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Feudal system during the Middle Ages

An overview of the Feudal System--the relationship of lords and vassals. Titles of nobility such as dukes, earls, counts, viscounts and barons. Homage and fealty.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Talk about in other videos, the Middle Ages refers to that roughly 1,000 year period of time in Europe from the end of the Western Roman empire in 476 until we get to about 1,000 years later with the emergence of the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. And we associate it with knights in shining armor and their code of chivalry, with kings and castles surrounded by moats. And we also associate it with the feudal system, which is how most of Europe was governed during the Middle Ages. Now many of you are probably familiar with some of the key actors within the feudal system. At the top, you would have a king. Now, the king would rule over a kingdom. Now this is not so easy to govern, especially during the Middle Ages, and the king might owe many people things, especially people who helped the king come to power, helped him depose the previous king or to conquer this land. And so, in exchange for that, and to help govern, he might grant land or fiefs to other people. And the key currency in the Middle Ages under the feudal system is land and land in exchange for loyalty and service. So, this whole thing is a kingdom. Now, right over here, this is a duchy and a duchy will be controlled by a duke. I guess they didn't call it ducky because that just doesn't sound as serious. So, the king might grant a duchy, a duchy, to a duke, and in exchange, the duke would provide loyalty, pledge their fealty. If the kingdom is threatened, the duke will fight alongside the king, would provide their own troops. If the king wants to go conquer other territories, same thing, and also provide the king with taxes, which might be in the form of coinage, depending on what time and region we are in the Middle Ages or it might be in the form of a percentage of the agricultural production from this duchy. Now the terminology here is that the duke would be one of the king's vassals or would be vassal to the king. Now a duchy tends to be a fairly large amount of territory. In medieval England, a duke was the highest title of nobility. There was variations on duke. Now the duke might have his own manor or might even have multiple manors that he rules directly over that has his own serfs or free peasants working that land, providing output, which helps generate some of the tax revenue that goes to the king or provides some of the necessities for the duke's own household. But the rest of the duchy, they might subdivide further and they would be lord over their own vassals. So, for example, this piece of land right over here, this duke might provide it to someone else, let's say a count, in which case this would be called a county, and that is where we get our modern term, county. And this count would be vassal to the duke and the duke would be the lord of the count. And then the count can then be the lord of someone else, of their vassals. And this goes on and on and on, all the way until you get down to the level of the serfs and the peasants, who are actually doing the work. But the main idea here is that in exchange for land, the king gave his duke a duchy, or maybe the king's father gave this duke's father this duchy, and so this grant of land, this is called a fief, a critical term in the feudal system. This county here, this is a fief. In exchange for that, the vassal gives the lord resources, taxes, and loyalty. Now the way I drew it here, it seems quite organized and clean, but the reality of it, it isn't that clean. Sometimes, a kingdom might directly, some parts of it might be subdivided into duchies, some of it might be divided into a county that is independent of any duchy. You might have another duchy right over here that is not subdivided into counties. You might have one count that is more powerful than another count, or one count that might even be more powerful than a duke someplace else. So it can actually be quite chaotic and hard to keep track of. And this isn't all of the players. I mentioned some of the titles of nobility, like duke and count, and then below count you might have a baron. In England, the equivalent of count was an earl, who still presided over a county and their wife was a countess. And when I say preside, they had almost full control over it. They would even give justice over the people who happen to be within their fiefdom. Now, I started this video showing a picture of a knight on horseback and knights are probably one of the strongest association with medieval times, so many of you are probably thinking, where do knights fit into this? The knight refers to slightly different things, depending on what region you are in or what time period within the Middle Ages, but it generally refers to a mounted soldier, someone skilled in fighting, someone who might have knight's armor. But over time, it became a prestigious title that was given by a monarch or by a lord in exchange for service, oftentimes military service. You might have a knight who is granted a fief from, say, this count right over here, and say, they might be lord of their own manor. They might have their own serfs who are not quite slaves, but they're bonded laborers who cannot leave and don't have a lot of rights, working the field. You might have other knights who got the title but did not get the land. And to complicate things further, any of these characters can have multiple titles. For example, this duke might also be knighted. Now, it's worth noting that these titles of nobility, duke, count, baron, earl, these tended to be hereditary. You would pass it down from one generation to the next, as long as the next generation pledged fealty to their lord. The title knight, however, was given for service and did not tend to be passed down from generation to generation. And to be clear, these still aren't all the actors here. You also have the church, which during medieval times, was a very powerful institution. At the top of the church, you had the bishop of Rome, also known as the pope, and you had their bishops in significant regions. You also had monastic orders, where you might have an abbot, who is the head of a monastery, where you have monks, who, as part of that monastery, are praying. They might be farming, they might be copying texts. And there's also power dynamics between these. And as we're about to see, you can even have these non-religious figures pledging fealty to religious figures. So just to get a sense of what these pledges of fealty were like. You have a vassal. In this homage ceremony, homage, or sometimes said homage, it really comes from the French word, homme, which refers to man. So he is pledging to be his lord's man. So this would be the lord right over here. And this is an actual pledge given by Bernard Atton, Viscount of Carcassonne, in the year 1110 in France. "In the name of the Lord, I, Bernard Atton," and I apologize for my pronunciation, "Viscount of Carcassonne, in the presence of my sons," and he goes on to list his sons. "Nobles, and of many other honorable men, "who have come to the monastery of St. Mary of Grasse," or Grasse, "since lord Leo , abbot of the said monastery, "has asked me, in the presence of all those above mentioned, "to acknowledge to him the fealty and homage" or homage "for the castles, manors, and places which the patrons, "my ancestors, held from him and his predecessors "and from the said monastery as a fief, "and which I ought to hold as they held, "I have made to the lord abbot Leo "acknowledgement and homage as I ought to do." So, in this case, the lord is an abbot, is a religious figure, is the head of a monastery and the vassal is a viscount. You can kinda view them as vice count. And notice, he's pledging fealty to the abbot. And in this case, it looks like Bernard Atton's ancestors were already vassals to the abbot and so this is really renewing it and so that the viscount could essentially keep his fief. Now to appreciate how complicated this could get, here on the timeline you see when Henry the Second lived, and as you can see, he had many titles. He was eventually King of England. You can see southern England up here. He was Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, which was interesting. He got that as a dowery when he marries Eleanor, whose previous husband was King Louis the Seventh of France. He is Count of Maine, Anjou, Touraine. And this is really interesting. He's a king of one kingdom, the Kingdom of England, but he is also a duke and a count within another kingdom, the kingdom of France. But this gives you a sense of, to some degree, how chaotic the Middle Ages were. It wasn't well organized like under the Roman empire or under ancient Persia or even most nation states today. It was many different kingdoms organized into many different duchies and counties. There wasn't a very clear rhyme and reason and positions and power constantly shifted, depending on loyalty, wars, marriages, and inheritance.