By Brenden Bobby
Brought to you by the Sandpoint Library
Want to know a secret?
I’m a bit of a nerd.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that’s read even a few of these articles that I was that dorky kid obsessed with knights and dragons. While I admit that I’ve never LARPed, my fascination with all things medieval persisted healthily into adulthood.
I went from being that annoying kid no one wanted around to being the guy everyone comes to with questions when the guy with the chiseled jaw gets stabbed by the naked lady in “Game of Thrones.” (Brenden! Spoilers! Geeze…)
At first glance, what’s not to like about the medieval ages? It was a time of chivalry, when gallant knights would throw down their tabards and greatcloaks over large puddles to allow fair maidens safe passage. Fair Kings, princes and princesses ruled the land, and everyone was happy!
Well, until you take into account that most of the population was enslaved, constantly dying by their 15th birthday to dysentery and usually getting murdered, flayed, burned and branded by the people they forcibly worked for.
And we certainly can’t forget about the lord’s right to first night! (This is largely a myth. There isn’t very much historical evidence of this “tradition” happening, at least not very often.)
So what is feudalism in a nutshell?
Essentially, it’s the many ruled by the few. At the top is your king or emperor. This monarch rules over a kingdom or several kingdoms as the lawful ruler. Sometimes they are a great conquerer that brought many smaller warring states together through sheer force of arms, or more often than not they’re a descendant of a great conquerer or diplomat.
One person alone can’t rule an entire country effectively, though. To make it work, they grant property to vassals, lords that are sworn to serve the king militarily, religiously and/or personally. The vassals are bound by a code of chivalry (and written law) to behave, though the bulk of the military power rests with them.
But even a group of men can’t effectively rule an entire country on their own. They need someone to do the hard work.
This is where serfs come in. Serfs came in many flavors throughout the dark ages. What they almost all had in common was that they were very poor. Some more than others, some much less.
The basest serf was essentially a slave to the lord of their land. The lord would allow them to live on the land as long as the serf would farm it for the lord. Sometimes the serf would do this to pay off a debt, sometimes they would just do it for room and board. This form was called indentured servitude.
“You owe me, so provide for me, and I will provide much less for you.”
This was the raw end of the hotdog. While it may have been more profitable for a lord, the quality of the goods produced by their serfs would generally be lower, as the quality of life of slaves is abysmal. You get what you give, and if you give your workers nothing, you get nothing in return.
As the ages progressed, serfdom evolved as economies expanded. Lords began to realize that they only needed as much food as would serve them comfortably through the year. They had much more to gain by encouraging their subjects to travel and sell their crops, then take a chunk of that as a tax for living on the lord’s land, and then the king would take a chunk of the lord’s take as tax for living in the kingdom.
Taxation really hasn’t changed much for the past 1,500 years. The wording just got more complicated and the money goes to more public projects than a few aristocratic families.
As you can imagine, this system was far from perfect. Especially when you began to factor in the human nature of a king.
If a king had a son, the son would eventually become king when his father died.
But what if the king had a son out of wedlock? He’s the king, you can’t prosecute him.
Does that give the illegitimate son a right to rule? Society says no, but a group of lords tired of the current king increasing taxes on a regular basis might say yes.
What if the king has twin boys? Who may rightfully rule?
Sometimes, the royal lineage had nothing to do with it. Sometimes lords would band together and revolt to place a new king at the seat of power, though the signing of the Magna Carta slowed this down for centuries to come.
So what kept that from happening constantly? Doesn’t it seem logical that the man with the sharpest stick would eventually rule after each great conflict?
There are two interlinked factors here that kept that from happening, that helped maintain the status quo and saw centuries-old dynasties maintained.
The church and chivalry.
We all know what the church is, but its role in medieval life was much more prominent of a political force than it is today. The Catholic Church, for several centuries, almost acted as a sort of medieval UN. They set rules men had to follow regardless of their country. Why?
Their eternal souls were at stake.
Sacking your neighbor’s fief for booty and plunder or overthrowing your king for personal gain might seem like an immediate gain, but God and the church weren’t so forgiving in the medieval ages. What benefits you for the winter may damn you for an eternity, and that was a scary prospect to men of the age.
The Catholic Church was a driving political force for at least 1,500 years. It was an institution with very deep pockets and spies (monks, priests, etc…) in every corner of every empire, well-funded, well-organized and immune from military backlash. The power of a king was trivial compared to that of the Pope. The only opposition the church would generally see was from Islam in the east, hence the Crusades.
Chivalry factored into the power of the church in feudalistic society, as well. Our idea of chivalry today doesn’t accurately reflect the idea of chivalry in the Middle Ages. Back then, chivalry was a way of life, not just a way to treat your date. Chivalry demanded that men act piously, putting God, their king and their country before themselves. This applied on the battlefield as well as at court in the presence of other land-owning lords and ladies.
This system existed to ensure that lords and knights, especially, didn’t just run about killing everyone and taking their stuff. It also set a precedent in courts, especially for members new to the court, as a means to gauge one’s behavior in the presence of peers.
It wouldn’t be an article about the Middle Ages if there weren’t further mention of knights. The image of a knight is a powerful one, and has persevered better than virtually any other image from the dark ages. Gallant armored figures slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in distress are a far cry from what they actually were.
Knights could be considered to be the middle class of the Middle Ages. They were often mounted warriors that served a lord in armed conflicts with other lords or other kingdoms. The title of knight is an honor bestowed by the monarch of their realm, and is in itself a form of lesser nobility. It was not out of the question for a knight to eventually become a lord, especially if the knight were a direct relative, though the bulk of them were hired muscle. They still adhered strictly to the code of chivalry in most cases, as their actions were a reflection of their lord’s rule. A lord that’s a poor leader with a group of vulgar knights speaks volumes about that lord’s capacity, and the ease in which he may be replaced.
Knighthood is a tradition that still persists to this day, though it’s an extremely rare honor. Several European countries including the U.K. and Sweden will occasionally bestow knighthood to a distinguished individual that has brought culture or great national pride to their country.
There is much, much more to the subject, but I promised a nutshell, and I think this shell is starting to look like a roasted pistachio. Crack!
If your curiosity has been piqued, come ask us for a book on medieval history at the library or take a look at the nonfiction shelves around 940.1.
Maybe the next time you watch “Game of Thrones,” you’ll know why they poisoned that one annoying guy (just kidding, everyone knows why HE got poisoned).