Status of merchants in feudal Europe

What was the status of merchants during the feudal age in Europe? Did they, like peasants, serve/have allegiance to certain land owning lord? If yes, do they have different status or privileges from usual peasants? Or are they free from allegiance? If the latter, how did they become free from feudal lords who were generally powerful?

Merchants during the feudal system, tended to be Jews or other "foreigners." Lombards, Genovese and Venetians, (from the most entrepreneurial parts of Italy), and Greeks, tended to perform this function in northern Europe, Dutch (and other western Europeans) in Eastern Europe, etc.

Merchants were basically independent of the feudal system, being neither landowners nor peasants. As such, they were regarded with suspicion by the local elites. Their main selling point was that they had good connections with foreigners who could help them procure scarce goods. Hence, they were likely to be "foreign" (rather than local) members of a given society; most locals would not want to take on such a "foreign" role, at least at home.

Merchants weren't particularly well respected, but they were tolerated, and were allowed to live a bit outside the usual rules because they performed an essential (trading) service.

Merchants usually raised from the people of the cities, that is craftsmen. They usually did not originate from the peasants and as such had no allegiance to the feudal lords.

They also could originate from the city aristocracy, especially in Italy.

First of all, peasants were not slaves or anything like that. They were essentially renting a given lend, and most often than not they came into this relationship volunteerly as free men. In many if not most lands and eras getting free from this relationship was actually possible, and peasants could move to another landlord. After bigger wars or diseases that killed large part of the population of a given area, settlers from other lands are often came to work on the empty land.

While the relationship of feudal landlords and peasant were not rosy, being landless (therefore independent from a landlord) was not difficult - being landless AND SURVIVE in an agriculture based society, that was difficult. For certain ethnics and religious were even forbidden by law to work as a peasant, e.g. Gypsies and Jews in Eastern Europe.

Back to your original question: There were all kind of different kind of merchants. Some could have special status, or altogether could form independent communities. Merchants generally formed guilds to control and regulate local trade and negotiate with authorities. As cities are natural market centers and trade-posts, these guilds could give much power to a city or town. Many cities had local independence or were independent states. Independent state means independent not only local feudal rulers, but independent from kings, having own legislation, army, etc. Such city states with elected civil leaders were actually very common along major trading routes (e.g. Venice and Italian city states), and these cities often formed alliances (The Hansa or the Strasbourg-Zurich-Bern-Basel alliance) to protect themselves.

History of European Jews in the Middle Ages

History of European Jews in the Middle Ages covers Jewish history in the period from the 5th to the 15th century. During the course of this period, the Jewish population gradually shifted from their homeland in the Levant to Europe, primarily Central Europe dominated by the Holy Roman Empire (which gave birth to the Ashkenazi ethnicity of Jews) or Southern Europe dominated by the Iberian kingdoms (which gave birth to the Sephardic ethnicity of Jews).

Jewish tradition traces the origins of the Jews to the 12 Israelite tribes, however most Jewish traditions state that modern Jews descend from Judea, Benjamin and Levi. As early as the Babylonian exile Jews, through exile under military constraint or otherwise, came to live in many other Middle Eastern countries, and later formed communities throughout the eastern Mediterranean lands, constituting collectively a Jewish diaspora. Their presence is attested in Greece from the fourth century BCE onwards in places as varied as Chios, Aegina, Attica and Rhodes [1] and in Italy as early as the 2nd century BCE. [2]

After the Siege of Jerusalem (70 CE), hundreds of thousands of Jews were taken as slaves to Rome, where they later immigrated to other European lands. The Jews who immigrated to Iberia, and their descendants comprise the Sephardic Jews, while those who immigrated to the German Rhineland and France comprise the Ashkenazi Jews. [3] European Jews were specialized within the economy as artisans, merchants, and money-lenders. [4] A significant depletion in their numbers in Western Europe began to take place with the rise of the Crusades, which brought about many pogroms and successive expulsion orders, in England (1290), France (14th century) and Spain (1492). With the end of the medieval age, a similar phenomenon was to repeat itself in the Italian peninsula and throughout most German towns and principalities in German-speaking lands in the sixteenth century. Large Yiddish speaking populations arose over these same centuries in Eastern Europe. By the 17th century a trickle back process began, with reverse migration back to central and western Europe, following pogroms in Ukraine (1648-1649). [5]

Merchants and Mechanics

European feudalism developed to train, equip, and support the knights who were the dominant instrument of war. Its institutions were well-suited to the conditions of the early middle ages: settlements that were small and scattered, but that provided some respite from the lawlessness that prevailed in the wilds between them markets that were limited, local, and dominated by barter ( here ). Feudal institutions were governed by custom, making them resistant to change. They fell away only when major changes to the social environment made them thoroughly obsolete. These changes were a long time coming. Some of them followed the slow rhythms of the Middle Ages, while others were swift and dramatic.

Europe Fills Up

Northern Europe in 800 AD was sparsely populated, with an economy based on scattered manors that were nearly self-sufficient, but its population was slowly growing. New manors were established in wilderness areas, and the older manors gradually absorbed the untamed lands that surrounded them. As the manors became more populous and less isolated, more goods were brought in and carried away by professional traders.

Differences in population density explain much of the additional trade. The frontier areas tended to exploit the forests: they produced timber, pitch, tar, and furs. The newly settled areas produced grain and other farm products. The older areas, where the population density was highest, tended to produce labour-intensive goods (such as woolen and linen cloth) rather than land-intensive goods. Each area sold its own goods in order to purchase the goods of the other areas.

This trade network spread through northern Europe and eventually linked with the Mediterranean trade network. The latter network involved trade between Italian city states (especially Genoa, Venice, and Pisa) and the Arab world. The Italian traders exchanged timber, iron, and wood and metal manufactured products for the luxury goods that the Arab traders had purchased in the lands abutting the Indian Ocean: spices, perfumes, ivory, silk. Northern Europe’s demand for these goods rose as it became wealthier and more populous.

The settlement of frontier lands led to strengthening commerce, the growth of cities (which tended to develop along trade routes), and increasingly specialized production. These trends continued through to the end of the 12th century, by which time little unsettled land remained.

Feudalism had been designed for a society in which only local markets existed and in which money transactions were relatively rare. The rise of commerce deepened the markets and made money trades increasingly common, but feudalism was slow to respond to these changes. The customary law that governed the manors was the serfs’ protection from overbearing lords. Any deviation from the law reduced the law’s authority, so the serfs tended to weigh the immediate benefit of a deviation against the longer term cost of the erosion of the law. They often resisted change because they believed that the cost outweighed the benefit.

The most significant change was the substitution of a fixed money payment for the serf’s labour obligation, leaving him free to work full-time on his own strips. Lords also began to lease out some of their lands for fixed money payments. These payments were incorporated into customary law, and did not fluctuate. In the Middle Ages,

prices and wages expressed a moral judgment of worth. Supply and demand were morally irrelevant. The modern concept of prices and wages as pragmatic devices for clearing markets and allocating resources, implying no moral judgment, came much later. 1

A money payment increasingly replaced a lord’s obligations to the king, as well as a lesser lord’s obligations to his overlord. Markets were now sufficiently deep that the king had no need to disperse his forces. He could instead have a standing army, which he would augment with mercenaries if the need arose. Although this innovation extinguished one of the manor’s major purposes, the manor itself continued for centuries.

The Night of Knights

The high cost of training, equipping and supporting a knight had been a key driver of the manor system. These costs were willingly incurred when the knight was the dominant weapon of war, but his dominance came to an end in the fourteenth century.

French knights were defeated by Flemish infantrymen in the Battle of Courtrai (1302). The knights were noblemen the infantrymen were townsmen who had been trained as militia units. The Flemish pike formations formed lines that the knights attacked but could not break. The Flemish forces then pushed the knights backward over rough ground. This retreat left the knights in some disorder, and many were isolated and killed by their foes.

Battle of Courtrai, 1302

Battles at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) pitted French knights against English longbowmen. The knights lost disastrously in both cases. The longbowmen were commoners who were brought into service only for the duration of a military campaign, whereas the knights had no other occupation and had to be continually supported. Longbowmen, like knights, required years of practice to develop their strength and skills, but their training was only an adjunct to their lives as farmers or tradesmen.

Battle of Agincourt, 1415

The Italians favoured the crossbow. Its construction was much more mechanical than that of a longbow, and crossbowmen could be quickly trained. Both the crossbow and the longbow could pierce armour. Plate armour evolved to minimize these threats, but the greater weight of the armour was a danger in itself. Many of the knights who died at Agincourt were knocked from their horses and lay helpless in the muddy fields until they were casually dispatched by foot soldiers.

The final blow for knighthood was the development of gunpowder weapons. Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, who were the first to use it as a weapon. The West learned about gunpowder in the middle of the thirteenth century (several hundred years after its invention), but there was parity between European and Chinese weapons by the early fourteenth century. 2 European gunpowder weapons evolved rapidly over the next century, with innovations in the projectile, in the cannon, and in gunpowder itself. By the middle of the fifteenth century, gunpowder weapons could determine the outcome of a battle. In 1453, for example, the forces of Joan of Arc defeated an English army from entrenched artillery positions.

The Black Death and Its Consequences

The population of Western Europe in 1300 was 73 million. The frontier era was over, as almost all of the arable land had been exploited. The large population meant that there was ample labour to work the land, leaving the landlords prosperous and the peasants poor. There is little reason to doubt the Malthusian prediction that further population growth would have immiserated the vast majority of the people. That population growth did not come. The population fell to 51 million by 1350, and did not fully recover until 1550.

There were several reasons for this decline. Europe’s food production in good years was sufficient to feed its population, but any crop failure led to famine. Crop failures occurred repeatedly during this time. In France alone there was widespread famine during the years 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315, 1322, 1325, 1330—4, 1344, 1349—51, 1358—61, 1371, 1374—5 and 1390. 3 Wars were also frequent, as incipient nation-states battled over borders. The biggest killer, though, was the Black Death.

The Black Death is the name given to the bubonic and pneumonic plagues that ravaged Eurasia during the fourteenth centuries. There is some uncertainty about the origins of the bacillus that caused these plagues, but it had established itself in the rodent population of the Asian steppes by the fourteenth century. It was carried both east and west by traders and by the Mongol armies. The plague reached China in the early part of the fourteenth century, killing something between a third and a half of its population. Central Asia and the Middle East were equally hard hit in the middle of the century: the death toll appears to have exceeded half of the population in some places.

The progress of the plague through Europe is particularly well documented. The Crimean port of Kaffa stood at the western end of the Silk Road, and was occupied by Genoan traders in the fourteenth century. The Golden Horde, attempting to drive out the Genoese, laid siege to the city in 1344. Its soldiers were devastated by the plague in 1347, and the plague reached the besieged city shortly
thereafter. 4 Italians fleeing Kaffa carried the disease to Constantinople, and then to Pisa, Venice and Genoa as they returned to their homes. The plague then jumped from port to port in the Mediterranean, and moved overland at a slower pace.

The death rate varied greatly from country to country and town to town, so it is difficult to estimate the overall European death rate. A conservative estimate is that one-third of Europe’s population had been killed by 1350. Some recent estimates exceed one-half. 5

Some of the less productive agricultural land was abandoned when the labour force collapsed. Total agricultural output fell (because there were fewer workers) but output per worker rose (because they were working better land). Since the number of manors did not change, each manor produced less than it did before. The manor lords tried to minimize their income losses by holding peasants to the wages and working conditions that had prevailed before the epidemic. The peasants, on the other hand, recognized that their work had become more valuable, and expected more favourable treatment from the lords. Although customary law held them to the manor, they were aware that they had options: they could join another manor (whose lord, desperate for labour, was unlikely to send them back), or join the migrant labour force that moved from manor to manor to meet the seasonal demand for labour. The peasants demanded better treatment, and the lords were generally unable to resist their demands. The wages of agricultural workers rose, and the serfs were able to reduce or eliminate many of their obligations to the lord. In some cases the lords chose to withdraw from direct management of the land, renting out their lands for cash. By the end of the fourteenth century, the land was almost exclusively farmed by labourers working for wages, or by free farmers who either paid rent or owned the land outright.

The overall impact of these changes was to convert land and labour into commodities whose prices, at least to some degree, reflected market conditions. This change, North and Thomas argue, reduced the gap between private and social valuations, making European economies more efficient.

North and Thomas note that this outcome was not inevitable. Russian lords faced the same shortage of labour, but they were more unified and more willing to use force. In the aftermath of the plague, the Russian serfs were reduced to virtual slavery, a situation that did not change until the Great Reforms of 1861. Russian serfdom, an institution that can be traced back to the eleventh century, survived into the age of the camera.


Feudalism had ceased to be an effective institution by the fifteenth century, but its imprint was visible in western Europe even in the eighteenth century. In England, for example, the land enclosures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were implemented to replace an inefficient allocation of agricultural land, a relic of feudalism, with a more efficient one. The distribution of income at the end of the sixteenth century was also a reflection of feudalism, with the economic elite being the owners of the major estates.

Although the vestiges of feudalism remained, western Europe was turning toward a market economy by the fifteenth century. Manufactured goods were becoming increasingly important, and so was trade.


Feudalism seemed to be either evolving or devolving over a period of centuries. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint when full feudalism arrived as a discrete, self–contained phenomenon. The essence of feudalism can be extracted from its historical examples, however, to reveal the theory behind the system.

Gender Roles

Feudalism was largely a male–dominated system. As lords and vassals, property holders at some level of the feudal pyramid, the relationship between superior and dependent almost always included only male parties. Women did not own land instead, they were considered property by most legal systems. Only a few women monarchs such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204) were exceptions to the rule. The military nature of the feudal order with its emphasis on personal combat and training further excluded women from the feudal system's hierarchy. For the most part, feudal decisions were male decisions.

That is not to say that women were not involved in the feudal order. From agricultural workers among the serfs to heroines of song and story, women's lives, like men, were woven inextricably into the feudal fabric. Although they did not hold specific official decision–making positions within the feudal hierarchy, women were indispensable in the related code of chivalry that supported and complemented feudalism. For example, the chaste and pious dictates of courtly love celebrated exemplars of feminine virtue by using them as the inspiration for quests, jousts, and good knightly deeds, as well as the focus for the protection of innocents. The Arthurian legends, which explored and refined chivalric themes, recognized women as powerful figures capable of extraordinary—and sometimes superhuman—acts of faith, magic, and even statecraft. Perhaps most importantly, the chivalric code opened opportunities for real women, as opposed to ideal or fictional ones, to gain fame as poets, artists, songwriters, and authors. The rebirth of arts associated with the age of chivalry allowed some gifted and visible women new opportunities for artistic recognition and self–expression.


Eleanor of Aquitaine

Perhaps the best–known woman of the feudal era, Eleanor of Aquitaine was the queen of two of the most powerful countries of the world in the Middle Ages and used her wealth and influence to patronize poets, artists, balladeers, and authors who created new interpretations of the code of chivalry.

Eleanor was the daughter and heiress of William X, Duke of Aquitaine. She married Louis VII and be came queen of France. Strong–willed and adventurous, she convinced her husband to allow her to accompany him and his troops to the Holy Land during the Second Crusade (1147–1149). In 1152, Eleanor and Louis received an annulment to their marriage and Eleanor wed Henry, duke of Normandy and count of Anjou, who soon became Henry II of England. Among their sons was Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionhearted, and John I. After an unsuccessful revolt against her husband Henry in 1173, Eleanor was held under house arrest until 1185. She backed Richard's bid for the throne after his father's death and helped maintain his position when he was captured during the Third Crusade (1190–1194). She also helped to orchestrate his eventual ransom and release. After Richard's death, Eleanor supported John's bid for the throne. She was active in court politics throughout her life and died five years after John took the throne of England.

Though a powerful political presence in the reigns of four different kings, Eleanor is best known as an enthusiast of the chivalric code, a patron of the arts and, as such, an inspiration in the development of the music, art, and literature of the feudal era. The queen supported authors such as Wace, Chrestien de Troyes, and quite probably Marie de France, among others, in their endeavors to glorify courtly manners and chivalric virtues. Through her example and her benevolence, Eleanor of Aquitaine became one of the chief architects of and inspirations for the feudal renaissance of arts.

Nevertheless, feudalism itself wore a distinctly male face. At its most basic, feudalism was local, personal, and hierarchical. All three of these characteristics sprang from the fact that the feudal system relied on the land as its basic building block. In feudal society, the monarch owned the land, but divided it

among his nobles, who in turn divided it among their supporters, who in turn divided it among their workers. This is known as a manorial system.

The Manorial System

The feudal contract In the manorial system, the land granted by a superior to his dependent was known as a fief. The dependent, or vassal, pledged his loyalty to his superior, also known as lord or suzerain, in a ceremony of homage. In this ceremony, like the earlier commendation, the vassal put his hands in his lord's hands and pledged his loyalty via an oath of fealty. In turn, the lord kissed the vassal and accepted his pledge. This practice served to make public the personal relationship between the lord and his vassal and sealed the feudal contract between the two. By pledging his loyalty, the vassal promised to fight for and defend his lord and lands, and also offer the lord part of his earnings from the land through gifts, percentages of crops, etc. The contract also bound the lord to give the vassal a fief for his sustenance, the individuals attached to the fief, and the promise of order (in this decentralized system, the lord served as the main instrument of justice, and thus heard disputes and decided sentences).

This feudal contract had several important characteristics. First, it was reciprocal. It bound both parties so each had duties and responsibilities toward the other. If one side did not follow through, the mutually beneficial relationship fell apart. Second, it was informal. The contract relied on self–interest—since each party had good reason to live up to the agreement—and an understood code of honor for enforcement. The values of chivalry, then, played a part in socializing lords and vassals to become good contract–keepers. Third, and perhaps most important, the contract was not exclusive: in fact, feudal contracts were stacked upon each other to create the feudal pyramid. In other words, the fact that one individual was lord to a vassal did not keep that same individual from being vassal to a greater lord at the same time, and so on.

The feudal pyramid This pyramid ended at its top with the king. Beneath him were his tenants–in–chief, counts and barons who had received their fiefs from the sovereign. Below the counts and barons were mesne–tenants, or vassals who received their fiefs from the counts and barons. Several levels of mesne–tenants might exist, each swearing oaths of fealty to the lords who gave them their fiefs. At the bottom of the pyramid were the villains, or serfs. The serfs remained attached by heredity to the land either by custom or law they performed agricultural labor on the land where their ancestors had worked, in the sections the serfs claimed as their own with the lord's permission, and the demesne, or the land the lord set aside for his own use. On the demesne, they owed their lords work in two forms: week–work, a specified number of days per year, and boon days, or periods of extra effort such as harvest time. Free serfs could move to another fief of their own accord if they chose, but servile serfs had to receive permission if they wished to leave the fief most serfs remained on the same land for generations.

The heart of the feudal system rested not at the top of the pyramid, with the king, but at the pyramid's base, on the land. Most people during the feudal era were peasants, either free or servile serfs. Their world, and the world of their immediate lords, revolved around the fief. The fief in its smallest form consisted of a manor. The lord retained the manor house and its surrounding demesne for the use of himself and his family. The rest of the fief land was divided. Serfs held the arable, land divided in a system decided by each individual lord (usually in small strips given to individual peasants on which to live and work). Serfs usually held the meadow in common. The lord traditionally retained ownership of the woodland, but allowed serfs to hunt, fish, and cut wood on the land as long as they compensated the lord when they used this privilege. In this manner, peasant and aristocrat, vassal and lord, coexisted on the land.

The legal system The manor served as the political and economic unit of the feudal system. Politically, the manor offered justice, protection, and administration. Each fief developed a set of manorial courts where disputes about property or crimes could be heard. The local lord or his agent presided over the justice system. The decisions made over time became precedents and served as a form of common law. In this way, the law evolved locally, tailored to address the specific concerns of the peasants, servants, and free people of a given fief. Each manorial court and its decisions might be somewhat different, but within each court, practices evolved and became standardized. Even if a king or overlord transferred a particular manor to another lord's control, the infrastructure of that manor, with its courts and conventions, remained intact. The king also maintained courts, but these heard only a small fraction of the cases in the land. The legal system of the Middle Ages, like feudalism itself, was largely decentralized and personal.

Terms of the feudal contract This system also provided for the rights of those on the land. Lords and vassals, by virtue of the feudal contract, had specific claims against each other: the lord had to provide sustenance and the vassal loyalty and protection. Serfs, too, had such claims. Even the servile serfs were not in fact slaves. Through the implied contract between manor lord and serf, recognized by the manorial court system, the lord expected goods from his workers— labor, loyalty, dues, payment for use of the lord's woodlands, etc.—but the lord also owed the serfs safety, sustenance, and basic human rights. In a sense, the manor system acted like a primitive insurance policy. In the good, productive times, serfs owed the lord of the manor fees, payments, and part of the fruits of their labors. If crop failure or illness plagued the manor's lands, however, the lord was expected to liquidate assets to provide for those who served him. A lord faced shame and public censure if he turned away from the chivalric code and behaved inappropriately moreover, if he lost his work force, he also faced financial ruin. Content and motivated serfs brought honor and material success to the lord.

The manor therefore served as the economic unit of the feudal system, as well. The economy of the Middle Ages revolved primarily around agriculture, and the manor oversaw and organized the farming of the land. Internal improvements—the building and repair of roads, bridges, dams, and other pathways for people and information—also took place at the manor level. Taxes and surveys, when taken, were funneled through the manor, as well. Many manor economies also included modest forms of small manufacturing such as the production of cloth, ironwear, and other staples needed for daily life. Self–sufficiency was a goal of the system, for at any time war or disease could cut the manor off from its neighbors and leave its tenants to provide for themselves.

The Church Intertwined with the manorial system was the Church. Its members were vassals to various lords, and therefore owed loyalty not only to the officials of the Church and the pope in Rome, but also to other lay leaders, as well. At the local level, the Church reinforced the feudal system by offering it instruction—including support of the code of chivalry—and charity, itself another form of insurance for the most humble of society. Through the Crusades and other events, the Church also remained involved with the final unit of the feudal system: the military.

Among the responsibilities of vassals to lords was the duty of defense. If a lord required military help, the vassal was sworn to respond. For the great lords who served even greater overlords and/or the king, the duty of defense meant more than appearing at a battle with a sword. These vassals owed their superiors forces, numbers of men, trained and fit and able to win a war. Kings, for example, asked tenants–in–chief for military support, and they in turn raised armies by calling on their pledged mesne–tenants. The result was private armies and career knights.

Knighthood Perhaps no single figure represents the Middle Ages to the modern mind more than the knight. Some were landholders, and others accepted fiefs in other forms, such as money or similar gifts. All required their own support staffs for training and help. Boys who expected to become knights, often sons of knights themselves, began their military apprenticeship as young children sent to the courts of lords or kings. There the pages, or young students, learned about weaponry, hunting, falconry, dogs, and the code of chivalry. By puberty, knights in training became squires. Each served a knight and learned firsthand about warfare and courtly society. By 21, squires with sufficient skill, reputation, and wealth could become knights.

For these men, trained for more than a decade before even reaching knighthood, war was a lifetime occupation. As various knights—and beneath them, common soldiers—were loyal to specific lords, a balance of power often emerged among the highest level of counts and barons. When this balance failed, internal fighting broke out until the medieval arms race returned to equilibrium. The high number of knights and military men who relied on the patronage of lords and/or kings led to war by necessity: if the forces existed, then they would find someone to fight. The military manpower was too expensive and time–consuming to maintain simply to leave it inactive. Thus war, external and civil, as well as invasions and boundary disputes typified the feudal age.

All of the ingredients of the feudal system served to make society local, personal, and hierarchical. The manor, the smallest unit of feudal society, served key political and economic roles by providing justice, protection, administration, and a primitive form of insurance. The church and the military, bound to the feudal system as well, had their own forms of hierarchy between superiors and dependents. All of the relationships that built the feudal pyramid from its base to its point relied on two key ingredients to hold the contract together: self–interest, backed by the knowledge that both sides had to meet their obligations for each side to benefit and honor, fueled by the values of the code of chivalry. These motivations did not always ensure that all interactions were ideal, but they did form the enduring backbone of feudalism for centuries.

Literature of the Feudal Era

Since feudalism was an evolved system, developed over centuries through local, decentralized, informal precedents, rather than an implemented system, in which leaders devised a plan and then set in place, major writings on feudalism did not appear before or even during the development of the system instead, they appeared after feudalism was in widespread practice. Perhaps the most important writings were not the examinations of the feudal system and the celebrations of the code of chivalry, but the modest contracts between lords and vassals, the granting of benefits and similar transactions. One of the most lasting impacts of the feudal era is the concept of the contract.

Otherwise, feudalism did not have theorists as much as it had commentators, or thinkers who observed the system after its development and remarked upon it, practitioners, or those who used its rhetoric to further their own goals, and artists, or those who expressed the values and conflicts of feudalism through fiction, song, and other media. Perhaps one of the best writings to exemplify feudalism in practice is Bernard of Clairvaux's "Letter to Pope Eugenius III." Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), or Saint Bernard, was a French mystic, orator, and leader of the Cistercian order of monks. He also was a political figure who made many journeys for peacekeeping, charity, and reform. In approximately 1146, Bernard wrote to his friend Pope Eugenius III to encourage the Pope's faith and action in the Second Crusade and its goal to take Jerusalem under Christian control. In the letter, the feudal interrelationship of the Church and state is clear: Bernard wants the Pope to launch a military campaign and gather lay leaders behind its banner. The influence of chivalric thought is also evident—Bernard praises courage, criticizes cowardice, and underscores the values of faithfulness and spirituality:

The news is not good, but is sad and grave. And sad for whom? Rather, for whom is it not sad! Only for the sons of wrath, who do not feel anger, nor are they saddened by sad events, but rejoice and exult in them…. I tell you, such a general and serious crisis is not an occasion to act tepidly nor timidly. I have read [in the book of] a certain wise man: 'He is not brave whose spirit does not rise in difficulty.' And I would add that a faithful person is even more faithful in disaster. The waters have risen to the soul of Christ, and touch the very pupil of his eye. Now, in this new suffering of our Lord Christ, we must draw the swords of the first Passion…. An extraordinary danger demands an extraordinary effort. The foundation is shaken, and imminent ruin follows unless resisted. I have written boldly, but truthfully for your sake…. But you know all of this, it is not for me to lead you to wisdom. I ask humbly, by the love you particularly owe me, not to abandon me to human caprice but ask eagerly for divine counsel, as particularly incumbent upon you, and work diligently, so that as His will is done in heaven, so it will be on earth.

Bernard's writings, such as his influential letters to Pope Eugenius III embody the very soul of feudalism. Eugenius III and other officials listened to Bernard's advice. The Church appreciated Bernard's outspoken example as a leader of his day, and in 1170, only 17 years after his death, Bernard was canonized.

If Bernard's work represents the religious end of feudalistic writings, then the work of John of Salisbury represents the political theory of the period. John of Salisbury (1120?–1180) studied in France under some of the greatest minds of the era: Peter Abelard, William of Conches, and Thierry of Chartres, among others. He was the secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury for years and Bishop of Chartres for the last four years of his life. John is best known for two works of political scholarship, both of which were influential among scholastic philosophers in his own day. Metalogicus (1159) painted a portrait of scholarly life, criticized educational practices, and explored the debates of teaching methods and theories. John's work marked him as a humanist, a thinker concerned with the betterment of humankind through reason and learning.

His second work, also completed in 1159, was Policraticus: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers. In this treatise on government John set out the criteria by which political systems should be judged. He used the familiar metaphor of the human body to show how all parts of the political body should work together in harmony and reciprocity, thus satisfying natural law, divine will, and the general good. Policraticus, arguably the first work of medieval political theory, strengthened the core of feudalism with its praise of balance, mutual obligation, and loyalty between superiors and their dependents:

None the less, in order to address generally each one and all, they are not to exceed the limits, namely, law, and are to concentrate on the public utility in all matters. For inferiors must serve superiors, who on the other hand ought to provide all necessary protection to their inferiors. For this reason, Plutarch says that what is to the advantage of the humbler people, that is, the multitude, is to be followed for the fewer always submit to the more numerous. Therefore, magistrates were instituted for the reason that injuries might be averted and the republic itself might put shoes, as it were, on its workers. For when they are exposed to injuries it is as if the republic is barefoot there can be nothing more ignominious for those who administer the magistracies. Indeed, an afflicted people is like proof and irrefutable demonstration of the ruler's gout. The health of the whole republic will only be secure and splendid if the superior members devote themselves to the inferiors and if the inferiors respond likewise to the legal rights of their superiors, so that each individual may be likened to a part of the others reciprocally…

Bernard of Clairvaux's letter and John of Salisbury's treatise, one a glimpse of feudal thought in action and the other a window into feudal thought in theory, represent the non–fiction writings of the era. The High Middle Ages, however, was known as a renaissance in poetry, music, and fiction. Perhaps the most long–lived contribution of the age is the birth of Arthurian literature. One of the earliest examples of King Arthur's exploits appeared in the tenth– or eleventh–century collection known as The Black Book of Carmathen. The author and exact date of the work is unknown, but the impact of it and its Arthurian contemporaries cannot be overestimated. Not only did the stories entertain, but they also instructed readers in the political tenets of feudalism and the corresponding values of chivalry.

In one poem, a dialogue between Arthur and a porter known as Glewlwyd Mighty–grip, Arthur introduces his men and, with them, the traits he prizes in them: fearlessness, wisdom, and faithfulness. His men have fulfilled their obligation to him by fighting for him and counseling him. In return, Arthur is looking after his duty toward them, reminding Glewlwyd that "a lord would protect them." Arthur is portrayed as a proper lord with worthy dependents who honor the feudal contract with their superior. The reciprocal relationship they share is personal and affectionate, and it encourages the chivalric virtues in them all. When readers thrilled to the adventures of the king and his knights, they also received instruction on the complex relationships of the feudal system.

[Glewlwyd:] Who comes with you? [Arthur:] The best men in the world. [Glewlwyd:] To my house you will not come unless you deliver them [Arthur:] I shall deliver them and you will see them. Wythnaint, Elei, and Sywyon, these three Mabon son of Modron, servant of Uther Pendragon, Cystaint son of Banon, And Gwyn Godybrion harsh were my servants in defending their rights. Manawydan son of Lyr, profound was his counsel. Manawyd carried off Shields pierced and battle–stained. And Mabon son of Mellt stained the grass with blood. And Anwas the Winged and Lluch of the Striking Hand, they were defending on the borders of Eidyn. A lord would protect them my nephew would give them recompense.

Later in the Middle Ages the tone of works began to deviate from fictional and non–fictional positive, unapologetic views of feudalism. Books such as Brunetto Latini's The Book of Treasure (1266) and John Wyclif's On the Duty of the King (1379) and later works by Christine de Pisan and Machiavelli, among others, shifted the emphasis from chivalric virtues and reciprocal obligations among the people to focus on the power of the king. This shift ushered in a new era of nation–states with powerful monarchs and bring an end to the Middle Ages and its system of feudalism.

Bernard of Clairvaux, John of Salisbury, and The Black Book of Carmathen all illuminated some aspect of feudalism as a political system. One document, however, embodied feudalism more than any other: the Magna Carta, or The Great Charter of English Liberty Decreed by King John. John did not originate the idea of the charter on the contrary, he signed it under compulsion from his barons and the Church in 1215. The impulse for the combined lay and religious demand for the compact rested squarely in feudal thought. The King, as the greatest lord in the country, still owed duties and responsibilities to his vassals. The barons and Church forced John, who extended his powers whenever possible, to recognize his obligations and to place himself under the same law as his subjects. The claims against John flowed directly from the notion of the feudal contract. John's signature not only reinstated the monarch's acceptance of his feudal relationships, but it also paved the way for the English and U.S. constitutions.

60. Moreover all the subjects of our realm, clergy as well as laity, shall, as far as pertains to them, observe, with regard to their vassals, all these aforesaid customs and liberties which we have decreed shall, as far as pertains to us, be observed in our realm with regard to our own….

63. Wherefore we will and firmly decree that the English church shall be free, and that the subjects of our realm shall have and hold all the aforesaid liberties, rights and concessions, duly and in peace, freely and quietly, fully and entirely, for themselves and their heirs, from us and our heirs, in all matters and in all places, forever, as has been said. Moreover it has been sworn, on our part as well as on the part of the barons, that all these above mentioned provisions shall be observed with good faith and without evil intent. The witnesses being the above mentioned and many others. Given through our hand, in the plain called Runnimede between Windsor and Stanes, on the fifteenth day of June, in the seventeenth year of our reign.

Even the Magna Carta, which captured a feudal moment in time while also anticipating later constitutional theory, could not halt the European evolution toward powerful monarchs ruling centralized nation–states. Even as John agreed to the demands of the barons and the Church, the days of the Middle Ages were numbered.

What was the social status of merchants in Medieval Europe?

Location: North West & Central Europe (France/Germany/Britain & nearby areas).

Were merchants able to intermarry with nobles? Did they have the ear of the ruler? Did their class concerns get addressed? Were they ever given prominent government positions? Did they send some of their sons to the clergy? Could they become high ranking clergymen?

They were respected and well-off, but nobles looked down on them somewhat. For instance, if the son of a noble really wanted to, he could sell things as a merchant( cloth, grain, wine, etc) but this would cause them to lose noble privileges, so a merchant marrying a noble would be not very likely. They weren't close with the King unless they worked solely for him(the King would likely have his own vineyards, etc). Merchants could be rich, the ones trading expensive exotic spices for instance- but a lot of them were very well-off. And merchants could absolutely send a son to the clergy. However, they themselves becoming a high ranking clergy member is extremelyunlikely- they were already settled in as merchants and that is what they were. Can you imagine the time and devotion it would take to become, say, a bishop? Hope this helps and sorry for the wall of text

EDIT: sources. A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara W. Tuchman. Growing up in Medieval England, Barbara A. Hanawalt. Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England, Dr. Ian Mortimer

Medieval Castle Defense and Assault

The feudal system depended on protecting farms and the countryside, and the key to a kingdom’s defense was its castle. Likewise, taking over a kingdom meant conquering its castles, and doing so was the most challenging aspect of medieval warfare.

The main methods of attacking a Medieval Castle were:

  • Fire
  • Battering Rams
  • Ladders
  • Catapults
  • Mining
  • Siege

Fire was the best way to attack the early Motte and Bailey castles since they were made entirely of wood. The fire might be started by building a bonfire against the outer wooden fence (palisade) or, more usually, by archers shooting fire-arrows into the castle. As the fire spread through the castle those living inside would be forced to leave allowing the attackers to take them prisoner or kill them. This was one of the reasons why Motte and Bailey castles were soon replaced by Stone Keep castles. Fire has little effect on a stone castle.

Battering Ram

The thick stone walls of the Stone Keep castles were difficult for men to knock down. Although pickaxes could be used against castles with thinner walls, it would take a very long time to knock a hole through a castle with very thick walls. The battering ram was particularly useful since the weight of several men would be put behind it. This would make it a considerable force that could seriously weaken and possibly destroy doors or walls.


Ladders were used by those attacking a castle to climb over the walls and fight the castle inhabitants within the castle walls. However, ladders had the disadvantage of leaving the man climbing the ladder subject to attack by arrow, boiling water or oil, or by being thrown to the ground if the ladder was pushed away from the wall. To prevent this type of attack the Belfry or Siege Tower was developed.

The Belfry was a large structure on wheels that could be pushed up to the castle walls. Ladders inside the Belfry allowed attackers to climb to the top under cover and get into the castle. Castle owners prevented this type of attack by piling earth up against the castle walls so that the Belfry, which was on wheels, could not be pushed near to the castle.


A variety of catapults or siege engines were developed during the Middle Ages to fire stones, fireballs or other objects such as dead sheep, cattle, or plague victims, at the castle walls or into the castle itself. This type of catapult works by twisting rope as tightly as possible so that it acts like elastic when the arm is released.


A good way of attacking a stone castle was through mining. Attackers would dig a tunnel underground up to the castle walls, under the gatehouse if possible. They would then set a charge and make an explosion which would make the walls crumble and collapse. The advantage of mining was that the attack could not be seen by those living in the castle. However, if those inside the castle were aware that attackers were mining underground, they would often mine from the castle to meet the attackers underground and there would be a sword battle.


Another good way of attacking a stone castle was by placing it under siege. Attackers would surround a castle with both men and catapults so that no one could enter or leave the castle. Sieges could last for months, usually until the inhabitants of the castle ran out of food and were starving. One of the castle owner’s main line of defence against siege was to send all women, children, old, weak and sick people out of the castle. This meant that only those strong enough to fight off attackers remained in the castle and that the food supply would last much longer.

The Status of Women in Medieval Europe

Castle Eltz, one of the most famous and beautiful medieval castles in Germany.
(Image: Julia700702/Shutterstock)

Civil Law and Marriage in Medieval Europe

Women in Medieval Europe were legally dependent on their husbands. In the scope of civil law, women were restricted from signing contracts, being witnesses in court, or borrowing money in their names. All of these had to be carried out under the legal authority of their husbands. In short, married women were considerably dependent on their spouses. Interestingly, these restrictions existed in many European countries until very recently.

Perhaps, you’ll be surprised to know that these laws did not apply to unmarried adult females, who were allowed to sign contracts, borrow money, and do the things that one would expect of a legally responsible adult. This was quite a significant advantage compared to the Roman Empire. In that era, all women, regardless of their marital status and age, needed a male guardian.

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Businesswomen in medieval Europe were able to protect their assets if they were in a trade that was different from that of their husbands. As an example, if a woman was working as a tailor and her husband was a brewer, their assets were completely separate from each other. Therefore, if the husband faced bankruptcy, his wife had no legal responsibility to pay his creditors. The term femme sole (literally “woman alone”) was coined to describe these women.

Criminal Law and the Capital Punishment

As opposed to civil law, a woman’s marital status never mattered to criminal law. In other words, when a married woman committed a crime, she was subject to the same penalties as an unmarried one. The only exception was in the case of pregnancy: pregnant women were exempt from execution or any kind of torture. In addition, regardless of their marital status, all women were exempted from certain forms of torture by medieval courts. For example, women could not be broken on the wheel.

Place of execution of criminals in medieval Europe—chopping block and gallows on a wooden platform. (Image: Zhuravlev Andrey/Shutterstock)

In some cases, the judicial system in the High Medieval Ages treated female offenders more leniently. For example, same-sex relationships, which carried the death penalty for men, were no crime at all for women because such a relationship did not affect human reproduction.

Women who were found guilty of a capital offense were not so lucky though. In fact, they had to suffer the most brutal and painful type of executions in that era: burning at the stake. Unlike men who were sentenced to different kinds of execution depending on the severity of their crimes, female execution took only one form.

Contemporaries claimed this was necessary for the preservation of female modesty, because other forms of execution were deemed unbecoming of women. Although there may be some truth to this justification, modern historians have identified misogyny, as well as a deep-rooted suspicion and dislike of women on the part of males, as the root cause of this practice.

Politics and Women in Medieval Europe

Politically, women were able to rise to the highest levels of sovereignty. They could become queens and rule over kingdoms, or become regents and rule in the name of a minor child. Whether a woman was a queen or a regent, ruling either temporarily or permanently, her powers were not different from those of a male ruler.

This equality of powers was only because medieval politics were dynastic. In other words, offices passed down from fathers to sons. Therefore, in the absence of a legitimate male heir, an office could fall into the hands of a woman. This applied to both kingdoms and smaller political units. Counties passed among family members, duchies, and even castellanies – areas controlled by a single castellan, 15 or 20 miles in radius. In rare cases, these areas were ruled by women.

However, women in Medieval Europe were completely absent in public political roles. This was mainly because medieval towns followed a more republican form of government in which officials were elected and served for a set term. Therefore, a woman could not inherit a political office. The situation only changed in recent times. Ironically, democracy has been very unfriendly to female participation throughout history.

Economics and (Almost) Equal Opportunities

In Medieval Europe, women were relatively active in the marketplace. A survey of 100 guilds in Paris in 1300 showed that 86 percent were willing to admit female workers. Although some companies required permission from the woman’s husband, getting a job was not impossible.

There was also some sense of equality in terms of training. Female professionals were able to train apprentices regardless of their gender. No one seemed to think that a woman training a man was odd.

Sculpture of a nun on the facade of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain. (Image: Roman Belogorodov/Shutterstock)

Religion and Nunneries in Medieval Europe

It is reasonable to expect similar trends in religious settings, where women were absent in some areas and yet actively involved in others. For example, monasticism was prevalent among women. Woman could easily choose to become nuns and live in a nunnery. They could even rise through the ranks and one day command a nunnery. Back in the Middle Ages, convents were large organizations with various affairs and housed dozens of people. So, being the head of a nunnery allowed women to exert power over others. This power was especially appealing to high-born women who could not reach a status of authority in any other way.

However, women could never enter the realms of the priesthood. In other words, they were not allowed to take the position of a ‘secular clergy’ as they were non-ordained members of a church who did not live in a religious institute and did not follow specific religious rules.

Common Questions About the Status of Women in Medieval Europe

There was a large extent of inequality between men and women in Medieval Europe . Women did not have the right to vote or to choose whether they wanted to marry, have children, or even work in some instances.

Women in the Middle Ages were able to work as a craftswoman, own a guild, and earn money in their own ways. They could also divorce their husbands under certain conditions. Many outstanding female authors, scientists, and business owners lived during that age.

Women in medieval Europe were able to work in the majority of guilds. Other than being wives or mothers, they often chose to become artisans or nuns.

Most women in the Middle Ages wore kirtles, ankle-to-floor length dresses that were made of dyed linen. Among the peasant women, wool was a more favorable and affordable option. Women’s clothing also consisted of an undertunic called smock or chemise.


Feudalism was the system in 10th-13th century European medieval societies where a social hierarchy was established based on local administrative control and the distribution of land into units (fiefs). A landowner (lord) gave a fief, along with a promise of military and legal protection, in return for a payment of some kind from the person who received it (vassal).

The payment of the vassal to the lord typically came in the form of feudal service which could mean military service or the regular payment of produce or money. Both lord and vassal were freemen and the term feudalism is not generally applied to the relationship between the unfree peasantry (serfs or villeins) and the person of higher social rank on whose land they laboured.


Problems of Definition

Although the term 'feudalism' and 'feudal society' are commonly used in history texts, scholars have never agreed on precisely what those terms mean. The terms were applied to European medieval society from the 16th century onwards and subsequently to societies elsewhere, notably in the Zhou period of China (1046-256 BCE) and Edo period of Japan (1603-1868). The term feudalism was not used by the people who lived in the Middle Ages. Neither can the feudal system, once defined, be applied uniformly across different European states as there were variations in laws and customs in different geographical areas and in different centuries. As a consequence, many historians beleive that the term feudalism is only of limited use in understanding medieval societies.

The Oxford English Dictionary has as concise a definition for feudalism as anywhere while still including its various levels of application:


The dominant social system in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord's land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.

Origins of Feudalism

The word 'feudalism' derives from the medieval Latin terms feudalis, meaning fee, and feodum, meaning fief. The fee signified the land given (the fief) as a payment for regular military service. The system had its roots in the Roman manorial system (in which workers were compensated with protection while living on large estates) and in the 8th century kingdom of the Franks where a king gave out land for life (benefice) to reward loyal nobles and receive service in return. The feudal system proper became widespread in Western Europe from the 11th century onwards, largely thanks to the Normans as their rulers carved up and dished out lands wherever their armies conquered.

Lords & Vassals

Starting from the top of society's pyramid, the monarch – a good example is William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087) who considered all the lands of England as his personal property – could give a parcel of land (of no fixed size) to a noble who, in return, would be that monarch's vassal, that is he would promise loyalty and service when required. Thus, a personal bond was created. The most common and needed service was military service. Military obligations included fighting in that monarch's army or protecting assets of the Crown such as castles. In some cases, a money payment (known as scutage), which the monarch then used to pay mercenary soldiers, might be offered instead of military service. The vassal received any income from the land, had authority over its inhabitants and could pass the same rights on to his heirs.

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The nobles who had received land, often called suzerain vassals, could have much more than they either needed or could manage themselves and so they often sub-let parts of it to tenant vassals. Once again, the person was given the right to use and profit from this land and in return, in one form or another, then owed a service to the landowner. This service could again take the form of military service (typical in the case of a knight) or, as tenants might be of a lower social class (but still be freemen) and they might not have had the necessary military skills or equipment, more usually they offered a percentage of their revenue from the land they rented (either in money or produce) or, later in the Middle Ages, made a fixed payment of rent. There were also irregular special fees to be paid to the lord such as when his eldest daughter married or his son was knighted.

The arrangement which created a vassal was known as 'homage' as they often knelt before their particular feudal lord and swore an oath of loyalty, for which, in return, they not only received the land but also their lord's protection if and when required. The promise of protection was no small matter in times of war, when there were frequent raids from hostile neighbouring states, and when there was a perpetual danger of general banditry. Protection also came in the form of legal support and representation if a vassal found himself in a civil or church court. A tenant usually handed down their tenancy to their heir although it was sometimes possible to sell the right of tenancy to a third party, provided the lord who owned the land agreed.


Another type of relationship in feudal societies, especially in medieval Germany and France, involved the allod, an inalienable property, i.e. one that could not be taken back. Holders of an allod still owed some form of allegiance to a superior local lord but the relationship was not based on land ownership and so that allegiance was harder to enforce.

The feudal system perpetuated itself as a status quo because the control of land required the ability to perform military service and, because of the costs involved (of weapons, armour and horses), land was required to fund military service. Thus there was a perpetual divide between the landed aristocracy (monarchs, lords, and some tenants) and those who worked the land for them who could be free or unfree labourers. Unfree labourers were serfs, also known as villeins, who were at the bottom of the social pyramid and who made up the vast majority of the population. The peasantry worked, without pay, on the land owned or rented by others to produce food for themselves and, just as importantly, food and profit for their masters. They were often treated as little more than slaves and could not leave the estate on which they lived and worked. The term feudalism, however, is generally applied by modern historians only to the relationship between lords and vassals, and not the peasantry. Rather, the relationship between serf and landowner or tenant is referred to as the manorial system after the most common unit of land, the 'manor'.

Consequences & Effects

The consequence of the feudal system was the creation of very localised groups of communities which owed loyalty to a specific local lord who exercised absolute authority in his domain. As fiefs were often hereditary, a permanent class divide was established between those who had land and those who rented it. The system was often weighted in favour of the sovereign as when a noble died without an heir, his estate went back to the monarch to either keep for themselves or to redistribute to another noble. Monarchs could distribute land for political purposes, fragmenting a noble's holdings or distancing him from the court. It also became difficult to keep track of who owned what which led to such controls as Domesday Book of 1087.


Additional effects were the presence of vassals in the local courts which deliberated on cases involving the estates of their lords. Thus, there could be a clear conflict of interest and lack of impartiality, even if the more serious criminal cases were referred to the courts of the Crown.

In addition, the system of feudal relationships could create serious unrest. Sometimes a monarch might insist on active military service because of a war but nobles might also refuse, as happened to King John of England in 1215 and the Barons' Revolt which led to the signing of the Magna Carta. In 1215, and in subsequent revolts in the 13th century, the barons were acting collectively for their own interests which was a direct threat to the entire system of feudalism, based as it was upon single lords and vassals working out their own private arrangements. Military service was reduced to fixed terms, typically 40 days in England, in an effort to reduce the burden on nobles so that they did not leave their lands unattended for too long. However, 40 days was not usually enough to see out a campaign and so a monarch was obliged to pay mercenaries, dealing another blow to the tradition of feudalism and vassalage.


Decline of Feudalism

Medieval feudalism was essentially based on the relationship of reciprocal aid between lord and vassal but as that system became more complex over time, so this relationship weakened. Lords came to own multiple estates and vassals could be tenants of various parcels of land so that loyalties became confused and even conflicting with people choosing to honour the relationship that suited their own needs best.

Another blow to the system came from sudden population declines caused by wars and plagues, particularly the Black Death (which peaked between 1347-1352), and by peasant revolts (most famously in England in 1381). Such crises caused a chronic shortage of labour and the abandonment of estates because there was no one to work them. The growth of large towns and cities also saw labour leave the countryside to find a better future and the new jobs available there.

By the 13th century, the increase in commerce and the greater use of coinage changed the way the feudal system worked. Money allowed feudal lords to pay their sovereign instead of performing military service the monarch's use of mercenaries then meant military service, and thus the barons themselves became less important to the defence of the realm. Conversely, a monarch could now distribute money instead of land in his system of rewards. A rich merchant class developed with no ties of loyalty to anyone except their sovereign, their suppliers and their customers. Even serfs could sometimes buy their freedom and escape the circumstances into which they were born. All of these factors conspired to weaken the feudal system based on land ownership and service even if feudalism would continue beyond the medieval period in some forms and in some places.

The Hanseatic Trading Empire

Feeding Europe’s consumer boom:7 products that greased the wheels of the Hanseatic trade network

Pepper was often sourced from southern Europe or markets like Bruges and then supplied by Hanseatic merchants across its northern network. The Danzig merchants based at King’s Lynn in England were known locally as pepper sacks’.

Grain was collected from farmland around Baltic river systems and supplied to great cities of northern Europe. The Baltic grain trade remained significant for Europe until the opening of the American prairie markets in the 19th century.

Hanseatic traders brought together fish from the Baltic Sea and salt from cities such as Kiel on the Baltic coast. This enabled the preservation of fish and its distribution to those observing the religious rules of eating fish on Fridays. The image, left, shows a fishmonger gutting herring in the 15th century. Hanseatic networks distributed hops from central and eastern Europe, spreading ideas too about how brewing methods could be improved. This helped reinforce, it’s been argued, the dividing line between beer-drinking northern Europe and the wine-drinking south.

Timber and wood products were a highly significant Hanseatic product, brought from areas around the Baltic to western European trading markets like Antwerp and Bruges.

Wax was transported to the west from Russia and Poland, which may have given us the word ‘polishing’. Sweet-smelling beeswax candles (shown, right, being sold in the 14th century) were in high demand for lighting, and for ecclesiastical use.

Medieval Food for Peasants

The consumables of a peasant was often limited to what came from his farm, since opportunities for trade were extremely limited except if he lived near a large town or city.

The peasants’ main food was a dark bread made out of rye grain. They ate a kind of stew called pottage made from the peas, beans and onions that they grew in their gardens. Their only sweet food was the berries, nuts and honey that they collected from the woods.

Peasants did not eat much meat. Many kept a pig or two but could not often afford to kill one. They could hunt rabbits or hares but might be punished for this by their lord.

The difference in medieval food consumed between peasants and lords can even be seen in the food vocabulary of English today. The lowered status of the defeated English after the French Norman Conquest of 1066 can be seen clearly in the vocabulary of meat. An Anglophone farmer used plain Saxon words for his livestock: cow, pig, sheep, chicken. Any animal eaten by a peasant had the same word used for whether the animal was alive or cooked.

But when these animals were butchered and found their way onto his Norman master’s plate, they acquired French-derived names: beef, pork, mutton.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the medieval period. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Middle Ages.

Watch the video: Merchants in the Middle Ages (January 2022).