Feudalism and Medieval life:
• What does feudalism and all that it entails mean?
The social structure of the Middle Ages was organised around the system of Feudalism. In practice it meant that a country was not governed solely by the king but by individual barons who administered their own estates, dispensed their own justice, minted their own money, levied taxes and tolls, and demanded military service from vassals. Sometimes the barons could field greater armies than the king. In theory the king was the chief feudal lord, but in reality many individual barons were very powerful in their own territory.
Feudalism was built upon a relationship of obligation and mutual service between vassals and lords. A vassal held his land, or fief, as a grant from a lord. When a vassal died, his heir was required to publicly renew his oath of fealty to his lord or suzerain. This public oath was called homage. The lord was obliged to protect the vassal, give military aid, and guard his children. If a daughter inherited, the lord arranged her marriage. If there were no heirs the lord disposed of the fief as he chose. A vassal was required to attend the lord at his court, help administer justice, and contribute money if needed. He was required to answer a summons to battle and bring an agreed upon number of fighting men. In addition he was obligated to feed and house the lord and his company when they travelled across his land.
• What was life like for ordinary people under this system?
Manors rather than villages were the economic and social units of life in the early Medieval period. A manor consisted of a manor house, one or more villages, and up to several thousand acres of land divided into meadow, pasture, forest, and cultivated fields. The fields were further divided into strips – 1/3 for the lord of the manor, less for the church, and the remainder for the peasants and serfs. At least half of the working days were spent tending the land belonging to the lord and the church. Some time was also spent doing maintenance and on tasks such as clearing land, cutting firewood, and building roads and bridges. The rest of the time the villagers were free to work their own land. A serf was bound to a lord for life and needed the lord’s consent to marry. They couldn’t own property or leave the land without the lord’s permission. However, in theory at least, a serf couldn’t be displaced if the manor changed hands, nor be forced to fight, and he was entitled to the protection of the lord.
Most families lived in rough huts with dirt floors and no chimneys or windows. One end of the hut was often given over to livestock. Furnishings were sparse and often consisted of little more than stools, a trestle table, and beds on the floor softened with straw or leaves. Their diet was plain and included porridge, cheese, bread, and a few home grown vegetables. Life was hard for people however there was some relief from work and grinding poverty. People didn’t work on Sundays or Saints Days, and they could go to nearby fairs and markets. Generally speaking, daily life was aligned very closely to the seasons eg. sowing and planting time, the harvest etc.
• Medieval Celebrations:
Medieval celebrations revolved around feast days that had pagan origins and were based on ancient agricultural celebrations which marked when certain crops should be planted or harvested in the yearly cycle. They also relate to the development of the Christian Church.
• Medieval Market Towns and Inns:
The term ‘market town’ is a legal term that originated during the medieval period meaning a settlement that has the right to host markets. This distinguishes a town from a village or city. Market towns were frequently located where there was ready access to transport eg. at a crossroads or close to a river ford and near castles which offered protection. As market towns developed a system was devised whereby a new market town could not be established within a certain travelling distance, usually within one days travel to and from the market, of an existing one.
Traditional market towns usually had a wide main street or central market square which provided room for traders to set up stalls and booths on market days. Sometimes a market cross was erected in the centre of town both to obtain a blessing on the trade conducted and eventually market halls were developed which included administrative quarters on the first floor above the covered market.
Medieval Inns were usually located along main roads and traditionally provided not only food, drinks, and lodgings but also stabling and fodder for a traveller’s horse. Inns also acted as community gathering places and, especially in rural areas, provided a place for people to meet, socialise and exchange news.
“Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”