Mounted Knights, Chivalry, Vassalage, Feudalism and Monarchy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 5th, 2012

Politics 101

Vassalage bonded the Knight and the Lord together in Mutual Obligations

After the collapse of the Roman Empire land was everything.  You either held land.  Or took land.  Both of which you did with military might.  And during Medieval Europe you did that with cavalry.  Heavy cavalry.  In particular, the mounted knight.  The king of battle.  For few could stand their ground with one to two tons of armored man and horse charging at them.  Where the choices were to be skewered by lance, slashed by sword, trampled by hoof or run away.

This was the age of chivalry.  Of glorious combat.  Where nothing was more gentlemanly than riding bravely into battle.   Suited up in gleaming, and very expensive, armor.  Which made the knight an expensive combat weapon.  Not just anyone could do this.  For you needed wealth.  And the only way to get wealth was by owning land.  Which few owned.

One way to become a landowner was to become a knight.  If you were a gentlemanly warrior who loved to fight you could offer your services to a lord who did own land.  Become his vassal.  In the system of vassalage.  Which bonded the two together in mutual obligations.  The knight agrees to fit horses and men for very expensive mounted warfare.  And the lord provides land for the knight’s use for raw material and wealth to fit his men and horses for battle.

When Knights were not at War they Built their Castles and Managed their Lands

We generally call this arrangement feudalism.  Though definitions vary.  But it’s the vassal relation that’s key.  The knight is bound to the lord and agrees to provide military service.  In exchange the lord provides land for the knight’s use and offers other protections within his powers.  Feudalism is similar to Manorialism.  Where a manor is basically a large farm owned by the Lord of the Manor.  Peasants (i.e., serfs) attached to the land (meaning they are not free to leave) work the land.  The lord provides for them.  And this serfdom provides for their lord.

A lord may own more than one manor.  And have his vassals run these manors.  Or a lord may split up larger landholding to accommodate a new vassal.  Or he could use his military might of mounted knights to conquer neighboring lands and give knights who showed exemplary valor in battle a portion of the newly conquered land.  When knights were not at war they built their castles.  And managed their lands.

Similar systems operated like this in different regions.  A particular region may have a ‘lord’ with large landholdings and military might.  To protect their land from others.  Or to expand their landholdings at the expense of their neighbors.  This was a time before nations.  Even before kings.  Power resided with the landed aristocracy.  Those who owned great tracts of land.  The source of food.  Raw materials.  And wealth.  Land managed by their vassals.  Who answered their call when it was time to strap on the armor and flex some military muscle.

The Many, the Few and the One

Feudalism gave way to monarchy.  Which was similar to feudalism.  Only the lords entered into a vassal relationship with their king.  Who often rose to power to unite and lead his lords to defend against a common enemy.  An enemy that was too great for one lord to fight alone.  Such as the marauding Vikings that the English king Alfred the Great subdued.  Or the spread of Muslim Arabs into southern Gaul (modern day France) that the Carolingian king Charles Martel repulsed.

Kings arose to consolidate power.  Lords continued to own land.  Passing it, and their title, on to their heirs.  Setting the next stage of political governance.  The relationship between the king and the aristocracy.  And their relationship with the people.  The many, the few and the one.

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