In the face of invasions by Vikings, Muslims, and Magyars, kings and emperors were too weak to maintain law and order. People needed protection for themselves, their homes, and their lands. In response to this basic need for protection, a decentralized political and economic structure evolved, known as feudalism. Feudalism was a loosely organized system of rule in which powerful local lords divided their landholdings among lesser lords. In exchange, these lesser lords, or vassals, pledged service and loyalty to the greater lord.
A monarch dubs a kneeling young man a knight. Two knights sponsor and stand by him in this French illustration from the late 1200s.
In practice, feudalism varied greatly from place to place, and its traditions changed over time. Overall, however, feudalism became the basis for the political and economic system that governed life during the Middle Ages and beyond.
Medieval society involved a network of mutual obligations between the ruler and the ruled. The relationship between lords and vassals was both political and economic. It was based on the exchange of land for loyalty and military service. These vows were conducted publicly in front of witnesses.
The relationship between lord and vassal grew out of custom and tradition and involved an exchange of pledges known as the feudal contract. Under this system, a powerful lord granted his vassal a fief (feef), or estate. Fiefs ranged from a few acres to hundreds of square miles. In addition to the land itself, the fief included peasants to work the land, as well as any towns or buildings on it.
As part of this agreement, the lord promised to protect his vassal. In return, the vassal pledged loyalty to his lord. He also agreed to provide the lord with 40 days of military service each year, certain money payments, and advice.