Heritage > Medieval Life

The Feudal Society of the Middle Ages

Society in much of medieval Europe was organised into a "feudal" system, which was based on the allocation of land in return for services to the king. The king gave grants of land or fiefs, to his most important noblemen (barons and bishops) and in return each noble promised to supply the king with soldiers in time of war. A noble pledged himself to be the king's servant or vassal, at a special ceremony - kneeling before the king he swore an oath of loyalty with the words, "Sire I have become your man." The great nobles often divided their lands among lower lords, or knights, who in turn became their vassals. In this way feudalism stretched from the very top of the society to the very bottom. At the lowest rung of the society ladder were the peasants who worked the land itself. They had few rights, little property and no vassals.

KnightThe King
Few kings had enough wealth to keep a standing army and depended on their barons to provide knights and soldiers. Kings had to work hard however to keep the barons under control. In many cases, especially in France and Germany, the barons grew very powerful and governed their fiefs as independent states.

The Bishops
Bishops could wield as much power as the barons. They ruled over areas called dioceses and all the priests and monasteries within them. The regular collection of tithes and other taxes from their dioceses made many bishops extremely wealthy.

The Barons
Barons were the most powerful and wealthy noblemen, who received their fiefs directly from the king. When William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he had about 120 barons. Each provided the king with a possible army of 5,000 men.

The Lords
Lords ruled over fiefs or manors, renting out most of the land to the peasants who worked for them. They were also the warriors of medieval society. As trained knights, they were bound by oath to serve the great nobles who granted them their fiefs, and could be called to battle at any time.

The Peasants
The peasants were at the bottom of the feudal tree. They were the workers who farmed the land to provide food for everyone else. Most peasants worked for a lord who let them farm a piece of land for themselves in return for their labour.

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