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Feudal System

The feudal system, with all its injustices, was destined to crumble. A system that divided
society into differing social classes and forced the lower social classes into
subservience, was surely bound to be overthrown by the very people that it repressed. In
fact in the 18th century the feudal system was officially abolished after the reading of
a report on the misery and disorder which prevailed throughout Europe. Though the decree
abolishing the feudal system was not officially written until the late 1700s, the change
had been in the wind since the early 13th century. The people were rioting, burning
villages and abandoning farms, and any form of authority was overthrown. After being in
place for more than 1000 years, the feudal system was to be no more. In hindsight, many
people of the time may agree that the feudal system was indeed destined to crumble. But
why did the very people it was designed to protect overthrow the feudal system?
The feudal system existed in Europe from the collapse of the Roman Empire, circa AD400,
until the Renaissance period, circa AD1400. The collapse of the Roman Empire is
considered to have led to the development of the feudal system. As the Roman Empire began
to weaken and was suffering defeat at its border from Northern and Eastern Europe, the
Emperors needed to develop a system that would ensure provisions for the Roman armies.
Thus the Feudal System was developed and eventually adopted throughout Europe. Under this
system, a local dignitary was placed in charge of an area of land, and the peasants from
that area would work the land to provide for the local lord. The peasants were allotted
land for their use; however, a high proportion of the food produced on that land had to
be given to the local lord in return for protection. The local lords owed their
allegiance to the King, who collected from them taxes, mostly in the form of foodstuffs
to provide to the armies.
In medieval times feudalism was not the term used to describe that current social order.
Vassalage was the original 'feudal' name and vassal was the name given to the holder of
tenure of land. Property holdings were the true measure of wealth, and the King
essentially owned all of the land in his territory. Land was used by a King to gain power
and wealth. Further acquisition of property, however, came with a price; it required a
solid army to do battle to gain other territories. A modern medieval army required
leaders who were motivated and in turn could motivate their charge to carry on in often
brutal warfare. It was expected that the vassal, or local dignitary, would participate in
battle as a knight or heavily armed cavalryman in return for privileges and grants of
land. This established the vassal in a higher social class, above that of the common man
or peasantry. As the vassal moved in the higher social circles, he saw himself as above
manual labour and would recruit the peasantry to work the land and raise cattle.
Power undertook a circuitous route and the feudal state was a society of connections. If
a person was not well connected, as was the case for the peasantry, life could be
extremely difficult. Power and wealth were hereditary, which ensured that people could
not move between social classes. If you were born into peasantry, invariably you would be
a peasant for life. Such forced social structure inevitably led to much contempt amongst
the peasantry. The underlings generally pledged their allegiance with much disdain.
Individually the elite ruled their fief with a heavy hand. Throughout Europe, the people
feared for their lives as crooks and the elite (quite possibly the same people) alike
raped and pillaged the territories. The nobility filled their castles with stolen bounty
and many crusaded against their own people. Fortunately, a structural change of society
was in the wind.
After a number of revolts, King John's barons - in order to establish some social harmony
- wrote the Magna Carta. This famous constitutional document set the tone for governments
to follow by providing for some political stability and individual rights. It is
considered that this document was the foundation of human rights and altered, in many
ways, the fashion in which people in the feudal state lived. For example, in the preamble
of the document: "we have granted moreover to all free men of our Kingdom for us and our
heirs forever all the liberties written below, to be had and holden by themselves and
their heirs for us and our heirs."
Along with the Magna Carta, a number of fundamental changes occurred in feudal society
that led to its ultimate demise. These included the introduction of the longbow, a method
of warfare superior to armoured men on horseback; the Bubonic Plague which wiped out the
broad base of the system, three-fifths of the population of England; the Peasants Revolt
of 1381, led by Wat Tyler and John Ball, gave evidence of the dissatisfaction of the
people; and the translation of the Bible into English in 1382 by John Wyclif, a church
reformer.1 These changes also led to the start of the industrial revolution. The common
man began to have access to knowledge and information, including the now translated
According to the British Library, "England in the 1700 was chiefly a land of villages;
there were no big towns except London, and agriculture was the occupation of the vast
majority of the people." A radical change was about to take place. A transformation that
would force many who had worked the land as peasants and farmers to leave farming and
seek work in the cities. The industrial revolution was picking up steam and moving ahead,
while the now defunct feudal system faded into the background. The feudal system had
crumbled. Governments were forced, by way of the Magna Carta, to protect the rights of
the individual, regardless of their social class. The Decree Abolishing the Feudal
System, August 11, 1789, wrote that Kings and vassals were no longer entitled to force
peasantry into labour, nor to take from them a percentage of their wealth. The fees of
priests and churches were abolished, in their place the minimum salary of the parish
priests was increased. However, the part of the decree that perhaps truly sealed the
demise of the feudal system and its unfair social classes came from Article XI, which
stated, "All citizens, without distinction of birth, are eligible to any office or
dignity, whether ecclesiastical, civil, or military; and no profession shall imply any