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Medieval Serfdom: Feudalism in the Middle Ages

Prashant Magar Mar 3, 2019
Medieval period is the time from 500 AD to 1500 AD, an era marking the transition from ancient period to modern period in human history. As is true with every transitional phase in course of human evolution, it was a time of great upheaval with respect to lifestyle, ideologies, beliefs, and systems.

What is Feudalism?

Feudalism is a term used for referring to the social, political, and economic system in place. A king was the ruler and the person at the helm of affairs. He was constantly at war, either defending his territory or expanding boundaries of his kingdom.
In order to serve both the purposes, it became absolutely essential to maintain a set of loyal and responsible subordinates to maintain the vast territories. This subordinate class consisted of feudal lords or barons, who were given a certain portion of land which they administered for the king.
The barons or feudal lords maintained a huge army, whose job was to ensure the protection of the land and fight for the lords and ultimately serve the king. The lowest strata of this system was serfdom.

Medieval Serfdom

Serfdom, as a way of life, was a significant feature in the medieval times, especially in European society. The term 'serf' was coined around 1850, though it originated much before from the Latin word, 'servus', meaning slave.
Serfdom was an extended or slightly altered form of slavery. It was a type of bondage slavery, wherein peasants were forced to work for a handful of landowners or the rich class.
Serfs formed the lower class of society and were essentially farmers, millers, blacksmith, and carpenters. They were more of household labors, who got some form of protection and rights to retain a part of the agricultural produce in return for their labor.
Unlike the slaves, serfs were not 'owned' by the feudal lords. They had their own independent existence, but were heavily restricted in the service of the nobility.
The king actually remained just as the chief feudal lord, simply in charge of the kingdom and enjoying unprecedented rights. It were the feudal lords, who exercised the real authority and command over the knights and serfs.
Feudalism was such a powerful phenomenon, that a handful of these lords dictated the lifestyle of the entire country or kingdom. Of course, their rule was limited to the area which they governed, but the king had almost no check on their lifestyle which turned out to be more autocratic and tyrannical.
Thus, the hierarchy consisted of the lord, vassals, and the fiefs or land grants. The lords got the services of the vassals, who in turn got land as a 'loan', though it essentially was the property of the lord.
The services provided by the vassals were looking after the land, guaranteeing protection for the lord and readily fighting for his cause. The serfs remained bonded labor, serving in the grand manors (the dwellings of the lords) or working as farm labors.
Towards the end of the middle ages, feudalism spread extensively and the concept prevailed in isolated areas around the world, including America and a few places in Asia and Africa.
In Europe though, the rising atrocious behavior of the lords led to uprisings in latter period, like the French Revolution and many localized revolts in England, Russia, and many other countries. It ended the reign of the feudal way of life and gave birth to the democratic way of life.