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Feudalism is a term applied to the type of social and governmental structure associated with the Medeival period.  People were divided into three broad ranges of class: 1) the nobility; 2) the clergy; and 3) the commoners, or peasants. Each of these classes were also subdivided, and the entire structure...

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Feudalism is a term applied to the type of social and governmental structure associated with the Medeival period.  People were divided into three broad ranges of class: 1) the nobility; 2) the clergy; and 3) the commoners, or peasants. Each of these classes were also subdivided, and the entire structure rested on an interlocking set of mutual responsibilities.

The nobility were divided into royalty, ie kings, queens, princes, etc.; other higher nobility, such as counts, barons, etc.; and the regular mass of knights and squires.  All knights and squires were from noble families, but in any given century about 50% of the nobility fell from that class into either poverty or becoming merchants, and were replaced by a fairly equal number making their way into the nobility by various means.  Early on this was almost always through valor in warfare as foot soldiers, but as time passed rich merchants and sage advisors could become ennobled through service or (among the rich peasants) marrying into noble families which needed money. The king owed loyalty and beneficence to the lords, who owed the same to knights.  The knights owed loyalty and service, especially in war, to the lords, and they to the king.

The purpose of the nobility was combat- all the men were full-time professional soldiers, and this was their only function in society.

While the nobility were meant to protect all of society, the clergy's purpose was to pray for all. The Pope reigned supreme in Western Europe through the Middle Ages, followed by cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, monks and various lay orders.  They were forbidden to fight with the edge of the sword, but some bishops went to war with weapons such as maces to get around this.  The upper realms of the Church, of course, were all from noble families, so this was perhaps not surprising.

The peasants worked for the good of all, or that was the theory.  Rich peasants, such as prosperous merchants or farming peasants who were able to hire others, were still peasants.  The serfs were the bottom of society, tied to the land they lived on as firmly as slaves.  In theory the serfs were not to be molested in war, because they raised the food on which all depended.  Unfortunately, this theory was never really followed, and the peasants were the ones mainly despoiled by campaigns.  They were also heavily taxed by their lords, and were required to spend negotiated amounts of their work time working the lord's crops and other work.

There was another group essentially outside society, the Jews.  Although mistrusted and often persecuted, they were essential to feudalism because as non-Christians they could lend money for interest, and were therefore indispensible to the merchants and the nobility.  On campaigns, lords in need of money to pay their soldiers and buy necessities would pawn their plate and other valuables.  A king in need of money to pay for a war used Jewish merchants, until the rise of the great Italian banking families (such as the Visconti) in the "High Middle Ages."

For an excellent study on feudalism in all it's values and contradictions in practice, I suggest A Distant Mirror, by historian Barbara W. Tuchman.

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