Medieval Europe conjures images of brave knights and heroic battles. However the reality of life in medieval Europe was hard, especially for the poor. Society had a rigid structure that meant the modern concept of ‘climbing the social ladder’ was nearly impossible. Your role in life was determined by whether or not you owned land. Feudalism describes a kind of society where this key factor shapes all the relationships that make up a society. Feudalism flourished in Europe between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.
A feudal society can be broken up into four main parts. Starting at the top, there was the King who had ultimate power over the entire country.
Next came the nobility, also known as Lords, who owned parts of the King’s land in exchange for promising to fight for him, essentially becoming his military.
The Lords would rent out their land to men who they truly trusted and could rely on to be loyal to them. These men are called vassals. The Lord would allow his vassals to control part of his land and all the people living on it. In exchange the vassals would pay their Lord rent in the form of taxes collected from the people living on the land. The vassals would also be expected to provide military service if their Lord called upon them.
At the very bottom of feudal society came the peasants, who had to do as their Lords and vassals commanded. This meant farming the land and giving their Lord some of the resulting produce. In return their Lord was meant to provide the peasants with some kind of military protection. However this was often not a promise that was kept.
Feudalism eventually came to an end for a number of different reasons. This included the plague that killed so many peasants that those who were left behind were more valuable and so had slightly more ‘people power’. The peasants began banding together to demand change. At the same time land ownership became less important as people shifted from the countryside to towns for work. The nobility also began to become increasingly less helpful to the King as they did not want to serve in the military, instead wanting to pay money for the privilege of being a Lord. Ultimately feudalism ended in Europe in the 1400’s.