Lords and Lordship in the British Isles in the Late Middle Ages

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This self-sufficiency enabled these estates to survive much better than the towns during the anarchy of the years when the western Roman empire collapsed. In this period they became the dominant social and economic unit, their owners — Roman landowning families alongside newly arrived German chieftains, with the two gradually intermarrying to form a single elite: the new landed nobility. The period of anarchy must also have forced the estates to function as so many little principalities, seeing to their own defence and administering their own law and order.

From being merely landowners, estate owners became local lords. The new German kings did not maintain large professional armies, as the Romans had done, but continued to use the tribal levies.

Under this system, German tribal nobles, who had been invested with some of these estates theoretically a third of all land in conquered territories was given to the new German invaders , had to bring themselves and their warriors to the royal standard at the start of a campaign. At the same time the old tribal warrior, fighting on foot, became the mounted warrior, who was a much more expensive military asset.

This led to the sub-infeudation of the larger estates as these mounted warriors received grants of land from which to support themselves. Originally they were formed of single village communities, but over time, as pieces of land were given away here and acquired there, many manors came to be scattered through several neighbouring villages; the corollary of this was that villages were often divided amongst more than one manor.

This lord could be a secular lord like a knight or a baron, or an ecclesiastical lord like a bishop, church or monastery. Whoever or whatever the lord was, he or it had control over the land and people of the manor. These usually involving working on his demesne land for a set number of days per week, and giving him gifts in kind or money on certain days.

It also varied over time, as a lord took more land into his demesne, or divided demesne land amongst his serfs and free peasants. Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries collected by H. Manors usually attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. The work of making and repairing equipment, for example, was carried out as far as practicable within the manor. Towns were few and far between, and transporting goods to and from them was slow and expensive, so self-sufficiency was a sensible aim.


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It is common in school text books for feudalism to be depicted as a pyramid — and we have done the same here. However, it should be borne in mind that feudalism could give rise to fiendish complexity; spaghetti might represent it better.


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  7. We have seen how the original manors covered singe villages, but often came later to be scattered over several. As in this case, most complexities arose after fief-holding had become hereditary. For example, a vassal of one lord might marry the heiress of the vassal of another lord, thus acquiring obligations to a different lord. What happened if these lords became enemies? This was not an unusual situation.

    Scotland in the High Middle Ages

    Things could get more complicated still. Fiefs and manors were essentially blocks of land from which income could be drawn, in the form of a share in the labour of the peasantry, or in the produce of the soil, or of money revenue from these. It was a system for a rural economy. The inhabitants of towns did not fit neatly into the feudal scheme of things. Many early towns were located in areas between manors. Other towns grew up within existing fiefs.

    In either case, it was quite impossible for a king to a great lord to deal with each individual within a town, so they dealt with towns as whole communities — which in practice meant dealing with the leaders of the towns. Famously, if a serf arrived in a town and was able to stay there for a year and a day without being caught and sent back to his manor, he became a free citizen of that town.

    Large towns and cities thus came to run their own affairs with minimal interference from kings and other rulers. The revenue they contributed to the royal and feudal coffers effectively purchased their autonomy. In England and France, the key cities of London and Paris were treated with great respect by their kings, while smaller cities enjoyed a high degree of freedom from royal or feudal interference. In parts of Europe, many cities became effectively independent states in their own right.

    In northern Italy, the wealth of leading towns such as Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence made them amongst some of the most powerful states in Europe. It followed from this that medieval lords did not have dictatorial powers over their vassal.

    Lord of the manor

    The key to rulers gaining the consent of their leading subjects was to seek their advice: to bring them in on his thinking, listen to their anxieties, and adapt his policies accordingly. Indeed, as we have seen, one of the duties of a vassal to his lord was to provide him with counsel; and vassals regarded this duty as one of their most cherished privileges, that their lord should consult with them on important matters.

    One of the key principles that underlay this development was the idea that one person could speak for many. This meant not only communicating their views but committing them to action such as paying a tax. Given the responsibility of this role, it was important that the representative should be someone who commanded the confidence of the majority of those whom he represented.

    Oh no, there's been an error

    The notion of electing representatives by majority vote thus took hold, and so developed a practice which would lie at the heart of modern democracy. Coinage increasingly came in to circulation, and a money economy gained ground. In these circumstances, the shortcomings of feudalism as a way of raising troops became glaringly obvious.

    This development of course increased the importance of representative assemblies; it also struck at the very heart of feudalism, with nobles and knights becoming primarily landed gentry rather than serving warriors. Above all, these developments put much more power into the hands of monarchs and their officials.

    In some places, such as England and Holland, the later Middle Ages saw the manorial economy replaced by something new. The labour services which serfs owed thus became less profitable to the lords, who came therefore to prefer money rents instead. Manors were increasingly divided up into individual private farms, each under its own tenant farmer.

    In these areas, serfdom had more or less vanished by the end of the Middle Ages. In these ways, while elements of feudalism continued in many parts of western Europe right up to the 18th and 19th centuries, the feudal system as a whole, with its hierarchy of fiefs and lords and vassals, had died out by the end of the 16th century.

    In same places, where this process was most advanced, fiefs, whose lords enjoyed political, military, judicial and economic power over them, had become simply landed estates, which were economic units only. In other places they remained units of localised power. Nowhere, however, were they the centres of military and lordly power which they had been in the high Middle Ages. Originally published by TimeMaps of World History , republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes. Privatized Power The main implication for all this was that power was widely distributed. Military Power For military purposes, the mechanism by which a feudal king could mobilize the military resources of his realm was to order his direct vassals, the magnates, to provide him with soldiers.

    Justice and Administration In terms of exercising justice, making laws, and overseeing administrative matters, a similar situation prevailed. Private Realms From all this, it is clear that a fief was not just a piece of private property, in the sense that we would recognize today; it carried with it what we would now regard as public responsibilities, which are normally exercised by such public bodies as central government, local government, law courts and so on. If you have previously obtained access with your personal account, Please log in.

    Britain 1066-1485

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