The social classes of feudalism are the hierarchical social divisions characteristic of the political, military and social system that took place in the Middle Ages and whose class structure was based on the possession of lands called fiefdoms and on the resulting relationship between lord and vassal (Structure , 2012).
This political system prevailed in Europe between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, during which most societies were agricultural and supported by feudal tradition. Within the feudal system most of the rights and privileges were given to the higher social classes (Gintis & Bowel, 1984).
Within the hierarchical structure of social classes of the feudal system, kings occupied the highest and most important position, followed by barons and nobles, clergy and bishops, knights or vassals, and villagers or peasants.
The class division within the hierarchy of the feudal system was quite marked between the noble classes and the villagers. Despite the fact that most of the population of the fiefdoms was of peasant origin, land rights could only be exercised by the upper classes.
Social classes of feudalism
1 – Kings or monarchs
The kings or monarchs were responsible for ruling in the kingdom and were the owners of the land of each nation. The king had full control over all properties and decided on the amount of land that each of the barons could borrow.
The barons had to swear allegiance to the king before being able to administer the lands loaned by the king, thus ensuring their permanent loyalty to the king and his kingdom.
In the event that a baron exhibited inappropriate behavior, the kings had the power to withdraw their claim to the borrowed land and lend it to someone else belonging to the baron class.
In other words, all the judicial power was in the hands of the kings and these were the legitimate landowners of each nation (Newman, 2012).
The royalty within the feudal system included different members, classified as follows:
-The King: He was the highest authority of the kingdom and owner of the land. On him fell the responsibility of creating laws, eradicating poverty and caring for the inhabitants of the kingdom.
-The Queen: Although she could not rule alone, the Queen of each kingdom played an important role in the medieval class system. She was usually second in command after the King and they served as regents when the King was not in a position to rule. The Queen was also the host and in charge of planning social events.
-The Princes: Depending on the order of birth, a prince could be the next member of the royal family in line to take the throne once the King died. The work of the princes consisted mainly in attending meetings of the royal court.
-The Princesses: They could only inherit the throne in case there was no man to take it. Princesses used to marry princes in other kingdoms to ensure friendly political and economic relations between nations.
2 – Barons and nobles
The barons and nobles received the king’s lands on loan, this partial possession of the king’s lands was known as lordship. The barons in the hierarchy of social classes stipulated by the feudal system were the class with the most power and wealth after the king.
These nobles were known as feudal lords and had the right to establish their particular legal systems, assign their own currency, and implement their own tax and tax regulations (Burstein & Shek, 2006).
In return for the allocation of land, the barons had the following obligations:
– Serve the royal council.
– Provide the King with Knights to face any form of war.
– Provide food and accommodation to the king during his travels.
– Pay the tributes and taxes required by the king.
Nobility titles could be inherited and in this way the land ceded by the king could pass generations within the same family.
3 – The clergy
During the Middle Ages the church played a very important role. For this reason, if the clergy were considered as a social class within the feudal system, they are considered to be of a higher class than the nobles, knights and villagers. Being the Pope over all the members of the clergy.
Within the clergy and below the Pope were the Bishops, carriers of wealth and considered part of the nobility; the priests, who gave Mass inside the castles and were responsible for collecting church taxes; and the monks in the lowest part of the church hierarchy, recognized as scribes wearing brown robes.
4 – Knights and vassals
The barons had the right to lend the land partially granted by the king to the knights. The knights in return had to render military services to the king on behalf of each baron. In the same way, the knights had to protect the feudal lords and their families. (Reynolds, 1994)
Knights used to keep a part of the land given by the barons and distributed the rest to the villagers. In the same way that the barons could establish a system of tribute and taxes on the knights, these could do it on the villagers.
However, the main function of the knights was to protect the king and the kingdom, for this work their greatest source of income came from the king’s payment and not from the land (Bower & Lobdell, 1994).
5 – Villagers, peasants and serfs
The villagers received from the knights the land they could work. In return they had to supply food and serve the higher classes. No villager was authorized to leave the fief without prior authorization from his superiors (Bloch, 1965).
The villagers had no rights and were allowed to marry without the prior consent of their lords. They were the poorest class within the hierarchy of the feudal system. 90% of the people who were part of the feudal systems in Europe were villagers.
Within the lower social class can also be found the serfs and free men, who completely lacked political power, the latter being considered the poorest within the social hierarchy of the feudal system.
- BLOCH, M. (1965). The Growth of Ties of Dependence. In M. BLOCH, FEUDAL SOCIETY (pp. 59-71). London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
- Bower, B., & Lobdell, J. (1994). History Alive !: The Medieval World and Beyond. Mountain View, CA: Teachers Curriculim Institute (TCI).
- Burstein, SM, & Shek, R. (2006). World History: Medieval to Early Modern Times (California Social Studies). California Social Studies.
- Gintis, H., & Bowel, S. (1984). The Concept Feudalism. In SB Herbert Gintis, Statemaking and Social Movements: Essays in History and Theory (pp. 19-45). Michigan: State and Class in European Feudalism.
- Newman, S. (2012). The finer times. Obtained from Social Classes in the Middle Ages: thefinertimes.com.
- Reynolds, S. (1994). Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Structure, H. (29 of 10 of 2012). Hierarchy Structure. Obtained from Feudal System Social Hierarchy: hierarchystructure.com.