From about the year 1000 until the end of the 1500s, the people of Europe lived, worked and died by a social and governmental system known as ‘Feudalism’. Most people have a weak idea of what feudalism is, but we often forget about it when we watch movies, which portray the Medieval period as romantic, exotic, exciting and amazing. In truth, there was every little romance about living in the Medieval period and living by the Feudal System. It was hard work, sacrifice, slavery and most likely an early grave for anywhere from 70-90% of the population of Europe.
What was Feudalism?
Feudalism in its simplest form was a pyramid of power. At the very top was the king. Below him were barons (noblemen), below them were knights, below them were the peasantry. The peasantry was the largest chunk of the pyramid, right at the bottom, and it could make up to three quarters to nine tenths of the entire population. Amongst the peasantry, the classes were even further subdivided into Freemen, Villeins, Cottagers and Slaves.
The king was at the very top. He ran the country, he decided who got what, he settled disputes, he allocated land and he reigned supreme over his subjects. In theory, the entire country belonged to the king and people couldn’t live there without his personal say-so. Of course, in particularly large countries, it was impossible for the king to see what was going on around his country all at once. To help him do this, he appointed barons or noblemen to be his eyes and ears. The idea was that the king gave a nobleman, a person who had proved himself worthy, a plot of land. In return for the land, the nobleman was expected to govern his part of the kingdom and was expected to pay taxes and provide the king with knights in the event of a military conflict. The land which noblemen could have could be immense, and to protect their royal presents, many noblemen built castles (for which they needed royal permission and funds). Noblemen could set their own laws and taxes within the lands which they controlled.
Below the king and his barons were the knights. A knight was an elite soldier, trained, almost since birth, to kick medieval butt. You can find out more about knights here. The local lord was expected to have a group of knights ready and waiting for the king, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, in case of a war. Most knights were rather run-of-the-mill and ordinary. However, if you were really brave and ballsy, you could actually make a pretty good living as a knight, and some stood a chance of becoming wealthy and powerful noblemen themselves.
Below the knights were the common masses, subdivided, as I said, into Freemen, Villeins, Cottagers and Slaves.
Under the Feudal System, the peasantry was the lowest class of people. They were more-or-less disposable slave-labour. With so many peasants, it’s probably not surprising that there were various classes of peasantry, free and unfree peasantry. Free peasants being called Freemen and unfree peasants being called serfs, the latter bieng further subdivided into various groups.
Freemen, as the name implies…were free. Free to do more or less as they wished. They were tenant-farmers, who rented land from the local lord and who could grow their own crops and do as they pleased. They paid lower taxes than most other peasants, so if they played their cards right, they could make a fairly decent living for themselves. However, freemen in Medieval society were generally few and far between.
Next came Villeins. Villeins were the biggest chunk of the peasant workforce. Despite the fact that life was hard for them, they did manage to make a living and they did have various rights and rules which governed their lives, much like the more lucky freemen above them. Unfortunately, what rights and priveliges they had couldn’t always fill their bellies and they were expected to work hard on the land to get their food. If food was scarce, they might turn to crime. ‘Villein’ is the medival word which we get the modern ‘Villain’ from. What rights they did have must’ve seemed like royal luxuries to the people below them. Villeins were able to own houses, or at least rent them, they might, or might not be allowed their own land. One unpleasant condition (amongst several) of their existence was that they could not leave the land of their lord without permission. The only other way to leave your lord’s land and servitude was to marry a freeman, who had his own house and grounds. One, less than legal way to escape servitude was to run away and live in town for a long enough period that you could earn your freedom. In order to earn this freedom, you had to live in town for at least a year, though. Considering all the things that happened in towns, and the possible lack of employment, surviving your first year there could be very tough.
Next on the social ladder was the Cottager. As the name suggests, a cottager lived in…a cottage. Unlike Freemen or Villeins, cottagers had no land to call their own. Freemen had their own fields or land around their homes. Villeins might be given a neat, ‘house-and-land’ package from their landlords, but cottagers got nothing. They were expected to work the lord’s fields, for the lord, every single day. In return for this servitude, they were given small huts or shacks (‘cottages’) and a small percentage of the harvest which they worked so hard to produce.
The very last and lowest rung of the medieval social ladder was the Slave. Slaves had almost no rights at all, if they were lucky in the first place, to have any given to them. Slaves worked exclusively for the lord and were paid in food. Unlike Freemen and Villeins, they could not own land and they generally survived on donations given to them by wealthier people.
Life as a Peasant
As you can probably guess, peasant life was incredibly hard. If you didn’t work every single day of your life, you wouldn’t survive another day. To many peasants, regardless of class, life generally meant backbreaking field-labour. Under medieval law, the king owned everything. What the king gave to his lords was stuff which the lords had to pay rent on. For that rent, anything within the lord’s land belonged to him. This ‘everything’ included the crops, the people, the animals, the wood, tools, clothing, mills…everything. In theory, the very clothes that the peasants wore, belonged to their landlord.
Away from the watching eyes of the king, landlords were free to wield their not-inconsiderable power. Landlords were allowed to set their own laws and taxes, and did so freely. Peasants were often exploited, but those were careful and attentive could climb the social ladder. Villeins and Freemen could actually amass a comfortable level of wealth if they knew how to trade their goods and services correctly and they might be able to buy their freedom, or move away from the lord’s land and start new lives elsewhere.
The things that peasants could, or could not do, were many and varied. Villeins were not allowed to leave their lord’s land, but they could be allotted a small amount of their own land to farm for their own purposes. Peasants could not hunt on the lord’s estate, and lived mostly on bread and cheese and fish. Lords could dine on such delicacies as game birds, pork, beef, chicken and wine. Peasants had to tend to their lord’s land before they tended to their own and they were allowed to take wood from the lord’s land only if it was already dead (so that means no cutting down live trees for firewood).
Peasants who owned land were allowed to farm what they desired on their land, be it wheat, corn, barley…anything that would grow. However, wheat was a constant. Taxes were paid in wheat, and so a crop of it always had to be available. As I mentioned in my articles on castles, peasants expected to be allowed to seek refuge in their lord’s castle or fortified manor-house in the event of danger to the land. The local lord was also expected to give charity and alms to the poor or impoverished on his lands, and to take care of his peasants in the event of a famine, drought or other natural disaster.
Serfdom, or the system of peasants existing as unfree labour to a landlord, lasted for a surprisingly long time. Although the Feudal System collapsed in the 1600s with the rise of armies, the end of knights and the establishment of permanent towns and cities as places of home and business, serfdom itself existed for a long time, well into the 19th century in some places.