Feudalism - Term Overview

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Feudalism is the term used to designate the political, economic and social system that developed in European countries during the Middle Ages. This system was maintained, approximately, between the 9th and 15th centuries, although it didn't present a monolithic and uniform character during this time.

The main characteristic of feudalism is that it divided the population into two large social groups: lords and vassals. These categories, which were acquired almost exclusively by birth, determined all areas of life.

The feudal age: economic and social context

The word feudalism has its origin in the term feud. A fief was nothing more than the territory that the nobles received from the kings, as payment for their services, during the Middle Ages. Therefore, this practice can be pointed out as one of the bases on which feudalism would be configured.

The birth of feudalism is at the time when the Carolingian Empire disintegrated. In such a situation, the monarchs began to have serious difficulties in defending their possessions. This led to the kings who reigned after the fall of the Carolingian Empire were forced to seek the support of nobles, specially counts and marquises, in exchange for giving up part of the royal power, as well as lands in which they would have almost absolute power: the fiefdoms.

During these moments, it's possible to detect how a power crisis occurs and the feeling of insecurity expands. At the same time, commerce and industry enter into a serious crisis and the economy becomes basically subsistence. The possession of land becomes the key element in determining the power that each individual holds.

The social structure, based on the social level that it occupies, was configured from the practice of vassalage and servitude. The vassalage, which was a pact that was established between nobles, that is, free men, was the protection that a powerful man offers to another with less power, in exchange for loyalty and military aid. Serfdom, for its part, was the relationship that existed between a peasant in relation to his feudal lord. The peasant was forced to work the land and live within the manor, in exchange for some protection.

The characteristics of the feudal system

Among the main characteristics that we can highlight of the feudal system, we can highlight the following:

- Social division, with strong hierarchy, in two estates: Lords (privileged) and vassals (not privileged). Among the lords were nobles and clergy. The common people made up the underprivileged estate, that is, the population that produced and paid taxes to the lords, in exchange for, theoretically, physical and spiritual protection.
- Disappearance of a central power and expansion of fiefdoms that assumed state functions: Legislation, taxes and justice.
- The loyalty of vassalage configured a system of personal dependence between individuals: This personal loyalty replaced ties based on states or territorial political structures.
- Rural life intensified: Thanks to the preponderant role of land in the economy. Consequently, the urban world was reduced to its minimum expression, in a process of deurbanization that began in the last days of the Roman Empire.

The feudal economy

The feudal economy had a mainly agricultural character. This was logical in a context of intensification of rural life, based on relations of vassalage and servitude.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, which was based on an important urban network, economic development slowed down. However, from the 10th century on, a process of innovation in agricultural technology would begin, which would intensify from the 12th century on.

Among the advances we can highlight the improvement of the water mills, which became widespread; in the Iberian Peninsula, under Muslim rule, irrigation techniques were perfected, with extensive networks of ditches. Hitching methods for animals were also improved, facilitating cultivation. The fallow spread across central Europe, allowing, through the rotation of the soil, greater efficiency in agricultural production.

These advances that, little by little, developed and expanded throughout Europe, meant an increase in production. With this, the bases were laid for a demographic increase to take place, along with an increasing production.

The surplus and the freedoms allowed the development of trade

In parallel, a certain freedom was established, since the serfs, less and less, were forced to work the lands of the lords permanently. And, increasingly, these benefits become contributions to the Lord in money, in kind or in gold and silver. At the same time, land leases proliferate, which are worked by the peasants for themselves, in exchange for rent.

The increase in production, which generated a surplus, and a certain freedom on the part of the serfs, allowed the development of an incipient and archaic market. However, with the passage of time, this fact would allow a new urban rebirth that, from the fourteenth century, would begin to illuminate the birth of a new era: the Renaissance.

Therefore, it can be said that feudalism was diverse. In each territory it had specific characteristics. At the same time, it didn't remain unchanged, but underwent major changes, as new techniques, forms of production and new markets developed.

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