This officially owned by the sovereign but divided

This lesson will explore the impact of feudalism on European society. While explaining the system of feudalism, it will highlight how it offered protection and stability to Europe, specifically after the 5th century fall of Rome.

Overview of Feudalism

Although it may sound mind-numbingly boring to most, there is a lively debate among some historians concerning the role feudalism played in European history. On one side of the fence are those who see feudalism as an evil system of warmongering and oppression. On the other side are those who see it in a more positive light, labeling it a stabilizing force in an unstable time.

Regardless of which side these historians find themselves on, most agree feudalism played a large role in European history. Today, we’ll take a look at this role and explore what some call its positive effects.To begin, feudalism is a system of government in which power is based on land ownership. In this system, all land is officially owned by the sovereign but divided among the nobility.Feudalism in Europe is traced back to the 5th century fall of Rome. Without the stabilizing force of the Roman political machine, the people groups of Europe, or tribes, began fighting for domination.To say the least, it was a violent and dangerous time.

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Although the leaders of these tribes were usually referred to as kings or lords, their power was not absolute, and they were always in danger of being overthrown by a challenger.

Fiefs, Vassals, and Serfs

To gain some semblance of control, these kings or lords began giving fiefs, or portions of land, to the nobility. Those given the land came to be known as vassals. In return for the gift of land, the vassals would offer the lord their allegiance. Yes, they would raise armies to protect their own lands, but their first official duty was to fight for the king should challengers arise. In this manner, a system of lords and lesser lords grew to dominate most of Europe.

In order to make their lands productive and profitable, vassals would offer protection to the peasantry who farmed the land, often referred to as manors. These peasants gained the name serfs. Obviously, the life of the serf was far from glamorous, and abuses abounded in the lives of the poor.

However, some argue that there were some advantages to being under feudalism’s yoke, the biggest being protection and sustainment amid chaos.

Feudalism’s Protection

First and foremost, feudalism offered protection to the poor of Europe. Remember, Rome had fallen, and with it so had its laws. No longer was there a central power to uphold the rights of everyday citizens.It was a time when might made right, and since might was associated with land ownership, the poor could have been left out in the cold.

Feudalism, in some ways, offered a remedy for this by giving the poor a protector in the form of the wealthy land owner.Yes, life under the control of a lord was at many times bleak, but his armies and his walls offered stability and the chance of survival in a chaotic world.


Not only did feudalism offer protection from invasion, it also offered protection from starvation.

Again, we must keep in mind how the fall of Rome created chaos, affecting the availability of food and resources for the common man. Trade routes were no longer safe, and the movement of goods between areas halted.Feudalism’s answer to this was the manor. The manor, which was made up of the feudal lord’s landholdings, was not just tracts of farming fields and hunting lands. Due to the unrest of the time period, manors produced everything they needed for daily life.Since trade amongst people groups was seldom an option, the feudal manor offered a self-sufficient community, complete usually with a castle, a church, and a village in which the serfs resided.

The life of the serfs may have been one of hardship and drudgery, but feudalism offered food and resources to eke out a survival.Along with offering sustainment, the manor allowed for the specialization of trade to occur. In other words, as serfs took on different roles, occupations of sorts developed. This would be extremely important in European history as it set the ground work for the birth of tradesmen and the eventual growth of a middle class.

Lesson Summary

Feudalism’s roots in Europe are traced back to the 5th century fall of Rome. Without the stabilizing force of the Roman political machine, the people groups of Europe began fighting for domination. It is amidst this backdrop that the system of feudalism came to dominate most of Europe.

Feudalism is a system of government in which power is based on land ownership. In this system, all land is officially owned by the sovereign but divided among the nobility. Although the feudal time period was one of warmongering and abuse of power, many historians believe it offered protection and sustainment to the common people of Europe.As for protection, without the laws of Rome to protect the common citizenry, the poor of Europe were left to fend for themselves.

Feudalism offered a remedy to this as the wealthy landowner and his armies supplied a blanket of protection to the serfs who farmed the land. Although the life of a serf was not to be envied, it was protected from outside invaders.Feudalism also offered sustainment in a time when trade and movement of goods was scarce. Due to the danger of travel and trade, feudal manors saved the day, acting as self-sufficient, stable communities amidst a world of instability.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Define feudalism and summarize how it came about in Europe
  • Describe the theory that feudalism offered protection and sustainment to Europe’s common people

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