An Invented Term
The New Feudal Reality
The Roman Empire included a network of cities that were connected by well-maintained roads. As the power of Rome declined, people began to leave the decaying cities, which were increasingly filled with disorder and crime, and settled in rural areas. The network of well-maintained roads that made the Romans famous ceased to be maintained and trade collapsed. As a result, rural communities formed that had to be increasingly self-sufficient. A central authority, in the person of a king, united these communities under one leader, but that leader did not have a lot of power. Most people in medieval Europe never saw a king and lived their life in their own self-sufficient community, known as a manor, relying on the local lord to protect them, administer justice, and settle disputes between residents. Many medieval peasants lived on the manor as serfs who were legally tied to the land and not allowed to leave even if they wanted to do so.
Weak Central Authority
Anyone who has played chess knows that the king is one of the weakest pieces on the board and is dependent on the support of other pieces on the board. These other pieces on the board symbolize the Church, the nobility, the knights, and the peasants. Medieval kings held some of their own lands, but the lands that they reigned over resembled more of a patchwork quilt than it did a modern nation the way we think of it today. Kings would enter lord-vassal contracts with nobles, who would swear an oath of loyalty, or vassalage, to the king and receive a land grant, known as a fief, in return. The loyalty sworn by the vassal was most commonly delivered in the form of military service. When medieval kings went to war, they required each of their vassals to send a certain number of knights, as kings did not have the means to maintain large personal armies.
The Decline of Feudalism
In the Late Middle Ages, feudalism began to decline as kings began to grow more powerful (partly as a result of the Crusades), global trade increased, and more people started to move to towns, which were outside of the control of feudal lords. With the wealth that came into royal treasuries during the Age of Exploration, kings began financing their own armies and allowed nobles to pay money instead of raising their own men.
While feudalism began to decline significantly between 1400-1700, some elements of feudalism remained in Europe into the modern era. In 1789, the French National Assembly formally abolished the legal privileges of the nobility in the early stages of the French Revolution. Serfdom continued in Russia until a reforming tsar abolished it in the 1860s.
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