The new post-Carolingian European order: feudalism

The Carolingians were not able to restore the Roman social/political structure. What happened was a new social structure based on landlord/vassal relationship, called feudalism, after the word “fief”, which meant land.  Feudalism lacked the impersonal structure and the centralized power of the Roman political process. It was based on a one to one mutual pledge of allegiance.

1. Feudalism: its origins

Feudalism formed the new social and political relationship in Europe. Its origins could be traced back to Roman, German, and Celtic traditions: 

2. Medieval social relationships

In some cases, such as in medieval England and in certain regions of France, where the king had strong control, they could make the hierarchy of vassals pledge allegiance to him directly. In this case, the lord was called the liege lord. But again, this happened only where the feudal king had strong control of a region.

3. The relationship between church and state:

Although church and state were separate at the beginning of feudalism, as time went on, both tried to penetrate into the other. Many churches were becoming large lords, owning large estates, many vassals and serfs. They also influenced and regulated society through controlling marriages, divorces, and abortion. On the other hand, many feudal lords also tried to control churches as the latter now became such lucrative estates.

4. The breakdown of the feudal relationships

4. Other elements that adversely affected feudalism.

Two other elements also adversely affected feudalism: the growth of commerce and the gradual spread of pagan (Greek and Roman) ideas. After the 11th century, commerce started to pick up and cities began to grow. Professionals and merchants formed into guilds that protected trade from outsiders and regulated the trade of the guild members. Within guilds the relationship was equal, instead of hierarchical, like in the feudal countryside. Landed property did not matter much to the guild members, who cared more for their workshops and skills for the handicraftsmen, or money, for the merchants.

In the 11th to the 13th centuries, the Europeans had a series of military clashes with the Muslims in the Near East and North Africa, called the Crusades. The slogan behind the crusades was to recover the holy land of Jerusalem from the Muslims. While they ultimately achieved nothing with regard to land, the crusaders brought back from the former Greek and Roman realms large quantities of books by ancient Greek and Roman writers, who wrote about the importance of the human being, civic matters, literature, political treatises, and history. These human centered, instead of God centered writings, plus the Greek and Roman use of logic, which was dismissed by Europeans during the Middle Ages, led to debates of which comes first, faith or reason. Thomas Aquinas was one of the best in approaching this issue. But from the 13th century on, church scandals, the rise of the power of the secular kings, economic growth, and contact with the Greek and Roman worlds all helped the Europeans to open up new intellectual horizons.


5. Evaluating feudalism

Why do you think feudalism was called “operation survival”? 
What conditions do you think feudalism was a reaction to? 
Do you think feudalism was an effective system? 
How did feudalism differ from the Roman system?