Changes in European Institutions Review for AP World History
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Manorialism and Feudalism in Western Europe
Even before the fall of the Roman Empire, declining prosperity in the final years of the empire had caused small landowners to sell off their land holdings to the owners of large estates. Although some peasants relocated to urban areas, others remained to work the land, receiving protection from their landlords in exchange for their agricultural labor. As trade continued to decline and political order disintegrated, manorialism became more widespread. When a wave of Vikings from Scandinavia invaded Europe in the ninth century, Western Europeans turned to feudalism to provide a means of protection.
Feudalism was a political, economic, and social system. Throughout most areas of Western Europe, nobles or landlords offered benefices, or privileges, to vassals in exchange for military service in the lord's army or agricultural labor on the lord's estate. Often the benefice was a grant of land, called a fief. Feudalism was structured so that a person could enjoy the position of a noble with vassals under him and, at the same time, serve as vassal to a noble of higher status. Knights, similar in their role to the samurai of Japan, were vassals who served in the lord's military forces. Like the samurai, the knights of Western Europe followed an honor code called chivalry. In contrast to the samurai code of bushido, however, chivalry was a reciprocal, or two-sided, contract between vassal and lord. Whereas the code of bushido applied to both men and women of the samurai class, chivalry as followed only by the knights.
Occupying the lowest rank on the medieval European manor were serfs, whose labor provided the agricultural produce needed to maintain the self-sufficiency of the manor. The life of serfs was difficult. In addition to giving the lord part of their crops, they had to spend a number of days each month working the lord's lands or performing other types of labor service for the lord. The agricultural tools available to them were crude; only after the invention of the heavy moldboard plow in the ninth century did they possess a tool adequate to turn the heavy sod of Western Europe. Serfdom was different from slavery; serfs could not be bought or sold and could pass on their property to their heirs.
The Beginnings of Regional Governments
At the same time that feudalism provided protection to the inhabitants of Western Europe, the people known as the Franks rose in prominence in the region of present-day northern France, western Germany, and Belgium. The Franks were the descendants of the Germanic tribe that overran Gaul (present-day France) after the fall of Rome. By the fifth century, the Franks had converted to Christianity. From the time of the ninth century onward, some areas of Western Europe saw the strengthening of regional kingdoms such as that of the Franks.
Rulers of northern Italy and Germany also gained prominence by the tenth century. Eventually, in an effort to connect with the classical empire of Rome, they began to call their territory the Holy Roman Empire. As the French philosopher Voltaire later commented, however, it was "neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire." The new empire was but a fraction of the size of the original empire of the Romans. In spite of its grand claims, northern Italy continued to be organized into independent city-states, and Germany into numerous local states also overseen by feudal lords. While providing a measure of unity for a portion of Europe during the Middle Ages, the long-term political effect of the Holy Roman Empire was to delay the unification of both Germany and Italy into separate states until the end of the nineteenth century.
In England an alternate form of feudalism took hold as a result of the Norman invasion of 1066. In that year the Duke of Normandy, later called William the Conqueror, arrived in England from his province of Normandy in northern France. Of Viking descent, William transplanted his form of feudalism to England. Rather than following a complex structure of lords and vassals, William imposed a feudal structure that required all vassals to owe their allegiance directly to the monarch.
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