Government in the Medieval Times

Music History - Haley Malone


Feudalism was one of the most popular forms of government at the time. It was a way for the king and nobility of a country to keep the serfs, peasants, and land under their control. At the time, it was not called Feudalism. That title came about in the later years. Truthfully, there isn't a specific definition of Feudalism agreed upon by scholars, but in summary, it was the most dominant social system used in medieval Europe with a specific structure.

Lord: He was the most important man in the system who owned all of the land and had control over those under him.

Vassal: A vassal was not a monarch or peasant. Usually they had land granted to them by the king, lord, or another vassal in return for their servitude, either to rent their land, pay money, provide military services, or perform other duties.

Peasants: Peasants made up the vast majority of people during the middle ages. There were slaves, which were bought and sold, serfs, who had no political rights, and freemen, who had some freedoms and part of the time owned land.

Social Structure

King: The king owned all of the land and had complete control over his people. He also decided to whom the land would be awarded to, therefore creating his barons.

Barons: After the baron was awarded land by the king, he would then become a vassal to the king. He would also be able to set his own taxes and print his own money.

Knights: Knights were then granted land by the barons and in turn, would owe military service to both the baron and the king.

Serfs: The serfs, since they were then provided living quarters by knights, would have to give goods and services in return. They needed to ask permission to leave where they lived, to get married, and more. About fifteen to thirty serfs lived on any one fief.

Clergy: They often came from rich, aristocratic families or received noble status because they were clergy. Men involved in the church could often be thought of as vassals.

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The Downfall

When Feudalism was created, rulers didn't think about the long term results of such a structure. It benefited the kings and those in power, but it never would be able to last. The nobles and the church agreed with the idea since they were some of the few who were supported by it.

Feudalism fell with the rise of the Artisan class. One large problem and example of discrimination in Medieval government was the fact that this system was extremely oppressive to peasants, especially women. Women themselves were considered instruments of evil.

When the ideal of knightly chivalry developed, the opinions about women changed slightly. They were now valued for the work they could do at home, like weaving. By the fifteenth century, Feudalism was no longer used in Europe.

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At the time, Europe was divided into different states like Denmark, Spain, France, and England. Each of these states, or countries, had their own governing systems. Usually, they either had a king or an emperor, although they all encountered a similar issue where the people didn't truly want to listen to the man in power.

Western Europe, as mentioned above, attempted to use Feudalism to increase the power of their kings, but it didn't work as well as hoped. The kings themselves didn't really have power. Instead, they used their relationships with the nobles, towns, and churches to impose their influence. This often led to conflicts between the three powers as they each tried to establish laws that conflicted with each other.

Some countries with republics had the issue where they could not agree on any one thing. This resulted in many civil wars, like the one between the republics of Florence and Genoa in Italy.

The Beginning of a Stabilizing Government

In the High Middle Ages, governments began to stabilize. Europe's political boundaries began to be drawn, there was the creation of more centralized governments, and economic strength was built in towns with trade. Europe also developed competent bureaucracies to govern the different domains. The use of actual written documents became more popular and power was limited by the different social groups.

The English Parliament and France's Estates General began to lay down the roots for a government ruled by the people's consent. For example, King John (1199 to 1216) had an uprising in his barons, who forced him to sign the Magna Carta (1215).

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The Magna Carta - 1215

The Magna Carta is document that was created between King John and his barons after the barons rebelled against him. It protected the interest of the citizens and limited the power of the king against his people. It was England who set this charter in place to dictate what its king could not do.

Abuses by King John caused a revolt by nobles who compelled him to execute this recognition of rights for both noblemen and ordinary Englishmen. It established the principle that no one, including the king or a lawmaker, is above the law.

First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons

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Rights of the Magna Carta

There are three main points to the Magna Carta. The first defends the freedom and rights of the English church, the second confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third stated that no man could be arrested, imprisoned or have their possessions taken away except when the law dictated such was necessary. In other words, the king couldn't come in and take whatever he wanted.

There are sixty three clauses in the Magna Carta, but the three stated about are really the main ideas that are still in use today. The other sixty three clauses dealt with the administration of justice and the detail of feudal rights and customs.


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