What role did the institutions of Feudalism and Manorialism play in European society?

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Feudalism and manorialism were essentially the foundations upon which the Middle Ages was contrived. In the Middle Ages, the wealthy owned manors and had entire estates, while the poorest individuals, the serfs, had nothing to their name. So, in order to provide for themselves, the serfs would pledge their lives and servitude to a wealthy individual and would work the land on that individual's estate. In return, the landowner would receive their labor and the profits of the harvest.

These ideas are an act of reciprocity—where one party offers something in exchange for safety or provision from another party. This extended to the nobility and to knights, as individual knights (who were less impoverished than the serfs, but not quite as wealthy as the landowners) would pledge allegiance to the noblemen and would vow to protect them and fight on their behalf if there was ever a need for it, in exchange for food and lodging.

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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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