A Few Things Writers Should Know About Medieval Feudalism

If you're aiming to write about or capture the spirit of Medieval Europe, then it's paramount to understand Medieval Europe - and feudalism is a pretty big part of it, particularly from the 9th to the 15th centuries. This article is intended to provide a very basic overview to help people unfamiliar with it get a basic overview of the concept. That said, this article provides a very basic overview, and is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to all of Europe at once. Not every country practiced feudalism, and a lot of what people did or didn't practice depended on the time and region. So, if you're trying to write Medieval-inspired fantasy, the information in this article may be all you need to work with. If you're aiming to write historical fiction, you'll need to do a lot more research after this.

How it worked: the bare bones

The king would grant out portions of land, or fiefs, to nobles or knights to oversee and govern. These people would swear oaths of duty and of fealty to their kings, and be thus bound to this service for life. Knights and nobles who had pledged their allegiances thus were known as vassals, and those they had pledged their allegiances to were their lieges or lords. Duties of vassals included protecting the peasants/commoners (most of them serfs), and providing the king with military support and a portion of goods and/or money they had produced. Sometimes vassals might give out parts of their land (subfiefs) to others to manage, sometimes not. (In 1290, subfeudination was made illegal in England with the Statute of Quia Emptores.)

Now, the serfs were considered to be part and parcel to the land they lived on. They couldn't legally up and leave of their own volition, and they were stuck to serve whoever owned the land they lived on. They were required to work for their lords a few days a week - often around three days. This could include labor such as mining, maintaining roads, and farming. In the case of farming, serfs often had to work longer during particularly busy times such as harvest. Serfs also had to work for themselves to produce their own food, clothes, etc. Serfs also had to pay taxes to their lords in the form of goods and livestock they had produced on their own time. A serf's children would also be serfs, and they would be expected to work for the same lord as their parents.

Peasants who were not bound into serfdom were known as freemen. They could go where they liked, though they were still expected to pay rent to whoever owned the land they were currently living on. However, they were in the minority, and it's not hard to guess why: free peasants probably wouldn't put up with what the serfs were forced through for very long. The intolerableness of serfdom becomes apparent when you look at what happened after the Black Death: With so many members of the working class killed from the plague, laborers were no longer plentiful and easy to replace. This gave them leverage over the nobles, who relied on them to produce their goods. And use that leverage they did: they rebelled, revolted, and demanded better treatment. And they got it, because the nobles had no real choice at this point.

For its time, feudalism was a relatively stable form of government, but "relatively" is the key word here. While it gave countries enough unity that they could often withstand foreign invasion, there was also no shortage of internal conflict. Lords would often go to war with each other in grabs for land and power. Should a ruler die with no clear or uncontested successor, war might be fought over who would ascend the throne.

Yet, life in this system often wasn't quite as violent or brutal as many imagine. Some would have you think that torture and the death penalty were extremely common. However, the death penalty was mainly reserved for crimes such as arson, murder, or treason, and torture wasn't especially common, nor were devices like the Iron Maiden or the Pear of Anguish ever used. There was also a justice system, and it wasn't even that bad all things considered. And while women's rights left much to be desired, there's no substantial evidence that primae noctis/droit du seigneur existed as anything more than a monetary tax.

On the other hand, there was still plenty that was genuinely bad. Serfdom has often been compared to slavery, and it certainly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on many points. And sure, vassals were charged with the duty of protecting them, but at the end of the day protecting the serfs was as much about protecting their own economic interests as much as anything else. After all, who's going to work their fields and produce goods for them if they've all been killed by the rival lord? And while the knights and lords of yore might have argued that the protection they gave the serfs entitled them to keep them in bound servitude for life, it must be remembered that American slave owners said the very same thing about their slaves, and the slaves heartily disagreed.

Now, sometimes serfs could get lucky and end up becoming quite wealthy, and sometimes they could even buy their own freedom. However, the fact remains that the vast majority of them would remain poor and bound for life, and they never had any real shot at changing that.

In addition, all those oaths, rules of chivalry, and whatnot that knights and nobles were supposed to honor were no guarantee that they'd behave themselves, either. Just like the Hippocratic Oath doesn't stop medical malpractice from ever happening, rules and oaths didn't ensure that knights and nobles would behave themselves. If anything, we know from historical records that kings, knights, and lords were often as cruel and brutal as anyone in the modern world can be.

And speaking of chivalry, it wasn't quite what many people imagine it was, either. For one thing, it didn't revolve around how a man was to treat a woman. There wasn't even a single official set of rules. Rather, it was more a set of ideals and guidelines geared toward keeping knights as decent, upstanding people who didn't use their might to abuse anyone weaker and less capable than themselves, which included women, children, clergy, and commonfolk in general. But as the previous link demonstrates, these ideals were often not practiced in reality. It's not so much that chivalry is dead anymore, as much as that it's always been something of a shambling zombie.

The importance of the Catholic Church

Most of Medieval Europe was Catholic, and so the Catholic Church had an immense influence on politics. Then (as now), the Pope was believed to directly receive and act upon God's will, so to flout the Church's authority or otherwise earn their condemnation was often political suicide. If the king didn't have favor with the Church, he didn't have favor with God. If the Church didn't recognize him as a legitimate king, then neither did God. For those pious enough to care, overthrowing the king might be seen as a holy duty. For those who weren't, it might still be seen as an opportunity to seize power. Conversely, to oppose any king or lord that the Church did not disapprove of was to defy God, a belief which no doubt kept many peasants in line.

The Catholic Church played a large role in people's regular, everyday lives, too. Infants were baptized shortly after birth. People were expected to attend service on Sundays and on church holidays. Weddings and funerals were conducted by the Church. Peasants were also expected to work on Church land for a few days out of the week, and everyone was expected to pay tithes - ten percent of what they had earned or produced - to the Church every year.

One thing the Catholic Church did not do was encourage or perform mass-scale witch hunts. In Medieval times, witches were understood to be people who had made a pact with the Devil to gain power for malicious purposes. For years, the Church held that Satan could not grant power to people, and therefore, there were no witches - only people who had been tricked into believing they had been given power. While inquisitions did eventually happen, they were aimed more toward rooting out heretics than witches per se, and it wouldn't be until the Renaissance that major witch hunts started taking place.

The Catholic Church also collected and copied books, both religious and secular. In this way it helped preserve knowledge and literacy throughout the Medieval period. It also provided education in topics such as art, language, rhetoric, and arithmetic, though it was mostly only noble boys who received it. (In fact, it was sometimes illegal for peasants to receive such education without permission from their lords.) Monks also taught agriculture to the people and engaged in craftwork themselves.

To use or not to use this in setting

So now that you've got the gist of this down, you need to decide how much of this, if any, you actually want to use in your setting. Lords and rulers who support and enforce the institution of serfdom might not make for very sympathetic characters, which could be a problem if that's who you want people to root for. (You might still get people to care about them as flawed human beings who are the product of a very different time, but don't expect you can get away with presenting them as ideal rulers.)

Likewise, oaths of fealty might seem romantic and noble at first glance, but they start looking considerably less ideal when you consider how they could be abused to coerce people into enabling a liege's atrocious behavior, and when you consider just how ineffective oaths have ever been at keeping awful people from doing heinous things. Just because your knights and lords are all swearing oaths doesn't mean that we should just assume that everything is picture perfect. Do you want to have oaths and vows for historical flavor? Then go on ahead and include them, but be mindful of the unpleasant historical realities that went along with them.

A feudal government is also likely to hinder having much in the way of roving adventurers and mercenaries, or characters who just up and decide to seek their fortunes away from home. This won't be a problem if you never planned to focus on such characters, but if you did, well, this isn't the kind of setting that's going to be very friendly to them.

Maybe you'll find that a feudal system honestly isn't what you want. In that case, you might start looking into what followed feudalism. Once people were properly able to revolt against the upper classes and demand better treatment, more and more people were allowed to own land and go into business for themselves. (It also helped that the increasingly coin-based economy freed them up from having to pay taxes in actual goods, allowing them to do pretty much whatever they wanted so long as it made money, rather than directly producing what their lords needed.) In many places, absolute monarchy gave way to constitutional monarchy and democracy.

And then there's the matter of religion to contend with. If you include the Church, or a fantasy counterpart, it might have some implications and create some hindrances you never wanted. If you choose to leave it out, you're going to have to ask yourself who is taking on the roles they played. Who's running the libraries and collecting the manuscripts? Who is providing education to the nobles? Who is providing moral and philosophical guidance to the people? What will motivate people to create complex art and music? How about beauty in architecture? (After all, castles were mainly designed to be strong, not pretty. Churches and cathedrals, however, were beautifully designed so as to impress the majesty of God upon the people.) And very importantly, how are they being funded? There are plenty of very good answers to all of these questions, of course; it's just important that you do answer them. Perhaps you might make things more like the ancient world, where nobody really minded all that much that everyone else had different religious beliefs. Maybe you might take things forward to the Renaissance, where the diminishing control of the Catholic Church allowed greater numbers of ideologies and religious beliefs to come into being - and into conflict.

And speaking of the Renaissance period, although basing your story in it might not sound appealing if you'd set your heart on using the Medieval period, it's still worth considering. For one thing, a lot of the gorgeous architecture and fashion that people think of when they imagine the Medieval world actually dates to the Renaissance period, anyway. For another, the socio-political climate of the Renaissance allowed more things to happen, both good and bad. People had greater freedom to choose their own destinies. More and more people learned to read. The invention of the printing press made it easier to publish and obtain books. Alchemy and other mystical arts flourished. Europe's massive witch panic took off at this point. Coinage became more and more common, giving the common person greater economic freedom and buying power. Mercenaries become more commonplace. Royals and nobles financed voyages to find new trade routes, though unfortunately many people on the other ends of the routes they discovered often ended up exploited and oppressed. Not only might you find that the Renaissance works just fine for your story, you might find that it works even better than the Medieval period.

As always, exactly what you should do depends on the kind of setting you want and the kind of story you're trying to tell. Consider which elements you'd like to have compared to what you need to have happen and how you'd like to have your characters perceived, and aim for something that balances what you want with what works while remaining plausible and internally consistent.

You might also like:

Things To Know When Creating & Developing Fictional Governments
"How Should My Royalty/Nobility Behave?" - How To Answer This For Yourself! Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
How To Avoid Elitist Overtones In Your Fiction

Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About The Medieval Period

More external resources:

The Significance of Feudal Law In 13th Century Law Codes
Knighthood As It Was, Not As We Wish It Were
Religious and Intellectual Life in the High Middle Ages

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