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Society and 'Feudalism' Cheat Sheet by

Medieval Society

Problem of dividing medieval society
Some merit to '3 orders'
Most people were knights, clergy, or peasants
Popula­tion↑ 35 mil (1000) → 80 mil (1400)
Infant mortality still v high
→lay nobility: warfare
→women: childbirth
Most kings didn't die violent deaths
Warfare: most clergy & peasants not at risk
Higher clergy: longer lifespan
Difficult to estimate life exp
→depended on wealth­/ge­nde­r/o­ccu­pat­ion­/region
Most records from the wealthy
→often no birth dates, only death dates
Many lived until 60s, some till 80s

Village Society

Most western Europe: village societies
(11th & 12th centuries)
Lord owned land. Ruled popula­tion: owed him service, rent, allegiance
Most peasants paid rent in service & money

Peasants & Serfdom

Free/u­nfree peasants = most of population
→Free peasants: freedom to move
→Serfs: tied to lord's land
10th cent: Slaves common southern Europe
→Church opposed to Christians as slaves
Freedom = hereditary
→you're a serf? so are your kids!
→Some free peasants gave up freedom for lord's protection (food)
Early middle ages: more land, less labour, serfs needed
→After 10th cent: reversed
End of 12th century: serf's role more defined
→Pros: swifter justice, limited rights, stronger foundation
→Serfs could gain freedom


For those free, society = mobile to an extent
→limited range of occupa­tions
→by 12th cent, merchant & artisan classes grew
Art­isa­ns: miners; smiths; shipbu­ilders; carpen­ters; stonem­asons
Mer­cha­nts: organised market & trade
Lending money w/ interested - forbidden by Church
→ban didn't apply to Jews; Jewish merchants involved in moneyl­ending
Between 11th & 15th cents, merchant classes grew w/ towns
By granting autonomy & privil­eges, everyone profited
Italy: more compli­cated
→long tradition of civic life, some cities v rich & powerful
→fragm­ented political rivalry
→11th cent: rise of port cities - Pisa, Venice, Genoa

'Feudal system­'/'­Feu­dalism'

These concep­ts/­terms in wide use since mid 19th cent
Marxists: 'feudal society' to explain pre-cap
Legal histor­ians: 'feudal society' for specific legal rship
Terms and concepts v proble­matic:
→presu­ppose existence of coherent system across kingdoms & times
Someargue terms are good to introduce students to the Middle Ages
Feudal bond: special legal rship between knight & lord
→Lord: recruits knights, rewards w/ feudal bond
→Estab­lished through homage & oath
Homa­ge: vassal kneels before his lord & places his hands in his lord's hands
Oath: then rises and takes an oath of loyalty to lord
Rship: mutual benefit
→Knight: got land and money
→Lord: got loyalty and military service
Fief: plot of land given to vassal
By 11th/12th cents, more common for vassals to have 1+ lord
→Weakened bond between lord & vassal
→i.e. one lord at war w/ the other, who does vassal fight for?

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