Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Revisiting "A Feudal Foundation" (Part Two)

Photo Credit: The Mad Monarchist
Feudalism was not always a system, and it wasn’t even called feudal until well after its extinction in Western Europe. At one point it was just a series of laws and customs governing the use and ownership of land. It is said that after Charlemagne's death in 814, his descendants fought over the land, and Europe disintegrated into thousands of seignories (independent kingdoms run by sovereign lords). In my discussion of the Black Prince’s Ruby, you can read how Spain was fraught with feuding for land amongst several of these seigneurs.

Throughout Western Europe, these lords independently governed tracts of land. After awhile, the knights in military service to these lords began to make demands for rights to land, especially in France. Realizing the importance of garnering fealty from their military force, the lords set up a system of legal agreements to grant these requests for land.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Under these new laws, a knight (and later peasants) could make a pledge to provide military, political, or financial services to a lord by means of an oath of allegiance. In return, the lord acknowledged the agreement with an act of homage. After this feudal bond was created, the knight then became a legal vassal of the lord. The lord granted him tenure (ownership) of a specified portion of the lord’s land. In return, the vassal agreed to provide protection, political or military aid, profit-sharing, and/or rental payments to the lord.

These legal agreements were called fiefs, and a seigneur’s group of said agreements was termed a fiefdom. I suppose you could compare a seigneur to a modern-day mortgage lender, in that he maintained a form of ownership over the land even though the vassal was able to pass the agreement down to his heirs.

Duke of Normandy
Photo Credit: People Quiz
Though it is not agreed upon by historians, there is a theory that feudalism did not reach the island of England until the Norman Conquest. In 1066, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded the island from the continent and established a powerful monarchy which resulted in the intricate system of sovereignty that remains a fundamental part of the fabric of England’s government even today.

It is supposed that the feudalism that was inherent in the French customs of that day spread rampantly across the conquered island. Regardless of whether feudalism was brought to England by the invasion or whether it was already there, it is clear that the relationships between lords and vassals were foundational in constructing England’s strict social class system in the late 1700s and early 1800s.


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