Deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the Western Roman Emperor by Odoacer in 476 resulted in the collapse of the Late Antique political system and of its social structure. However, the social changes occurred already before the official Fall of Rome, while formation of the new social order known as feudal system evolved gradually as a combination of Roman social-economic system and tribal-military organization of the barbarian peoples who triumphed over Western Roman Empire.
The barbarian kings in Italy, Iberian Peninsula, France and elsewhere in Europe adopted the Roman titles and methods of government. Although they were practically independent they considered the Byzantine Emperor their suzerain. Feudalism developed in Western Europe in the 8th and 9th century and became the predominant political and social system by the 11th century. For that reason medieval society and related subjects are often referred as the Feudal society. The feudal system was not equal in all countries but there were certain common characteristics such as strict division into social classes: nobility, clergy and peasantry or “those who fight”, “those who pray” and “those who labour”.
Cleric, knight and serf
The king was on the top of the hierarchy of an ideal medieval society. Beneath him was a hierarchy of nobles consisting from the nobles who held land directly from the king to those who held only a single manor. Landholding system which based on fiefs or landholding in exchange for providing military service and paying a homage to the overlord eventually evolved into a system of subinfeudation by which the recipient of the fief – the vassal granted part of his fief to one who then became his vassal. Thus evolved very complex relations within the class of nobility, while every noble was someone’s vassal and was bound by mutual ties of loyalty and service. Besides that it was not unusual for one being a vassal to several overlords, while even a king could have been a vassal to another king.
The peasants or serfs who represented the majority of the medieval population and worked for the landlords in exchange for use of his land and his protection were on the bottom of the medieval society. Instability and turmoils in the 9th and 10th centuries forced the remained free peasants to seek protection by the nearest powerful landlord in exchange for their labour and personal freedom. They accepted to became serfs and also granted serfdom of their descendants. Thus serfdom became inheritable, while the principal duty of the serfs according to the medieval perception was to work on the land on which they were bound and which placed them on the very bottom of medieval social hierarchy.
Clergy was placed very high in the medieval social order. The Christianity and the Church had an absolute monopoly over mentality of all social classes, while religious believes had great influence on all medieval institutions as well as on all aspects of life of a Christian. Vassal took his oath on the Bible or holy relics, while serfdom was considered to be determined by God with purpose of survival of humanity. Thus clergy played very important role in the establishment of feudalism, while its hierarchy was very similar to the hierarchy of feudal society. Besides that the Church held much land, while high church officials acted as feudal landlords and lived a leisurely life comparable to the life of high nobility.
The theory of the three classes of feudal society does not describe the whole medieval population. Besides fiefs some men held their land in allod and were without any obligations, while even the three classes of feudal society sometimes referred as “the estates of the realm” were not a homogenous group. Besides city population (bourgeoisie) which was not a part of the “feudal pyramid” medieval society also consisted of population which was in certain way excluded from the feudal order: Jews and other subordinate groups – lepers, homosexuals, disabled persons, foreigners, witches, heretics, beggars, unemployed and outlaws.