Medieval Europe: the Feudal System

This article deals with the feudal system of Medieval Europe, focussing on western Europe.

The term “feudal system” is used by historians to describe a social-political structure which was a key feature of medieval Europe. Its significance goes far beyond its role in a few centuries in the European Middle Ages, however. It helped shape world history as a whole, by giving rise to early forms of representative government. It was on these foundations that modern democracy would be built.


Not all historians like the term. They regard it as inadequate in describing an extraordinarily complex situation. However, the alternative is to get bogged down in detailed descriptions and qualifications which risk overwhelming all but specialist medievalists. As a shorthand, feudalism will do as well as any other.

The word “feudal” derives from the word fief. In brief, a fief was a piece of property which a person was given on condition that he (and occasionally she) performed certain services to the one who gave it.

A person who received a fief was a vassal of the one who had given him the fief, who was his lord. In the agrarian society of medieval Europe, a fief was usually a specified parcel of land.

The services the vassal owed the lord commonly entailed military service for a set amount of time each year (40 days was normal). This would depend on the amount of land involved, which was calculated in multiples of knight’s fees. A knight’s fee was normal the smallest fiefs, a sufficient amount of land to support one knight – enough land, in other words, to support a warrior and his very expensive war-horses, armor and weapons, plus his family and servants (including at least one servant to aid him while on campaign).

So, if a vassal had been granted a fief worth 40 knight’s fees (a very large fief), he would be obliged to furnish his lord with 40 knights for 40 days a year. If he had only been given one knight’s fee, he would either undertake the service himself or (if old or frail) send a substitute.

A vassals was also obliged to provide his lord with money from time to time – for example, when the lord’s son came of age, or the lord’s daughter got married, or if the lord was captured in battle and needed ransoming (quite a common occurrence – a soldier would far prefer to take an enemy prisoner than kill him, as a defeated opponent was worth a lot more alive than dead). He also had a duty to provide his lord with advice. This last was very important for what it led on to (see below, Representative Government).

In return for these services, the lord would promise to protect his vassal (a very valuable commitment in violent times); and to “give him justice” (that is, support him in court).

All these promises and counter-promises were accompanied by solemn oaths, so that the whole was underpinned by strong religious sanctions – which, in a deeply religious age, counted for a great deal.

Harold swearing oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy.
Harold swearing oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy.

A pyramid of fiefs

The term “feudal system” came into use to describe a hierarchy of relationships which embraced medieval Europe, involving fief-holders of different ranks.

A fief-holder was able to hive off part of his fief to form a smaller fief for a vassal of his own (in exchange for the traditional obligations, of course). So, a powerful vassal of a king, say, who had a fief worth 40 knight’s fees, could grant his own vassals lesser fiefs of 5 knight’s fees each from his own fief. They in turn could grant a fief of one knight’s fee to vassals of their own.

In this way, most fief-holders were both lords and vassals; and kingdoms came to resemble, from top to bottom, pyramids of greater and lesser fiefs. Those who held just one knight’s fee were lords of the peasants who farmed the land in their small fief. In feudal society everyone was supposed to have a lord – except the king at the top, who had no lord (at least, not on Earth: he was regarded as God’s vassal).

The different ranks of fief-holders formed the aristocracy of medieval European society. A feudal kingdom was divided amongst several great “magnates” (leading nobles such as dukes and counts, who controlled large fiefs), who were the direct vassals of the king. These magnates had lesser barons as their vassals, and these in turn had the holders of individual knight’s fees as their vassals. Until the 9th or 10th centuries, this fief-holding was in theory for one lifetime only. It gradually became hereditary in practice, and from about 1000 was hereditary in law as well: fiefs were granted to a vassal and his heirs after him.

Privatized power

The main implication for all this was that power was widely distributed. A king was regarded as owning all the land of his kingdom, and to command its entire military and economic resources. However, he owned his land, and exercised his authority, through a large number of vassals.

Military power

For military purposes, the mechanism by which a feudal king could mobilize the military resources of his realm was to order his direct vassals, the magnates, to provide him with soldiers. The magnates in turn ordered their own vassals (the lesser barons) to provide them with soldiers to fight for the king. These barons then ordered their vassals to go and join the lord’s standard and fight for the king. All this gave the vassals and sub-vassals a great deal of power to raise troops, which they occasionally used against a king rather than on his behalf.

In battle, these various vassals would fight under their lords’ command.

Justice and administration

In terms of exercising justice, making laws, and overseeing administrative matters, a similar situation prevailed. The king presided over his magnates in the royal council. The magnates oversaw justice and administration within their own fiefs, and lesser vassals did likewise within their sub-fiefs. At the bottom of the pyramid, the holder of a knight’s fee presided over a manor courts, overseeing the affairs of the village. As lesser lords jealously guarded their legal jurisdictions against encroachment from above, feudal administration tended to be very fragmented and localized.

Private realms

From all this, it is clear that a fief was not just a piece of private property, in the sense that we would recognize today; it carried with it what we would now regard as public responsibilities, which are normally exercised by such public bodies as central government, local government, law courts and so on. In medieval Europe these public responsibilities had been granted away to individuals, along with the land over which they were exercised. The distinction between private and public matters was blurred to the point of non-existence.

How did the feudal system arise?

With the peace and stability of the Roman Empire gone, the Germanic invaders established several kingdoms but struggled to impose order and organization on their territories. One of these kingdoms, that of the Franks, conquered most of the others to rule a large area of western Europe. The Frankish kings appointed dukes and counts to rule the various districts into which their realm was divided.

From the early 9th century onwards, the lands of western Europe came under renewed attack, now from the Vikings in the north, the Arabs in the south, and the Magyars in the east. These invaders raided deep into the interior. Vikings sailed far up rivers to strike at unsuspecting towns, villages and monasteries, and bands of Magyars rode on their fast ponies on long raids from central Europe as far as western France.


At the same time, the Frankish realm was falling apart. Members of the royal family fought amongst themselves for territory, and the ceaseless civil wars created a disordered and fragmented society. At the best of times the kings would have found it hard to provide effective protection against the Vikings raiders, given the primitive communications of the day. In the anarchic conditions of the 9th and 10th centuries, they found it impossible.

In these circumstances the local dukes and counts (who we will call “magnates”, and who now routinely passed their offices on from father to son) filled the power vacuum and were able to organize resistance (or payment) to invaders. They built up local defenses around a growing network of castles – new defensive structures which give much-needed protection in a violent and disorderly society.

Within their territories, the magnates increasingly usurped the royal authority. Their own domains, however, were subject to the same process of fragmentation. Command of a castle gives its local lord strong protection against foreign raiders, against neighboring lords – and against his superior lord. Commanders of castles (“castellans”) increasingly treated their castles and the land around them as their own.

The result was that public authority at every level disintegrated, and the functions of government – military, judicial, administrative – became devolved and privatized in the hands of regional magnates and local lords. A kings’ direct power was confined to his own semi-private territories (royal domains). In the wider realms, he could no longer issue orders to officials obedient to his command; instead he had to win the cooperation of the magnates through a process of negotiation. When a king lost the support of his magnates, as happened on a regular basis, he lost control of his kingdom.

It is this devolution of power from king to count, and from count to local lord, that gave rise to the social-political phenomenon we call the “feudal system”. It was based on personal loyalties and mutual obligations between kings, magnates, local lords and their followers. It was only through these ties that some kind of order was able to prevail throughout the medieval realms, and that kings were able to mobilize the military resources of their kingdoms.

As feudal relationships became more established, the Church was called upon to give them religious sanction in the ceremonies of investiture in which lords and vassals swore solemn oaths to sanctified the agreements between them. The Church then played a major part in defining the ideal ethical behavior of the feudal nobility, and thus helped to give rise to the chivalric code of knighthood.


It can be seen from the above that feudalism arose as a response to circumstances in which endemic warfare was the order of the day. The feudal society was one organized for war; a central reason for its coming into being was the need for kings and great lords to call forth armies of mounted warriors. This is implicit in the fact that the entire fief-system was based on multiples of knights’ fees.

From the 10th century at the latest the central figure of medieval warfare was the mounted warrior. This figure is known by various names in different parts of Europe – chevalier in France, cavalier in Italy, caballero in Spain, ritter in Germany and knight in England.

The innovation which gave mounted warriors a distinct advantage over soldiers fighting on foot seems to have been the iron stirrup. This allowed them to put their whole weight behind their weapons – lances, battle axes, great swords – which combined with the height the horse to give them a decisive military superiority.

These mounted soldiers began life as rough henchmen of the magnates and local lords. However, with the increasing expense of their equipment – horses, armor and so on – lords found it more convenient to grant many of them their own small fiefs, so that they could pay their own expenses. This turned them into fully-fledged, albeit junior, members of the landed aristocracy. In most of Europe (the British Isles are the exemption here, as in much else) this knightly class gained all the legal privileges of the higher nobility.


Manors were economic and political units – blocs of farm land which formed the base on which the whole panoply of fief-holding was built. Fiefs consisted of one or more manors; and manors provided a fief-holder with income, status and power.

Manorialism had its origins in Roman times. The classical estates which had dominated the land-holding patterns of Greek and Roman society – large, slave-run farms surrounding villa complexes – evolved into proto-manors of the later Roman empire. This evolution took place for a number of reasons: sources of cheap slaves became less reliable; heavy taxation impoverished the class of independent peasant farmers, who sought protection by selling their lands to local landowners; new laws bound peasants to their hereditary farms, thus starting them down on the road to serfdom; and many lesser landowners, like the independent peasants, were crushed by the weight of taxation and so were forced to sell to larger landowners. In this way estates grew larger, and gangs of slaves were succeeded by peasant masses tied to the estate on an hereditary basis.

These large estates of the late Roman empire were much more economically self-sufficient than their predecessors had been. For example, workshops allowed the farming equipment to be maintained – and much of it probably made – on site. More of the food produced was for home consumption. The estates became less tied into the urban market economy, which was in any case shrinking drastically as trade routes were disrupted.

This self-sufficiency enabled these estates to survive much better than the towns during the anarchy of the years when the western Roman empire collapsed. In this period they became the dominant social and economic unit, their owners – Roman landowning families alongside newly arrived German chieftains, with the two gradually intermarrying to form a single elite: the new landed nobility.

Miniature states

The period of anarchy must also have forced the estates to function as so many little principalities, seeing to their own defense and administering their own law and order. From being merely landowners, estate owners became local lords. The new German kings did not maintain large professional armies, as the Romans had done, but continued to use the tribal levies. Under this system, German tribal nobles, who had been invested with some of these estates (theoretically a third of all land in conquered territories was given to the new German invaders), had to bring themselves and their warriors to the royal standard at the start of a campaign. For the rest of the time these followers lived in their lords’ halls, provided for out of the proceeds of the estate.

In the new disorders of the 9th and 10th centuries, these primitive arrangements were modified by the emergence of formal feudal lord/vassal relationships. At the same time the old tribal warrior, fighting on foot, became the mounted warrior, who was a much more expensive military asset. This led to the sub-infeudation of the larger estates as these mounted warriors received grants of land from which to support themselves. The old estates became lordships consisting of several knight’s fees, with much of their land now parceled out as new manors of one knight’s fee each.

Characteristics of manors

Traditionally, manors were at least the equivalent of one knight’s fee. Originally they were formed of single village communities, but over time, as pieces of land were given away here and acquired there, many manors came to be scattered through several neighboring villages; the corollary of this was that villages were often divided amongst more than one manor. Alternatively they could be lumped together with other villages into a large manor (of several knight’s fees).

The defining feature of a manor was that it was “held in the hand” (the word manor comes from the Latin for “hand”) by a lord. This lord could be a secular lord like a knight or a baron, or an ecclesiastical lord like a bishop, church or monastery. Whoever or whatever the lord was, he or it had control over the land and people of the manor. This power involved economic, judicial/administrative and military power: the lord had a right to a share in his people’s labor or income; the people of the manor were subject to the manorial court, presided over by the lord or his official, which ordered their lives; and the men of he manor were liable to be chosen to follow their lord to war, fighting under his orders.

The great hall at Penshurst Place, Kent, built in the mid 14th century
The great hall at Penshurst Place, Kent, built in the mid 14th century

 A manor usually consisted of three parts:

1. demesne land, directly under the control of the lord and his officials, the purpose of which was to support him and his household;

2. dependent land, which carried obligations to the lord, usually mainly labor service but often including contributions in kind, or even money gifts – this land was farmed by serfs; and

3. free lands, for which peasants paid money rent – this land was farmed by free peasants called  yeomen (in English).


Dependent land was farmed by “serfs”: peasants who were bound to the manor on an hereditary basis, and had hereditary obligations to the lord. These usually involving working on his demesne land for a set number of days per week, and giving him gifts in kind or money on certain days. Serfs were not allowed to leave the manor without the lord’s permission. Nor were they allowed to marry without his permission; they usually had to pay a “fine” (or tax) for permission to marry. When a son inherited land from his father he also had to pay a fine, and most punishments in the manorial court were dealt out as fines (hence our association of the word “fine” with punishment).

The balance between demesne, dependent and free land varied from manor to manor, and more so from region to region (for example, there tended to be many more free peasants in southern Europe, whereas it has been estimated that serfs made up 90% of the peasants in 12th century England and northern France). It also varied over time, as a lord took more land into his demesne, or divided demesne land amongst his serfs and free peasants.

As well as labor services and rents in kind or money, lords could usually extract fees for the use of the manor’s mill, bakery or wine press.

Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, collected by H. de Vielcastel from original documents in European libraries
Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries
collected by H. de Vielcastel from original documents in European libraries

Manors usually attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. The work of making and repairing equipment, for example, was carried out as far as practicable within the manor. Towns were few and far between, and transporting goods to and from them was slow and expensive, so self-sufficiency was a sensible aim.

Feudal complexity

It is common in school text books for feudalism to be depicted as a pyramid – and we have done the same here. However, it should be borne in mind that feudalism could give rise to fiendish complexity; spaghetti might represent it better.

We have seen how the original manors covered singe villages, but often came later to be scattered over several. As in this case, most complexities arose after fief-holding had become hereditary.

For example, a vassal of one lord might marry the heiress of the vassal of another lord, thus acquiring obligations to a different lord. What happened if these lords became enemies? This was not an unusual situation. The most famous case is probably that of the dukes of Burgundy, who in the 15th century held lands from both the king of France and the emperor of Germany, who were hereditary rivals.

Things could get more complicated still. The counts of Anjou, vassals of the king of France, acquired by marriage, inheritance and a good bit of skulduggery several surrounding fiefs including of Aquitaine and Normandy. They thus came to rule more of France than his nominal superior, the king – and this was before he inherited the throne of England as king Henry II (reigned 1153-89).

How did towns fit into the feudal system?

Fiefs and manors were essentially blocks of land from which income could be drawn, in the form of a share in the labor of the peasantry, or in the produce of the soil, or of money revenue from these. It was a system for a rural economy.

This made sense when, in the centuries after the fall of Rome, towns were few and far between, and those which did still exist were tiny.

“Towns make free”

The inhabitants of towns did not fit neatly into the feudal scheme of things. Many early towns were located in areas between manors. They formed no part of any fief and were answerable directly to the king. Other towns grew up within existing fiefs. In either case, it was quite impossible for a king to a great lord to deal with each individual within a town, so they dealt with towns as whole communities – which in practice meant dealing with the leaders of the towns.

It followed from this that, in internal matters, towns were able to run their own affairs with a comparatively free hand, and that townsmen, as individuals, were free of feudal obligations. This was most clearly expressed in the medieval proverb that “towns make free”. Famously, if a serf arrived in a town and was able to stay there for a year and a day without being caught and sent back to his manor, he became a free citizen of that town.

Wealthy towns and powerful cities

If the medieval economy expanded and towns became wealthier, their leaders were able to bargain with their superiors, whether king or lords, for more autonomy. Large towns and cities thus came to run their own affairs with minimal interference from kings and other rulers. The revenue they contributed to the royal and feudal coffers effectively purchased their autonomy. In England and France, the key cities of London and Paris were treated with great respect by their kings, while smaller cities enjoyed a high degree of freedom from royal or feudal interference. The cities of Spain gained the right to govern themselves, and those of central Italy which were part of the Papal States owed only loose obedience to the pope (a duty which they frequently ignored).

In parts of Europe, many cities became effectively independent states in their own right. In Germany, even fairly minor towns gained a large measure of independence due to the problems the Holy Roman emperors had in imposing their will across their realms. In Flanders, the cities of Ghent, Bruges and Ypres became self-governing city-states, only nominally subject to the local count. In northern Italy, the wealth of leading towns such as Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence made them amongst some of the most powerful states in Europe.

The rise of representative assemblies

It can be seen from this description of the feudal system that at heart of it was a system of relationships between lords and their vassals, with rights and duties on both sides. It followed from this that medieval lords did not have dictatorial powers over their vassal. For example, a lord had no rights to help himself to his vassal’s property. Indeed, embedded in the system of western European feudalism was the principle that a lord could not tax his subjects without their consent.

The key to rulers gaining the consent of their leading subjects was to seek their advice: to bring them in on his thinking, listen to their anxieties, and adapt his policies accordingly. Indeed, as we have seen, one of the duties of a vassal to his lord was to provide him with counsel; and vassals regarded this duty as one of their most cherished privileges, that their lord should consult with them on important matters. Each lord had his council of vassals, which provided the forum for such consultation.

Over time, as towns and cities became wealthier, kings’ “great councils” expanded to include not only leading nobles and churchmen, but also representatives from the major towns. The great councils evolved into assemblies which represented the main “estates” of the medieval realm: nobility, church and commoners (and in some cases, as in Sweden, peasants formed their own estate).

These assemblies went by different names: in Spain, they were the Cortes; in France, the Estates-General; in Germany, the Landtage, in Scandinavia the Rigstag or Rikstag; and in England, Scotland, Ireland, Sicily, the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples, they were Parliaments. They all had similar origins, in rulers’ obligations to consult with their leading vassals.

One of the key principles that underlay this development was the idea that one person could speak for many. This meant not only communicating their views but committing them to action (such as paying a tax). Given the responsibility of this role, it was important that the representative should be someone who commanded the confidence of the majority of those whom he represented. The notion of electing representatives by majority vote thus took hold, and so developed a practice which would lie at the heart of modern democracy.

The decline of feudalism

In the centuries after 1000, the economy of western Europe expanded vastly, along with its population. Coinage increasingly came in to circulation, and a money economy gained ground.

In these circumstances, the shortcomings of feudalism as a way of raising troops became glaringly obvious. The expanding economies of their kingdoms enabled kings (often in consultation with representative assemblies) to raise taxes and pay for armies of full-time professional soldiers. This development of course increased the importance of representative assemblies; it also struck at the very heart of feudalism, with nobles and knights becoming primarily landed gentry rather than serving warriors.

 The old Feudal system is beginning to give way to early Modern Europe
The old Feudal system is beginning to give way to early Modern Europe.

Above all, these developments put much more power into the hands of monarchs and their officials. Gradually, these were able to wrest control of justice and administration from fief-holders, so that centralized states were able to emerge.

In some places, such as England and Holland, the later Middle Ages saw the manorial economy replaced by something new. The Black Death of the mid-14th century, along with subsequent local outbreaks of plague which kept the population of western Europe in check, caused a shortage of labor, which naturally increased its value. The labor services which serfs owed thus became less profitable to the lords, who came therefore to prefer money rents instead. Manors were increasingly divided up into individual private farms, each under its own tenant farmer. In these areas, serfdom had more or less vanished by the end of the Middle Ages.

In these ways, while elements of feudalism continued in many parts of western Europe right up to the 18th and 19th centuries, the feudal system as a whole, with its hierarchy of fiefs and lords and vassals, had died out by the end of the 16th century. In same places, where this process was most advanced, fiefs, whose lords enjoyed political, military, judicial and economic power over them, had become simply landed estates, which were economic units only. In other places they remained units of localized power. Nowhere, however, were they the centers of military and lordly power which they had been in the high Middle Ages.


Further study

An overview of Medieval European civilization

The Medieval Church

Medieval European government and warfare

The Medieval European economy


Look at a sequence of maps showing an outline of medieval European history