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After the collapse of the Roman Empire, feudalism was by far the most prevalent of social systems during the ninth and fifteenth centuries throughout Western Europe. This system found its supposed highest authority in the king in order to equip both he and his lords with armies to fight off barbarian invasions and other feudal kingdoms.
Though the king ruled over the entire kingdom, most of lands in the kingdom belonged to his lords. The king delegated his authority to these lords and they were his vassals and were granted lands, called fiefs. This would most likely have been done with a formal ceremony in which the king would bestow upon the lord or title and give him “the king’s authority” to rule over that fief and its inhabitants. The lord would also kneel before the king, take the king’s hand, and swear his ultimate loyalty to the king. This was known as homage. (Baumgartner) The lords had their own vassals in the form of their knights. These knights were given smaller fiefs and had peasants as their vassals. Vassals had an obligation to pay taxes to their lords towards the defense of the land. During the campaign season of warfare, vassals were only required to participate in the campaign for a mere forty days. In exchange for providing military service, vassals were issued land by their lords. So to be a noble knight for the king meant owning land, which in turn means having power over others. As part of this, all nobles and their sons would be trained to be knights, allowing for their service to maintain the family’s ownership of the fief. Boys would start training around six years old and at about fifteen would become a squire and help a knight prepare for battle. (Baumgartner) This was also a reason why it was most nobles who made up the cavalry forces of the feudal period. Women were not allowed to inherit land because they could not provide military service. This is one of the main reasons why feudalism did little to spread with to other nations such as Switzerland and Scandinavia. Unlike the plains of France and Germany the mountainous areas of Switzerland and Scandinavia were not hospitable to a serious use of heavy cavalry. Lords’ main obligations concerning his vassals was to the fief and the protection of his vassals. (Baumgartner) This provision of military force was followed all the way to the king. In theory, Feudalism was both a social system and a war machine to provide troops for the king and his lords.
Over time, more and more barbarians penetrated into Western Europe. Soon, the more powerful warlords claimed lands and recruited weaker barbarians as vassals. This is the earliest form of feudalism. Viking chiefs also began to accept bribes of land in exchange for their loyalty and military service. William the Conqueror also used the promise of land as a tool to recruit knights for his invasion of England in 1066 A.D. Since the collapse of the Roman Empire, the lands that were once protected by highly trained Roman legionary garrisons were left with mobs of barely capable units of infantry. When Charles Martel, also known as “Charles the Hammer”, united the Franks in light of the Arab threat, he won a great victory at the Battle of Torres. Using only infantry at the battle, Martel was unable to completely rundown and destroy the enemy because he had little to no cavalry units. From this point on, Martel makes it a point to build up a heavy cavalry force. He even began confiscating church lands in order to graze horses for his cavalry. With the outrageously poor quality of available infantry, the remnants of the empire began to rely on heavy cavalry both against each other and the invading barbarian tribes from the east. The Franks reorganized their military system. With dissolution of the professional army, the new system placed political power in the control of the nation’s ruling officials who ultimately owed military service to the king.
Feudalism brought with a new set of military tactics and strategy. The effective, highly disciplined legions of Rome had been replaced by ill-equipped light infantry of feudal peasants. These conscripts would have had received little to no military training before the battle. They wore little to no armor as it was too expensive to pay for themselves. Most were armed with cheap weapons such as spears and clubs or even farm tools such as sharpened pitchforks. Due to their inherent lack of discipline, it was almost expected for them to, once in sustained combat, retreat and be slaughtered. (Baumgartner) This lack of reliable infantry forced the kings and lords of the Middle Ages to rely on heavy cavalry units. The cavalry would be made up of knights. These knights would primarily use lances when charging to attempt to break through the opposing forces battle lines. But when fighting drew on and became much more of a close quarters combat, the knights would have used swords in addition to other shock weapons. Knights were wealthy enough to afford armor and commonly equipped themselves with a helmet, the most common at this time being a metal cap. They would have also worn chainmail and some amount of plate armor as well as being protected by a shield. These knights were able to dismount and fight on foot in a battle if necessary. Knights were bound by a code of chivalry that had great extent in the ways a knight could fight in battle. Women, children, church clergy, and other knights too wounded to fight back were considered unarmed non-combatants and were not permitted to be killed by knights. The peasantry, however, had sworn no such oath of chivalry and were used to kill the severely wounded knights. Unlike previous warfare, medieval tactics had little focus on unit cohesion and focused more on the skills of the individual soldier. In essence, the two opposing armies would charge each other and once combat began it was a matter of what side broke first.
Feudalism’s main purpose was to provide an army of heavy cavalry for the service of the lords and the king. It achieved success in providing knights whose fame and skills are still renowned to this day. However, unlike the great Roman legions, it failed to acquire the professionalism needed to efficiently protect its kingdoms and endure sustained campaign seasons.
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