Tuesday 15 December 2009

A very brief introduction to European Feudalism

European feudalism developed out of expediency in the times of the fall of Rome. Germanic tribes were divided from each other and nations did not exist, but territories were occupied by groups of people with warrior kings at their heads. Tribal migrations and pillaging warrior bands created a European scene marked by danger and strife. The majority of people lived off the land as farmers, and even the higher ranks of society were farmers. In the time of Roman rule, those under Roman authority also had Roman support, but the collapse of the Roman Empire reversed the scene so that Rome no longer protected people from Germanic tribes, but instead Rome was invaded by Germanic tribes. This changed the power base of the continent.

Warriors gained power by gaining support from warrior-farmers, and these warriors became tribal leaders and kings. Multiple tribes could unite, and even multiple kings united under high kings (Ireland is notorious for its plethora of kings with stratified rank). Warrior leaders obtained their followings and maintained personal security forces by gift-giving; silver, gold, weapons, and even food were generously released from the leader's possession to his comrades. This wealth needed to have an avenue of supply, and although food could be sourced from the landholdings of the leader, the primary supplier of the treasure used by leaders to buy support was the victims of plundering raids. These raids targeted the less defended villages because of the danger of equal combat in battle. The strong preying upon the weak was a defining characteristic of the early medieval European pillage and gift economy; in light of these practices, it is apparent why the stage was set for the mutual dependency relationship of reciprocal vassalage.

Feudalism developed as a means of survival. The lower ranks of society needed land and protection, and the higher ranks of society needed labourers and soldiers. Without land, a person could not farm and would starve; without labour, a landowner could not run a farm and would have no food production. Without a warrior leader, villagers could not form an organised militia and would rout easily when attacked. The European mainland nobility came from the ranks of former Roman military commanders, or were non-Roman warrior leaders, and therefore understood combat and fighting forces; they knew how to fight, but needed soldiers. Although these warrior leaders often had personal followings of household troops, the forces were small and not adequate for defence against major assaults, but were only sufficient for contending with pesky neighbouring warrior leaders. The feudal system started as a simple co-operation movement of people uniting for survival.

Mutual obligation between the people in the feudal relationship provided for the needs of both parties. As Europe became more unified, countries emerged. Kings owned the territories they controlled, and as their influence grew so did their landholdings. For these kings, who emerged out of the petty warrior kings of the past, officers were essential. Officers were needed for an army, and an army was needed to keep the kingdom. Officers were also needed to enforce the kings control over the regions of the kingdom, otherwise the king's court was all that empowered rule, and so the king's influence only lasted and extended to the locations and times of the royal court's residence. Lords emerged out of the warrior leaders of the past, and became leaders of manorial estates that took the form of plantations. These lords needed landholdings for their farms and peasantry, and the king needed taxes; if the king did not receive taxes, he would confiscate the land, which he thought belonged to him, and give it to a loyal lord. Lords also needed protection from the armies of other kings. This became a multi-levelled system of service and land giving. Kings lent land to lords, who in turn lent the land to peasants. Peasants promised service to lords, who in turn promised service to kings. This basic system became more complicated as time went on, with added ranks and variations, but remained the same structural essence.

The feudal system was very much like the modern system of employment, in which employers need employees under them for work to be accomplished, and employees need employers over them to supply them with work, both seeking the other out because of mutual need. In feudalism, nobles needed vassals and sought them out, and vassals needed nobles and sought them out, entering the relationship out of desire for the benefits contained therein. The most important aspect of European feudal life was the reciprocal relationship of mutual need. The lives of the serfs may have been miserable, but they were less miserable than they would have been if they were out of the feudal relationship. Manorial villages provided community and protection for everyone. The feudal system was because of survival expediency.

Feudalism originally was not a form of slavery and oppression (as understood by people of today, mostly influenced by France and very late Medieval and Renaissance times as viewed through the chronological bias lens of later eras trying to make their own time look better by changing the image of earlier years, a form of propaganda generated by Enlightenment persons) but was a system designed to protect people by forming a syndicate; the peasants were given land and protection from the lord, and the lord was given labour and military service from the peasants. The term "lord" comes from "hlāfweard" meaning "loaf-ward", or the keeper of the bread; the meaning of "lord" displays the concept of provision and generosity being the defining attributes and honour of rulers. This feudal system provided for the vital needs of the people and supplied protection, and protection was an important concern in a violent age with many marauding tribes pillaging and plundering and exacting treasures from their neighbours. Feudalism originated from freemen voluntarily becoming peasants under more powerful local chieftains (voluntary is a loose term, for circumstances and the land possessions of the chieftains, coupled with the political instability and violent hazards, gave them no other option).