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The basic government and society in Europe during the middle ages was based around the feudal system. Small communities were formed around the local lord and the manor. The lord owned the land and everything in it. He would keep the peasants safe in return for their service. The lord, in return, would provide the king with soldiers or taxes.
Service for Land
Under the feudal system land was granted to people for service. It started at the top with the king granting his land to a baron for soldiers all the way down to a peasant getting land to grow crops.
The center of life in the Middle Ages was the manor. The manor was run by the local lord. He lived in a large house or castle where people would gather for celebrations or for protection if they were attacked. A small village would form around the castle which would include the local church. Farms would then spread out from there which would be worked by the peasants.
Hierarchy of Rulers
King - The top leader in the land was the king. The king could not control all of the land by himself, so he divided it up among the Barons. In return, the Barons pledged their loyalty and soldiers to the king. When a king died, his firstborn son would inherit the throne. When one family stayed in power for a long time, this was called a dynasty.
Bishop - The Bishop was the top church leader in the kingdom and managed an area called a diocese. The Catholic Church was very powerful in most parts of Medieval Europe and this made the Bishop powerful as well. Not only that, but the church received a tithe of 10 percent from all the people. This made some Bishops very rich.
Baron - Barons ruled large areas of land called fiefs. They reported directly to the king and were very powerful. They divided up their land among Lords who ran individual manors. Their job was to maintain an army that was at the king's service. If they did not have an army, sometimes they would pay the king a tax instead. This tax was called shield money.
Lord - The lords ran the local manors. They also were the knights and could be called into battle at any moment by their Baron. The lords owned everything on their land including the peasants, crops, and village.
Peasants or Serfs
Most of the people living in the Middle Ages were peasants. They had a hard rough life. Some peasants were considered free and could own their own businesses like carpenters, bakers, and blacksmiths. Others were more like slaves. They owned nothing and were pledged to their local lord. They worked long days, 6 days a week, and often barely had enough food to survive.
Fun Facts about the Middle Age Feudal System
- Around 90 percent of the people worked the land as peasants.
- Peasants worked hard and died young. Most were dead before they reached 30 years old.
- The kings believed they were given the right to rule by God. This was called "divine right".
- Lords and Barons swore oaths of homage and fealty to their kings.
- The Lord held absolute power over the fief or manor including holding court and deciding punishments for crimes.
Take a ten question quiz at the Middle Ages Feudal System questions page.
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Middle Ages for Kids