A Complex System

Everyone had a place in medieval feudal society. At the top of the power structure stood the monarch. Below the monarch were the most powerful lords, who might have had titles such as duke or count. They held the largest fiefs. Each of these lords had vassals, and these vassals in turn had their own vassals. In many cases, the same man was both vassal and lord—vassal to a more powerful lord above him and lord to a less powerful vassal below him.

Because vassals often held fiefs from more than one lord, relationships between them grew very complex. A vassal who had pledged loyalty to several lords could have serious problems if his overlords quarreled with each other. What was he to do if both demanded his aid? To solve this problem, a vassal usually had a liege lord to whom he owed his first loyalty.

Nobles, Knights, and Warfare

During the Middle Ages, warfare was constant. For medieval lords and vassals, it was a way of life. Rival lords battled constantly for power. Both greater and lesser nobles trained from boyhood for a future occupation as a knight, or mounted warrior.

The Life of a Knight

At the age of seven, a boy slated to become a knight was sent away to the castle of his father's lord. There, he learned to ride and fight. He also learned to keep his armor and weapons in good condition. Training was difficult and discipline was strict. Any laziness was punished with an angry blow or even a severe beating.

With his training finished, the youth was named a knight, often in a public ceremony. An older knight or the boy's future lord said words like these: “In the name of God, Saint Michael, and Saint George, I dub thee knight; be brave and loyal.” Then the young knight took his place beside other warriors.

Knights usually fought on horseback using swords, axes, and lances, which were long poles. They wore armor and carried shields for protection. Other soldiers fought on foot using daggers, spears, crossbows, and longbows.

As the fierce fighting of the early Middle Ages lessened in the 1100s, tournaments, or mock battles, came into fashion. A powerful lord would invite knights from the area to a tournament to enter contests of fighting skill. At first, tournaments were as dangerous as real battles. In time, they acquired more ceremonies and ritual.

Castles and War

During the early Middle Ages, powerful lords fortified their homes to withstand attack. The strongholds gradually became larger and grander. By the 1100s, monarchs and nobles owned sprawling stone castles with high walls, towers, and drawbridges over wide moats.

Castles were fortresses. Wars often centered on seizing castles that commanded strategic river crossings, harbors, or mountain passes. Castle dwellers stored up food and water so they could withstand a long siege. In time of war, peasants from nearby villages might take refuge within the castle walls.

The Lives of Noblewomen

Noblewomen played active roles in this warrior society. While her husband or father was off fighting, the “lady of the manor” took over his duties. She supervised vassals, managed the household, and performed necessary agricultural and medical tasks. Sometimes she might even have to go to war to defend her estate.

Illustration of a knight in crusade attire, standing in front of a tent and castle.

The Frankish knight Godfrey of Bouillon helped lead the First Crusade. He refused the title of king of Jerusalem but accepted the crown. Songs described him as a “perfect Christian knight.”

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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