore loyalty to the person above him, making a solemn promise called an oath of fealty. This connection proceeded up and down the entire feudal hierarchy.
Feudalism was a complex arrangement that defined the relationships of the different levels of the social hierarchy. These relationships were based on personal ties; for instance, a lord might guarantee a peasant a place on his land because their family may have worked there for generations.