Crisis of Feudalism : Military Defeats

Crisis of Feudalism : Rise of Monetary Economy

In feudal society, noblemen were required to have and keep ready for battle armour and battlehorse(s). They were supposed to pay for these expenses from the income of the lands they owned, for noblemen were forbidden to engage in trade. Noblemen resided on the countryside, many in castles.
At the time when WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR and his Norman knights won the BATTLE OF HASTINGS and conquered England, armour, as depicted on the BAYEUX TAPESTRY, was relatively simple - simple helmets and a CHAIN MAIL. The 11th century castles also were comparatively simple, mostly of the MOTTE type, a simple stone tower with an area encircled by a wall, both mostly surrounded by a moat.
During the middle ages, both the architecture of castles and the armour technique developed. Better fortified, greater castles, safer and better looking armour came at a price. While the original castle might be built with the labour provided by the farmhands subject to the castle's lord, more sophisticated construction as well as more sophisticated armour required payment in money. In addition, the state, which used to rely upon noblemen for their military service, in the 13th century more and more asked for monetary contributions (taxes) in place of feudal services.
The nobility was chronically short of cash, as they did not produce anything by themselves and depended on the payments made by heir tenant farmers. In addition, many noble estates, i.e. landholdings had been broken up again and again when a father died and his sons inherited. In the 14th and 15th century, there was little room for expansion, to establish new feudal estates.

Some impoverished noblemen even gave up their privileges and moved into the city, where they took up a trade. Others joined the clergy.
Nobility, in the face of an economic crisis, defended it's position in relation to the king, and in many countries in the 13th/14th century, the bodies of assembled noblemen developed into estates, the foundation of our modern parliaments. It was general practice that a king could only raise taxes if the estates had approved.
Noblemen, in order to uphold their lifestyle, had to carefully consider whom to marry, if possible the single daughter of a nobleman without sons, but with rich landholdings. In the central regions of feudal Europe, most noble estates were small; on the periphery, where new land still was taken under cultivation (eastern central Europe) or where feudal society was imposed over hitherto non-feudal regions (the CRUSADER STATES), a career could be made. Another career opportunity was warfare. If they could take captive a high-ranking nobleman, ransom would be paid for his release.
Less spectacular ways to make money was to built a castle along a major trade route and charge TOLL from the by-passing merchants. The merchants did not like that, and often regarded these knights ROBBER KNIGHTS.

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This page is part of World History at KMLA
Last revised on May 29th 2001