7.2 Feudalism and the Manor Economy

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.

Illustration of a crowned man with a sword knighting a kneeling young man, with two armored soldiers looking on.

A monarch dubs a kneeling young man a knight. Two knights sponsor and stand by him in this French illustration from the late 1200s.


  • Describe the development of the political and social system of feudalism.
  • Summarize the life of knights and nobles.
  • Analyze how the economic system of manorialism worked and how it affected peasants and nobles.

Key Terms

  • feudalism
  • vassal
  • feudal contract
  • fief
  • knight
  • tournament
  • chivalry
  • troubadour
  • manor system
  • Eleanor of Acquitaine
  • manor
  • serf

Feudalism Develops

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.

Mutual Obligations

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.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments