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Feudalism was the medieval model of government predating the birth of the modern nation-state. Feudal society is a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief (medieval beneficium), a unit of land to control in exchange for a military service. The individual who accepted this land became a vassal, and the man who granted the land become known as his liege or his lord. The deal was often sealed by swearing oaths on the Bible or on the relics of saints. Often this military service amounted to forty days' service each year in times of peace or indefinite service in times of war, but the actual terms of service and duties varied considerably on a case-by-case basis. Factors such as the quality of land, the skill of the fighter, local custom, and the financial status of the liege lord always played a part. For instance, in the late medieval period, this military service was often abandoned in preference for cash payment, or agreement to provide a certain number of men-at-arms or mounted knights for the lord's use.

In the late medieval period, the fiefdom often became hereditary, and the son of a knight or lesser nobleman would inherit the land and the military duties from his father upon the father's death. Feudalism had two enormous effects on medieval society.

(1) First, feudalism discouraged unified government. Individual lords would divide their lands into smaller and smaller sections to give to lesser rulers and knights. These lesser noblemen in turn would subdivide their own lands into even smaller fiefs to give to even less important nobles and knights. Each knight would swear his oath of fealty (loyalty) to the one who have him the land, which was not necessarily the king or higher noblemen. Feudal government was always an arrangement between individuals, not between nation-states and citizens. It meant that, while individual barons, dukes, and earls might be loyal in theory to the king or centralized noble family, there was no strong legal tradition to prevent them from declaring war on each other. The bonds of loyalty often grew so entangled that a single knight might find himself owing allegiance to two different dukes or barons who were at war with each other. There was no sense of loyalty to a geographic area or a particular race, only a loyalty to a person, which would terminate upon that person's death.

(2) Second, feudalism discouraged trade and economic growth. The land was worked by peasant farmers called serfs, who were tied to individual plots of land and forbidden to move or change occupations without the permission of their lord. The feudal lord might claim one-third to one-half of their produce in taxes and fees, and the serfs owed him a set number of days each year in which they would work the lord's fields in exchange for the right to work their own lands. Often, they were required to grind their grain in the lord's mill, and bake all their bread in the lords' oven, and to use roads and bridges the lord had built. Each time they did this, of course, they would have to pay him a toll or a fee of some sort. They were, however, forbidden to set up their own roads, bridges, mills, and ovens--the lord had a legal monopoly and would milk it for all it was worth. In exchange for other hefty fees, various peasants might set up a commune (a cooperative government amongst themselves), or pay the lord for the right to try their own court cases by juries. Other ambitious communities might pool their resources and purchase a charter, a legal document that gave the inhabitants of a town or village certain economic freedoms to buy and sell their own land or produce. In practice, these occurences were often economic necessities, but in theory, these freedoms were generous gifts given by the lord to his former serfs in exchange for various financial considerations.

In theory, the entire medieval community would be divided into three groups: bellatores (the noblemen who fought), labores (the agricultural laborers who grew the food), and oratores (the clergy who prayed and attended to spiritual matters).This is an old idea in medieval political theory. In Britain, we can see examples of it as far back as Anglo-Latin treatises like Wulfstan's Institutes of Polity and "An Estate Memorandum: Duties and Perquisites." In actuality, this simple tripartite division known as the Three Estates of Feudalism proved unworkable, and the necessity of skilled craftsmen, merchants, and other occupations was quite visible in spite of the theoretical model espoused in sermons and political treatises. We can see remnants of the "Three Estates" ideology in poets like Langland and Chaucer. Langland, for instance, writes diatribes against the breakdown of the old theoretical order in the Vox Clamantis and the Confessio Amantis; likewise, the ordering of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales suggests in some ways that Chaucer organizes the pilgrims according to social rank, but this order is disrupted by the bawdy Miller.


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