The successor states of the Germanic peoples in the West managed to restore political stability after the collapse of the Roman Empire. One of these states managed to create a sizeable empire under the famous king Charlemagne, which began to collapse after about mid-9th century under the impact of fresh waves of invasions. The resulting political chaos led to the emergence of a new kind of political order called Feudalism. It was a hierarchical or graded organisation of political sovereignty.

This hierarchical structure can be understood easily if we visualise a ladder or a flight of steps. At the top of the ladder stood the King, below him stood the big lords known as the Dukes and Earls. Below these lords were a number of lesser lords known as the Barons. Below these were the Knights, who were perhaps the lowest category of lords.

The lords derived their authority from and owned their loyalty to the lord just above them and were known as the vassals of their lord. This pattern of relationship between lords and vassals, that is, between bigger lords and lesser lords was the same from the top of the ladder to the bottom.

Thus political power was widely dispersed unlike in the Roman Empire where it was concentrated mainly in the hands of the king. This was the political aspect of Feudalism.

A unique feature of the new feudal political structure was the personal nature of the bond that linked a lord and his vassal. An elaborate ceremony would be organised to establish this bond. In this ceremony, a vassal would take a vow to serve the lord all his life. Simultaneously, he also accepted the protection of the lord.

Protection was important since these were politically unstable times. In return for the protection that a vassal received he was bound to perform various services for his lord. This mainly included military services which meant that the vassal had to provide a certain number of troops whenever required by the lord. In his turn the lord was expected to make a grant usually in the form of land for the sustenance of the ‘fief’ or ‘fiefdom’ from which the word Feudalism is derived.

The lords used to mobilise armed supporters in their own areas who had personal loyalty directly to him. With this armed strength, he would provide military support to the lord whenever required. With this military power, the lords also became complete masters of their own area and could not be challenged even by the state.

In a period of political turmoil, just as the lords sought protection, so did the peasant. These peasants had no land of their own, no implements and could not afford to buy seeds. For these well as for protection the free peasants now turned to the lords. These dependent peasants of Medieval Europe, tied to the soil and completely subject to the authority of the lord were called serfs. A major portion of the wealth generated during this period was through their exploitation.

The entire landed estate over which a feudal lord had control was known as the manor. The land surrounding the manor house was divided into three parts - land for the use of the lord, the arable land granted in parcels to the peasants and the meadow lands used by everyone as grazing land for livestock. The serfs who occupied these parcels or holdings were regarded tenants of the lord of the manor.

Being tenants, they had to give something to the lord as rent. This rent was paid by peasants in the form of labour services to the lord. They also worked on the lands of the lords for a certain number of days in the week. The serfs had to put in extra labour during agricultural seasons when plugging, harvesting or threshing was required.

Such unpaid labor services also included other heavy tasks such as construction work, hewing and cutting of fire wood. In the later phase of Feudalism, these labor services were gradually substituted by those payable in money.

The serfs also had to pay some dues or taxes in kind which came from the share of their own produce. These were often introduced arbitrarily whenever the lord wanted more resources. The lords also extracted from the peasants in an indirect manner. The manor was a self-sufficient economic unit. This means that almost all articles of everyday use were produced and consumed on it.

For this there were various facilities like smithies for turning out iron object, flour mills for grinding wheat or corn, ovens for baking bread, wine presses for making wine from grapes and various workshops for making products of everyday use. All of these were owned by the lord. The peasants were forced to use these facilities and the charges for these would of course be fixed by the lord according to his own will.

Changes in Feudal Economy

The feudal system was not a static system. It witnessed several changes and the feudal economy underwent a pattern of prosperity and crisis. The few centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire were marked by a low level of economic life. There was a decline in town life, trade and monetary exchange.

Some cities did survive from Roman days but these were only empty shells which had no real economic role. Roads deteriorated. Barter widely replaced the use of money. European economy was based almost entirely on agriculture and very limited local trade. The main economic unit was the self-sufficient landed estate, or the feudal manor that we have read about. Technology used in agriculture was backward and agricultural yields were low. These conditions lasted till about the 10th century AD.

After the 10th century, the feudal system of production underwent significant changes. There was an increase in agricultural fields as the system became more and more stable. Another factor that helped in increasing agricultural productivity at this time was a significant improvement in agricultural techniques. A new plough was introduced which was heavier, had wheels and was drawn by a team of oxen.

This helped in cultivating the heavy and sticky soil of Northern Europe more effectively. Agriculture was later replaced by the Three Field System in which 1/3rd of the land was left fallow; 1/3rd was used for cultivating autumn crop and 1/3rd for a spring crop. By leaving only a third part of the land fallow, the Three Field System helped greatly in increasing the cropped area. The new plough, Three Field System and other innovations in agricultural techniques helped in increasing the agricultural yield by several times.

Along with the expansion in agriculture the period from the 10th to the 12th century also witnessed the revival of trade and the growth of town life. Trade ranged from the small trade at local markets where peasants sold their excess grain or eggs and bought long distance trade products like wine or cotton. Improvements in road building helped road transport. Rives and sea routes were also used for trade.  

The revival in trade made necessary new patterns of payment since barter was inadequate for this purpose. As a result, money economy made a tremendous advance. This led to agricultural prosperity of the surrounding rural areas. The towns soon began to specialise in certain enterprises. One of these was cloth making which became one of the most important industries of these towns.

Guilds became important. Both merchant activities and craft production came to be organised around guilds. These medieval towns continued to grow in importance and ultimately became an important factor in the breakdown of feudal relations of the countryside.

The tendency towards growth reached its limits by the end of the 12th century. Significant changes could be noticed in the feudal system by the 13th century which witnessed a reversal of the process of growth. The period of economic growth and prosperity resulted in a rise of population. This meant an increase in the supply of labour for the landlords.

Therefore, they no longer found it necessary to retain their demesnes. Also due to abundant labor, labor-serving technology found few investors. As demesne lands were gone, the need to extract labor services from the peasants also went. The reduction in labor services and technological stagnation in agriculture together with other factors brought down agricultural yield very sharply.

Food shortage and famines began to occur. Epidemics of plague broke out. All this resulted in an overall decline in the agricultural economy whereas there was growth of a money economy, urban centers and trade. However, European society was able to overcome this crisis more easily than the pre-10th century crisis and by around 1450 the economy started moving towards recovery.

Society and Culture

Given the relatively low level of economic life in the period before the 10th century, it was not a prosperous time for learning or the arts. During this period learning remained a privilege of the few. The masses received no formal education. In fact, the language of learning was Latin which was known only to the priestly class. However, even this little bit of education was of a very narrow kind. It consisted mostly of memorisation, without any reasoning or questioning.

All learning was dominated by blind faith. In such conditions, there was hardly any development in the sciences. There was some attempt at a revival, but even this did not result in any real intellectual creativity. However, the educated members of the priestly and monastic orders did try to recopy and preserve some major works of Roman literature. This served as the basis of a revival of learning that began in the 11th and 12th centuries.

This period saw very little significant production in the area of literature because of the low level of literacy. The same is the case with artistic productions in this period. However, a unique style that developed in this field was that of manuscript illustrations.

In this period, cultural attainment was minimal and sparse. European Civilisation at that time was much backward in comparison with other contemporary neighboring civilisations like the Byzantine and the Islamic world.

The prosperity and relative peace of the period from the 10th century brought about a consequent change in the cultural life of the period. This period witnessed rise in literacy with the spread of primary education and the opening of universities. There was an attempt at the acquisition of classical knowledge as well as knowledge from the Arab Civilisation.

Thus, this period saw a progress in knowledge and thought in Europe. It was an important step towards the intellectual flowering that took place during the Modern Period.