1.6 The Middle Ages: Feudalism's Decline

When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century all central authority in Europe disappeared along with it. At this time no single person or group had supreme authority. Instead, warlords and chieftains competed with one another for land and influence. After approximately five centuries of warfare feudalism emerged as Western Europe's political system. By the 10th Century Western Europe was loosely organized into fiefs of varying sizes (see map of France below).

Although kings existed kingdoms as you and I understand them did not. Modern kingdoms are basically countries. In modern kingdoms, or countries, every person is French or British first and foremost. Also, the borders of modern countries are fixed and relatively unchanging.

In the Kingdom of France in the 14th century, however, people did not call themselves French first. Instead, people related first and foremost with the fief or manor or small territory they lived in. Thus, a person living in Normandy was a Norman and not a Frenchman. Each and every province (fief) existed independently from one another. French speaking people lived in these provinces; however, despite sharing a common language they were not politically united. Their loyalties were to their fief and not to the kingdom as a whole.

Modern kingdoms exist as nations. They do not exist as small independent provinces. People living in a modern kingdom (or country) share a common worldview or way of looking at the world. In the 10th Century, the various peoples of France living in different regions did not share the same worldview. For example, a person living in Brittany was a Breton first and foremost.

There were many reasons why it was difficult to establish a kingdom: firstly, during the Middle Ages warfare was constant and boundaries changed continuously. Therefore, it was hard for a single lord to impose their central authority over a given region for a sustained period of time; the loyalty of vassals was never guaranteed. Thus, it was doubly difficult for a lord to establish his authority in a region. Also, serfs tended to be loyal to their fief (and the fief's lord) and not to the vassal's liege lord or king.


Canadians today from coast to coast to coast share a common identity and loyalty. They share a common sense of what it is to be "Canadian". They aren't Albertans. They aren't Nova Scotians. They are "Canadian."

During the Middle Ages, people were loyal first and foremost to their small province or region or even fief. This made sense because people typically never left their fief for their entire life.

For example, a person from Brittany was called a "Breton." Although Brittany was in France Bretons were "Bretons" first. The word "France" would've just been a geographical expression to them like the words "south" or "by the river." Eventually, once France was controlled by a single king this all changed; however, that change would not come until the reign of King Louis XIV during the 15th Century.

Kings were at the top of the feudal ladder; however, kings really didn't exercise true central authority. Instead, they governed regions; and regions existed as general cultural groups and not as specific countries. For example, the word "Germany" didn't refer to a specific nation. Instead, the word was a geographic expression referring to Central Europe as a whole.

Feudalism's Decline
Eventually strong central authority developed at different times for different reasons; the development of central authority meant an end to feudalism. This is because feudalism's existence depends upon a decentralized political system. England was the first kingdom in Europe to begin moving away from feudalism.

William the Conqueror (also known as William of Normandy) invaded and conquered England with his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD. Following his conquest William concentrated all power on himself. He did this by:

1). Forcing all lords to swear loyalty to him alone. This meant no other person could hold the same rank as William in England. This was different from the mainland of Europe, in that, there were hundreds of lords of equivalent rank, i.e. Barons.
2). William claimed ownership of all castles in England. This meant no noble could successfully refuse to follow William's will because you could no longer hide behind the safety of castle walls.
3). He forbade war between his vassals. By establishing long-term peace William was able to push forward economic and political reforms. These reforms helped him modernize England.
4). He made royal coinage the only legal money in England. This meant William directly controlled the finances of his new kingdom, i.e. Any potential enemy or rival in England could not support themselves financially.

Ultimately, King William swept away a messy feudal order replacing it with one in which he and he alone was clearly at the top and in control. While feudalism persisted in France and Spain for many, many more years to come, England took its first steps towards becoming a modern nation state.

England: The Introduction of a Civil Service
The English Crown's authority increased even more by the 12th Century. King Henry II increased authority around himself by replacing nobles with a civil service. Previously, kings relied on nobles to collect taxes and enforce laws. However, nobles couldn't always be counted on: competition between nobles and corruption were inherent features of the feudal system. So instead of relying upon nobles to be honest when collecting taxes, Henry II established a professional civil service to do this. The loyalty of civil servants was ensured by paying them a salary; they did not receive a fief. Instead, the king kept all the land for himself and had to rely less and less upon the good will of the nobility.

Henry II also standardized the legal system in England through the use of circuit court judges. Previously, nobles were responsible for acting as judges and making legal decisions in their fiefs. The problem with leaving legal decisions to nobles was they were not legal experts; moreover, they inconsistently applied the law for various reasons and the decisions they reached frequently made it look like they were just making the rules up as they were going along or they were trying to maintain their popularity. Circuit court judges, on the other hand, were trained legal experts. They travelled around from fief to fief enforcing the law. They weren't tied to the people or nobles by loyalty. They didn't care about popularity. Instead, they consistently applied the King's Law in all of England. Since the king no longer had to rely on the nobles to enforce the law, Henry II's reliance on the nobles decreased and his personal power throughout the country increased, i.e. it was Henry's law, and not the law of the nobles, being enforced throughout the kingdom.

In 1215 AD, power shifted back in favour of the English nobility. This is when the despotic and unpopular King John of England was forced by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta was a legal document making the king subject to the laws of the land and required that the barons have a voice in the king’s decision making through a Great Council. When a later English king ignored the Magna Carta, the barons seized power in 1264 and ruled temporarily through an expanded Great Council called the Parliament. The new Parliament included not only the barons and high-ranking churchmen but also influential representatives (merchants and bankers) from the large towns. The emergence of simple democratic institutions had begun because the Magna Carta was the first document ever to limit the power of the king by law.