1.2 The Middle Ages: Feudal Hierarchy

Kings typically owned the most land. Yet, very few kings were actually wealthy enough to maintain a large army of their own. Kings generally relied on the upper nobility (barons) to provide the knights, soldiers, and taxes to pay for armies to fight wars. Barons were powerful land holding lords who rivalled the power of kings. Some barons in Germany and France actually ruled their fiefs entirely independent of a king.

Although feudalism brought some stability to Europe, the feudal system broke down easily. If a vassal failed to raise taxes, his liege lord could not field an army to defend the kingdom; and a defenceless king is a dead king. With the death of the king, two or more rival barons would compete for control of the kingdom. This would result in war; and war meant the death of people which hurt the kingdom's economy. Thus, feudalism depended upon kings and vassals alike meeting their feudal obligations.

Wars were common during the Middle Ages. This is because feudalism was at heart a competitive system. Feudalism was not based upon peace; it was founded upon land and power; and those below often fought with those above for influence and land.

williamUpper & Lower Lords
Men known as dukes were the most powerful and wealthiest nobles. They received their fiefs directly from the king. When Duke William of Normandy (pictured at left) invaded and conquered England in 1066 AD, he commanded about 120 barons. Each baron provided the king with a possible army of 5,000 men.

Bishops
of the Catholic Church, just like dukes and barons, were some of the more powerful nobles. Bishops ruled over large areas called dioceses. Although bishops were in theory religious leaders, they were in fact business administrators. For example, they did not concern themselves with spiritual matters like faith or theology. Instead, their main focus was maintaining the Church’s authority in the diocese and collecting the “tithe” (a mandatory Church tax).

Not just anyone could become a bishop. You needed to have political connections. Therefore, ordinary priests were never promoted to bishop. Instead barons, dukes, counts, etc. actually purchased the position of bishop from the Church and then gave it to their sons to administer. Bishoprics, just like with fiefs, provided a steady income for the ruling families of Europe.

Lower lords known as viscounts administered smaller fiefs called manors. As lower lords, viscounts rented out most of their land to peasant farmers who were called serfs or villeins. In return for protection from the fief's lord, serfs raised crops and animals giving a portion of these to the lord as a form of rent payment. Serfs were at the bottom of the feudal ladder. In times of war, serfs were drafted as infantry into the lord's army. Lords of all ranks formed the basis of a warrior class for medieval society. As trained knights, they were bound by oath to serve in the army of the most senior lord that granted them their fief; it should be noted that some knights did not own a fief. Landless knights made a living by being professional fighters.