The predominant political and social structure of the western medieval world at the times of the Crusades is referred to by historians as Feudalism. Everything in Winning His Spurs is coloured by feudal obligations – and getting around them. The word is derived from the Latin feudum or fief (estate). A fief was a parcel of land held by an individual in return for his allegiance and military commitment to his feudal superior. There is no evidence that the Europeans of the 11th and 12th centuries even gave it a name, since it was so familiar and natural to them.
Many of the roots of feudalism can be traced back to the barbarian invasions during the last years of the Western Roman Empire, and to the subsequent period of Germanic settlement, among who the Franks were the most significant tribal grouping. The holding of a parcel of land – a benefice – in return for certain obligations was common under Roman law, while the fealty of sworn vassals to their superiors was a Germanic tribal tradition. Fealty is a complex concept, implying obedience to a higher power, with attendant obligations, in return for protection of the lower power. In other words, the loyalty offered must be a two-way gift. Feudalism simply amalgamated the Roman and Frankish practices.
The feudal system was based around military service. Unlike most other European peoples, the Carolingian Franks (after Charlemagne the Great) made extensive use of cavalry. These mounted warriors needed to have the wealth to supply horses, armour and equipment, and were required to devote most of their time to military service. The eighth-century Frankish monarch Charles Martel granted his cavalrymen benefices in return for their sworn allegiance to him. This created the vassi dominici (vassals of the lord), or the forerunners of medieval knights.
Following the disintegration of the Carolingian empire and the civil wars and barbarian attacks that ensued – invasions by Magyars, Moors and Vikings – military protection became a vital imperative for survival. Many of the more prominent vassi dominici commanded their own bands of troops, and post-Carolingian rulers hired these bands to protect their lands against attack by external invaders or rival claimants to the throne. They were paid in grants of royal land, made using the benifice system. The large armies of the Carolingian heyday were unable to survive the disintegration of central power, and were too unwieldy to respond rapidly to Viking raids or Magyar incursions. This inevitably led to a decentralisation of military power, devolving from royal hands into those of the leading warlords. The nature of this local military power was directly responsible for the rapid spread of feudalism.
In those wild times, farmers and villagers lacked the means to defend their own holdings, so they sought the protection of a knight, in exchange for the loss of freeholding status for that of a bondsman or serf. In turn, the petty knights were unable to defend against more powerful invaders, so they in turn surrendered the lands they acquired to a more powerful warlord. In return, the lord granted the lands back to the knight, who became his vassal.
This continued upwards: a villager became the serf of a knight; the knight became the vassal of a more powerful man (possibly a baron); he owed allegiance to a provincial warlord (possibly a count), who in his turn became the vassal of an even more powerful lord (possibly a duke). This top tier in theory comprised the vassals of the king, but for much of the early medieval period royal authority was severely limited and – particularly in France – too weak to challenge their actions. By the 11th century many leading nobles ruled territories that were largely autonomous, these dukes having the right to raise armies, tax subjects, and impose law and order.
In the tenth century this hierarchical system developed rapidly, particularly in the western Frankish State (Neustria, which would become France). By the start of the 11th century, feudalism was firmly established, and only a few isolated parcels of land remained free of feudal obligations. This system would continue until the growth of towns and the re-establishment of royal power began the slow social revolution that considerably changed a system built from past traditions and military necessity.
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Feudal society was arranged in the fashion of a pyramid of power, with the king at the top of the heap, senior barons and upper clergy below, and then the ranks of lesser nobles, knights, obligated soldiers, free peasants and indentured serfs at the bottom.