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Feudalism and Medieval Knights Index
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Feudalism and Medieval Knights
Coat of Arms: Richard I or Richard the Lionheart
In the Middle Ages there were three classes or 'estates' into which everybody could be divided up :
We will look at the church in another chapter. For the moment , let's examine the lords. It's important to remember that in the Middle Ages there was no strong central government to protect the kingdom, collect taxes and judge criminals. It took centuries for these to appear and only in the 16th century did strong kings who were able to do those jobs emerge. So who did this work for most of the Middle Ages? Well, it was the lords.
A lord of a manor held a village , had a manor house or a castle, if he was powerful, some fields and woods around it , and a village where his peasants lived and worked the land . He collected taxes and tried and punished criminals in his court. All this put together was called his manor but the lord did not own it. He held it because another, greater lord had handed it over to him. The lesser lord was called the vassal of the greater one and this land which had been handed to him was called a fief.
What did the vassal have to do in order to receive a fief? He had to serve the greater lord in battle, appearing in armour on a horse as a knight. This medieval system of holding land in exchange for military service is called feudalism. The ceremony in which a fief was handed over in return for fighting was called an investiture and it involved swearing fealty and doing homage. The future vassal placed his hands between his lord's hands, promised to be loyal, fight for the him and be his man (homo in Latin, so we get homage). At the ceremony, the lord often gave his vassal a lump of dirt, or a stick as a symbol of the fief he was handing over. After about 1100 the custom was for fiefs to be handed down from father to eldest son as an inheritance.
But where did the greater lord get his land from? He had received it in turn from an even greater lord and so on until a really mighty lord, or baron, was the vassal of the king sitting at the top of the feudal pyramid. Sometimes even kings were vassals of other kings. For example King Edward III of England was the vassal King Philip VI of France for the fiefs he held in France and it was when he refused to pay homage to the French king that the Hundred Years War began in 1337.
Bishops and abbots, who were often as powerful as the greatest of the barons, usually held land directly from the king , but they were not expected to fight since they were men of the church and could not shed blood . However, they still had to pay for the correct number of knights to do the fighting for them.
All this began to appear in Europe in the 8th century, at the time of Charlemagne , but it was the Normans who really established feudalism strictly in northern France and England after the conquest of 1066. It lasted until the end of the Middle Ages in the 1500s although it was only officially abolished in France in 1789.
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