Feudalism and Medieval life Feudalism

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Feudalism and Medieval life

Feudalism. The social structure of the Middle Ages was organized round the system of Feudalism. Feudalism in practice meant that the country was not governed by the king but by individual lords, or barons, who administered their own estates, dispensed their own justice, minted their own money, levied taxes and tolls, and demanded military service from vassals. Usually the lords could field greater armies than the king. In theory the king was the chief feudal lord, but in reality the individual lords were supreme in their own territory. Many kings were little more than figurehead rulers.

Feudal Ties. Feudalism was built upon a relationship of obligation and mutual service between vassals and lords. A vassal held his land, or fief, as a grant from a lord. When a vassal died, his heir was required to publicly renew his oath of faithfulness (fealty) to his lord (suzerain). This public oath was called "homage".

A Vassal's Obligations. The vassal was required to attend the lord at his court, help administer justice, and contribute money if needed. He must answer a summons to battle, bringing an agreed upon number of fighting men. As well, he must feed and house the lord and his company when they travelled across his land.

This last obligation could be an onerous one. William the Conqueror travelled with a very large household, and if they extended their stay it could nearly bankrupt the lord hosting them. In a few days of Christmas feasting one year William and his retinue consumed 6,000 chickens, 1,000 rabbits, 90 boars, 50 peacocks, 200 geese, 10,000 eels, thousands of eggs and loaves of bread, and hundreds of casks of wine and cider.

A Lord's Obligations. On the lord's side, he was obliged to protect the vassal, give military aid, and guard his children. If a daughter inherited, the lord arranged her marriage. If there were no heirs the lord disposed of the fief as he chose.

Manors. Manors, not villages, were the economic and social units of life in the early Middle Ages. A manor consisted of a manor house, one or more villages, and up to several thousand acres of land divided into meadow, pasture, forest, and cultivated fields. The fields were further divided into strips; 1/3 for the lord of the manor, less for the church, and the remainder for the peasants and serfs. This land was shared out so that each person had an equal share of good and poor. At least half the work week was spent on the land belonging to the lord and the church. Time might also be spent doing maintenance and on special projects such as clearing land, cutting firewood, and building roads and bridges. The rest of the time the villagers were free to work their own land.

Food and Drink. The fare at the lord's table was as full of variety as the peasant's was spare. Meat, fish, pastries, cabbage, turnips, onions, carrots, beans, and peas were common, as well as fresh bread, cheese, and fruit. At a feast spitted boar, roast swan, or peacock might be added.

Normans dining

Wine or ale was drunk, never water, which was rightly considered suspect. Ale was the most common drink, but it was not the heady alcoholic drink we might imagine. It was thin, weak, and drunk soon after brewing. It must have had little effect on sobriety. Fruit juices and honey were the only sweeteners, and spices were almost unknown until after the Crusades.

Table Manners. Meat was cut with daggers and all eating was done with the fingers from trenchers, or hollowed out husks of bread. One trencher was used by two people, and one drinking cup. Scraps were thrown on the floor for the dogs to finish. There were no chimneys, and the fireplace was in the middle of the hall. Smoke escaped by the way of louvres in the roof (at least in theory).

House Layout. In the early medieval period the centre of life in castles and manors was the great hall, a huge, multipurpose chamber safely built upon the second floor. These halls were dimly lit, due to the need for massive walls with small windows for defense from attack. In the 14th century the hall descended to the ground floor, and windows grew in size, indicating increased security. The solar, or family room, remained on the first floor. It became the custom for the family to eat in the solar, leaving the great hall to minor guests and servants.

Hall life decreased as trade increased. Trades specialized and tradesmen and women moved out of the hall. The communal life of the hall declined and families became more private. Manors sustained fewer people as trades separated from the manor community.

The Serf's Life. Although not technically a slave, a serf was bound to a lord for life. He could own no property and needed the lord's permission to marry. Under no circumstance could a serf leave the land without the lord's permission unless he chose to run away. If he ran to a town and managed to stay there for a year and a day, he was a free man. However, the serf did have rights. He could not be displaced if the manor changed hands. He could not be required to fight, and he was entitled to the protection of the lord.

Role of Women
It should come as no surprise that women, whether they were nobles or peasants, held a difficult position in society. They were largely confined to household tasks such as cooking, baking bread, sewing, weaving, and spinning. However, they also hunted for food and fought in battles, learning to use weapons to defend their homes and castles. Some medieval women held other occupations. There were women blacksmiths, merchants, and apothecaries. Others were midwives, worked in the fields, or were engaged in creative endeavors such as writing, playing musical instruments, dancing, and painting.

Some women were known as witches, capable of sorcery and healing. Others became nuns and devoted their lives to God and spiritual matters. Famous women of the Middle Ages include the writer Christine de Pisan; the abbess and musician Hildegard of Bingen; and the patron of the arts Eleanor of Aquitaine. A French peasant's daughter, Joan of Arc, or St. Joan, heard voices telling her to protect France against the English invasion. She dressed in armor and led her troops to victory in the early fifteenth century. "The Maid of Orleans" as she was known, was later burned as a witch.


The Medieval Times began in the 1400's and ended when the cannon was invented, in the 1500's, which made the castles as they had been built useless. Cannons were able to knock down the castles with ease and therefore made them a waste for defense.

The King had a very important role in the daily life of the people of the Medieval Times.

The King's Role

Some of the Kings were great and some brought shame to their countries. When they used their money wisely and helped the peasants then they were grateful. The King allowed peasants to live on his land but did charge them taxes. Sometimes the taxes would be giving part of the crop to the King or working for the King. This was more of a barter type system to pay for the taxes. The King was the most powerful ruler in that area. He controlled the laws and the people who lived around him. If they broke his rules they were often put to death or sent to the dungeons, which often resulted in death.

A good King would give presents to his people for all the work they did for him, but a mean and horrible King would be "black hearted" and not spread the great joy of the celebration. For example he might increase the taxes and bring despair to his people and his country. This would eventually lead to the unrest of his people.

The King was the maker of the laws that everyone had to obey because of his power. The King was thought to be a ruler of everyone and everything so he was also the grand ruler of the land that he owned. The peasants didn't have the weapons or the organization needed to take over the kingdom. They were also scared because the King was so powerful and if they made the King mad at them he would limit their food and shelter.

The King's Family

The King's family included the Queen who organized feasts and had his children. The Queen's primary role was to have male children so that when the King died there would be another King to rule. The Queen would sometimes even rule the country when a King was away, fighting a battle but it was usually not her role.

The King's Clothes

The King wore fancy clothes to show off how much money he had. Usually the King wore necklaces for every day of the week. These necklaces were made of precious jewels like rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. He wore a big, fancy, velvet robe with lots of diamonds and jewels and light colours to signify his importance and his wealth. The jewels that he wore on his robes were also emeralds, sapphires, topaz, and rubies.

Maids sewed bright colored material into his robe like yellow, green, red and blue. They always wore fancy, catchy colors that caught your eye unlike the peasants that wore dull reds, browns and greys. The Kings were the only people allowed to wear purple because this color signified power and wealth. The King would also wear a golden crown filled with jewels and carry a scepter containing diamonds and many other jewels. This helped also to signify his importance.

The King's Properties

In the Medieval times the King owned most of the land around his castle. The King would also give some land away, usually to wealthy people like barons and knights. They did that because they wanted knights close by that could protect them. If he was a good King, he was always willing to provide land to these people but then he knew they would owe him. The King also provided land to many servants that would also work for him. This also demonstrated how rich and powerful he was. This would show other attackers that he had many people who worked for him and that would deter them from trying to overpower his kingdom. The King usually built his castle close to a forest. If a peasant or anybody else would hunt without the King's permission this would probably result in a death sentence for that person or they would be sent to the dungeon. The church also received part of the King's land. The king felt this would help to pave his way to heaven. The land that a king owned signified how powerful he really was.

The King's Amusement

The King had many people to amuse him. These people were called jesters and troubadours. Jesters usually did acrobatics with interesting tricks like back-flips, handstands and cartwheels. Troubadours on the other hand, played symphonies and orchestra music such as classical and traditional types. All these forms of entertainment were to impress the King, to make him happy and to enjoy the time he had. If the King was not impressed then the jester or troubadour could be punished or sent away.

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