I begin a five-part series debunking common misconceptions about the
Middle Ages. In this series I will look at 1) Autocratic Kings and
Oppressed Subjects, 2)
Brutal Barons and Illiterate Knights, 3) Serfs like Slaves, 4)
Clerical Ignorance and Bigotry, and 5) Widespread Filth and Disease.
Feudalism evolved because in the early feudal period life was very uncertain and only powerful men had the resources to build castles and hire fighting men to protect ordinary peaceful farmers. Those peaceful farmers, often the descendants of slaves agreed to till the land in exchange for being protected by their feudal lord from bandits, raiders, and enemies. Knights too entered a contract with a lord, but rather than tilling the soil, they brought service with horse, sword, and lance. The important point was that they did this in exchange for land (a fief) which gave them both income and status. Although at the top of the pyramid the contract is most difficult to grasp because the power relationships between kings and their vassals were not always straight-forward (e.g. Henry Plantagenet and Louis VII of France), in theory it too entailed loyalty on the part of the vassal (baron) in exchange for good-governance by the king.
A major criticism that came up again and again in English history, for example, was the failure of a king to consult his barons, i.e. to prefer his “favorites” (who were often men of lower birth) to his “natural” advisors, i.e. the great magnets/barons of the realm. This epitomizes the contractual nature of feudal oaths: while barons pledged to advise the king, in return he pledged to consult his barons. This obligation on the part of the king to consult with his barons was the basis of Parliament in England, the High Court in Jerusalem, and the Curia Regis in France.
This leads us to another important feudal concept: the right to judgment by one’s peers. What this meant was that, although a seigniorial officer presided over a court, the judgment itself was given by a jury composed of people from the defendant’s own class. The idea that a lord could legally order punishment without a trial is erroneous. Of course, the operative word here is “legally.” Men with power often act illegally, and in an age where wealth and weapons were generally held in the same hands, it was particularly easy to abuse power. Yet it is still important to remember medieval justice was jury justice ― still common in the Anglo-Saxon world but replaced across most of Europe with justice handed down by trained judges, who rarely share the social status, background or problems of the defendants.
Feudalism ended slowly as powerful monarchs across Europe gradually consolidated their power at the expense of their barons and then evolved an ideology, “the divine right of kings,” to justify their usurpation of power. The concept of “the divine right of kings” ended the notion of a contract between ruler and subjects, and replaced it with the idea that the kings derived their power directly from God. While history books still tend to describe this as “progress,” it was in fact regressive. It weakened the checks-and-balances on the abuse of royal power that had been inherent in the feudal system.