The common impression of Medieval Europe is that under feudalism, a majority of people were ruthlessly oppressed by the monarch or ruler, who held absolute power, was unaccountable for their actions, and lived in luxury while the poor languished in squalor.
While numerous aspects of the system were indeed harsh, missed by no rational person, the reality was far more complicated and, moreover, fascinating than this superficial description.
One of the problems with this stereotype is that it ignored the realities of the Middle Ages. Inasmuch as there were severe inequalities between rich and poor, the simple fact is life was difficult and hard for everyone, be they a serf or royalty. A person living in poverty today in America, for example, enjoys running water (which typically only monasteries had), electricity, modern medicine, Internet and other things that were either not invented or inaccessible to all but a small percentage of the population. Taking a bath was a rarity even for the richest individuals. Women in the nobility were just as much at risk of complications during childbirth as the indigent. That serfs, peasants and others of low birth suffered from extreme hardships was not due to the feudalist system, per se, but to the lack of division of labor and vital technology.*
As for the political environment, feudalism was based, in theory, on a quid pro quo between all parties involved. Serfs, villains, and peasants who worked on the lord’s property were offered protection in return. The implicit understanding was not always honored, however, but a lord had an incentive to at least attempt to placate those under his rule because underlying all their interactions was the very real possibility of revolt if people became too desperate. Unlike now, where people’s wealth – or illusion of it – restrains them from taking drastic political action, serfs had little to lose and thus were more inclined to throw it away if they felt they had no other option.
This didn’t mean abuses and injustice never occurred, but it was far removed from the totalitarian institution commonly depicted or presumed.
And unlike today’s governments, kings at the time did not have the ability to continuously monitor their subjects on a grand scale. Slower means of transportation and flow of information made it impractical and, in many cases, impossible to control much of what took place in communities unless it directly threatened their authority.
Even invaders had to provide some degree of autonomy for the vanquished. After subjugating England following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror allowed a local jury to try and convict his half-brother Otto at Penenden Heath in Kent, based on Anglo-Saxon law, rather than make the determination himself. His later destruction of Northumbria shows his restraint concerning the trial wasn’t out of moral principles, but practicality.
This passage from The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe by Jeffrey L. Singman describes well how this underlying threat of rebellion imposed restrictions on a political ruler’s behavior and the extent of their power. Surprisingly, it also reveals that peasants had considerable influence in local governance.
Generally speaking, law was seen as consisting of a community’s traditional customs, and the function of a lord was to uphold those customers, consulting with his subordinates about their nature and applicability in any given situation. A lord also exercised political authority, but he was again expected to consult with his subordinates on matters that traditionally required their advice. In this way feudalism allowed, at least in principle, the consent of the governed. The local manor lord presided over the manor court, but it was his peasant tenants who constituted the jury that actually ruled on legal disputes. The lord might exert his influence to sway their judgement, but contemporary advice recommended that he leave them to follow their own consciences. Feudal overlords and kings likewise consulted their vassals in their own courts and councils. A lord might invoke prerogative and override the will of his subordinates, but such a course could reap a bitter harvest. An overbearing manor lord might find his peasants recalcitrant and unproductive, and kings who gave no heed to the advice of their great lords ran the risk of an aristocratic rebellion (bold emphasis added).
What’s fascinating about this is that political concepts we regard as unique to recent times were actually in place a millennia ago, and in some regards things have actually regressed from what were arguably superior institutions. For example, in medieval Iceland they operated under a quasi-libertarian system, according to Roderick T. Long.
The 11th-century historian Adam von Bremen described Iceland as having “no king but the law.” The legal system’s administration, insofar as it had one, lay in the hands of a parliament of about 40 officers whom historians call, however inadequately, “chieftains.” This parliament had no budget and no employees; it met only two weeks per year. In addition to their parliamentary role, chieftains were empowered in their own local districts to appoint judges and to keep the peace; this latter job was handled on an essentially fee-for-service basis. The enforcement of judicial decisions was largely a matter of self-help (hence Iceland’s reputation as a land of constant private feuding), but those who lacked the might to enforce their rights could sell their court-decreed claims for compensation to someone more powerful, usually a chieftain; hence even the poor and friendless could not be victimized with impunity (emphasis added).
*Tom Woods discussed this in some detail in a speech from a few years back.