When you think of medieval Europe, two words often come to the forefront of the mind—Charlemagne and feudalism. The empire created by Charlemagne, however, was not governed by a feudal system, at least not in the way most people imagine.
First of all, we have to define feudalism. Broadly speaking, a king used a feudal system when he delegated to underlings varying amounts of autonomy to rule portions of the kingdom. Feudal lords can also be called ‘banal lordships’ because of the monarch’s authority (or bannus) that local lords siphoned from the king in order to rule their lands, such as dukedoms or counties. Claiming to rule their territory in the name of the king, these lords claimed ownership of the resources in their lands, allowing them to set up monopolies on goods production and agriculture in their specific domains.
The key points of feudalism, however, are delegation and decentralization—and these are traits that are hard to find in the empire created by Charlemagne. He simply did not delegate enough of his power for his government to be adequately labeled as feudal. Sure, Charlemagne granted his trusted followers titles such as ‘vice-count’ and ‘judge,’ but there is little to no evidence that suggests any of these officials labeled themselves as ‘lords.’ During Charlemagne’s time, power remained firmly centralized in the hands of the monarch.
It was only after Charlemagne, around the 10th and 11th centuries, that kings began to lose their grip (just like the weak Merovingian kings that preceded Charlemagne’s own dynasty) over the banal lords that governed the kingdoms. As the power of the kings weakened and decentralized, the autonomy and independence of local lords strengthened. These autonomous, powerful lordships held together loosely by a decentralized monarchy were the true feudal lords of the Middle Ages.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.