|During the period of history known as the Middle Ages, feudalism was the law of the land. It was the basis by which the upper nobility class maintained control over the lower classes. This rigid structure of government consisted of kings, lords, and the peasants. Other crucial contributors to this structure were the leaders of the church and other neighboring kings who held influence in the kingdom. The structure first came about, and remained for so long, because of the great size of the land the kings had under their control. The kings held this land by what they believed was "divine right", the right to rule granted by God and then passed on through heredity. However, there was no physical way for a king to govern all the land effectively because there was no quick communication system, and it often took several days to travel from one part of the country to the other, even in a relatively small country such as England. The king needed a way to maintain control over his lands, even if indirectly. As a solution, he formed a sort of contract with his barons, his direct underlings. The barons were given a large portion of the king's land, known as fiefs or manors. In turn, they had to pay "homage and fealty" to the king. They did this by giving their support to the king at all times, governing the land that was given them, and being ready to provide troops and fight for the king when the need arose. Often the last requirement was waived in return for "shield money". This "shield money" was often used to maintain a somewhat regular army. They also had to pay taxes whenever the king called for them. Also, whenever a baron died, his fief was passed on by heredity. The receiver of a fief had to pay an inheritance tax. Additionally, If the fief passed through heredity to a minor or female, the baron could wait until the minor came of age, or he could wait until the woman was married to someone he approved of. Whenever a baron was granted or inherited a fief, he was made into a vassal of the king. Also, the barons became lords of their fiefs. However, the barons had the same problem the king had. Because they governed large tracts of land, they divided their land up too. They made the same type of agreement the king made with them, except with their underlings, usually a trusted knight or relative. In this way, they created even more fiefs ruled by even more lords. Sometimes these smaller fiefs were divided up and made into more fiefs. Over time, the holdings of these lords were passed from generation to generation. The class of lords solidified into an upper nobility class. They felt that they were much superior to the "common" peasants, or serfs. As a result, The lords usually were merciless to their peasants and demanded much from them. The church leaders often also held a great power over the people, much like the lords of the manor. Many church leaders were active in politics and government. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury was also Chancellor of England in 1381. In fact the church was really the only universal European governing force. It was divided into spheres of influence, much like fiefs. Each "fief" was a diocese headed by a bishop. In addition to spiritual fiefs, many bishops were given real manors to govern. In this way, the church was firmly entrenched in the spiritual and practical lives of the medieval peasant. The church had a great influence over many of the common folk. The peasants believed that the harder they worked, the more of their money they gave to the church, and the more they served the church, the better the after-life would be for them. The church also paid the lord to use the land, and this sort of symbiosis between the church and the lord keep them both with an exceptional amount of money, while the peasant sometimes starved to death from overwork and exploitation.||
A lord's castle sits in the background of this picture. The peasants are working the land that is part of the lord's fief.
Life on a manor was extremely hard for a peasant. It consisted of
work and family life. Approximately ninety percent of the
people in the middle ages were considered to be peasants. There was a division of the
peasants into free and a type of
indentured servants. The free peasants worked in their own independent businesses,
usually as carpenters, blacksmiths,
weavers, or bakers. They paid the lord a type of rent for using their small plots of
land. The other, unfree peasants lived on
the land without paying any money, but worked for the lord, earning their stay.
The large amount of land surrounding the castle provided a means for peasants to acquire enough money and food to live by farming. In fact, this is another extension of the fief idea. The average farmer was given a plot of land on which he could farm. He also got a sense of security by living near a castle and potential protection from danger. They also had the privilege of passing their land on through inheritance after their deaths. They had grazing and field rights around their village. They also had right to building materials in the area. They did not have right to hunt most wild game, however. The peasants also had some local political rights. They often formed their own manorial courts, called halimotes. There, they made the bylaws that governed the villagers' actions. For example, one such bylaw was "Noone shall enter the fields to carry grain after sunset" This law was made to prevent grain from being stolen surreptitiously. The peasants also enforced these laws. Claims against one another were settled by a village court, usually of twelve village representatives. The court was overseen by a representative of the lord, usually his steward. However, he was an equal member of the court, not its head. In return for these rights, the peasant had to fulfill his end of the bargain. He was required to work a certain number of days a week on the lord's land. The lord also had a great deal of control over his peasants, known as serfs. In fact, the serfs were almost like slaves to the feudal lord. He had the right to grant marriages, tax anytime or anything, and to force them to use mills or ovens that he owned. He most often made his serfs work his own land. He could charge them for his mill services, make them use his mill, and thus create a monopoly. He also could force everyone to attend court when in session. He held absolute power in establishing punishments for various offenses such as thievery or murder, matters not appropriate for a village court. The people were bound to their land plots and when the land was sold, they were sold along with it. If the land they lived on changed ownership, then they came under a new lord's jurisdiction.
Peasants can be seen here fulfilling their end of the serf-lord bargain. They are hard at working picking berries for their lord on his land.