Government in the Middle Ages
The prevailing system of government in the Middle Ages was feudalism. Though the actual term “feudalism” was not used during the Middle Ages, what we now recognize as a feudalist system of government was in control in Medieval Europe. Feudalism was a way for the Kings and upper nobility to keep control over the serfs and peasants.
There is no universally accepted modern day definition of feudalism. The word “feudal” was coined in the 17th century, some 200 years after the end of feudalism in Europe. The term “feudalism” was coined later still, in the 19th century.
After the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown’s The Tyranny of a Construct, many scholars have found the term “feudalism” troubling and have wanted to drop it, not just as the title of government in the middle ages, but as a term altogether.
Feudalism is mainly used in discourse today as a comparison or analogical term applied to governmental structures in history. This is known as “semi-feudal.” The term has also been brought up in discussions of non-Western societies today whose governments resemble the feudal system in medieval Europe, but this use of the term is often deemed inappropriate.
The Structure of Feudalism
Though class played an important role in feudal society in the Middle Ages, the more important relationship in feudalism is between the Lord, the Vassal and the Peasant. The Lord was the overseer of the entire government. He was the monarch who controlled all of the land and people. The vassals were the nobleman who had been granted land by the monarch, and in exchange for that land provided military service or money. The peasants made up the majority of the population. They were very poor, or, in the case of serfs, had no money.
The Lord-The most important player in a feudal system is the Lord. The Lord is the ruling monarch who has complete control over all the land in the country.
Vassals-Vassals included anyone who was not a monarch and not a peasant who was granted land by the King or another vassal. In exchange for the land the vassals were granted, they either had to pay money, rent out their land, provide military service, or perform other various duties to show loyalty to the monarch.
Peasants-The vast majority of the feudalist government system in the Middle Ages in Europe were made up of peasants. There were three types of peasants: Slaves, who could be bought and sold, serfs, who had no rights politically, and freeman, who had a few rights and sometimes owned small shares of land. Freeman may have been artisans who worked in or owned a store.