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Understanding Feudalism

Feudalism is one of those terms that means something different to academic historians on the one hand and to most teachers and the public on the other. Check some recent academic books and you may not find ‘feudalism’ in the index or, at most, there’s a paragraph explaining why the term is meaningless because its generality hides all the many variations in social structures and land-holding. This move away from the term ‘feudalism’ may therefore be a reaction against textbook diagrams of the ‘feudal system’ which imply an unvarying, unchangeable structure.

However, while academics have a duty to point out how feudalism differed over time and from country to country, in teaching it’s often helpful to begin with a generalisation that will be unpicked later if needed. Once that ‘feudal triangle’ is clear in students’ minds it’s not too difficult to play the ‘Was it really so simple?’ game and introduce freemen who are outside the ‘triangle’ of obligations or the fact that over time many individuals held land from more than one lord or that kings hired mercenaries because they could not rely on the feudal levy to provide enough soldiers at the right time. And, while our initial diagrams may be too neat, the word ‘feudal’ does derive from the Latin feodum meaning fief, the area of land given to a knight by his lord in return for military service and therefore words like feudal and feudalism do help everyone understand the nature of society from the eleventh to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

This activity was created by Andrew Morel, an NQT at St. Teilo’s CIW High School, Cardiff, supported by suggestions from other members of St Teilo’s History Department. Andrew’s approach takes that feudal diagram off the page and recreates it in the classroom using his students as king, barons, knights and villeins. This approach has the potential to strengthen understanding of the mutual relationships within feudalism – what each person owes and receives back from others. Also importantly, if it is successful in strengthening understanding it will also be a memorable activity, one that can be referred back to when learning about related topics such as Magna Carta and the 1381 Revolt. Used at Key Stage 3 it may also build understandings for those who go on to study the Norman Conquest at GCSE and will need to return to feudalism in more depth.

Now over to Andrew for his description and explanation of his activity.

Support

A WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

Objectives

This activity uses controlled role-play to help students understand the links between the layers of society i.e. the bestowing of land in return for providing soldiers, money or labour. The activity also helps clarify that the king at the top does not directly bestow patronage on the lower levels but that this is done via intermediaries, the barons, knights and Church. It also helps students understand how William the Conqueror kept control of England, how he and his successors raised armies when needed and how they raised money via feudal links which in time created the anger that led to Magna Carta. In addition, the activity can develop student’s perspectives on the attitudes of people at each level and thus link into later work on the 1381 revolt.

Therefore by taking part in this activity and follow-up work students will develop knowledge and understanding of:

• the layers of feudal society and the roles of each group in society

• the granting of land and power by the King in return for military-service, money and support from his barons

• the granting of land by barons in return for military-service, money and support from knights

• the rights and responsibilities linking knights with villeins on their lands

• likely attitudes and feelings of villeins and freemen

Setting Up

You need an area roughly the size of a classroom that can be divided into three sections.

Additional resources:

A crown - paper, Burger King hat or mock crown.

Something to distinguish the Barons, I used wooden swords.

All the prompt cards.

The Activity

The structure of those involved in the activity is as follows:

Start the whole activity with learners in the classroom and a map of England and Wales displayed on the board with the questions ‘How could King William control all of this land?’ and ‘How could he raise an army to defend his land?’

Ask students to think, maybe pair-share - what ideas can they come up with to answer the question. Note and discuss any ideas that are similar to the feudal system.

Then move out of the classroom into an area that is roughly the size of a classroom or clear all the chairs and desks to the side in the classroom to create a whole space. Throughout these next elements focus on:

a) what each social group has to do for another

b) how each group might feel or what their attitudes might be

The King:

Choose a King and give him/her the crown. Explain the qualities looked for in a king i.e. leadership, hard-working, fair, tough. Give the King the two ‘King’ cards and ask him/her to read card one.

This leads to the King choosing two Barons. Ask the King what qualities the barons will need. Provide answers if needed.

Then together with the King split the room into three. For two areas put your Barons in charge. Tell them that is their land and they run it.

Choose one pupil to be a bishop in the Church and give the final third of the land to the Church – in 1066 the Church already held a great deal of land and William would not change this as he was genuinely and deeply religious.

Now ask the King – to defend your country from outsiders or rebels you need an army. Who are you going to ask to provide your army? Answer - the barons and the Church. Now tell the barons and the bishop that they each must provide one hundred soldiers for the royal army for forty days each year.

This is what they give the king in return for the land he has given them.

As an end-point here make sure this sense of exchange – land for loyalty and soldiers – is clear – get barons to kneel before the king and swear fealty as they did at the Oath of Salisbury in 1086.

The Barons:

Now the Barons play their part in this second layer. Give them their ‘Baron’ cue cards.
Ask the Barons to say their words: 

Barons SAY: I am a Norman Baron. I have control over part of England. I am helping the King to run the country and must provide knights for the King’s army.

Barons DO: Pick two knights from the class. Split your area of the room into two and put one knight in charge of each part. 

The Knights:

Knight SAY: I am a knight and I am a VERY good soldier. I have been given land by the Baron and in return I will fight for him and for the King.

Knight DO: Split your land into three and assign one villein to work each part – the villein receives some land of his own but in return has to work on the knight’s land for two or three days a week.

Make clear what each is receiving from the other in this arrangement – it is reinforced later.

The Church:

Choose a Bishop, to now follow their ‘Church’ cue card.

Bishop Say: I am a bishop of the Church and so I am in charge of the priests in this area but I must also provide knights for the King’s army.

Bishop DO: Pick two priests. Split your area of the room into two and put one priest in each part. 

Also assign one villein to work in each area.

Bishop SAY: I must use the money I earn from this land to pay for knights for the king’s army.

Villeins:

Give them the Villein cards – ask one of the villeins to read out the words on the card

Freemen:

Use remaining students or cuddly toys to represent freemen – read out how they became free.

Questions – use two stages, the first to bring out assumptions that freedom is best, the second to challenge this.

Ask freemen ‘How do you feel being free?’ then ask the villeins ‘How do you feel about the freemen? Are you happy for them? Are you jealous?’

It’s very likely that students will assume that freedom is preferable but then give them some more information:

Villeins – there was a poor harvest last year and food prices have gone up as a result. However, you have land of your own so you have grown some food and your lord will help you as he needs to make sure he has workers for his land.

Freemen – there was a poor harvest last year and food prices have gone up as a result. You are working in a town where food prices are very high and wages are very low – you lose your job because your employer can’t afford to pay you. You do not have any land so you haven’t grown any food of your own.

Now repeat the questions - ask freemen ‘How do you feel being free?’ then ask the villeins ‘How do you feel about the freemen? Are you happy for them? Are you jealous?’

Collection of promises and work 

[see italics for extension detail]

The King says ‘I NEED my army!’’

Barons and the Bishop read their cards.

‘In return for the land you gave me I will provide a hundred knights to fight for your army or guard your castles for forty days each year.’

[To add further detail if you wish the barons could also say: ‘I must ask your permission for my children to marry and my son must pay you a tax to inherit the land when I die’.]

They then hand the cards to the king.

One Knight reads out his/her card ‘’ In return for the land the baron gave me I promise to fight for him and the king for forty days each year.’

[To add further detail if you wish the knight could also say: I must ask your permission for my children to marry and my son must pay you a tax to inherit the land when I die’.]

All knights hand their token to the Baron

One villein reads out his/her card ‘In return for the land you gave me l will farm my lord the Knight’s land for 120 days per year for free.’

[To add further detail if you wish the villein could also say: I cannot leave my lord’s land or marry without his permission. My son must give him our best animal to inherit the land when I die.’]

All villeins hand their tokens to their knights

Questions:

What do the barons do for the king in return for their land?

What do the knights do in return for their land?

Why might villeins resent the things they have to do or pay to their lord?

Do the villeins have any benefits at all?

How might the king raise more money from his barons? (this is thinking ahead to work on Magna Carta as major grievances developed from the Angevin kings raising very high inheritance taxes and asking for high taxes called scutage when the barons did not send men to the royal army)

Micro View

Following this macro view of the system it was beneficial to focus on a smaller segment of interactions between the villeins, freemen and the Knight/their Lord.

For this: Take one knight and his land. Make the whole classroom then his land whilst everyone else stands around the edge.

Then propose the following situations asking learners what the villeins, freeman and knight would have the option of doing. 

Situation One: One of your villeins refuses to pay the inheritance tax of his best animal.

Focus on how the Knight would treat the villein and how the freeman and other villein would react to this. Would you support the villein?

Result of the situation: The knight takes the animal – he has military force, armour and weapons and the villein cannot prevent this.

Situation Two: a villein has lots of wheat to grind into flour to make bread. Which mill will he take this to? The lord’s mill in the village or another one nearby?

Focus on the control. Do learners think that the Lord would control this? Do they think the freeman would have to do the same thing?

Result of the situation: The villein has to get their wheat ground in the Lord’s mill. The Freeman in the village does not have to, but will find it most convenient.

Situation Three: Villein wants to get married. Does he or she have to ask anyone’s permission?

Ask the learners what happens today and then ask if the same applies to then or would it differ? Hopefully learners will make the leap between Lord’s control and his permission needed for marriage. Ask learners what they think it would be like for the freeman.

Result: Villein has to have the Lord’s permission to marry. The Freeman could marry who he wanted – more choice than a baron or baron’s daughter who could be married on orders of the king.

I ended the whole activity by the King using a Baron’s sword to promote a knight to become a baron. I used this to demonstrate the power of the King and the ability to progress up the social ranking if they achieved something great. William Marshal the greatest soldier of his time who became earl of Pembroke in the early 13th century is a good example.

Debriefing

I provided learners with a triangle outline diagram of the Feudal System and asked learners to create their own detailed diagram in their books. I also gave them symbols to use in their diagrams to represent each person.

Furthermore, the following questions were then given for learners to answer in books and discussion on these answers took place afterwards.

1. How did the feudal system make it easier for King William to control England and raise an army?

2. How do you think a villein would feel about the Feudal System?

3. Do you think this was a fair way for the King to run the country? Think about the perspective from the different layers in the system

As the last two questions are ‘do you think based’ they provide access to all ability of learner to provide their own idea. Additionally the use of time to write in their books gave them all dedicated thinking time about these broader questions which they could refer to, if needed, during class discussion.

Links to Later Work

Magna Carta – if you use the extension material above looking at how the kings could raise more taxes from barons (and therefore in turn from knights) you can introduce the idea that kings needed to be careful about how much tax they raised in this way. Would barons resent this? If they did what might make them rebel to reduce taxes?

1381 – as this activity explores the possible reactions of villeins to this system it does link to later work on the 1381 Revolt when people felt that they could improve their lives if they were free to take advantage of higher wages.

The activity above or asking ‘do you remember when we investigated the feudal system?’ could lead into other activities on this website:

See ‘Why Did People Rebel in 1381HERE …

See ‘The decisions of a Kentish villager: 1381HERE …

Feedback

Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

This Page

Introduction

Support

Objectives

Setting Up

The Activity

Micro View

Debriefing

Links to Later Work

Feedback