Feudalism played a major role in the Middle Ages. It drew a clear line separating different social classes and created codependency between the rich and the poor. Like any complicated economic system, there were advantages and disadvantages. Understanding the fundamental concepts, benefits and drawbacks of feudalism can provide insight into humanity's economic and social history.
Feudalism was a social and political system practised in Europe, Japan and China during the Middle Ages. It was a mutual agreement between a lord his subordinates. In the middle of the hierarchy were the lord's vassals. These people were nobility who swore an oath of loyalty to their lord. It was essentially a contract created for mutual benefit. In exchange for some land and protection, vassals were required to provide a certain amount of military service. This exchange granted security for vassals and significant financial gains for their lord. At the bottom of the pyramid were the serfs. Serfs were peasants who worked the land and provided surplus goods and taxes to the lord and his vassals.
A general advantage of feudalism was the stability that it brought. Serfs supported the infrastructure by providing essential goods and services. This, combined with an organised system of protection, helped maintain a steady balance that kept the kingdoms running. Although this system was instrumental for social order, the true advantages were felt by the lord and his close associates. They enjoyed vast material gain at the expense of the serfs.
In a system so divided between rich and poor, the peasants were the ones who felt the disadvantages of feudalism. Serfs made a subsistence living in which they had to forfeit virtually everything to keep their homes. Compounding that hardship were the often heavy taxes that these individuals had to pay. The serfs also had no rights or independence. The church and the lords were the judge and jury when it came to legal matters.
End of Feudalism
A variety of social changes and events led to the eventual decline of the feudal system. Military conquest from the Crusades opened up trade routes, leading to new forms of economic growth beyond land and agriculture. With increased trade came centralised growth in towns, so peasants were able to leave their land and pursue their own means of income. There also was a shift in economic practice when currency replaced land as the economy's foundation. With currency came wages, so soldiers were paid for their services. This rendered the military obligations of vassals obsolete. Additionally, the government became centralised rather than spread out among different lords and territories.
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