Medieval Europe

map of medieval europe

Feudal Societies

Broadly speaking, feudal communities held land in exchange for service or labour. Lords (vassals) were given large areas of land (fiefs) in exchange for the sworn promise of military service to the king or overlord. Vassals in turn expected agricultural (and often military) services from the peasants living on manorial lands (demesnes) within the fiefs. Those peasants also had to pay tithes to the church (generally 10% of their produce), so that historians tend to recognize three estates operating in the manorial realm: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. Feudalism is sometimes used as 'primitive' or pre-capitalist, and can presuppose similarities in societies that were radically different. {1} Thus feudalism proper is found in western Europe between the 9th and 15th centuries, but was reintroduced into central and eastern Europe as serfdom, there lasting to the middle of the 19th century. In Russian the serfs were not emancipated until 1861. {2} Two distinct uses of feudalism have further emerged in recent times. The first, championed by the French Revolution and taken further by Marxist historians, refers to a social system in which peasant agriculture is the fundamental productive activity. Slavery is non-existent or marginal, but peasants are tied to the land. Overall power rests in a small military elite. The second has come to mean a system of reciprocal personal relations among members of the military elite, which leads ultimately to parliament and then western democracy. {3}

Feudal England

William the Conqueror imposed Norman institutions, including serfdom, on a Saxon system of open fields and well-established towns enjoying international trade. The economy and populations expanded over the following five centuries, especially in the 12th and 13th centuries with the growth of towns, mines, guilds, charter fairs and cathedrals. England was still a largely agricultural country, however, with the rights of major landowners and the duties of serfs enshrined in English law. Disputes were increasingly settled by the jury system, and Jewish financiers played a significant role in the growing economy, as did the new Cistercian and Augustinian religious orders that later promoted the wool trade. Mining increased, the silver boom of the 12th century helping to fuel a fast-expanding currency. Economic growth began to slow at the end of the 13th century, probably through over-population, land shortages and depleted soils. The Great Famine of 1315-17 stopped population growth altogether, and the Black Death of 1348 killed up to half the population. But as labour became scarce and land plentiful the peasants could demand higher wages, for once enjoying a comfortable life that the authorities often resented. Prices fell, and shrinking profits led to the end of the old manor system and so the advent of the modern farming system of cash rents for lands. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 further shook the old order, and limited the levels of royal taxation for a century afterwards. The cloth industry grew in the 15th century, and new class of international English merchants appeared, increasingly based in London and the south-west. In time these new trading systems brought about the end of international fairs and the rise of the chartered company. Metal metalworking and shipbuilding became important in Tudor times as the feudal order gave way to the early modern period of strong monarchies. {4}

Marxist Views

Whereas mainstream historians see a natural and increasingly beneficent progression from feudalism through monarchies to the rise of the merchant class, capitalism and parliamentary democracy, Marxists paint a much grimmer picture. Coinage certainly helped the peasantry to commute work on manorial estates to waged labour on which they paid taxes, but it also led to inequalities. The communal life was destroyed as enterprising peasants employed their increasingly poorer neighbours, and then enclosed common lands so necessary to survival in hard times. Deprived of their own plots and common lands, the poor became entirely wage-dependent, and were often driven into towns (where they were further exploited) or became vagabonds and beggars (when they were pressed into work by the poor laws). Single women were particularly badly used, obliged to take up low-paid silk spinning and/or prostitution. {6-8} The 'price revolution' of 1470-1540, is also seen by orthodox economists as resulting from an increase in metal supplies for coinage, a higher velocity of money and improved credit facilities, perhaps aided by coin debasement {9} but those very changes disadvantaged the poor, and are regarded by Marxist economists as early examples of capitalist exploitation. Both views have substance. Money theory is impersonal and ignores the social context. The great mass of peasants certainly did not welcome the price rises, the financial speculation and the land enclosures, but were forcibly prevented from organizing resistance. The 1525 German Peasants Rebellion was put down ferociously with a hundred thousand slain, {4 28} and even in prosperous Norfolk the 1549 Kett's Rebellion against enclosures cost 3,500 lives. {7} Most people in feudal societies lived on the land in self-supporting farms and villages. They tended the fields, supplemented those crops by a herb and fruit orchard where possible, and kept chickens, pigs and the odd cow, plus an ox or horse for ploughing. Fortunes could be made in trade, war and the Church, but these were exceptions, and the successful generally came from landed forebears. Craftsmen - carpenters, thatchers, stone masons, and more so common labourers - earned very modest wages, generally a few pence per day. Food was expensive and two thirds of those wages went in sustenance. Master craftsmen could earn considerably more, approaching the salaries of lawyers and doctors, but few managed to save the two pounds needed to enter a guild. {4} Feudal societies were closely-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else's business, and was indeed responsible for that business. People worked in the fields together, attended manorial courts together, and worshiped together. Every male villein between twelve and sixty in England was bound into a group called a tithing, which was sworn to uphold the law. All were responsible for the good conduct of others, and fined heavily for any misdemeanour. On discovering a crime, the person making the discovery was expected to raise the alarm, the 'hue and cry', collect tithing members into a 'posse comitatus' and hunt down the culprit. The chief tithing-man, the 'capital pledge' as he was called, would then deliver the offending party to the constable of the township. News of the wrong-doing would be reported at the next hundred court and disseminated throughout the district, making it difficult for the culprit to flee justice. Escape to a new district was equally hazardous: people belonged to a certain place and new-comers were always suspect. Wrong-doers could enjoy sanctuary in a church for 30 days, and in theory then walk unmolested to a port for permanent exile from the country, but the promise was often broken, particularly if the offence was against persons of wealth or power. Honour, status and violence ran through the fabric of feudal England, and it was most unwise to insult or injure someone of higher status, or even his retainers. Offenders were tried before juries of their peers, but the verdict was often swayed by how the offender was regarded by those peers. It paid to be on good terms with everyone. {4} There were few checks and balances in the system, which was therefore open to corruption at all levels. Torture could be used to extract confessions, and anyone found guilty of serious crimes had the opportunity of naming accomplices or other wrong-doers before execution, a concession happily abused in settling old scores. Anyone who evaded the judicial system was declared an outlaw, and could be killed on sight. Outlaws therefore tended to band together in large criminal gangs, which could act with impunity if, as often was the case, they were protected by persons of authority intent on stirring up trouble in rival territories. {4} And so it went on, upwards from capital pledge, to steward of the lord or constable, to bailiff of the hundred, to sheriff and finally the chief law enforcement officer: everyone was responsible for upholding the law, and faced penalties for evading that duty. Whether villein, free man, merchant or lord, social mobility was very limited: people were born into a place and a station in life. Elaborate bylaws pertained to making of bread, wine and ale, and prices of foodstuffs tended to be stable. But exceptionally poor harvests could raise prices, and a glut lower them, especially in the years following the Black Death, when wide areas became depopulated. Wages rose, but the price of food and other commodities fell. {4} Lords were responsible to the king, and the king had his own pressing duties: to ensure that his writ went unhindered through the land, to defend his realms in the constant wars that were endemic in Europe, and ensure those armies were supplied with men and money. Few outside the merchant class or nobility had a disposable income. Innovation would threaten the divine order, and seditious views faced the wrath of Church and State. The clergy were judged in ecclesiastical courts and did not usually face execution. Secular offenders were judged at the appropriate level, usually manorial, and those found guilty were promptly fined or hung. Punishment acted as a deterrent, and there was no attempt at rehabilitation through imprisonment. {4} The laws of England were a compendium of old Saxon laws constantly updated to make a 'common law' that applied to all. There were many courts, with different or overlapping jurisdictions, and it was to bring some sense to the system that Edward III introduced the office of the Justices of the Peace, individuals who became increasingly responsible for law and order as the feudal country gave way to a wage-earning and then mercantile society. {4} Until 1344, when Edward III minted a gold florin, the only coinage was in silver: pennies, halfpennies and farthings. Unfortunately, the 1344 florin had a contained gold value in excess of its face value, and was illegally but largely melted down. More success greeted the 1351 gold noble, however, and gold was thereafter part of English currency till modern times. {4}

Feudalism Outside

Approximations to European feudalism are sometimes ascribed to India, {10} Pakistan, {11} the Zhou {12} and Qing {13} dynasties of China and the Togugawa shogunate of Japan, {14} but there are major differences nonetheless.

England: Cnut Penny

cnut penny obverse

Origins of the Penny

The penny was the only coin issued in England for some 500 years, from the time of Offa to the gold coinage of Henry III. The term comes from  pennige, and the denomination was modelled on the Carolingian coinage. Ruler (king, occasionally archbishop) appears on the obverse, and the mint and moneyer are given on the reverse. Anglo-Saxon England was a monetised society, and needed additionally large quantities to be struck for the Danegeld that forestalled Viking raids and invasion. Aethelred (978-1016), for example, paid 40 million pennies, and Cnut paid off his fleet on becoming King of England with a further 20 million pennies: 60 million in all — 2.8 m troy ounces or 750 tonnes of silver.{1-2} Earlier Anglo-Saxon issues had melted down Islamic coinage, but most of the new Cnut silver will have come from European sources like Rammelsberg. {3}

Anglo-Saxon, Canute, Silver Penny, Helmet type (1024-1030). Helmeted bust with sceptre left, linear circle around head, helmet intrudes, legend commences at top, +CNVT REX AI (Cnut King A(nglorum: England) I(mperator: Emperor) {16-21}

North Sea Empire

Cnut was only the younger son of Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, but by conquest and astute statesmanship managed to forge a North Sea Empire embracing England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. By England's wealth, and his control of Baltic and North Seas, Cnut became the most powerful man in Europe after the Holy Roman Emperor.

Cnut's father died shortly after invading England, and Cnut himself had to make protracted  attempts to assume the throne: military incursions, understandings with nobles, and an agreement that left Edward on the Wessex throne. But when Edward died in November 1016, the whole country became Cnut's, a position the king astutely legitimised by marrying Aethelred's widow and  paying off his fleet with a large tribute collected from the whole country. Cnut could legally claim Denmark when his elder brother died childless in 1018 or 1019, but several battles were needed to bring Norway into the fold, and parts of Sweden he claimed (and issued coins for) may only represent overlordship, as was the case for Scotland, Poland and northern France.

England had been Christian for centuries, and the half-pagan Cnut also converted, giving lavishly to churches and going on a pilgrimage to Rome. Indeed Cnut was continually travelling, and often had to leave countries under the care of regents: leading nobles and members of his family, none of whom were wholly loyal or effective. Norway was already slipping from Cnut's grasp when he died in 1035, and the empire collapsed immediately afterwards. Harthacnut claimed Norway and England. As a compromise, Harold Harefoot, Cnut's son by an earlier marriage, ruled as regent until, at his death, the country reverted to Harthacnut. The latter was not popular with his English subjects, however, and on Harthacnut's death in 1040, the throne reverted to the Wessex line of rulers, a brief swansong before the Norman invasion.   {4}

Anglo-Saxon Background

Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians began to arrive in small parties after the Romans left England. Many had known England in their mercenary days, and climate warming both flooded their own settlements and made English agriculture more prosperous. From around 500, however, the invaders met increasing resistance from the Romano-British, in literature represented by the fabled King Alfred of Wessex, but in fact occupying the whole country. The situation was ever shifting and complex, but by 650 there were seven separate kingdoms, often at war with each other but otherwise stable, agrarian-based and trading with continental Europe and beyond. The western kingdoms converted to Christianity.

From 793, the Vikings began raiding English shores, and in 865, for the first time, over-wintered on the Isle of Thanet. In time, half the country had to be ceded to the invaders, and between Wessex and the kingdoms of the Danelaw existed an uneasy peace. Fresh Norse invasions began in the early tenth century, and threatened even the Viking kingdoms. Aethelstan checked a coalition of Irish, Norse, Scots and Northumbrians at Brananburg in 937, but Eric Bloodaxe was not driven from York until 954. Coming to the throne in 959, Eadgar spent the next 18 years trying to wield  Wessex, Northumberland, Mercia and East Anglia into a coherent, fighting entity. During the reign of Aethelred (978-1016), however, the Viking attacks began again, particularly  from Denmark, led by Swein Forkbeard. Resistance finally collapsed in 1013, Aethelred fled to France, and Swein was recognised as King of England. He died four months later, and his son Canute began his own struggles to regain the English throne. {5-12}

cnut penny reverse

The Moneyer

The moneyer had become a skilled artisan by later medieval times, {13} but his standing in Anglo-Saxon England was more ambiguous and  important. {14-18} Mints had to pay the crown for the priviledge of mininting, and made their profit by coining (seigniorage) that generally added a little copper to their silver — not normally more than 5% — which enabled silver supplies to go a little further, and produced a harder and more durable coin. Some moneyers clearly travelled from mint to mint, {22} but others were perhaps had more supervisory roles, with dies being cut only at the central mints. {23} In many cases, we simply don't know.

Reverse: short voided cross with pellet and annulet centre, pellet in annulet in each angle, all within linear circle, +ASGOD M-O EOFR (Asgautr Moneyer York.) 18-19 mm: 0.95 g

(BMC type XIV, North 787, Hildebrand G, Seaby 1158)

{7, 16-21}

Moneyers were responsible for the striking of good-quality coins of a stipulated purity, of course, both of which were supervised carefully.  Though savage penalties applied to surreptitious coining, and presumably to debasement too, the silver content of Anglo-Saxon pennies does vary, and more between mints than with time {24} — i.e. mints had their individual traditions, a surprising feature in a medieval society where everyone knew everyone else's business. Anglo-Saxon England was hierarchical and closely governed. {25}  The king took advice as needed  from the Witan, an aristocracy that functioned as a circle of elders. County affairs were settled at the Moot, a more democratic body which included members of the local aristocracy (sheriff, lords and bishops), but also four representatives from every village in the county.{26}

Conquest to Governance

As the Mongols found, countries may be conquered by the sword, but not properly governed by violence. On his first arrival in England with Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut behaved as the typical Viking. He was amicably received by countries of the Danelaw, and indeed married into one of its powerful families (a marriage not recognised by the Church, however, which allowed the later marriage to Aethelred's widow). But he showed little mercy to the West Saxons, and mutilated captives when he had to flee the country in 1014. On his return, even before becoming king of all England in 1016, Cnut had to demonstrate his credentials and appear worthy of his position, both to the Saxon aristocracy and the Church.{27}

From Tribal Chief to King of a Country

On the obverse of the silver penny, Cnut is titled King of England and Emperor. The I (imperator) is nothing unusual: Saxon kings often claimed that title. But now the Rex A had to be substantiated. Cnut was not king by virtue of being first among the Saxon aristocracy, but by conquest and by agreement among nobles dissatisfied with Aethelred's rule. Saxon kings reigned with the grace of God, moreover, supported by the Church while they governed appropriately and wisely, according to the laws of the country. Cnut upheld those laws, accepted advice from the Witan,  converted to Christianity, and accorded due respect and funds to the Church. But these, and even his later marriage to Aethelred's widow, did not automatically make him English: he was always the outsider, one of the feared and despised Viking marauders.

Not in the coinage, but in the legal documents of the time, we see a shift in title, from Engla cyningc (king of the English) to ealles Englalandes cyningc (king of all England). {28} Cnut identified with the country as a whole. We are far from the concept of national sovereignty implicit in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, but there appeared in Cnut's reign the dawn of another way of regarding sovereignty. Countries were still personal fiefdoms, or largely so, but kings were constrained by laws and traditions, and so answerable to their subjects under God. Cnut's empire disappeared at his death, of course, and Saxon rule was to be overthrown by the Normans a half century later, but Cnut's rule recognised and extended the concept of the just ruler. The concept was a familiar one to Islamic countries of the time, and had been shown so on their coinage for centuries, but Cnut identified with Anglo-Saxon England  in a way William the Conqueror did not. The Normans imposed their rule on England, remaining for generations an elite class that spoke French — much as the Mamluks and Sultans of Delhi stayed an elite military class governing a subject people — but in Cnut we see the beginning of government that represented the people, accepting the Witan and Moot, and so ruled through a country's customs and traditions, which were slowly codified into institutions of government.

References and Further Reading

Need the 41 references and 2 illustration sources? Please consider our modestly-priced ebook.