Feudalism and Crusades: 900-1400

Feudalism and the Crusades Video

European Feudalism

Feudalism developed in Western Europe at around 800 C.E. from the remnants of the Western Roman Empire. As a result of central authority being unable to perform its functions and prevent the rise of local powers, this decentralized organization formed. It is believed by some historians that the system was first initiated in France by the Normans from the time they first settled there. Many remarkable things were still accomplished during this era. For example, Monk Missionaries converted the Europeans and united Europe into Christendom, giving the region a common religion. This allowed for the Pope to become a political power. Also, Charlemagne introduced the importance of education. This is significant because it provided Europe with a common language: Latin. Together, these two things began to re-civilize Europe.


The System of Feudalism

When the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 C.E., a state of chaos encompassed Western Europe for many centuries. Essentially, the people of Western Europe needed some form of a political system to defend themselves. Thus, feudalism developed. The system literally accounted for all aspects of a society, aside from religion. Firstly, the King was in complete control. He owned a large land mass and leased it to trustworthy men called Vassals. The catch was that they had to swear an oath to remain faithful to the King at all times. The Vassals were wealthy, powerful, and had complete control of their land, called a manor. They had to provide lodging and food for the King and his court when they traveled around the country. They established their own system of justice, minted their own money, and set their own taxes. However, the Vassals had to serve on the royal council, pay rent, and provide the King with military service when he demanded it. The Barons did this by leasing their land out to knights, who would fight for him, and thus, the king. Although not as rich as the Vassals, Knights were quite wealthy. The Knights kept as much of the land as they wished for their own personal use and distributed the rest to serfs. Serfs had to provide the Knight with free labor, food, and service whenever it was demanded. Serfs had no rights, were never allowed to leave the Manor, and had to ask their Lord's permission before they could marry. Serfs were the majority of people, and their lives were wretched.  Feudalism was a social hierarchy, a political system, and an economic system, all in one. The beauty of the system is that it achieved self-sufficiency. It was the giving up of freedom in exchange for protection. However, there was absolutely no mobility, no time for learning, and no intellectual advancements. Because people constantly feared for their lives, there wasn’t any leisure time; society couldn’t grow.


Feudalism and the spread of Christianity

In 687 C.E., Pepin of Heristal, a Merovingian ruler, united the Frankish territories and centered his kingdom in Belgium and other Rhine regions. His son, Charles Martel, took over after he died and formed an alliance with the Church which helped the Merovingian Dynasty (and Christianity) to expand into Germany. Pepin the Short succeeded him and strengthened the alliance between Benedictine missionaries and Frankish expansion. Benedictine missionaries completed the conversion of England begun by St. Gregory the Great. Also, Irish monks established early-medieval art. The greatest surviving creation of these monks is the Book of Kells, a Gospel book of decorative art.  It marks one of the lowest points in Europe’s history, leading all the way up until the Renaissance in the 14th century. Its demise was triggered by the Crusades because the Crusades called for people to leave their homes and fight. Since Feudalism was based on non-movement, it collapsed. Knights, soldiers, peasants, and pilgrims left their homes and migrated along European roads and trails, bringing back with them stories of differing cultures. They began to implement their architecture and advances in medicine.


Feudalism and the Catholic Church

The only force that was powerful enough to unite an extremely disorganized group of people was the Roman Catholic Church. For the time being, religion was very important. From birth to death, whether one was a peasant, a serf, a noble, a lord, or a King, life was all about church. Various religious institutions became important, rich, and powerful. This is because life sucked during the Middle Ages. Times were tough, and they looked toward God to make it better. Because of this, society basically attempted to structure itself politically on a religious basis. Often times, religion in government is effective, but if it’s the only thing, it won’t work well. The proof is in the Middle Ages. Religion in government is nice because it promotes morality. It, moreover, tells the people which is right and which is wrong. Religion is used as means for control. But when one begins to think for him/herself, all of the sudden, religion isn’t as effective. When people began to think about themselves and the amount of potential they had, society changed for the better. This idea, known as humanism, was the basis of the Renaissance. Moving back, after the Roman Empire dissipated, the idea of Europe as one large church-state arose, called Christendom. Christendom consisted of two distinct groups of representatives: the sacerdotium (ecclesiastical hierarchy) and the imperium (secular leaders). Supposedly, these two groups were complements of each other, attending to people's spiritual and temporal needs, respectively. The Pope was considered higher in status than the emperor in those two areas. But, the emperors often attempted to regulate the Church. The church, in turn, not only owned cities and armies but also attempted to regulate the matters of the government as well.



Pepin's son, Carolus Magnus (Charlemagne), succeeded his father to become one of the most important rulers in medieval history. His empire was known as the Carolingian dynasty, and it included the greater section of central Europe, northern Italy, and central Italy, in addition to realms already conquered by Frankish rule. Charlemagne's ingenious system of government divided the vast realm into different regions, ruled by local rulers, who were overseen by representatives of Charlemagne's own court. In addition, to aid expansion and management of this vast kingdom, Charlemagne promoted, what was later called, the "Carolingian Renaissance." Prior to this revival of learning, practically the entire region (excluding England) was illiterate due to the fall of the Roman Empire. The sub-director of this "Renaissance" was Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Alcuin, who received his learning from a student of Bede. Alcuin set up schools, made sure that classical Latin texts were copied, and developed a new handwriting. On Christmas Day, Charlemagne was crowned emperor by the Pope in Rome. This event showed independence in Western culture that was based upon Western Christianity and Latin linguistics. Charlemagne established schools and monasteries everywhere. This had an enormous impact and probably would have altered history forever had he left competent successors to continue on his legacy. His sole surviving son, Louis the Pious, divided his new kingdom between his own three sons, who engaged in civil war. Charlemagne's united realm was invaded by Scandinavian Vikings, Hungarians, and Muslims during these civil wars.



European Feudalism

Background to the Feudal Age

  • Europe after the Empire
  • Roman Empire gone but city of Rome and the Papacy (Pope) survive
  • 700- 1492 Spain is conquered by Umayyad Muslims and Cordova is founded
  • 700-1200 Vikings conquering Northern Europe
  • Central Europe is mostly barbarians (Goths, Franks, Vandals, Anglos, Saxons)

Central Europe Overview 500- 1450

  • Monk missionaries convert Europeans and unite Europe into Christendom
  • Most people’s lives are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Thomas Hobbes)
  • Franks become the dominant group in Europe until Crusades
  • Crusades bring knowledge, trade and culture to Europe
  • Castles, Cathedrals and Christianity grow towns until Renaissance begins

The Rise of the Franks

The Merovingian Family controls France
450 – 687CE

  • 496 – Clovis, King of Franks makes his tribe the first to accept Christianity.
  • "Merovingian" dynasty, unites central Europe somewhat with improved religion and law systems
  • Clovis being baptized by Saint Remi at Cathedral of Reims, France
  • Muslim threat to Christianity and the Franks

The Carolingian Dynasty takes over
687 – c. 875

  • Charles Martel 714-741
  • In 732, defeated the Muslims at Battle of Tours and stopped their advance in the West.

A Beautiful Love Story: Pepin and Berthe

  • Charles Martel’s son was Pépin le Bref (Pepin = Pipin the Short?).
  • Pipin married Berthe au Grand Pied (Bertha Big Foot).
  • Pepin (at Pope’s request) defeated the Lombards of Italy and gave Italy to Pope
  • For his reward, Pipin was re-crowned “King of the Franks and Patrician of the Romans” by Pope Stephen II at Paris in 754.
  • The Papacy retained control of them until 1870.
  • Oh, by the way, Pepin the Short and Bertha the Big Foot had a son…

Charles the Great "Charlemagne“ 768‑814.

  • “He was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (seven-feet tall). His head was round and well-formed, his eyes very large and vivacious, his nose a little long, his hair white, and his face jovial. His appearance was always stately and very dignified, whether he was standing or sitting. …. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear.” Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880), pp. 56-7.
  • Unites Europe
  • Fought constantly for 25 years and conquered/united central Europe
  • Pope Leo III crowned him Imperator Romanorum (“Emperor of the Romans”) on Christmas Day, 800.
  • Holy Roman Empire begins here

Charlemagne & Education

  • Charlemagne promoted education for clergy and people
  • Literacy increased especially for monks and wealthy
  • Brought in teachers from Byzantium
  • Charlemagne & Christianity
  • founded monastery schools taught in Latin = universal language for Europe
  • Built and repaired churches,
  • universalized the liturgy of Rome = unity for Europe
  • instituted tithes to support the clergy
  • Charlemagne’s Empire Ends
  • At his death, the empire was divided into three kingdoms ruled by his sons.
  • They did not rule well and the Empire collapsed by 900

Charlemagne Lasting impact

  • Holy Roman Empire,
  • Latin common language,
  • common religion,
  • Pope as political power

gold and silver sculpture
book art. 
Intricate designs common

The Rise of Feudalism

  • landowners had their own armies and resources
  • Rather than fight each other constantly small landowners put themselves under the protection of the large estates

Practices of Feudalism

  • Fief‑holding
  • A fief is a hereditary position with land and peasants
  • In order to keep a fief, a lord had to be able to protect his land.
  • A lord could give one of his vassals a fief.
  • Primogeniture
  • The land went to the eldest son.
  • Relief
  • Taxes paid by vassals to their lord.

The Three Estates

The Church = 1st Estate

  • The greatest weapon of the church was spiritual.
  • The threat of interdict could bring kings to their knees
  • The church was able to establish two customs to extend its power over the nobles.
  • No fighting during holy days
  • No fighting on holy ground

The Nobility = 2nd Estate

The Peasants = 3rd Estate

Feudal Warfare

  • Background
  • Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Several century process
  • Last emperor deposed in 476 AD
  • Legions that had “maintained civilization” recalled/disbanded.
  • No one entity to assume the empire’s role
  • Tribes are most viable political entity
  • Loose coalitions of tribes
  • Militia based warfare
  • “Center” of Europe shifts from present-day Italy toward France, Germany, and, eventually, England.

Military Aspects of Feudalism

  • Dispersed population
  • Lack of opportunities for “unit” training increases importance of individual skills
  • Cavalry supplants infantry
  • Flexibility:  fight mounted or on foot
  • Fortified areas/castles
  • Protection from Vikings/raiders
  • Levy cannot cope with raiders
  • Vikings:  amphibious, maneuver warfare, looted and pillaged…..
  • Stratification of society


  • Germanic Tribes;  ancestors of today’s French
  • Moved into Roman Gaul about 460
  • Infantry-centric
  • Relied more on individual courage than organization or skill
  • Carry “Francisca” or battle ax
  • Originally no social “classes”;  similar to American Indian
  • Comitatus:  leader’s bodyguards; first among equals
  • Clovis initiated levy system in 496.    
  • Each house owes 1 man to the nation for service.   
  • Comitatus evolves into Knights.
  • Levy and cost of weapons begin stratifying society.
  • Frankish Cavalry
  • Stirrup introduced in early 800s.
  • Began shift in focus that ended with cavalry as the primary arm by 900.
  • Tactically sound, but operationally and strategically weak
  • “On the whole, therefore, it is easier and less costly to wear out a Frankish army by skirmishes, protracted operations…, and the cutting of of supplies, than to attempt to destroy it in a single blow.”  Byzantine manual quoted in Jones (p. 104)


  • October 1066
  • Harold defeats other invaders in N. England.
  • William conducts amphib landing in S. England.
  • Harold countermarches to meet William.
  • Normans under William have Cav, Inf, and archers while English army (Harold) are almost all infantry.
  • Norman Cav fails to penetrate English infantry shield, but the English wings react to Cav falling back, move toward them and are destroyed (twice).  Normans then fire missiles and weaken the English until they are vulnerable to Cav attack.


  • Mission to spread Christianity to the Moslem world
  • Economic interests also fueled
  • Crossbow developed
  • Trading capital for labor
  • Required transition from chain mail to armor.

First Crusade (1095-1099)

  • Acquired “Holy Land”/Jerusalem.
  • Moslem light cavalry vs European heavy cavlary and infantry
  • Some victories, but European success limited by logistical shortcomings
  • Fighting Saladin
  • Competing strategies
  • Combat vs logistics
  • Few serious casualties, but Europeans still surrendered
  • Lack of cohesion
  • Inability to maneuver
  • No food or water = no morale
  • Surfaces and gaps…
  • Scorched earth
  • Avoiding battle

Richard I

  • Set out to recover Jerusalem
  • Developed new defensive tactic to deal with horse archers
  • Pikes in front
  • Ranks of crossbowmen
  • Offensive
  • Combined-arms task organization
  • Delayed action to train together
  • Sea-based logistics
  • Light-fighters
  • Contingency plan
  • Smarter than predecessors, but still unable to retake Jerusalem.
  • End of the Knight
  • New weapons
  • Longbow
  • Gunpowder and firearms
  • Responses
  • Heavier armor for the knight
  • Armor for the horse (150+ lbs)

Crusade Results

  • Weight cancelled mobility, which was the cavalry’s reason for being.
  • Economic changes
  • Increasing concentration of wealth led to creation of standing armies of mercenaries and decline of levy-based armies.
  • Middle class arises from increased trade.