How did Feudalism impact the lives of people living in Western Europe?
For much of the Middle Ages, Feudalism dominated the lives of those who lived in Western Europe. But its impact on individuals depended chiefly on their social position. The king or ruler, for example, sat at the top of the feudal chain and brought great benefits. By distributing his kingdom among his nobles, he received the loyalty of these men and the guarantee of an army during times of war.
Similarly, the noblemen beneath the king also derived many benefits from the feudal system. The king granted them lands and titles while they received the loyalty of those below them, namely knights.But there were some drawbacks to this situation, as demonstrated by this primary source from 1110 in which a man called Bernard Atton did homage to his lord:
And the lord may take the revenues and the products of the year, if the relief is not paid to him, and also money rents.
In other words, this relationship could cost a tenant financially, if he did not pay the necessary tax, like the right to inherit a piece of land, at the right time. (You can see more examples of these rules in the first reference link provided).
But, the vast majority of people in Western Europe were neither kings nor noblemen and, for them, life under Feudalism was very tough. While peasants and serfs (unfree peasants) had a right to their land and to protection from their lord, they had very little social and economic freedom. Serfs, for example, could not leave their manor without permission and had to pay taxes to their lord for basic rights. If a serf married, for example, he had to pay a tax to his lord called a merchet. Similarly, the heriot, or death tax, was owed to the lord when a serf died.
Serfs also had to work on their lord's land, or demesne, to produce food for his family, while simultaneously working their own land for the same reason. The serf did not benefit from any surplus produce: this was sold at market and the money given to the lord.
This situation was only alleviated when the Black Death hit Western Europe in 1347. The high death toll, which historians estimate is between one-third and one-half of the European population, created better opportunities and higher wages for peasants, as the high death killed so many existing workers. This has led some historians to call this period, "The Golden Age of the Labourer," though this is a hotly-debated topic. You can read more about it in the second reference link provided.
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