The Fruits of Civilization (21) Feudalism


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.