The increasing inefficiency and corruption of Roman officials, along with an escalating tax burden upon its peoples, spelled the decline and collapse of their empire. Germanic tribes fueled further anarchy in medieval Europe. Thus begat Europe’s Dark Ages, beginning in the 5th century and lasting into the 10th.
The collapse of the Roman Empire and the societal disruption of sporadic warring emptied the cities and relapsed Europe into a primitive agrarian way of life. As urban civilization disintegrated, the complex international trade economy that characterized the Roman Empire fell apart and was largely replaced by self-sufficient estates.
Sizable estates had long existed. Now they no longer produced for an exchange economy. Estates looked instead to their own needs.
With the decline of towns and virtual disappearance of professional merchants, land increasingly defined wealth.
Sporadic attempts at greater societal order by large landowners were countervailed by new incursions: from North African Muslims in the early 700s, and Scandinavian Vikings toward the end of that century. In the 9th and 10th centuries came the Magyars from Hungary, joining the Muslims and Vikings in turning western Europe into a battleground.
The Kingdom of the Franks – lands between what is now France, Italy, and Germany – went through several iterations, wrenched by internal conflicts as well as by invasion.
Maintaining a standing army was beyond the coffers of the state, as taxation was spotty, and there was no money economy. The solution came in granting warriors income from estates confiscated from the church in return for their services. Whence arose feudalism, which stratified social order into an economic caste system via individual rights and obligations. Just as a king had parceled out large lots of land, these enormous estates, encompassing several villages, were carved up and granted by great nobles to lesser lords in return for homage and fealty. This practice was known as subinfeudation.
Landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed. ~ Karl Marx
The economic and social organization underlying feudalism was what the English termed manorialism, which had taken shape toward the end of Roman times, when nobles transformed their large farms into self-sufficient estates. Serfs were bound to the soil, either by law or by simply having no other choice. Barbarian invasion shifted the manorial system by introducing tribal chieftains into the ruling class.
Manors varied tremendously, from ill- to well-organized; they can be characterized but not typified.
A lord’s manor took some 25–30% of the property, with house, barns, stables, workshops, gardens, and perhaps orchards or vineyards. The manor may have been enclosed or separated from the peasants, but not necessarily.
The lands that the peasants tilled lay in large open fields around the manor village, which were divided into strips and allocated to peasant households. Meadows, pastures, and woodlands were normally held in common, with the lord supervising their use while maintaining special privileges.
Peasants lived in compact villages just outside the walls of the manor house or in the vicinity. A peasant cottage was 1 or 2 rooms with perhaps a sleeping loft. The walls were sometimes of wood or stone, but more often mud and wattle. The roof was thatched, with a hole for a chimney. The floor was packed earth.
There might be buildings for equipment and livestock, but more often the livestock shared the living quarters with the family during the winter. Villages were typically located near a stream: providing a water supply, possibly a mill, and perhaps a smithy.
As aforementioned, manors varied greatly in their manner. The system of small fields and isolated dwellings which were typical in Roman times persisted throughout the Middle Ages in most of Italy and southern France.
Sometimes peasants lived in scattered hamlets or isolated farmsteads, not villages. Infertile soil or hills created such separation.
Where manorialism was introduced – in the Iberian peninsula, eastern Germany, and England – its variations emanated from existing social systems, climate, terrain, and soil; but its precepts and constructs of social order were much the same.
Like feudalism, manorialism was not a static institution. Manorialism changed over several centuries, divergently in different regions. It did so during a period of political turmoil, frequent mass outbreaks of violence, primitive production technologies, and often declining population and commercial activity.
Although manorialism was not consciously designed, it succored social stability while supporting a sparse population at a low level: at a cost of great sufferance for the vast majority to the benefit of a very few. Antithetical to initiative and hence to innovation, manorialism nonetheless slowly evolved: leading to technological, social, and economic changes.
Work on a manor proceeded with a customary mixture of coercion and cooperation, affording miniscule scope for individual initiative. Plowing, sowing, and harvesting involved almost all village inhabitants.
Because a family’s strips of land were scattered in an open field system, work necessarily involved cooperation. Besides, plowing took a team of oxen, and peasants rarely owned more than 1 or 2. Harvesting was also done in common.
Depending upon region, livestock played various roles in medieval agrarian economies. Their crucial function was as draft animals. Oxen were found throughout Europe.
Other draft animals were also employed: horses in Russia and northwestern Europe from the 10th century on; donkeys and mules in Spain and southwestern France, and water buffalo in parts of Italy.
Oxen, unlike horses and mules, were docile, easy to raise, and ate mainly grass and hay; hence their prevalence.
Milk cows were necessary to breed oxen. Their dairy products provided a benefit. In the poorest areas, cows were also drafted.
In the Celtic region of Brittany, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, outside manorialism, where tillage was seldom practiced, semi-nomadic tribes lived almost exclusively off their cattle herds. In Scandinavia too, especially Sweden and Norway, livestock was more important than agriculture.
Manors had cattle, swine, and sheep for their meat (sheep also for their wool), and incidentally for the fertilizer they made; but stock raising was secondary to the harvest of the fields.
Northwestern Europe was different. More rainfall provided better pastures and the forests afforded forage for cattle, horses, and swine.
In southern Europe, with its Mediterranean climate, livestock were less important. Transhumance pasturing of goats and sheep was more the norm. Flocks wintered in the lowlands and were driven to mountain pastures for spring and summer.
Grazing was not without ecological and economic costs. Herded flocks damaged fields during their passage. Overgrazing in the mountains led to soil erosion and contributed to deforestation.
Horses were not employed for plowing before the 10th century. This partly owed to cost: horses were more expensive to breed and feed. They were also in demand for war and transport. There was another, technical reason. The first horse collars were badly designed: they cut across the throat, restricting breathing, particularly for drafting.
A new horse collar design was introduced from Asia which rested on the shoulders. The new collar let horses replace oxen when coupled with shoeing, which protected the more delicate hooves that horses had.
While a horse, stronger and faster, could do 3–4 times the work of an ox, it cost 3–4 times as much to employ. Thus, the benefit of drafting horses was a fine economic calculation.
Feeding horses requires a steady supply of oats. That ruled out the Mediterranean basin, with its 2-crop rotation.
To take advantage of horse productivity, the land worked had to be a relatively large field, and sufficiently productive. Draft-horse husbandry found a home in northern France, England, Flanders, and parts of Germany, but did not entirely replace oxen. Draft horses were employed in eastern Europe to a limited degree, especially Russia.
The most significant innovation in medieval agriculture came in 3-crop rotation rather than the 2-crop of the classical Mediterranean.
In 2-crop rotation, planted fields were left fallow in alternate years, to retain soil fertility and accumulate moisture. This worked well for the light soils and long, dry summers of the Mediterranean basin. The relatively light Mediterranean plow sufficed to furrow a field.
A typical rotation might be a spring crop – barley or oats, sometimes beans or peas – harvested in summer; an autumn sowing of bread grains – wheat or rye – reaped the following summer. Then the land lay fallow for a year.
Settled agriculture was seldom practiced before Rome extended its reach into northwest Europe. The Gauls and Germanic tribes relied largely upon their cattle herds. When field crops were planted, slash-and-burn cleared the ground. A location went abandoned when soil fertility declined.
The Romans brought their agricultural practices, but their plows were impotent in penetrating the deep loam soils in the northwest, so the Romans limited themselves to sandy soils and chalky hills with adequate drainage, avoiding the heavier dirt in the more fertile plains and valleys.
The heavy-wheeled plow was able to break the thick soil. The date and place of its invention has been plowed under by the mists of time, but it was well after Roman times. The heavy plow required several oxen or other draft animals, and so contributed to cooperative cultivation.
The moist climate of northwestern Europe and richer soil meant that leaving fields fallow was unnecessary, particularly if alternate crops were planted in rotation.
The innovation of 3-crop rotation began in northern France in the late 8th century. By the beginning of the 11th century 3-crop rotation was the norm throughout northwestern Europe.
3-crop rotation yielded 33% more food and was more efficient as well. It also reduced the risk of famine from crop failure. Other innovations, including better agricultural implements, contributed.
With more land available for exploitation came greater variety. This improved nutrition.
The upshot was a burgeoning population. Western Europe had 12–15 million people in 1000. Within 300 years it was 3 to 4 times that: 45–50 million.
Peasants were obliged to labor to some extent on the lord’s manor or for his benefit: 3 days a week was typical. Women spun yarn and wove cloth. Children were employed as household servants.
Beginning in the 10th century a social movement began which gathered pace with distinct intensities in different places: to commute labor services into rent payment. Some rent was collected on a regular basis, while other obligations came due on special occasions. Livestock, including chickens, and other commodities were forked over, as was money, in whatever form.
In 13th-century England, manorial extractions from peasants may have been 50% or more in some places. A tithe to the church, and at times royal taxation, were sometimes heaped on top. Peasants were purposely kept impoverished.
The lords provided protection and maintained order; the clergy looked after the spiritual welfare of society; and the peasants labored to support the 2 higher orders. Stated more pithily, the lords fought, the clergy prayed, and the peasants worked. ~ Rondo Cameron
Feudal society was a pyramid. At the top was the ruling class: accounting for less than 5% of the population, with the king at the top, through various nobles, to the lowliest knight.
The clergy was the only class that was not biologically self-perpetuating, at least in principle if not practice. The clerical order bifurcated into the regular clergy, who withdrew from ordinary community life into monasteries, and the secular clergy – priests and bishops – who participated in the community. In the early Middle Ages, the monasteries had greater prestige. The status of the secular clergy rose with the economic upswing from the 10th century onward, as towns revived, and church officials played roles in both civil and religious life.
The clergy had its own stratification, based upon the social standing of the individuals entering the institution. Those of noble heritage were often destined for higher positions, whereas folk from more humble origins might aspire to a parish priesthood or a clerical office within a monastery. Vertical mobility for clergy surpassed that of rural society but was much less than civil society in town.
Peasants hypothetically broke into 2 classes: free and servile, but these were not nearly as distinct as the terms imply. Chattel slavery, Roman style, gradually died by the 9th century, except for the household slaves of nobility. Peasants who worked the land – supposed freemen – suffered under conditions that rendered them practically servile. Truly free men were a real rarity.
The power of lords was modestly circumscribed. Serfs were bound to the soil, not the property of the lord of the manor.
As manorialism evolved so too the social status of the peasantry. Into the 10th century the rights and obligations of slaves and freemen became increasingly similar, as economic conditions constricted freemen, while slaves graduated to serfdom, which was a name change without much practical distinction.
Serfdom was declining somewhat by the time of the Black Death which reached western Europe in 1347. There was a progressive easing of servile restrictions, though not of the economic extractions that kept liberty out of reach. The French Revolution was a culmination of the trend toward ending servility in the legal sense.
Conversely, while servitude was withering in the west from the 12th century on, serfdom as an institution gathered strength in central and eastern Europe, where it persisted into the mid-19th century.
The term feudalism arose as the societal institution itself was abating. Manorialism was one incarnation. There were others.
The societies of ancient Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt were feudal; as was China from 1000 bce to 200 ce, from the Zhou through Han dynasties, and again during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912); India (1200–1600), prior to its conquest by the British East India Company, which introduced an altogether different economic repression; and Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868). Each had its own flavor of social and economic hierarchies.
The most significant factor in the rise of capitalism was the failure of feudalism to provide for its populations. Historians have identified 3 main reasons for the “crisis of feudalism.”
1st: the Little Ice Age. Western Europe suffered a series of prolonged severe chills beginning around 1300. This affected food production, which consequently increased hunger and epidemics throughout Europe.
2nd: the productivity of land for food production reached a point of diminishing returns given existing technology. Technological development slowed because there was no motivation for peasants to innovate. Any increase in surplus would merely be appropriated by the lords, who had no real knowledge of the land or practical experience in agriculture.
3rd: after 1,000 years of feudal domination, the peasantry could no longer afford to support an aristocracy growing in number and expenditure. The lords of the land became an increasingly crushing burden.