What is Medieval Feudalism? - Definition, Structure & History

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  • 0:01 Feudalism
  • 1:02 How Feudalism Worked
  • 3:51 The End of Feudalism
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

In this lesson, you'll learn about the historical background, basic structure, and general nature of feudalism as practiced in Medieval Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries.

Feudalism

Feudalism is a term used to describe the type of economic and political arrangement that dominated the highest levels of society in Medieval Europe. It influenced the political structure and the way wars were fought during that time. In feudalism, a lord gave his most trusted men, known as vassals, land and power over all the people living there, and in return they swore loyalty to him and promised to give him a share of their taxes and provide military support whenever called upon.

To get a better sense of how feudalism worked, imagine a successful retail store. The owner of the store might watch a good employee work himself up to positions of more and more responsibility until finally that person becomes an assistant manager. A new store opens up, and the owner sends the employee there to run it. The new manager promises to send along all the profits of the new store to the original owner and also promises to maintain all of the company's policies in return for the new position.

How Feudalism Worked

At first, becoming a vassal was an honor given to the best and most loyal warriors and was based on a personal bond between lord and vassal. When you read about King Arthur or Roland, you are glimpsing some of those relationships as they were meant to be. A ceremony would be performed, and both lord and vassal would make a pledge of homage, where the vassal would promise to give aid when called upon, while the lord would promise to protect his vassal from any external threat. This was followed by an oath of fealty, a promise of loyalty given by the vassal to his lord.

Should the vassal die, his son might be given the same estate out of kindness, but his personal bond would be much weaker. If a succession like that continued for a few generations, it would be considered hereditary. When that happened, the vassal had no reason to be loyal other than tradition and the implied threat that his lord would enforce loyalty if it was not given freely.

As long as the ruler was strong, the system worked, but if he was ever unable to enforce loyalty, then it could collapse. That's where the analogy to a retail store works again. As long as the government (or the business) runs smoothly, the bureaucracy can keep each vassal (or the store) in line, but if the king (or the management) falters, then his vassals (or the stores) might decide to go out on their own.

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