The Feudal System
The feudal system was a way of government based on obligations between the lord or king and vassal.
The king gave large estates to his friends and relatives. These estates known as the fief included houses, barns, tools, animals, and serfs or peasants. The king also promised to protect the vassal on the field or in the courts. In return the nobles who were granted the fiefs swore an oath of loyalty to the king. The nobles promised never to fight against the king. They also had to give the king whatever he asked for. The king may ask for men to fight a war, money, or advice. The nobles also gave the king a place to stay when he traveled.
Each of the king's vassals was also a lord or tenant in chief with vassals of his own. Each vassal would be an overlord to those he granted fiefs while remaining a vassal of the king. The subtenants in turn subdivided the land. Sometimes there were many levels of lords who had vassals under them.
The most important promise of the vassal to the lord was the military. The vassal usually served as a knight. This service lasted about 40 to 60 days a year. If they actually had to fight in a war they usually did so for two months. If there was no war the knights did 40 days of training at the castle.
There were only a few nobles. Most people, approximately nine-tenths, were serfs who worked the land for a noble. The serf was bound to the land. If the noble sold the land the serf went with it. This was not much better than being a slave.
A peasant village had between ten to sixty families. Each family lived in a hut made out of wood or straw. The floor was covered with straw or reeds. Beds were made from a pile of dried leaves or straw. Animal skins were used as blankets. A cooking fire burned in the middle of the hut with the smoke escaping through a hole in the roof. Furnishings included a plank table, a few stools, and a chest. Each hut had its own vegetable garden.
About half the serfs time was spent working for the lord. Jobs included working in the fields, cutting wood, hauling water, spinning and weaving, repairing buildings, and waiting on the members of the lord's family. Peasant men were even expected to fight in times of war. Besides all the work peasants had to pay taxes to their lord. This was usually given in wheat, lamb, chicken, and other animals.
There were also some freemen peasants. These people were usually in a trade. These people were not bound to the land. They paid a fixed rent to the lord. The freemen had more legal rights than the serfs and fewer duties to the lord. In actuality there was little real difference between the freemen peasants and the serfs.
By the twelfth century this system was found throughout most of Western Europe.