What role did the institutions of Feudalism and Manorialism play in European society?
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More than institutions in the sense that we think of them today, manorialism and especially feudalism were really ways of conceiving relationships between people in medieval Europe. Manorialism, of course, was a fundamentally economic arrangement, and feudalism largely political. But both were founded upon some degree of reciprocity. Though the requirements of both were gradually articulated into legal arrangements, both were based ultimately on personal relationships. In the case of manorialism, peasants, whether or not they were serfs, contracted with landowners to provide a certain amount of their produce. In return, the landowner provided a number of things, including access to mills, common lands for grazing livestock, and guaranteed access to markets for crops. In the case of feudalism, the broad pattern was that a lord would grant lands to a man in return for his swearing fealty to him. What this did was to provide military support for the lord, and it guaranteed the lord some measure of political power over his vassals. A complex system of values known as chivalry emerged to govern these relationships. The crucial thing to understand is that these relationships went both ways, and that failing to live up to the expectations of lordship could result in the lords' losing their lands. In a sense, then, feudalism and manorialism, though two separate systems, provided the political, social, and economic adhesives that held medieval society together.
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