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Feudalism and the Three Orders (Overview)
The organization of medieval society owes much to the political fragmentation that followed the Roman Empire and produced early medieval kingdoms like those of the Franks. Rome's successor states were intensely local, small communities tied together through hierarchy and mutual obligation. The backbone of medieval society was a system of allegiance between lords and vassals, the character of which varied from place to place, but which generally meant a grant of land given by a lord to a vassal in exchange for military service. However, that system of allegiance only refers to the actions within one group of the three main orders of medieval society—those "who fought." There were also those "who prayed," the clergy and monastic organizations, and those "who worked," the peasant farmers who made up the vast majority of the population. These three groups, those who fought, those who prayed, and those who worked, came to be known as the "three orders" (or "three estates").
The term feudalism derives from the Latin word for fief (feudum) and was used in the 17th century to generally define such relationships as those between lords and vassals in medieval society. In its most extensive definition, feudalism refers to all "interwoven" aspects of medieval society. However, most scholars use the narrower definition of the term that relates to land given by a lord to a vassal in return for military service. Since the idea of feudalism was developed after the Middle Ages and was a concept unknown to medieval people, some modern historians have ceased to use it to define medieval life. In 1974, the historian E.A.R. Brown questioned the concept of feudalism and whether it was actually representative of medieval life. In 1994, the historian Susan Reynolds argued that a fief had too many definitions to be accurately used as a basic characterization of feudalism. Historians continue to debate the definition of feudalism, though it is still often used to describe medieval life.
The origins of feudalism most likely arose during the invasions of the ninth and 10th centuries, when local warriors took up their own defense because kings lived too distant to respond to every invader. The formalities that sealed the feudal pact originated with the oaths sworn by Frankish warriors to their chief, but also with the old Roman practice of granting benefices (estates) in exchange for a service. Over time, the relationship between lord and vassal grew more complex. Theoretically, the king was at the top, though often he was not the most powerful lord in his kingdom; below him were the great lords, then their vassals, all the way down to the humble knight. Within a short time, that hierarchy developed independent branches: vassals might have more than one lord to whom they owed allegiance, as well as vassals of their own. Naturally, this could cause problems—a vassal sometimes found himself stuck in the middle of a conflict between his two lords. Contracts between lord and vassal thus grew more complicated as those new relationships developed.
While each pact varied, the concept of feudalism rests upon the idea that a vassal owed his lord military aid in exchange for land. Economic power rested in land and what it could produce. Generally, a vassal had enough land, and thus wealth, to outfit himself for war and feed himself, his family, and servants. Depending on the amount of land, a vassal might be expected to raise troops of his own to supplement his lord's strength. Vassals sometimes provided other services: housing the lord and his retinue, joining the lord as he traveled, giving gifts for important occasions within the lord's household (such as when the lord's eldest son became a knight), serving at the lord's court, and if need be, contributing money for ransom should his lord be taken prisoner in battle.
The Three Orders
Medieval society has often been simplified, even by medieval sources, into three orders, or estates. Feudalism describes only one major relationship in the order of those "who fought" (called bellatores in Latin). There were also those "who prayed" (oratores) and those "who worked" (laborares). Like the warrior class, those who prayed were often from aristocratic backgrounds, though not always. They enjoyed many of the same rights and privileges as the knightly order, not only because they often came from the same families, but because as landholders, they had much in common with lay lords. As educated men, clergy sometimes served at court. Monastic houses, which prayed for the kingdom, community, and individuals, comprised another branch of those who prayed. Medieval writers conceived of those who prayed as first in rank of the three orders—medieval society was a religious society, and clergy and monks held a special place because they served God.
Those who worked comprised the third order, the lowest rung of the three, and were by far the most numerous. While some peasant farmers were free, many were serfs who were tied to the land they farmed. While some serfs had their own fields, their crops were normally mixed in with those of their lord. The demesne, as this conglomeration of fields came to be known in French and English law, required communal effort to till and harvest. Though it varied considerably by kingdom, serfs normally owed their lord periods of work and an agreed upon amount of produce or skilled labor. By the 11th century, some serfs had land of their own, but they still paid the lord rent or dues for the use of his mill or kitchen ovens. The lord also had responsibilities: he offered protection, and as the legal figure on his fief, he arbitrated any dispute within the village. Most serfs had little legal standing, but wise lords generally followed existing custom, and for the most part, serfs were sure of food and protection. This relationship, which worked in conjunction with feudalism, was called manorialism.
Urbanization and a Changing Medieval World
As Europe recovered from the ninth- and 10th-century invasions, and as commerce increased over the next several centuries, towns and cities grew. Traditional crafts continued to be an important part of medieval life, particularly on the manor, but those emerging urban centers became hubs of production and trade and home to a group of people who did not fit squarely within the "three orders." These shop owners, master craftsmen, and traders made up the urban middle class, a section of society that, in time, would do much to transform medieval kingdoms into the giant commercial states of the Renaissance.
"Feudalism and the Three Orders (Overview)." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2011.