Chapter 11 A New Civilization in Western Europe: the Rise of Latin Christendom, 476-1350


Section 2 Feudalism, Manorialism, and the Church


In its weakened state, the Carolingian Empire could no longer guarantee the safety of its people against invaders. Soon, smaller kingdoms emerged in Europe. Generally headed by weak kings, real power in these kingdoms rested in the hands of local nobles. In return for land, these nobles pledged military service to the kings and provided protection to the local peoples. As civilization retreated to the local level, new political and economic systems emerged that emphasized personal loyalty, mutual responsibilities, and local self-sufficiency. Yet despite these challenges to European unity, the church continued to bind people together in a larger sense of Christian identity.

The Emergence of Feudal Society

The Carolingian government�like earlier Germanic kingdoms�had long granted nobles land in exchange for military service. When the land passed to new generations, the obligation of service passed with it.[17] After the dynasty�s collapse, this exchange of land for service took on new importance. Although rich in land, the rulers of the kingdoms that emerged after the end of the Carolingian Empire were generally too weak to protect their people from invasion. The burden of protection fell increasingly on local nobles, some of whom were as powerful as the kings they served.

            Providing protection meant supporting large numbers of foot soldiers as well as mounted warriors called knights. Both foot soldiers and especially knights, with their horses and equipment, were expensive to maintain. Thus nobles demanded land from the new kings in exchange for providing these troops. In return, the kings demanded pledges of loyalty and faithfulness from the nobles, and promises of support in times of war. Nobles then granted portions of their land to their own knights in exchange for similar pledges of loyalty and service. The person who granted the land�or fief, as it was called�became a lord. The person who received the land became a vassal. Because fiefs could be subdivided, one might be both a lord and a vassal. For each fief vassals were expected to pledge their military service, often including a set number of knights and foot soldiers. This practice later came to be called feudalism.

Tournament from the Codex Manesse. Book illumination depicting the melee, or general combat, in a knightly tournament, from

            Feudalism was above all a personal set of mutual obligations between lord and vassal. At the heart of feudalism was the oath of loyalty. In front of witnesses, a vassal placed his clasped hands between those of the lord and pledged to become "his man." The new relationship was usually sealed by a kiss between the two men. The vassal then took an oath of faithfulness. For his part, the lord also promised to �do justice� for the vassal and his family. If he failed to ensure such justice, the vassal might rightfully conclude that the bonds of the relationship had been broken, and that he no longer owed the lord his loyalty.[18] Galbert of Bruges, a Flemish chronicler, offered the following account of the oath-taking ceremony between Count William of Flanders and his new vassals in 1127: 

"He who had done homage gave his fealty to the representative of the count in these words, 'I promise on my faith that I will in future be faithful to count William, and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit,' and . . . took his oath to this upon the relics of the saints. Afterward, with a little rod which the count held in his hand, he gave investitures to all who by this agreement had given their security and homage and accompanying oath." 

            Feudalism would not have been possible without the mounted knight. The knight, in turn, would not have been possible without a revolution in the technology of mounted warfare � notably the introduction of stirrups[19] and redesigned saddles that gave more body support in front and back. The stirrup, which appeared in Western Europe sometime in the late 600s or early 700s, was probably brought from China by nomadic invaders. With stirrups and the support of the new saddles, a knight could stand as he galloped forward to engage the enemy putting more force into his attack. In addition, the added stability provided by stirrups allowed knights to wear heavier and heavier body armor to protect themselves against arrows and swords. The first recorded use of such heavily clad and armed knights in Western Europe was by Charles Martel in the early 700s.

Knights were the early equivalent of the modern tank. Virtually nothing could stop even a small group of them charging together at full gallop. The only drawback was that all their equipment was extremely expensive. Few ordinary warriors could afford it. Only landowners with sufficient income could outfit a knight. Another important feature of the feudal military system was the increasing use of the castle, from which a fief could be protected in times of war and controlled during times of peace. 

Author's Commentary: Feudalism

Although the basic elements of what we now call feudalism were eventually used throughout much of Europe, it is important to understand that feudalism was not a single, unified, and universal system from the beginning. Rather, it developed over time. Even the term feudalism was not coined until the early 1800s. Feudalism can be understood best perhaps as part of a larger and more diverse social system in which aristocratic patrons established various kinds of relationships with "clients". Some clients, for example, might simply act as a lord's household retainers or servants. In exchange for food and shelter, they would provide both military service when necessary, and perhaps act as household guards, or even farm managers.

            The exchange of land for service, the heart of feudalism, was the highest form of such a patronage system, and the least common. For one thing, there were far more potential clients around than there was land to give them. One consequence of this shortage of land and the abundance of potential fief-holders was an expansion of feudalism from its heartland in the old Frankish kingdoms. Lords sought more land, in order to give it to more vassals, who could then provide more soldiers with which to take more land.

            Under this kind of pressure, feudalism spread from northern Europe into regions unfamiliar with it. The Normans, for example, after extending the practice to England during the Norman Conquest in 1066, also tried to carry it into Wales and Ireland, where Celtic peoples still lived under very different ideas of land ownership. Other Norman and northern French knights also tried to carve out fiefs for themselves by conquering Sicily and parts of southern Italy. In Eastern Europe, too, German knights began to spread into lands still held by pagan Slavic tribes in order to obtain landed fiefs.

            Sometimes, local peoples themselves saw the advantages of feudalism, particularly when threatened by neighbors who practiced it. Scottish kings, for example, fearful of the growing strength of feudal knights and especially the building of castles across their borders, deliberately invited some Anglo-Norman nobles to settle in southern Scotland as their own vassals. Thus, the lowlands of Scotland became a feudal region. Where such expansion was unsuccessful, however, as for example in the Scottish highlands, where clan organization remained the rule, and in most of central and northern Italy, feudalism did not take hold and older forms of patronage remained the rule. Europe thus remained a region of enormous social diversity. 

The Manorial System

Feudalism was essentially a political and military system. The primary economic system during this period was the manorial system. Under the manorial system, a lord gave peasants the right to work the land on his estate - or manor - in return for a fixed payment. While a small fief might have only one manor, large fiefs had several.

            The manor consisted of the manor house or castle, pastures, fields, woods, and a village. The lord kept about one third of the manor land, called the domain, for himself.[20] Peasants farmed the remaining two thirds of the land.[21] In exchange they gave the lord part of their crops, paid feudal taxes, worked his land, and did various other jobs on the manor.[22] A typical manor village might be located on a pond or stream that furnished waterpower for a mill. Houses would usually cluster together for safety a short distance away from the manor house or castle. The manor�s land surrounded the village[23] and included vegetable plots, cultivated fields, open pastureland, and forests. As town life dwindled and trade diminished, most manors became nearly self-sufficient. Only a few items, such as iron, salt, and tar, might have to be imported.

Peasant life. Most peasants on a manor were serfs who could not leave the land without their lord's permission. Serfs were not slaves, since they could not be sold away from the land. If the land passed to a new lord, the serfs became the new lord's tenants. In addition, manors often had some free people who rented land from the lord. Free people might include skilled workers necessary to the village economy, such as millers and blacksmiths.[24] Most villages also had a priest to provide for spiritual needs.

            Peasants usually lived in small single-room wooden houses with earthen floors,[25] which the family shared with their animals.[26] Food was simple - coarse brown bread, cheese, vegetables, and on occasion pork or bacon. In northern Europe people usually drank beer with their meals; in the south they drank wine.[27] The family worked as a unit. Men tended to do most of the heavy farming, including labor on the lord's lands.[28] Women made the family's clothing, cooked, tended the vegetable garden, and foraged through the woods for nuts, berries, and firewood.[29] Children helped herd sheep, tend poultry, and care for younger brothers and sisters.[30] At harvest time, the whole family helped bring in the crops.[31] Life expectancy was short due to hunger, disease, accidents, and chronic warfare.

Life of the nobility. Although the nobility had more wealth and power than serfs, they did not necessarily lead luxurious or easy lives. Disease and accidents affected them also, and they were responsible for the welfare of their vassals and serfs during times of famine and warfare. Many noble families lived in castles that served as a base for protecting the lord's domain and enforcing his authority.[32]  The lord might spend much of his day administering his land and dispensing justice to vassals and serfs. Sometimes he might carry out inspection tours of his domain to ensure that he received the services and rents he was due.[33] He might have to spend some time each year fighting, either for his own lord or for himself.

            Women in a noble household had their own important duties. They supervised the running of the household,[34] helped prepare men's clothing and equipment for battle,[35] and governed the estate when their husbands or fathers were away.[36] They also cared for the sick and injured,[37] provided religious instruction to the household,[38] and cared for the children. Mothers were responsible for securing their children's education. Daughters often went to the home of a respected lady to learn how to manage a large household in preparation for marriage.[39] There they learned the manners and skills expected in noble society.[40] Sons went to live in knightly households as early as the age of eight, where they learned to ride, to handle the sword, lance and heavy shield, to swing an ax, and to do their duties with knightly manners. 

The Church

While feudalism and the manorial system served to fragment European society, common Christian beliefs pulled people back together. For most, life centered on the parish church. Religious ceremonies marked every major event in a person's life, from birth to death. Frequent religious festivals offered everyone an opportunity to celebrate and socialize.

            Many nobles gave large amounts of money and land to monasteries and convents in an effort to safeguard their souls and the souls of their relatives. They believed that having religious men and women praying for them would help erase some of their own sins and make it easier for them and their families to enter heaven.[41] Nobles also found monastic careers useful for widows, daughters who did not marry, and younger sons who would not inherit their fathers' lands.[42] With such benefactors, many religious orders became extremely wealthy.[43]

            As monasteries and the church in general became increasingly involved in the feudal system, problems arose. Many churches and monastic communities received their land from nobles in return for payments or armed knights.[44] Consequently, before about 1000, many nobles actually appointed abbots, frequently from their own families. Kings even appointed bishops and archbishops.

            By the 900s, some people were calling for reforms. Among these was Duke William of Aquitaine. When he founded the abbey of Cluny in the early 900s, he required that the monastery answer only to the pope.[45] Freed from feudal obligations, the monks would be able to focus all of their attention on their spiritual work. The monks of Cluny became well known for their discipline and for their close ties to the pope.[46] Reformers flocked to Cluny to learn how to transform their own monasteries, and pious nobles richly endowed the reformed institutions.

            In an effort to extend the discipline of the monastery to all Christendom, the monks of Cluny encouraged the development of a uniform set of sacraments, the most important ceremonies of the church, through which Christians could achieve salvation. By the 1100s church leaders recognized seven sacraments: baptism (admission to the Christian community); Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion); confirmation (admission to church membership); penance (acts showing repentance for sins), the taking of Holy Orders (admission to the priesthood); matrimony (marriage); and extreme unction (anointing the sick and dying). The parish priest could administer all sacraments, except confirmation and ordination, which had to be performed by the bishops.

            The centerpiece of worship became the Eucharist. The church taught that in celebrating the Eucharist those who sought forgiveness for their sins could share in the Body and Blood of Christ. Although bread and wine were used in the ceremony, the doctrine of transubstantiation taught that God's power transformed them into the elements of Christ's body and blood. By sharing in this sacred meal, people hoped to be reunited with God. As the Eucharist gained in importance, so too did the role of priests. They were now seen as mediators between Christ and the people - just as Christ was seen as the mediator between the church and God. Soon, the church forbade priests to marry. Since they acted in a sense as channels for God's power when they presided over the Eucharist, they had to remain pure and holy.


Section 2 Review 

Identify.  knight, fief, lord, vassal, feudalism, manorial system, domain, William of Aquitaine, sacraments, transubstantiation

1. Main Idea.  How was the feudal system organized?

2. Main Idea.  What was life like for peasants and nobles on the manor?

3. Technology.  How did technological innovations allow knights to become the most powerful military force in Europe?

4. Writing to Explain.  Explain how the feudal system caused the fragmentation of European society.

5. Synthesizing.  How did the Roman church begin to change by the 900s? Why did reformers seek to change the church?