Power and Property

In medieval Europe, the amount of land a person owned directly influenced their power and wealth. Feudalism, a system of social and economic organization based on landholding and personal dependency, structured relations between individuals of all ranks in society. The nobility and clergy owned much of the land that most peasants farmed and lived on. These dependent peasants were called “vassals,” and they relied on the lords for farmland to provide for themselves and for protection during times of conflict. 

Vassalage was often voluntary and sought-after by peasants, but there were also unfree peasants—or “serfs"—who were forced to provide agricultural labour to their lord. This system of production (known as “serfdom") tied serfs to the land and restricted their lives to the provision of labour. These arrangements became hereditary, meaning the descendants of a serf became serfs themselves and were not allowed to leave the land without their lord’s permission.


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