top of page

European Feudalism

Life is Feudal

Once the dust settled following the sack of Rome, in 476, Europeans were left without a strong central government nor Roman military protection. This was a time of dog eat dog. 

With no central authority to keep the water running or streets cleaned, or central army to protect them from barbarian raids, European cities were grim and dangerous places to live. It made sense then that society would revert back to its rural ways. The massive land that once was the Roman Empire had now been carved up into dozens of kingdoms ruled men that weren't much more than warlords. But history books call them kings, so we'll stick to that version. 


In these violent times a kingdom was only as strong as its army. And so it made sense for any king to make friends with as many powerful people as he were able. Eventually strong leaders like Charlemagne developed a system of protection that would make any mafia Don proud. This system came to be called feudalism. 


Basically, feudalism was one big medieval

pyramid scheme. The feudalism was a legally binding contract between a lord and his vassal. Once the contact was signed the lord's loyal subjects became known as vassals and they were given a plot of land called a fief, which derives from the French word for 'fee', as land was the common currency in those days. 


In exchange for land, a vassal (often a knight or minor lord) agreed to provide military protection in the event that his lord was attacked by a neighboring lord. Which in the Dark Ages was a constant concern.


Mind Your Manors


In the days of decentralized government, a fief was like its own mini country that produced pretty much everything that was needed from food to weapons to tools. At the heart of a lord's fief was the manor house. This was where the lord's family, servants, and knights lived. Manors got their start as large houses, but over the years became full castles as walls, towers, and moats were added for protection. 


The manor house was the center of the community. Not only did it serve as a place for peasants to run to in times of war, but was the political center as well. When he wasn't out fighting for his Lord, the lord of a fief would act as a judge in settling disputes. He also appointed officials who would collect taxes and rent from the peasants and townspeople. Large manors had their own churches complete with their own clergy, as well as a marketplace where locals could buy and sell goods. At any time one time, hundreds of people from priests, knights, squires, entertainers, merchants, peasants, and visiting nobles would head to the manor.


For the Lady of the manor, her day was spent overseeing servants & caring for the children. When her husband was away (or killed in battle) the Lady of the manor assumed the same roles her husband did, appointing officials and acting as judge. In the early Middle Ages, a woman owning property was not all that uncommon.



A Peasant's Work is Never Done


In exchange for their small plot of farmland, peasants  had to pay taxes (known as a tallage, just in case you were wondering) to their lord. But put away your checkbook, in the Middle Ages taxes were paid in the form of labor.  A peasant, young or old, male or female, was expected to put in a certain amount of time every month repairing roads, fences, or working in the Lord's fields. The lord also squeezed a little extra by requiring that peasants only grind their grain at his mill.


Medieval society, being agricultural, revolved around the seasons. How hard you worked depended on the season. In the winter, things could be pretty slow. Throughout the rest of the year life was spent from sun up to sun down prepping the fields, sowing the fields, weeding, and harvesting. Although the life of a peasant it rough, life wasn't all hard work. The Medieval calendar was built around the seasons as well as the lives of important Christian saints.  And thankfully, there were bucketfuls of saints. Almost every month had several days built in where peasants could be expected not to have to work in the fields.


The house of a peasant, like that of the manor, was often dark, cold, smoky, but on a much smaller scale. Peasant homes were mud or wood structures that consisted of two rooms. The main room was where the fireplace was located and this is where the family ate and slept. Often in bad weather, their livestock would be brought into the house.

"It is the custom in England, as with other countries, for the nobility to have great power over the common people, who are serfs. This means that they are bound by law and custom to plough the field of their masters, harvest the corn, gather it into barns, and thresh and winnow the grain; they must also mow and carry home the hay, cut and collect wood, and perform all manner of tasks of this kind."
Jean Froissart-1395
A Knight's Tale


Just below the nobility on the medieval social ladder were the knights who served as the mounted soldiers in the Lord's army.  Most knights lived and slept in the manor house. A knight was higher than a common foot soldier and often was granted his own fief along with a title of minor nobility such as sir. To become a knight was a long and difficult path.



A boy would be sent to live in the castle with his Lord where his training would begin around the age of seven. At this first step on the road to knighthood, he was known as a page. A page's training involved learning to ride a horse and receiving religious instruction from the priest of the manor. And, when he wasn't riding or praying, a page spent his days running errands and serving the ladies of the manor. He would also be taught to dance, sing, and play a musical instrument, considered honorable qualities for a knight to have.

After that first year or so, a page would be promoted to the role of squire. A squire worked directly with his knight. The squire learned skills from his knight (who was also his Lord) such as sword fighting and hand to hand combat. The squire pretty much acted as personal assistant to his knight, polishing his armor, caring for his horse, and even waiting on him at meal times. During times of battle, it was the job of the squire to help his Lord into the armor and look after him if he was wounded. He also had the awful task of cleaning out the armor which, after a long day on the battlefield would be covered in all sorts of bodily fluids.


Jousting: It's All Fun and Games


Medieval life wasn't all about war and bloodlust. In fact, the life of a knight could get pretty dull. During peacetime, knights kept their skills sharp by competing in tournaments known as jousts where two heavily armored horseman race at another at high speed. The goal is to win points by breaking your lance or unhorsing your opponent.


Originally the lance was a weapon of war used by the heavy calvary. But when there were no wars, how a knight going to keep their skills sharp? By challenging your friends to competitions in the nearest open field, that's how. Jousting was a great way for knights to stay in shape and learn new battle tactics. However, by the 14th century, new tactics and weapons--thanks to the Mongol invasions-- made them obsolete. From that point on the nobility of Germany, France, and England turned lance-warfare into a competition for their elite friends.


 Medieval tournaments brought knights and lords together in friendly competitions to show off their skills at hand to hand combat, horseback riding, and of course, jousting. Points would be awarded for based on showmanship, and how you struck your opponent. A head shot, for example, was the most damaging but also the most difficult target, and therefore was awarded the most points.


Cash prizes, called a purse, would be given to the winners and this was the best way to move up the social ladder if you didn't get a chance to show off your skills on the battlefield

How Chivalrous Of You!

Knights might have been professional soldiers but that didn't mean they had to act like one. In the early days of feudalism, knights often ate at the same table as the lords and ladies of the manor. Bad manners were common among those rough-around-the-edges knights. They often belched, spit, and put their feet directly on the dinner table. The refined ladies and lords were appalled. So, a code of honor was drawn up that we now call Chivalry.

Have you ever wondered why for a man to be considered a ‘gentleman’ he should open the door for a woman? This stems from the Medieval Knights Code of Chivalry and the Vows of Knighthood. During the beginning of the Medieval Era, knights were warriors hired by the nobles or lords (that includes kings). The nobles would show their gratitude to the warriors by giving them the title of ‘Knight’ elevating them to the higher class.  Well, these ‘Knights’ were really nothing more than mercenaries or thugs.


Knights were often invited to stay with the family of the noble they worked for. Along with staying with the family, they would join them for feasts. The ladies of the house were expected to be there for the meal and were disgusted by their lack of table manners. The knights would grab food off the table, throw bones onto the floor, burp, yell, get sloppy drunk and use foul language. Basically, they acted like pigs! So much for the whole ‘knight in shining armor’ thing! The ladies of these noble houses hated having to spend time with the Knights. Something had to be done.


Since these mercenaries turned knights were now spending more time with the nobility, it became apparent that they needed to clean up their act. An unofficial code was created for this new class of knights. There were at least 17 rules to the knights code of chivalry and vows of knighthood. The most important were to serve God, serve their liege lord (the King), be courteous to all women (though what they meant was all women of the noble class), and to defend the weak. Other rules included to fight for the welfare of all, to live by honor and glory, and to refrain from the wanton giving of offence; basically, don’t act like ye olde arse.


 Each code had detailed explanations as to how to meet that expectation. One example, in defending the weak, this was meant to defend the elderly, women and children, but of the upper class. Knights were often brutal to peasants and it was considered acceptable because of the low social status of the peasants. 


For the code of chivalry that stated a knight must respect the honor of women, there were many songs and stories, such as the story of King Arthur, that showed how it’s done. In fact, in the 12th century, Andreas Capellanus wrote The Art of Courtly Love which outlined the proper way for a gentleman, and a knight would be considered one, to treat a woman and to show his love for her. From this, came rules like if a woman was of equal or higher status, he should stand when she enters a room and sit only after she does, the best foods at a meal should be offered to her, and when walking on the sidewalk, the man should walk closest to the street. This was to protect the woman from getting spattered with mud and the contents of chamber pots (buckets that were used as toilets) that were thrown out windows. It was a way to show that the gentleman honored the woman to have the poop hit him instead.


 Over the centuries, though the feudal system is long gone and the title of knight is honorary, the codes of chivalry live on in today’s idea of romance.


Full Metal Jousting 
- The knight on horseback would have been impossible without an important innovation that reached Europe from India in the 700s-- the stirrup Mounted warriors could now maneuver their horses more effectively and carry heavier armor and weapons.

Medieval Assassination in Progress?

Nope. This painting shows a squire being knighted by the king. 

Life in a Castle Ain't No Fairy Tale

Looks Romantic Doesn't It?

Toilets were built into the walls and emptied directly into the moats. One more reason why you might not want to just dive in when storming a castle. 

Disney Version

Living in a castle might sound romantic but it's not all that it was cracked up to be. Medieval manors were built of wood and stone and built on a large scale. Glass was rare and extremely expensive so windows often were either left open or covered with cloth during the winter. The only means of heating a manor was the fireplace. Each major room had its own. The Great Room, which as its name implies was the center of manor life.

The Great Room was heated and lit by an enormous fireplace, big enough to stand in. The Great Room was where all of the eating, drinking, debating, politicking, and merry making and other business was conducted. Speaking of doing business, how did medieval people use the bathroom? All manor houses had privies either outside or inside the castle. The ones inside were nothing more than a seat that emptied directly into the moat.


To modern observers manors would have been filthy places. Fleas were common and the smell of hundreds of unwashed people (who often only bathed once a week) would have pervaded. Rats and mice also would have been running around as food was thrown directly on the floor during meal times. At night the servants swept the floor and rushes (dried river reeds) would be spread on the floor and all minor visitors and knights would bed down. The manor was often dark, cold, and smoky. To liven things up a bit, tapestries would be commissioned to decorate the walls.

Test Page 

bottom of page