During the Middle Ages, in the anarchy following the fall of the Roman Empire, a new socioeconomic system called feudalism arose. The word comes from the Latin for “oath” -foedus- and that is the underlying value that made up feudalistic society. The oaths made to serve and protect were the basis of the entire culture.

In feudalism the land was owned by the king. He was granted the right to own the land by God . The king then divided up the land and gave it to various noblemen. Actually, it wasn’t a grant of ownership. It was more stewardship than ownership. The noblemen were allowed to control the land, divide it up as they chose and levy taxes. These noblemen could the grant control of a small portion of land to local lords. These lords would make use of serfs (peasants) to work the land. At each level tribute was paid to the land controller. Those who had stewardship were also expected to raise troops in defense of the land granter, on up to the king, in times of war.

The basic unit of feudalism was the manor . This economic base was dependent upon the serfs who worked without wage. The local lord owned the manor and the lands around it. He would allow some serfs patches of land to cultivate. In return, the serf would send the lord tribute in recognition of the lord’s generosity and ownership of the land. Serfs lived in small cottages that they built, and tribute was most often paid in the form of food. A portion of all that was cultivated was sent up to the manor, to incur the good will of the lord. Other ways the serf maintained his right to live on the manor land was by driving sheep into the lord’s pen for manure, baking bread up at the manor and giving some of the loaves to the manor, providing labor around the lord’s manor (mowing hay, repairing damage, tilling the lord’s land), and even paying a fee if his daughter married someone who lived on another estate .

The fee that the lord was then required to pay to the nobleman often was mainly made up by the tribute paid him by the serfs on his land. The lord had his own fields of course (worked by the peasants) and might even have some trade with other estates. But without the free labor that was performed to them, the lords would not have the goods to pay the noblemen. A nobleman then paid his tribute to the king from the taxes he levied on the manors under his control. The tight to charge a toll on a certain stretch of road was also granted to some.

When troops were needed, there was no reason to pay them either (paying an army is expensive). Noblemen were expected, by the nature of their oaths of loyalty, to raise troops for the king, and so on down the line. The fighters were promised a portion of the spoils of war, but those came at no cost to the liege .

During the Middle Ages, it was the serf that was the basis of the economic system. The fact that free labor provided the bulk of a fees paid in a system of tribute is the whole reason that some were able to live lives of relative comfort.


Henry R. Luce, editor, Life’s Picture History of Western Man (New York, NY: Time Incorporated, 1951), 40.

Laurie Schneider Adams, A Western History of Art (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 181.

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