THE FEUDAL SYSTEM
- Introduction -
Over many centuries, mankind has explored many types of political systems. From dictatorships and monarchies to democracies, republics and theocracies, humans always seem to be able to find a better way to run a country. So, what was the feudal system? How did it cater to the needs of this particularly volatile era in history? What were its downfalls and its benefits? How does feudalism compare with modern political systems like democracy and communism? And most importantly, what can we learn from the feudal era?
- How Did It Work? -
The Feudal System was a system of social order - or hierarchy - that was prominent during the 9th to 15th centuries AD. Over these six hundred years, there was effectively no central governments in Europe. Because of this, the people invented their own system.
Naturally, at the top of the Feudal Pyramid, was the most influential individual - the king. A king owned huge swaths of property as a result of his title. He granted this land to his vassals, also called lords or barons, in exchange for money and soldiers. The lords, in return, gave elements of the land they had received to their own vassals - also known as knights. On their part, the knights and their soldiers were loyal to a lord who supplied their land. At the bottom of the Pyramid, were the villeins, the ordinary people. The villeins were labourers, craftsmen and farmers and made up the majority of the population. They were either surfs - basically slaves - or freedmen - people with a little more liberty. Freedmen and surfs received land and protection from their local knight in return for growing food for them.
- Downfalls -
As with any political or social system, feudalism has its downfalls. Firstly, it was not the most efficient system because kings were not in direct control of their subjects. In truth, barons actually possessed more power than monarchs. They could set their own taxes, create their own rules and fashion their own justice system. Another shortcoming was that the vast majority of the population would have been either surfs or freedman, many of whom were quite needy. Although they were provided with land, work and security, villeins had very little control over how the government operated.
- Benefits -
Happily, however, the feudal era was not all doom and gloom. During this time, many public holidays and celebration were initiated. Art, music and education thrived in many places.
In many ways, the feudal system benefited all people - everything was a two-way street. The knights were dependent upon the villeins for food, the barons upon the knights for protection and the king upon the barons for funding. Vitally, each entity had a vested interest in helping those weaker than themselves, because everyone was dependent upon another class. They needed to look out for the less powerful.
Another factor that was an incredible benefit to the individual was that decision-making was localised. While today we generally get a negative image of hierarchy, it was, in reality, of great value to the medieval person. It enabled those closest to the individual - the knight - to make governing decisions for the ordinary citizen. This factor is strikingly similar to one found in the Westminster System. A key feature of the English Westminster System is that of the 'spheres of government'. There is a federal government, an equivalent to the king. Also, state governments, similar to the baron’s regime, and a local government, comparable to the knight’s estate.
Finally, the feudal system provided security in an incredibly chaotic era of world history.
- Conclusion -
Feudalism was remarkably simple. It was also versatile. It adapted to the needs of the era and proved to be magnificently robust.
Interestingly, some of the functions of feudalism are quite similar to those of democracy. There are even a few elements of modern day socialism in it. For one, there was ‘rule of the few’ while the ordinary people were kept poor with no room for growth. Importantly, however, we can get a sense of happiness from the medieval era that is absent today. We also see a lack of general morality in society now that was commonplace during the feudal times.
The feudal system was vitally important for its time - it secured peace and stability - but there are many principles that we can carry across to our lives today.
Researched and Written By
1. Encyclopedia Britannica. (2018). feudalism | Definition & History. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018].
2. History. (2018). Medieval Life - Feudalism and the Feudal System - History. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018].
3. Historyworld.net. (2018). HISTORY OF FEUDALISM. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018].
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Summary: The Feudal System was a political system of hierarchy (or social order) developed after the fall of the Roman Empire. The people of Europe had been used to the stability provided by the Roman Empire. Now, with the destruction of Rome and the invasion of the Viking pirates, the continent was thrown into chaos. Europeans needed a way to cope with the new political atmosphere.
Date: 9th to 15th centuries AD
Prominent during the 9th to 15th centuries AD, the Feudal System was a system of social hierarchy. It provided stability and security for the medieval people during a time of great upheaval.