Describe the processes that led to the breakdown of feudal society in Europe. How does class analysis assist in understanding these changes?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Feudalism, a social system of the Medieval Age, operated with a class system in which the crown divided lands among nobles, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles. In return for the land, these nobles and vassals were required to be in the military service under the Feudal Levy. Those who worked the land were called serfs, or villeins. They were the farmers who provided food in return for the protection of the noble or vassal, but they were often mistreated by their lords.

  • Once trade was opened and a merchant class began to form, a coinage economy began in contrast to a land-based economy. And, because the Feudal Levy was unpopular, when the nobles began to have money, they could pay the crown rather than serve and raise troops. Also, they began to hire mercenaries to fight for them.
  • Another factor contributing to the breakdown of feudalism was the Black Death, a plague that reduced the population for about one-third of what it was. Consequently, labor became more valuable, and the lower classes began to realize their value. With increasing trade, they moved to the growing towns where they found work and were eventually able to buy their freedom.
  • Land began to be rented, and so the control of labor by lords waned. As a result, the nobles became weaker, and their rights over land lessened.
  • When King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and the monasteries in England were dissolved, the final blow was given to feudalism as the Pope lost his control over England, where kings and nobles were no longer answerable to him.
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