Elliot Fernandez

The rise of Feudal system in the Middle Ages

During the period between the 8th and 10th centuries, a progressive transformation of the economic and social structures in Western Europe took place, which would have contributed to the subsequent feudal revolution.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2019-12-17 | Updated on 2022-09-14

Towards the year 1000, a political, economic, legal and social system that had been in the making during the VIII-IX centuries, the feudal system, was definitively established in Europe. The Feudal Revolution of year 1000 saw the retreat of the old central royal power, which gave way to a new feudal order in which independent aristocratic knights exercised power over peasant communities through intimidation and threat tactics of violence

The feudal system spaces and the domains of the lordship: the castles

During the long period between the eighth and tenth century, Western Europe experienced a progressive transformation of its economic and social structures. The main focus of this transformation was taxation: from tax collection to new revenue capture. The key concept here is the capture of revenue, very different from that of tax collection.

It was during the process of changing the system of collecting taxes from “state” type to a new system of income capture where the genesis of the new feudal order took place.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, all signs pointed to a paralysis of agricultural technological advances during previous centuries. The chronicles written by the clergy mention periods of famine that caused difficulties for the peasant communities, the monastic centres and the noblemen, who could not corner the rents. There is even talk of the practice of cannibalism.

The feudal ruling class was now a group in progress. There was no ostentation. They had limited ability to collect rents and had difficulty controlling the farmers. The castles of these times were very humble constructions. The little ostentation of the ruling class showed that they had serious difficulties in controlling the population. Throughout this period, slavery disappeared. And there were also constant emancipation (action of giving freedom to the servant or slave).

In the 10th and 11th century, the regime of classical servitude had ended. Equally, the public authority lost its strength and transferred its prerogatives to the local aristocracies. This meant that the rights of the monarchy went to the feudal lords. A privatization of many sectors of the administration was underway. The feudal lords adapted these prerogatives to their needs.

The Franco-Carolingian lordship

Miniature of the time
Miniature of the period

The presence of the lordships is very well documented. The polyptych texts (inventories of the goods of the lords) inform us of the existence of these great lordships, the villae, which were composed by:

How was the land worked?

We find a great heterogeneity in the composition of the feudal land tenure or the mansi. It was a land divided into many portions. Among the depositaries of these tenancies were slaves (serfs property of the lord of the manor). There were also villani (peasants who had already obtained freedom and who had placed themselves under the patronage of a lord) or the mancipi, the freedmen, freed slaves who were already legally free.

In the tenancies censuses were paid, charges (taxes of public origin). They were paid with the corvées, benefits in the form of personal unfree labour (corvée of cultivation or manufacture) that the farmers had to carry out in the stately reserves. The domains or reserves were a direct exploitation of the lord.

But who worked these lands? Serfs (in conditions close to slavery) who were in complete disposition of the lord. In addition, hired labour was complementary and used where more of work to be done. There were also the corvées of the landlord, which were not paid. Notwithstanding, some places escaped this organization.

There was a constant presence of peasant communities outside any sort of domain. They acted autonomously with a social organization based on the lineage, very communal and global. They were found in areas such as the southern Alps and in the most conflictive border areas.

The death of the grandchildren of the Frankish King Louis I the Pious led to the total political crisis in the territory that had become known as the Carolingian Empire. The ancient Kingdom of the Franks had become a half-dozen elective monarchies, which were among them very fragmented. They maintained, however, a certain bond with the Frankish King, but acted on their own. There was no transmission of the captured revenue. The feudal order was already being entered into.

In the 10th century, the political chessboard of Christian Europe was in crisis. A new dynasty, the House of Capet, was enthroned in the Kingdom of the Franks in 987. In today's Switzerland was born the House of Habsburg, destined to be one of the most important dynasties in Europe. The Papacy also went into an absolute crisis. After the death of Pope Formosus, in 896, 8 popes succeeded him in only 10 years.

What was the political situation of the territories that had been part of Charlemagne's Empire?

Europe in the year 1000
Map of Europe of the year 1000

The ancient Kingdom of the Franks entered a process of territorial disintegration. Throughout Europe, there was a retreat of the monarchy as the central institution. On the other hand, the power of the aristocracy was strengthened.

The dissolution of the old public fiscal system degenerated into a private revenue collection regime. The State lost its prerogatives to private individuals, the feudal lords. King himself became a feudal lord.

From this moment on, the monarch had to live exclusively on his goods. The local aristocracies had more and more power and began to act autonomously. These local powers immediately tried to bring more people under their command. There was a hunger for revenue. The peasant communities that were left out of this control will now disappear through submission.

All over Western Europe, feudal lords built their castrum (fortification or military camp). This was also where the space of the parish was placed.

The local aristocrats could also take advantage of a Gothic precept to appropriate the abandoned lands. It consisted of the aprisio.” All the lands that remained free became the property of the count or the feudal lord, since anyone who took charge of an abandoned public land had the right of usufruct over that space. If an indefinite possession could be demonstrated in time, the land would become an allodium, a free and proper land. But there could be loopholes in this law, and precisely for that reason it was a procedure widely used by counts and feudal lords.

Thus, the feudal space was divided among the castri. The feudal districts themselves evolved. This happened because the numbers of the feudal class increased, to make rewards for the loyalties of the nobles, for example. From the second half of the 10th century onward, the birthright system began to be imposed on the succession. The major castri were subdivided, provoking very notable effects between the territory and the population that led to a greater and greater lordly control over the peasant population, reaching much more everywhere.

The castri, which will become fortified castles, were the geographical frame where the transformations took place in the agrarian work, an authentic dimension of the feudal system. Ability to discipline labour processes. This whole process is known as encastellation (concept created by the French historian Pierre Toubert).

Fief-Vassal relation and feudal institutions

Vassalage relations had always been related to feudalism, yet these relations occurred in many other societies. We are talking about personal clientelism relationships. When the State disappeared, it was necessary to establish personal relationships to have a protector institution. The most vulnerable placed themselves under the protection of a powerful person. The aristocracy was not a homogeneous group, it was deeply hierarchical.

The aristocracy as a social group had as a feature that all its members lived from the capture of revenue and that they established fief-vassal relations (relationship of a vassal with the lord in exchange for a beam). These relations formed the feudal pyramid, in which only free men participated; peasants did not partake. Some promised to attend militarily, and the others assured protection.

Much of the support was military, and so we find the formation of private military troops led by a lord (privatization of the army). These personal relationships were formalized in writing. They gave the order according to the hierarchy and received the name of convenience (it was dated).

Division of the population into social sectors during the feudal period
Division of the population into social estates during the feudal period

Then there was a second written document, called the oath of allegiance, and then the investiture of the fief proceeded. The Arab kingdoms paid the feudal count the gold pariahs. To consolidate the power of the Count of Barcelona, he bought castles from the aristocracy and then returned them in the form of a beam.

Tribute Ceremony
Ceremony of the Homage

Main duties of the vassal:

The lord's duties consisted in giving protection to the vassal, especially when the ceded fief was in danger.

The feudal ceremony: homages and oaths

Type of fief:

They were granted according to the category of vassals. The most important lords were granted parts of the castle. The castellans received the castellany (infeudation of a part of the scope of the castle) and the knights received the fief of the chivalry (space that could guarantee the maintenance of a knight).

Catching Peasant Labour: From State Taxation to Feudal Revenue

What defines the new feudal order is the capture of revenue. It is the systemic element: it was an extraordinary coercion by the lord, who was only interested in collecting. The gentleman was at the margin of the whole productive process, but he intervened directly, dictating how this process should be. Peasant production was no longer a free option.

The feudal order introduced far-reaching innovations in the way of living and working of the peasantry. With the feudalization of society, the lords privatized the communal areas, used freely by the peasants before. From that moment on, to be able to use the communal areas, it had to pay fees to the feudal lords. This led to a change in the farmers' diet. The moment there was more production, more hunger was passed.

Revenue, central element of the new medieval society

The feudal lord, through the annuity, ordered the quantity and type of production that the peasants had to produce. The farmers were being imposed production guidelines that implied increasing the area of cultivation. More had to be produced. How could this be done? One way could have been through intensification of cultivation to increase productivity, but this never happened in the Middle Ages. The only thing that could be done was to increase the extension of the crops.

Therefore, the only real alternative to produce more was through the conquest of new areas for the cultivation. The conquests to the outside were largely this consequence. As to cultivate more land, there were tax exemptions and incentives for farmers.

The peasants also did not have the freedom to cultivate any crop. Basically, only the cultivation of cereals, vines and olives was allowed. A new agrarian space was created as a result of feudal revenue. This is a phenomenon that comes from within the system. And this had an impact on the diet of the European peasantry, which lost quality, quantity and diversity.

The axis of the peasant diet was bread. And as a consequence of this great dependence on a single product, when there were crises in wheat harvests, they resulted in authentic famines. Through the revenue, the peasant was forced to produce an amount greater than necessary for their survival and also was not authorized to cultivate any product, but rather specific products.

There were three basic mechanisms used to extend the cultivation areas:

During the medieval period, time-consuming and complex work was carried out.

Feudal technical system

The use of oats to feed livestock was also widespread.

The inventions of this period are more of diffusion than of invention. In less time, more work was done. They are not but great improvements of yield of the production, the productivity did not increase. It will be the same, but we will have worked faster. More and more windmills and water mills are used to generate movement.

The space gained in the field will gradually lose fertility, producing smaller harvests. This meant that they continually had to look for new fronts of colonization.

Products harvested

In the Mediterranean basin, the most frequent crops were cereals and vines (olive trees, oil production). The lords were interested in promoting and encouraging certain crops, as in this way they sold the product in the cities. When a lord made an establishment (contract) with a peasant, what contained the contract was: who was the lord of the land, who received the land, the usufruct, who worked it, where the land was, sometimes it is said which was the surface and often put conditions such as: condition of planting vines, olive trees ….

Through what lordly mechanisms could they control peasant production?

That would be three great mechanisms:

The lords had some instruments that the farmers had to use obligatorily and that served to control the production: the seigneurial monopolies (exclusive of the property) as they were the mills, the use of the water, etc. The lords had some instruments that the farmers had to use obligatorily and that served to control the production: the stately monopolies (exclusive of the property) as they were the mills, the use of the water, etc. Moreover, the lords established how water partitions were to be made (water partition regime). They had the monopoly of the permissions for the construction of mills, and they forced the servants to use these instruments.

The peasantry collective was very heterogeneous. There were even peasants who had captured a lot of land. Thanks to the “cabreos,” land terrier, it was possible to know which lands the farmers had.