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Feudalism Lesson for Kids: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Jenny Homer

Jenny has masters' degrees in public health and public administration.

Have you ever wondered whether there were real knights in shining armor? It turns out real knights were part of a system in Europe during the Middle Ages called feudalism. Learn about why feudalism came to be, how communities were organized, and where knights fit in.

What is Feudalism?

Can you imagine if we lived somewhere without a government that makes rules, a police department to make sure people follow them, and a school system? What would your community look like? This is what happened during the Middle Ages in Western Europe, a period that lasted from about 400 to 1100 CE.

When we think of the Middle Ages, we think of knights in shining armor and kings. There were knights and kings, but there was also much more to this time period. The kings back then did not have a lot of power, and it wasn't always clear who was in charge. Life without a strong government could be dangerous for people, especially if there was fighting.

A system of feudalism developed to set up more rules and order. Different groups of people had certain responsibilities. Under feudalism, people gave kings and lords money and work in exchange for protection. Feudalism affected how people lived, the communities they lived in and what they did for a job.

Land and the Feudal System

Under the feudal system, there were different groups with varying degrees of power and status:

Levels in the Feudal System
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  • The king or queen was at the very top. They owned all the land, which they broke up and gave out, in exchange for military help. The land they gave out was called a fief, and there were giant and small fiefs.
  • The person getting the land was called a vassal. There were different levels of vassals with nobles (lords, barons, and counts) being the highest level. Knights were another kind of vassal who fought for the lords. Once vassals got land, they would also become a lord to the people working the land they received. So the same person could be a vassal and a lord at the same time!
  • Serfs and peasants were the people at the bottom. Some were farmers, while others were assigned a trade by the noble, like being a baker. Serfs were connected to the land, which means they were born there and couldn't leave. They had to ask the lord if they wanted to leave the land, get married, or change jobs! Peasants had a little more freedom than serfs in that some owned the land they worked. Most people at this time were serfs and peasants.

Working the Land
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