International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 09 November 2017  
Unit 1 - Lesson 3 - What was feudalism? (from above)
In medieval Europe, the state was dominated by a monarchy that was at the top of a pyramid of power. Unlike in the modern state, there were very few restrictions on the power of kings and queens; they were ‘absolute monarchs’. During the Middle Ages, these monarchs became increasingly powerful as their territories became bigger. They derived their power through the ownership of land and their authority came from God, not the people. This was called the 'divine right of kings'.

As we will see, in medieval Europe the Catholic Church was seen to interpret the will of God and as a result the church was enormously important. The physical remains of the Middle Ages reflect the importance of land and the church. Many modern towns and cities are still dominated by medieval castles that were designed to protect the land, and medieval cathedrals which were designed to psychologically overpower and awe.

Image result for feudal system diagram

What was the feudal system?

The feudal system was a social, economic and political system that was found throughout Western Europe by the 12th century.

In an age when it could take days to travel a few hundred kilometres, the feudal system enabled kings to keep control of their lands by contracting others to do the controlling for them.

At the top of the feudal system was the king. Chosen by God, the king had a ‘divine right’ to rule. The king gave his lands and manors (or fiefs – which is where the word feudal comes from) to important lords or tenants–in-chief. In return for the fiefs, the lords or nobles became the king’s vassals and swore an oath of loyalty (fealty) and paid homage to him. Homage consisted of the vassal surrendering himself to the lord, symbolized by his kneeling and giving his joined hands to the lord, who clasped them in his own, thus accepting the surrender.

A video series for the more ambitious students, as Professor Robert Bartlett explores different aspects of medieval life.

In this episode he considers power.

Harold Godwinson swears an oath of fealty to Duke William of Normandy in 1064, two years before William invades England.


Activity 1 - What makes a successful leader?

You are going to decide what characteristics are needed to be a successful leader. Make a copy of the following chart.




Football Manager


















1. For each person choose four qualities from the list on the right which they would need to be good at their job. Write the qualities you have chosen on the chart in the column marked 'Successful'.
2. Then choose four things that would prevent them from being good at their job. Write these on the chart in the column marked 'Unsuccessful'.
3. Could you add two more words of your own in each column?


Activity 2 - What did it mean to be a successful medieval king?

Watch this short extract from a documentary by English historian David Starkey about three medieval English kings.

1. What qualities do the successful kings share?

2. What qualities are common in less successful kings?

3. To what extent are the qualities of successful medieval kingship the same as those of modern presidency?


How much power a king had depended on a lot of factors. If he came to power at a young age or if he inherited a kingdom that was divided or that had been badly ruled, then his power would be more limited. The amount of power a monarch exercised could also vary during his reign. A successful king would become more powerful but an unsuccessful king could find himself replaced [overthrown] in a rebellion.

So what did it mean to be a good medieval king? Click on the picture to find out more or watch this video, 'How to get ahead at the medieval court'.

Nobles and Knights

In many ways, a medieval monarch had considerably less power than a modern dictator. Although theoretically the monarch had absolute power, in reality the lack of modern communication meant that kings and queens depended on local nobles to do their ruling for them. Other from the King, nobles were the biggest landowners in the country. In return for the land given to them by the king, nobles promised never to go to war against the king and to provide the him with money, soldiers, accommodation, or advice (counsel) when needed. The nobles also included powerful members of the church such as bishops, because the church was one of the most important medieval landowners.

The lord also had vassals who were called knights. Again, in return for fiefs, the vassals made promises, the most important of which was to serve the lord as a soldier of 40-60 days a year. It was the knights as lords of the manor or demesne who really controlled medieval Europe.

Source A - Norman knights depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

See a full-scale version of this image and more about the Bayeux Tapestry.

A medieval knight was usually a mounted and armoured soldier, often connected with nobility or royalty. This was because the cost of their armour, horses, and weapons was great. When a boy was eight years old he was trained as a page. The boy was usually the son of a knight or of a member of the aristocracy. He spent most of his time strengthening his body, wrestling and riding horses. He also learned how to fight with a spear and a sword. He practiced against a wooden dummy called a quintain. At the age of fifteen or sixteen, a boy became a squire in service to a knight. His duties included dressing the knight in the morning, caring for the knight’s horse, and cleaning the knight’s armour and weapons. He followed the knight to tournaments and assisted his lord on the battlefield. A squire also prepared himself by learning how to handle a sword and lance while wearing 20 kg of armour and riding a horse. When he was about twenty, a squire could become a knight after proving himself worthy. A lord would agree to knight him in a dubbing ceremony. A young man could also become a knight for valour in combat after a battle or sometimes before a battle to help him gain courage. Tournaments were an essential part of military and social life. These "war games" consisted of individual contests (jousts), and group combat. One of the most successful knights of the middle ages was William Marshall.

Source B - Terry Jones' Medieval Lives  2004 BBC documentary series

More about the series and Terry Jones.

Knights believed in the code of chivalry. They promised to defend the weak, be courteous to all women, be loyal to their king, and serve God at all times. Knights were expected to be humble before others, especially their superiors. However, the very fact that knights were trained as men of war meant that the code was not regularly followed. Even though they came from rich families, many knights were not their families' firstborn. They did not receive an inheritance. Thus they were little more than mercenaries. They plundered villages or cities that they captured, often defiling and destroying churches and other property. When the Pope launched the First Crusade 1095, part of his reasoning was to get rid of the warring knights from Europe.


Activity 3

1. Using a simplified sketch, explain carefully how the feudal system worked. You will be expected to reproduce this in test conditions.

2. Consider the origin, purpose, value and limitations of Sources A and B as evidence about how medieval knights fought on the battlefield.




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