Modes of Economic Existence

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Modes of Economic Existence


Feudal System . The economic expression of the lord-vassal-peasant social stratification was in grants of land coming from the most powerful warrior to his loyal military supporters. As a result of one military enterprise alone in 732, the Frankish leader Charles Martel usurped from the medieval church, the only vulnerable source at the time, a large portion of its landholdings in Frankish territory. After his defensive defeat of the Muslims who were attacking Frankish lands from the south, he needed land to give to his followers as an adequate source of revenue to allow them to continue to equip themselves as knights with the costly horses and armor required. Martel’s strategy of compensating his loyal followers led to what would come to be identified as the medieval feudal system with its economic ingredient, land grants, its military service based on fealty, and its social component, collective protection. The combination of the economic and military character of the lord-vassal relationship was cast cynically in poetry in the eleventh century by the Andalusian Jew Hanagid:

Why did he hire you, your master, then?
So you could work, while he earned.
You’re just his tongs. When the fire gets hot,
You’ll be the one that gets burned.

Vassalage . The lord-vassal relationship was elaborated and adapted in many ways such that by the eleventh century it encompassed the initial subdivision of the land that a vassal had been granted directly—among individuals who received smaller plots of land and in turn became his vassals. Before subdividing, in the eleventh century, for example, a great baron in England was known to have held 793 farms in more than twenty counties, and in Italy, a noble had one hundred thousand acres. This intricate system was only economically effective, however, if even at the lowest level of vassalage the land a knight received, perhaps just one small village or manor with a few dozen peasant inhabitants, could provide himself and his community with an adequate livelihood. Most of the medieval social hierarchy was being supported directly by farming. Not in a position or disposition to work the land because of their military obligations, vassals turned to the peasantry to do it for them.

Serfdom . Through an economic relationship with a vassal, partly identified as serfdom, peasants farmed the vassal’s land. About one third of the land a village tilled was reserved for the lord. The village serfs and free men and women had a way of life dependent on the days of labor they could devote to it. The vassal’s peasants, or serfs, were obliged to give the lord specific workdays, and especially at harvest time they had to spend much time on the lord’s land. The peasant was also obliged to grind his grain into flour, for a price, at the mill owned by his landlord. In return for their labor, peasants were granted personal use of some portion of the vassal’s farmland. Each villager also received the right to use village lands, as well as some of the lord’s woodland, meadows, and pastures, to procure wood and to pasture livestock, likely pigs and cows. There was yet another benefit that accrued to the peasantry for its labor, the expectation of being protected by the lord in the case of a warring noble’s attack on the village.

Raising Revenue . The expenditures for war could not in principle exceed the income a lord’s vassals could collectively derive from their granted lands, nor could the number of knights required from each immediate vassal be more than the size his fief lands could support. The strongest medieval lords did, however, apparently frequently miscalculate their vassals’ viable burden and found many remaining obligations falling to themselves. Continually squeezed for financing, they usually demanded in addition to service certain rents, dues, and taxes of their vassals, which they in turn passed along to their peasants. By the year 1100 the most-powerful lords devised an enormously successful military fund-raising tactic: scutage, a shield tax in lieu of military service. Since a vassal’s obligation of service was usually limited to forty days of the year (one plow season), to many lords scutage was preferable to this limited military presence; the payment could be used to obtain hired soldiers, who would be available for longer campaigns.

Standing Armies . In the mid twelfth century the original military base of the feudal system, the rough illiterate strongman whose job was mainly to fight, ceased to be as important as he once was. The king’s decision to introduce scutage incorporated a needed economic change in the relationship between lord and vassal. Scutage brought in enough for kings to consider establishing a standing army and extending periods of battle. With sufficient vassals for their own armies raised from their new resources, nobles received all the encouragement they needed to expand, and they started looking for more territory. The most obvious prize was a neighbor’s land, which when targeted by a noble with a large band of knights destroyed many acres of good farmland. Still other sites were the Saxons’ territories in the east, the Muslim caliphates in the Iberian Peninsula, or the lands of the Scots and the Welsh.

Land for Crusaders . Another source of wealth was, however, offered by Pope Urban II, who promised knight-crusaders part of the Holy Land. Hoping to inspire Latin Christians to capture the Holy Land, the Pope appealed to different motives—faith, ambition, and love of adventure—but among them also greed. He promised to suspend taxes and cancel debts for those who joined the Holy Pilgrimage and identified economic conditions and incentives as pushing western Christian nobles to fight one another:

This land which you inhabit is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth, and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its civilization. Hence it is that you kill and devour one another, that you wage war…. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre…. That land which, as the Scripture says, “floweth with milk and honey”… is fruitful above others … may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us. … The possessions of the enemy, too, will be yours, since you will make spoil of their treasures….

Ephemeral Gains of the Crusades . Many ambitious knights and barons went seeking new land, riches, opportunities, and power in the East. European accounts of the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 show something of the Crusaders’ priorities: “Our men … rushed through the city, seizing gold and silver, horses and mules, gods of all sorts. Then they went rejoicing and weeping for gladness to worship at the sepulchre of our Savior.” The gains of the First Crusade, the lands around Nicea, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem were, as touted, divided up among the followers of the victorious Frankish, Flemish, and Norman leaders. However, with Jerusalem lost by the end of the twelfth century, medieval vassals, and now kings, found themselves reconfronted with the land limitations of European territory and caught within its rapidly changing economy. Their livelihood remained with the land rather than with long-distance trade and craft production. Only in Italy were medieval landowners really ever assimilated into the environment of the new urban economy. The rest of Europe’s landowners and vassals still lived on the demesne, but the general monetarization of the economy and the transformation of the agricultural workforce from the peasantry in serfdom to a group of hired wage earners would link the formerly independent entity of the manor willy-nilly to the economic sphere of the town and city.

Social Status of the Clergy . The medieval economy played an important role in the social status of the clergy. The parish priest was very much one of the manor’s villagers or at the least, in the case of the common private churches, one of the lord’s serfs. Often he was a vassal’s appointee; frequently he survived by farming small plots like the local peasantry or at the most by receiving a portion of the fees the local lord had instituted for church services and some of the tithes. Bishops, however, were usually of noble families and carried their landed wealth with them into their episcopal vocation. They survived economically as would any lord from the return of their lands and frequently had knights or vassals and serfs under their secular authority. The Investiture Controversy, which the Concordat of Worms brought into quiescence, turned as much on the question of a bishop’s appointment given his role as a secular lord as it did on his spiritual authority.

Regular Clergy . There were several transformations of the regular clergy which can perhaps best be understood in an economic light. Early medieval monks, while in a world apart, were akin economically to the peasantry itself. In short they also survived from the agricultural production of their lands. The initial foundation would include land around the monastery for gardens, orchards, and the monastery’s own farm. If the land had derived from a donation, the patron might also give the monks rights to build a mill, to catch fish in nearby rivers, and to receive gifts of food and produce from people who lived in nearby villages and towns.

Self-Sufficiency . Although Benedict of Nursia founded monasticism, leaders of many different orders were his successors, most of whom represented a renewed desire to return to serious adherence to the Benedictine Rule. By 814 clerical writings had defined and distinguished the western monastic lifestyle (from its eastern counterparts) by characteristics, such as moderate asceticism, communal property ownership, labore et ore (the combined tasks of work and prayer), and economic self-sufficiency. Monks of the early Middle Ages were described in the thirteenth century as having been “as a glowing coal in charity. … They were a garment of mercy, clothing the naked and feeding the famished. …” More important, however, for what was to follow, they were also recognized to have been “princely in their poverty, for they were subject to none but God.”

Monasteries and Secular Authority . Monastic independence from secular authority was, however, not to be sustained for two reasons: medieval monasteries accepted donations from lay believers, and monasteries, with their increasing wealth, were subject to pillaging and in need of protection. One particular story captures both those elements of monastic economic life. The targeting of monasteries for pillage had begun as far back as the monasteries of the sixth century. Around Monte Cassino, the site of Benedict of Nursia’s first monastery, the barbarian Visigoth Zalla was determined to take everything he could find from the local farmers. One farmer admitted under torture that he had given gold to Benedict. Zalla tied the farmer to his horse and rode to the monastery, where he found Benedict reading a book. As Zalla demanded the gold, the rope that tied

the farmer to the horse fell away. Apparently Zalla was so amazed that he leaped from his horse and threw himself at Benedict’s feet.

Monastic Patronage . However inviolate Monte Cassino remained, in many instances the vulnerability of the monasteries brought them under the control of local strongmen, especially during the era of the Viking and Muslim invasions. Feudal kings and nobles thus came to dominate protectively specific monastic houses, regarding them, however, like their own realms as pieces of property to be used to increase their own wealth and power rather than as centers of religious life. In 910 Duke William the Good of Aquitaine offered the possibility of a new start. A wealthy noble, he donated land directly to the Papacy in Rome to start a new order of monks, the Cluniacs in Burgundy, thus giving them economic and other liberties from the start, from local ecclesiastical and lay authority. A new order following the Cluniacs, the Cistercians, returned with even greater rigor to combining work and prayer, and with such efficient results as to become the best, most prosperous farmers in medieval Europe. With their introduction oí conversi, the third order of lay brothers, they had an additional workforce to help maintain their granges, farms, and ever-expanding flocks of fine fleece sheep.

Franciscans and Dominicans . Subsequent fraternal orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, served as models for an entirely different monastic economic existence within the church. Attached to collective dwellings and schools in various urban centers, these two groups of friars carried out their holy work as teachers and preachers. Their means of economic survival was not, however, charging for professional service, but rather mendicancy, or beggary. They survived by receiving the charity that theretofore monastic orders were renowned for giving. They had in effect, however, adopted the same financial means of livelihood from which, in the form of compulsory tithes and donations, the secular arm of the church, its priests, bishops, and even the papacy, had been living for many centuries.

Feudal Society . The feudal society and its tiered agricultural economy represented a departure from the previous nomadic warrior societies of premedieval Europe, but it lasted really only for the Middle Ages, with the most representative years from 1050 to 1250. Growth in prosperity through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was to be the key success of the period. Some of the inspiration for the overall rise in the standard of living was the rapid expansion of trade and commerce and the growth of towns. This change had had in turn its own catalyst, feudalism. The feudal system had brought increased law and order, and improvements in agricultural methods, which, along with the fact that crops and flocks were no longer being destroyed by invaders or warring nobles, had increased farm production beyond the needs of the rural inhabitants. The towns and cities that the agricultural surplus allowed to grow could not, however, fit into the feudal system and function properly as trading centers at the same time. A merchant could not carry on his business satisfactorily if he might be summoned to serve as a knight when his lord went to war. An artisan could hardly live by the same rules and regulations that were acceptable for the village peasant. By the end of the medieval period, a complex economy open to the importance of cities and their ruling bodies that often disputed royal, noble, or churchly power, the growing number of freemen, and the use of money and of paid soldiers and laborers would all help to contribute to the decline of its initial, far more simple feudal economic structure.


Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

G. G. Coulton, Medieval Village, Manor, and Monastery (New York: Harper, 1960).

Georges Duby, Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1968).

M. M. Postan, E. E. Rich, and Edward Miller, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).