Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages

The Middle Ages

Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages

The centralization of the Carolingian state was not long a source of political stability in western Europe in the early Middle Ages. In those areas where the Carolingian Empire had little impact, and even in the regions which were at some time controlled by Carolingian rulers, personal safety and security were the primary concerns for most individuals. In circumstances that make strong central government impossible, individual security must be guaranteed by other means - usually through local custom and practice. Historians have used the term feudalism to apply generally to these individual patterns of decentralized government. The diversity of political structure in the early Middle Ages was great, and varied from region to region. We must be aware that in using the term to describe medieval political structures, we are attempting a simplification of an extremely diversified and complex set of local practices.


Feudalism can be described as a type of government in which political power is exercised locally by private individuals rather than through the bureaucracy of a centralized state. It is seen as a transitional stage which may follow the collapse of a unified political system. The term has been used to describe political practices in various areas and times in world history - in ancient Egypt and in twelfth-century Japan, for example - but the most famous of all feudal patterns emerged in France following the collapse of Charlemagne's empire.

In general, medieval political institutions involved three basic elements: (1) a personal element, called lordship or vassalage, by which one nobleman, the vassal, became the loyal follower of a stronger nobleman, the lord or suzerain; (2) a property element, called the fief (usually land), which the vassal received from his lord in order to enable him to fulfill the obligations of vassalage; and (3) a governmental element, meaning the private exercise of governmental functions over vassals and fiefs. The roots of these three elements run back to late Roman and early Germanic times.

By the fifth century the Roman emperor was no longer able to protect his subjects, and citizens had to depend on the patronage system, by which a Roman noble organized a group of less powerful men as a personal bodyguard and in return looked after their wants and interests. A similar arrangement existed among the Germans - the war band or comitatus, described by Tacitus. Vassalage, the personal element in feudalism, arose from the combination of the use of patronage and the comitatus.

The origin of the property element, the fief, also derives from Roman practices. In the late Roman Empire the owners of great estates (latifundia) added steadily to their already extensive holdings. Unable to manage their large tracts directly, the nobles granted the temporary use of portions to other people in exchange for dues and services. Such land was called a beneficium, or benefice (literally, "a benefit"). As an example, in late Merovingian times, when mounted warriors rather than old-style foot soldiers were needed to deal effectively with Muslim raiders from Spain, Charles Martel granted numerous benefices to compensate his followers for the added expense of maintaining horses. During the civil wars and foreign invasions of late Carolingian times, the competition among Charlemagne's successors for the available supply of mounted knights led not only to the wholesale granting of benefices but also to making the benefice hereditary. On the death of the vassal, the benefice passed to an heir instead of reverting to the king. Hereditary benefices were commonly called fiefs.

The third basic element, the exercise of governmental power by private individuals, also had antecedents in late Roman times. As the imperial government weakened, the powerful Roman landowners organized their own private armies to police their estates and fend off governmental agents, particularly tax collectors. The emperors also favored certain estates with grants of immunity from imperial authority, a practice the Germanic kings often followed and that became the rule with Charlemagne's successors in their competitive efforts to fill their armies with mounted fief-holding vassals. And where immunity from the king's authority was not freely granted, it was often usurped.

With the combining of these three elements, a definable, although highly complex and variable, governmental pattern emerged in the West by the end of the ninth century.

The Theoretical Feudal Hierarchy

In theory, feudalism was a vast hierarchy. At the top stood the king, and all the land in his kingdom belonged to him. He kept large areas for his personal use (royal or crown lands) and, in return for the military service of a specified number of mounted knights, invested the highest nobles - such as dukes and counts (in Britain, earls) - with the remainder. Those nobles holding lands directly from the king were called tenants-in-chief. They, in turn, in order to obtain the services of the required number of mounted warriors (including themselves) owed to the king, parceled out large portions of their fiefs to lesser nobles. This process, called subinfeudation, was continued until the lowest in the scale of vassals was reached - the single knight whose fief was just sufficient to support one mounted warrior.

Subinfeudation became a problem when a conflict of loyalties arose. Since the Count of Champagne, for example, was vassal to nine different lords, on whose side would he fight should two of his lords go to war against one another? This dilemma was partially solved by the custom of liege homage. When a vassal received his first fief, he pledged liege or prior homage to that lord. This obligation was to have top priority over services that he might later pledge to other lords.

Except for the knight with a single fief, a nobleman was usually both a vassal and a lord. Even a king might be a vassal; John of Britain was vassal to King Philip of France for certain French lands, yet he in no way thought himself inferior to Philip.

By maintaining a king at the head of the theoretical feudal hierarchy, custom kept the traces of monarchy intact. Although many feudal kings were little more than figureheads who might be less powerful than their own vassals, the institution of the monarchy was retained out of tradition.

Relation of Lord and Vassal: The Contract

Basic to political order was the personal bond between lord and vassal. In the ceremony known as the act of homage, the vassal knelt before his lord, or suzerain, and promised to be his "man." In the oath of fealty that followed, the vassal swore on the Bible or some other sacred object that he would remain true to his lord. Next, in the ritual of investiture, a lance, glove, or even a clump of dirt was handed the vassal to signify his jurisdiction (not ownership) over the fief.

The contract entered into by lord and vassal was usually considered sacred and binding upon both parties. Breaking this tie of mutual obligations was considered a serious offense, because the agreement was the basis of feudalism and hence of early medieval society. The lord on his part was usually obliged to give his vassal protection and justice. The vassal's primary duty was military service. In some instances, he was expected to devote forty days' service each year to the lord without payment. In addition, a vassal could be obliged to assist the lord in rendering justice in the lord's court. At certain times, such as when he was captured and had to be ransomed, the lord also had the right to demand money payments, called aids. Unusual aids, such as defraying the expense of going on a crusade, might not be levied without the vassal's consent.

The lord also had certain rights, called incidents, regarding the administration of the fief. These included wardship (the right to administer the fief during the minority of a vassal's heir) and forfeiture of the fief if a vassal failed to honor his obligations.

The final authority in this era was force, and the general atmosphere of the time was one of violence. Defiant vassals frequently made war upon their lords. But warfare was also considered the normal occupation of the nobility, for success offered glory and rich rewards. If successful, warfare enlarged a noble's territory; and, if they produced nothing else, forays and raids kept one active. To die in battle was the only honorable end for a spirited gentleman; to die in bed was a "cow's death."

The Church and Feudalism

The inclusion of the church in the system became a political reality. The unsettled conditions caused by the Viking and Magyar invasions forced church officials to enter into close relations with the only power able to offer them protection - the barons in France and the kings in Germany. Bishops and abbots thus became vassals, receiving fiefs for which they were obligated to provide the usual feudal services. The papacy fared even worse; during much of the tenth and early eleventh centuries the papacy became a political prize sought after by local Roman nobles.

In time, the church sought to improve the behavior of the warrior nobility. In addition to attempting to add Christian virtues to chivalry, the code of knightly conduct, (see ch. 10), the church sought to impose limitations on warfare. In the eleventh century bishops called the attention of the knights to the Peace of God and Truce of God. The Peace of God banned from the sacraments all persons who pillaged sacred places or refused to spare noncombatants. The Truce of God established "closed seasons" on fighting: from sunset on Wednesday to sunrise on Monday and certain longer periods, such as Lent. These regulations were generally ignored.

Class Structure

Medieval society essentially consisted of three classes: nobles, peasants, and clergy. Each of these groups had its own role. The nobles were primarily fighters, belonging to an honored society distinct from the freemen and serfs who made up the peasantry. In an age of physical violence, society obviously would accord first place to the man with the sword rather than to the man with the hoe. Members of the clergy came from both the noble and peasant classes. Although most higher churchmen were sons of nobles and held land as vassals under local custom, the clergy formed a class that was considered separate from the nobility and peasantry.

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