Sunday, September 23, 2007


To study our first "-ism" we take a large step back into history and look at the Middle Ages.

Feudalism was he social, political, and economic structure of society in the Midle Ages. It was characterized by a clear caste system which created many distinct layers within society.

The members of the upper levels of society believed that the hierarchical stratification of society reflected God's divine plan for all of Creation. That is to say, they believed that God wanted the kings to be kings, the lords to be lords, and the peasants to be peasants. There was virtually no Upward Mobility (raising one's self to a higher social & economic class) in the middle ages. Kings ruled by Divine Right (the idea the their authority lay in the fact that God willed them and their descendants to be the leaders.

The Middle Ages consist of roughly the Millenium between the fall of the Roman Empire (476 A.D.) and the tumultuous 15th Century. (Basically from 500 - 1500 A.D.)

The Geographical context of feudalism was essential all of Western Europe, though it was concentrated in the areas that are today known as France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain.

The economy was a land-based one, meaning that the truest measure of one's wealth was in the farmable land that he owned or controlled. To help manage the large areas of land, a region would be broken up into fiefdoms - smaller regions placed in control of a vassal (a lesser nobleman such as a duke or lord). In exchange for the land, the vassal would provide his lord with money, crops, and with the support of his own army when called upon. This fiefdom would in turn be broken up into smaller segments and farmed by the serfs or peasants who inhabited the land.

The peasants led a rather bleak life. The life expectancy was hardly into one's 40's. To reach a 50th birthday was a feat. Peasant homes were generally thatched roof cottages with dirt floors. Their diet was largely grain-based with little in the way of fresh fruits, vegetables, or meat.
Most of the produce they grew was for their land lord, and little if any of it made its way to their own tables. The labor of farming was back-breaking and the work day as long as the daylight. Clothing was homespun cloth which offered little protection against the elements, and even less comfort.

Meanwhile the land owners lived in relative luxury: stone manors (castles were primarily military fortifications rather than private homes), a diverse and hearty diet, clothing of fur and fine coth, and abundant time for leisure and entertainment.
The preservation of wealth and power from one generation to the next was of great importance to medieval leaders. This led to a policy of primogeniture, where the oldest male heir inherits virtually all of the land, wealth, and authority of his father. (The alternative, equally distributing the land among one's children, would quickly lead to the diminishment of wealth and power as each succeeding generation controlled less and less land.)

The downside of primogeniture is that it left the younger sons often in a difficult position. They could opt to "play second fiddle" to an older brother, to seek their own power through marriage and military conquest, or to become authorities in their own right through a career in the Church. It was this last option that led to some of the darkest pages in the Church's history.

Often the younger sons of the nobility would be put on the path to a career in the Church from a very young age. A man would make a large donation in gold (or more likely, land) to a local monastery, and in turn, drop off his son to be education by the monks. Monasteries were the centers of learning in the middle ages, and they preserved much of the literary heritage of the ancient world by the copying and studying of manuscripts. (see Thomas Cahill's popular book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, for an account of the debt owed to medieval monks.) Until the rise of cathedral schools in the late middle ages, monasteries were the only educational option aside from having a private tutor.

Sadly, many of the young men who were products of the monastic education system entered into careers in the Church not out of a sense of Divine calling or obedience to the will of God and service to His Church, but rather out of a desire to retain a position of power and relative wealth and luxury.

Due to a controversy known as lay investiture (where secular rulers apointed many ecclesial leaders) and corrupt practices like simony and nepotism, the ranks of the bishops was at times less than holy. Simony is the practice of "buying" or bribing one's way into office. Nepotism, on the other hand, is being appointed to a position of power and authority based only on one's personal and social connections and without any concern given to one's ability or qualifications.

I shall beef this post up a little more soon with some names and photos. Until next time,
Mr. B

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