The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
The Feudal System
Under the feudal system all land in a kingdom belonged to the king.
He parcelled out large chunks to great Lords ("Tennants-in-Chief")
in exchange for their military and political support. They parcelled
out smaller parcels to lesser lords ("Mesne Tenants")
on similar terms. They in turn parcelled out smaller parcels to
local lords, who did the same to the peasantry. Thus was formed
a hierarchical network below the king of earls, barons, lords of
the manor and villains, all bound together by pairs of reciprocal
The lowest operational unit in this system was the manor, controlled
by a lord typically holding the rank of a knight. He lived in a
manor house and controlled a large area of land along with its workers.
In principal the manorial system and the feudal system are to different
things but in Medieval Europe they were closely linked. The system
of manorial land tenure was conceived in Western Europe, initially
in France but exported to areas affected by Norman expansion during
the Middle Ages, for example the Kingdoms of Sicily, Scotland, Jerusalem,
The system had its own vocabulary. The junior party in a feudal arrangement arrangement was known as a vassal. A vassal or liege held land (a "fief") from a lord to whom he paid homage and swore fealty. A vassal was not therefor necessarily a minor figure: everyone in the feudal system below the king was a vassal, even the greatest lords in the land.
King William the Conqueror used feudalism to reward his Norman supporters for their help in the conquest of England. The land belonging to Anglo-Saxon earls was taken and given to Norman Knights and Nobles, split into Manors.
The Medieval Feudal System ensured that everyone owed allegiance
to the King and their immediate superior. Everyone was expected
to pay for the land by providing certain services in the form of
man-days of work. This work could be for farming or military service
or both. Military service took the form of so many fighting men
(knights, archers, pikemen, etc for so many days per year, including
clothing and weapons.
Not all manors were held necessarily by lay lords rendering military service (or cash in lieu) to their superior. A substantial number of manors (estimated by value at 17% in England in 1086) belonged directly to the king. An even greater proportion (in most European states a third to a half) were held by bishops and abbots. Ecclesiastical manors tended to be larger, with a greater villein area than neighbouring lay manors.
Medieval manors varied in size but were typically small holdings of between 1200 - 1800 acres. Every noble had at least one manor; great nobles might have several manors, usually scattered throughout the country; and even the king depended on his many manors for the food supply of the court.
England, during the period following the Norman Conquest, contained more than nine thousand of these manorial estates.
The lord's land was called his "demesne," or domain which he required to support himself and his retinue. The rest of the land of the Manors were allotted to his tenants.
A peasant, instead of having his land in one compact mass, had it split up into a large number of small strips (usually about half an acre each) scattered over the manor, and separated, not by fences or hedges, but by banks of unploughed turf. Besides his holding of farm land each peasant had certain rights over the non-arable land of the manors - the common land.
A peasant could cut a limited amount of hay from the meadow. He could turn so many farm animals including cattle, geese and swine on the waste. He also enjoyed the privilege of taking so much wood from the forest for fuel and building purposes. A peasant's holding, which also included a house in the village, thus formed a self-sufficient unit.
The labour required of villains was called corvée. Work was
usually intermittent; typically only a certain number of days' or
months' work is required each year. The system differed from chattel
slavery in that the worker was not owned outright – being
free in various respects other than in the dispensation of his or
her labour. In time corvée came to resemble a tax or tribute,
as it suited all parties to replace the work by an amount of money
or crops or other goods.
The Feudal System included a complex system of rights and obligations. The right to hunt was highly valued by nobles. The severest and cruellest penalties were imposed on "villains" who killed game on the lands owned by a lord.
The Manor House was residential property, and differed from castles in that it was not built for the purpose of attack or defence. The Manor House varied in size, according to the wealth of the lord but generally consisted of a great hall, solar, kitchen, storerooms and servants' quarters.
three estates appointed by God: cleric, knight and peasant.
British Library; Manuscript number: Sloane 2435, f.85
|The Feudal Hierarchy
The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
|Lords of Medieval Manors exercised
certain rights including Hunting and Judicial rights. The Lord of
the Manor was based in the Manor House and from here he conducted
the business of the manor. People who worked on the manor included:
- Bailiff - A Bailiff was a person of some importance who undertook the management of manors
- Reeve - A Reeve was a manor official appointed by the lord or elected by the peasants
- Millers - Most manors had windmills or watermills. The right to
mill was in the gift of the Lord of The Manor.
- Servants - Servants were house peasants who worked in the lord's manor house, doing the cooking, cleaning, laundering, and other household chores
- Serf - Medieval Serfs were peasants who worked
his lord's land and paid him certain dues in return for the use
of land, the possession but not the ownership of which was heritable.
Dues were usually in the form of labour on the lord's land. Medieval
Serfs were expected to work for approximately 3 days each week
on the lord's land.
- Villein - A peasant or villein was a low status
tenant who worked as an agricultural worker or labourer. A peasant
or villein usually cultivated 20-40 acres of land
- Cottager: A low class peasant with a cottage,
but with little or no land who generally worked as a simple labourer
As common-law practice protected the rights of the villein, tenancy at the pleasure of the lord gradually developed into the added security of copyhold leases.
A portion of the demesne lands, called the lord's waste, served as public roads and common pasture land for the lord and his tenants.
Since the demesne surrounded the principal seat of the lord, it came to be loosely used of any proprietary territory: "the works of Shakespeare are this scholar's demesne."
The term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Medieval Period. The term was coined in the early modern period (17th century).
Three primary elements characterised feudalism: lords, vassals, and
Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command. Once the commendation was complete, the lord and vassal were in a feudal relationship with obligations to one another.
The vassal's principal obligation to the lord was "aid", or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer to calls to military service on behalf of the lord. Security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal sometimes had to fulfil other obligations to the lord. One of those obligations was to provide the lord with "counsel", so that if the lord faced a major decision, such as whether or not to go to war, he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. The vassal may have been required to yield a certain amount of his farm's output to his lord.
Land-holding relationships of feudalism revolved around the fief. Depending on the power of the granting lord, grants could range in size from a small farm to a great lordship.
The system encompassed almost the whole of society. At the lowest
level working men held land from the local Lord of the Manor, He
held his lands from a Baron, who held his from a Earl, who in turn
held his from the King. A network of rights and obligations held
everyone in a place on a strict hierarchy appointed for them by
God - as the Church then taught. The lord-vassal relationship was
not restricted to members of the laity; bishops and abbots, for
example, were also capable of acting as lords. Indeed somewhere
between a third and a half of all revenues of Christian Europe were
channelled into Church coffers for centuries largely through bishops
and abbots in their capacity as feudal lords.
For a while during and after the reign of Pope Innocent III, the
papacy claimed to sit at the apex of a single Christian feudal hierarchy:
below them as feudal tenants and owing them fealty were all Christian
emperors and kings. The Pope himself held the whole world in fief
from God himself.
The involvement of the Church in the feudal system is remembered
in a vestigial act of homage build into Christian prayer. When a
vassal swore fealty to his lord he held his hands together and his
lord placed his hands around them. Before the feudal period Christians
had prayed with their arms held out with open palms. Now they prayed
with hands together as in an act of homage to God, inviting him
to place his hands around theirs. At the height of witch mania,
witches were often imagined to pay homage to Satan.
This strong attachment between the Church and the feudal system explains why the Church was so opposed for so long to alternative systems of government such as democracy - condemned throughout the nineteenth century as satanic.
The oath known as "fealty" implied lesser obligations than did "homage". One could swear "fealty" to many different overlords with respect to different land holdings, but "homage" could only be performed to a single liege, as one could not be "his man", i.e. committed to military service, to more than one "liege lord".
There have been conflicts about obligations of homage. The Angevin
monarchs of England were sovereign in England, so had no duty of
homage regarding those holdings; but they were not sovereign regarding
their French holdings. So Henry II was King of England, but also
Duke of Aquitaine and Normandy and Count of Anjou. The Capetian
Kings, though weak militarily, claimed a right of homage for these
dukedoms and county. The usual oath was therefore modified by Henry
to add the qualification "for the lands I hold overseas."
The significance was that no "knights service" was owed
for his English lands.
After King John was forced to surrender Normandy to the France King in 1204, English magnates with holdings on both sides of the Channel were faced with conflict. John still expected to recover his ancestral lands, and those English lords who held lands in Normandy had to choose sides. Many were forced to abandon their continental holdings. Two of the most powerful magnates, Robert de Beaumont, 4th Earl of Leicester and William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, negotiated an arrangement with the French king that if John had not recovered Normandy in a year-and-a-day, they would do homage to Philip.
The conflict between the French monarchs and the Angevin Kings of
England continued through the 13th century. When Edward I was asked
to provide military service to Philip III in his war with Aragon
in 1285, Edward made preparations to provide service from Gascony
(but not England - he owed no service to France for the English
lands). Edward's Gascon subjects did not want to go war with their
neighbours on behalf of France, and they appealed to Edward that
as a sovereign, he owed the French King no service at all. A truce
was arranged before Edward had to decide what to do. But when Phillip
III died, and his son Philip IV ascended the French throne in 1286,
Edward performed "homage". In doing so Edward added yet
another qualification - that the duty owed was "according to
the terms of the peace made between our ancestors"
|Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript
of a chanson de geste
Roland receives the sword, Durandal,
from the hands of Charlemagne
act of homage being recorded by a clerk. (Miniature from the
Archives Départementales at Perpignan).
|Charlemagne receiving the oath of fidelity and homage from
one of his great vassals:
facsimile of a monochrome miniature in a 14th century Ms of
the "Chronicles of St. Denis." (Library of the Arsenal)
|Marie de' Medici assumes the traditional position of a vassal
in a commendation ceremony at her coronation following Henry
IV's assassination, as painted by Peter Paul Rubens.
The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
The Commendation Ceremony
A commendation ceremony (commendatio) is a formal ceremony that evolved during the Early Medieval period to create a bond between a lord and his fighting man, called his vassal (Latin vassus).
The first recorded ceremony of commendatio was in 7th century France, but the relationship of vassalage was older, and predated even the medieval formulations of a noble class. The lord's "man" ("vassal" comes from a Celtic word for "boy") might be born unfree, but the commendatio freed him. (See Vassal).
The purpose of the commendation was to make a chosen person a vassal of a lord. The commendation ceremony is composed of two elements, one to perform the act of homage and the other an oath of fealty.
The junior who was to become the vassal of his senior (seigneur) appeared bareheaded and weaponless as a sign of his submission to the will of the lord and knelt before him. The vassal would clasp his hands before him in a sign of submission, and would stretch his clasped hands outward to the lord.
The lord in turn grasped the vassal's hands between his own, showing he was the superior in the relationship. The vassal would announce he wished to become his " man", and the lord would announce his acceptance. The act of homage was complete.
The physical position for Christian prayer that is thought of as typical today, kneeling, with hands clasped together, originates from the commendation ceremony. Before this time, European Christians prayed in the orans, which is the Latin, or "praying" position that people had used in antiquity: standing, with hands outstretched, a gesture still used today by eastern and some other traditionalist Christians.
The vassal would then place his hands on a Bible, or a saint's relic, and swear he would never injure the lord in any way and to remain faithful.
An example of an oath of fealty: "I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the lord, never cause him harm and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit."
Once the vassal had sworn the oath of fealty, the lord and vassal had a feudal relationship.
|David Bruce, King of Scotland, acknowledges Edward III of England as his feudal lord (1346), in a ms of Froissart's Chronicles, c.1410
|Mural from Catacombs of Pricilla in Rome, showing the standard pre-feudal position for Christian prayer.
The Royal Desmesnes
In English Common Law the term ancient demesne, sometimes shortened to demesne, referred to those lands that were held by the Crown at the time of the Domesday Book.
The royal demesne could be increased, for example, as a result of forfeiture.
Demesne lands were managed by stewards of the Crown and were not given out in fief. During the reign of George III, Parliament appropriated the royal demesne, in exchange for a fixed annual sum, called the Civil List.
The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
Farms & Vineyards
In practice fiefs were divided up into farms, some operated by vassals of the lord, some (the demesne) run by the lords own staff, and some let to local freemen - yeomen farmers.
A yeoman's land would be equivalent to 30 - 120 acres. A yeoman of the Middle Ages was required to be armed and trained with a longbow. Wealthy yeoman would be expected to also be trained and armed with a sword and dagger. Yeoman were often employed to guard and protector the nobility. So under the feudal system a lord had three options for managing his lands.
- Some he could assign to vassals - and leaving it to them to manage it.
- Some (alienated land) he could let to tenants, typically yeoman farmers
- Some, the desmesne, generally nearer to his castle or manor, he
would manage himself - or have it managed by his staff, in practice
parcelling it out to villeins or serfs.
Manors would therefore often have a farmhouse nearby to provide food for the household. This would provide eggs and milk, food crops and meat, and feed for the horses. In warmer climates they also provided grapes for wine making. Many such demesne farms were called - and are still called "home farm"
Initially the demesne lands were worked on the lord's behalf by villeins
or by serfs, in fulfilment of their feudal obligations. As a money
economy developed, region by region, in the later Middle Ages, the
serfs' corvée came to be commuted to money payments. With
the advent of the Early modern period, demesne lands came to be
cultivated by paid labourers. Eventually many of the demesne lands
were leased out either on a perpetual (i.e., hereditary) or a temporary
renewable basis so that many peasants functioned virtually as free
proprietors after having paid their fixed rents.
In times of inflation or debasement of coinage, the rent might come to represent a pittance, reducing the feudal aristocrat to poverty among a prosperous gentry. Demesne lands that were leased out for a term of years remained demesne lands, though no longer in the occupation of the lord of the manor.
The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
Rivers & Fishponds
Rivers and fish ponds were important resources, used for defence
or fishing, or both.
A significant part of Magna Carta is taken up with concerns about fish weirs.
Many castles and manor houses (and monasteries) had nearby fish ponds. If a natural pond did not exist then one could be built.
The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
Around the 11th-12th centuries, in England, the windmill would come into existence, conceivably by returning Christian crusaders participating in the Crusade Wars in the Middle East.
In Northern Europe, one of the earliest records of windmills were the ones in England recorded in 1185, courtesy of a rental note for a windmill in Weedly, Yorkshire. Also, in 1191, records show that a windmill in Bury St.Edmunds was constructed in defiance of the local abbot. The windmill was ultimately destroyed, as an end result.
Windmills were governed by the “miling soke” division of the manor’s charter. The windmill was the property of the lord of the manor, possessing the monopoly over the windmill. The lord was also responsible for the repairs, maintenance and amount of mills needed to meet the demands of the people.
The church also had involvement with windmills. Pope Celestine III
claimed that air used by windmills belong to the church. He made
the assertion that windmills must be built with the expressed consent
of a papal tithe.
Tenants living on the manor were indebted to grind their corn at the lord’s mill at a fixed rate of its toll. The lord’s corn was ground free and given precedence over the rest. If the mill fell into disrepair, this would be the only reason for the lord's tenants to have their corn ground elsewhere.
There were a few types of windmills in Europe during the 12th century. One such windmill was the vertical windmill, which made its appearance during the last quarter of the 12th century, showcased in Eastern England, Northern France and Flanders. The other was the post mill which was small and had a trestle that was poorly protected. So that means harsh weather conditions were more than enough to do damage to the post mill. With its fine and delicate structure, it was basic and among the earliest type of windmill in Europe. In order for the post mill to exist, it was prepared to rest along a vertical post. An extended lever projecting from the post mill’s rear allowed it to spin around.
Windmills would shortly be used as a strategic defence device against enemy armies. They were huge in physical infrastructure, so it was possible that it would act as a fort and tower during the Age of Castles.
Occasionally windmills were built onto a castle tower.
In due course, as castles became a thing of the past, windmills would still see life. Thousands of windmills would show themselves along the European countryside. And even today, windmills are still used to harness the power of the wind creating power for infrastructures all over Europe.
|St Monoan's Windmill
The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
Largely unaffected from the turbulent political events following the demise of the Western Roman Empire, the importance of watermilling continued to grow under the new Germanic lords. The sharp rise in numbers of early medieval watermills coincided with the appearance of new documentary genres (legal codes, monastic charters, hagiography) which were more inclined to address such a relatively mundane device than the ancient urban-centered literary class had been. This partly explains the relative abundance of medieval literary references to watermills compared to former times.
the quantitative growth of medieval evidence appears to be more
than a mere reflection of the changing nature of surviving sources:
by Carolingian times, references to watermills in the Frankish Realm
had become "innumerable", and at the time of the compilation
of the Domesday Book (1086), there were 5,624 watermills in England
alone, only 2% of which have not been located by modern archaeological
surveys. Later research estimates a less conservative number of
6,082, and it has been pointed out that this should be considered
a minimum as the northern reaches of England were never properly
recorded. In 1300, this number had risen to between 10,000 and 15,000.
By the early 7th century, watermills were well established in Ireland,
and began to spread from the former territory of the empire into
the non-romanized parts of Germany a century later. The introduction
of the ship mill and tide mill in the 6th century, both of which
yet unattested for the ancient period, allowed for a flexible response
to the changing water-level of rivers and the Atlantic Ocean, thus
demonstrating the technological innovation of early medieval watermillers.
|Interior of Trafford Mill, ¾ mile (1.2 km) to the north of the village of Mickle Trafford, Cheshire, England
The Feudal System
Rivers & Fishponds
Charter of Homage and Fealty, 12th Century
The following is a translation into English of Charter of Homage
and Fealty dated 1110, between Bernard Atton, Viscount of Carcassonne
and Leo, Abbot of the Monastery of St. Mary of Grasse [modern Lagrasse
in the Corbieres].
In the name of the Lord, I, Bernard Atton, Viscount
of Carcassonne, in the presence of my sons, Roger and
Trencavel, and of Peter Roger of Barbazan, and William
Hugo, and Raymond Mantellini, and Peter de Vietry, nobles,
and of many other honourable men, who have come to the
monastery of St. Mary of Grasse, to the honour of the
festival of the august St. Mary: since lord Leo, abbot
of the said monastery, has asked me, in the presence
of all those above mentioned, to acknowledge to him
the fealty and homage for the castles, manors, and places
which the patrons, my ancestors, held from him and his
predecessors and from the said monastery as a fief,
and which I ought to hold as they held, I have made
to the lord abbot Leo acknowledgement and homage as
I ought to do.
Therefore, let all present and to come know that I
the said Bernard Atton, Lord and Viscount of Carcassonne,
acknowledge verily to thee my lord Leo, by the grace
of God, Abbot of St. Mary of Grasse, and to thy successors
that I hold and ought to hold as a fief in Carcassonne
the following: that is to say, the castles of Confoles,
of Leocque, of Capendes (which is otherwise known as
St. Martin of Sussagues); and the manors of Mairac,
of Albars and of Musso; also, in the valley of Aquitaine,
Rieux, Traverina, Herault, Archas, Servians, Villatiitoes,
Tansiraus, Presler, Cornelles. Moreover, I acknowledge
that I hold from thee and from the said monastery as
a fief the castle of Termes in Narbonne; and in Minerve
the castle of Ventaion, and the manors of Cassanolles,
and of Ferral and Aiohars; and in Le Rogos, the little
village of Longville; for each and all of which I make
homage and fealty with hands and with mouth to thee
my said lord abbot Leo and to thy successors, and I
swear upon these four gospels of God that I will always
be a faithful vassal to thee and to thy successors and
to St. Mary of Grasse in all things in which a vassal
is required to be faithful to his lord, and I will defend
thee, My Lord, and all thy successors, and the said
monastery and the monks present and to come and the
castles and manors and all your men and their possessions
against all malefactors and invaders, at my request
and that of my successors at my own cost; and I will
give to thee power over all the castles and manors above
described, in peace and in war, whenever they shall
be claimed by thee or by thy successors. Moreover I
acknowledge that, as a recognition of the above fiefs,
I and my successors ought to come to the said monastery,
at our own expense, as often as a new abbot shall have
been made, and there do homage and return to him the
power over all the fiefs described above. And when the
abbot shall mount his horse I and my heirs, Viscounts
of Carcassonne, and our successors ought to hold the
stirrup for the honour of the dominion of St. Mary of
Grasse; and to him and all who come with him, to as
many as two hundred beasts, we should make the abbot's
purveyance in the borough of St. Michael of Carcassonne,
the first time he enters Carcassonne, with the best
fish and meat and with eggs and cheese, honourably according
to his will, and pay the expense of shoeing of the horses,
and for straw and fodder as the season shall require.
And if I or my sons or their successors do not observe
to thee or to thy successors each and all the things
declared above, and should come against these things,
we wish that all the aforesaid fiefs should by that
very fact be handed over to thee and to the said monastery
of St. Mary of Grasse and to thy successors.
I, therefore, the aforesaid lord Leo, by the grace
of God Abbot of St. Mary of Grasse, receive the homage
and fealty for all the fiefs of castles and manors and
places which are described above: in the way and with
the agreements and understandings written above; and
likewise I concede to thee and thy heirs and their successors,
the Viscounts of Carcassonne, all the castles and manors
and places aforesaid, as a fief, along with this present
charter, divided through the alphabet. And I promise
to thee and thy heirs and successors, Viscounts of Carcassonne,
under the religion of my order, that I will be good
and faithful lord concerning all those things described
Moreover, I, the aforesaid viscount, acknowledge that
the little villages of Cannetis, Maironis, Villamagna,
Aiglino, Villadasas, Villafrancos, Vitladenz, Villaudriz,
St. Genese, Conguste and Mata, with the farm-house of
Mathus and the chateaux of Villalauro and Claromont,
with the little villages of St. Stephen of Surlac, and
of Upper and Lower Agrifolio, ought to belong to the
said monastery, and whoever holds anything there holds
from the same monastery, as we have seen and have heard
read in the privileges and charters of the monastery,
and as was there written.
Made in the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 1110,
in the reign of Louis.
Seal of Bernard Atton, Viscount of Carcassonne,
seal of Raymond Mantellini,
seal of Peter Roger of Barbazon,
seal of Roger, son of the said Viscount of Carcassonne,
seal of Peter de Vitry,
seal of Trencavel, son of the said Viscount of Carcassonne,
seal of William Hugo,
seal of Lord Abbot Leo, who has accepted this acknowledgement
of the homage of the said viscount.
And I, the monk John, have written this charter at
the command of the said lord Bernard Atton, Viscount
of Carcassonne and of his sons, on the day and year
given above, in the presence and witness of all those
From Teulet: Layetters du Tresor des Chartres No. 39,
Vol 1., p. 36, translated by E.P. Cheyney in University of Pennsylvania
Translations and Reprints, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Press, 1898), Vol 4:, no, 3, pp. 18-20. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/atton1.html
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