Since the very beginning of time, man has made use of different political economies in order to survive. What began with the basic hunting and gathering has evolved into today’s complicated modern world system, with many different forms of economy developing in between. Out of these forms, the political economy that has thus far lasted the longest has been Feudalism. Lasting over 1000 years, remnants of Feudalism survived in Eastern Europe until as late as the 19th and 20th centuries. During Feudalism, rural life depended heavily upon agriculture, and despite the high death rate both the aristocrat and peasant class survived by relying upon each other.
During the Feudal times, the most important aspect was agriculture. The survival of nobility and peasants alike depended upon the growing and harvesting of crops such as wheat, barley, and oats. Domesticated animals were used almost exclusively for work and transportation, and not for food purposes. “The chief restraint on animal rearing was the shortage of winter fodder” (N. J. G. Pounds 203). This meant that the staple of the peasants diet was the crop that they produced throughout the year.
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Peasants took what yield they needed from the crop to survive, and gave the surplus to the aristocracy as a form of rent. If any factor affected the productivity of the crop in a negative way, famine and death would be sure to follow. In the 17th century, a slight ice age occurred, and the average temperature dropped one degree Celsius. The result was reduced agriculture and a massive die-off caused by famine. Survival in the Feudal Age depended upon the agricultural success of the peasants.
Although the Aristocracy only made up about ten percent of the Feudal society and held all of the social advantages, they still relied upon the peasants as a source of food supply and income. Besides acquiring the peasants’ crop surplus, the aristocracy built structures that were too expensive and extensive for peasants to build themselves and charged for their use. A good example of one such structure is the watermill. “The erection a watermill was a profitable investment for the lord, provided that he could compel his tenants to use it” (Pounds 199). Peasants came to the town mills to get their bread grains ground, and left a portion for the aristocracy as part of the fee. The more efficient mills, “ became increasingly common in the early Middle Ages, and the hand quern gradually disappeared” (Pounds 188). The aristocracy were the rulers of the land, but depended upon the peasants for survival and success.
Although it is common belief that Feudalism’s lowest class, peasants, lived very miserable lives, this is not altogether true. As peasants gave up their crop surpluses to the aristocrats, they in exchange received some degree of security by the local lord who used a portion of the rent to finance military protection. Peasants had to work hard to ensure the success of their crops, but they had many tools and methods to help them. The most useful of these was the plow, which “not only buried the weed, but also brought up to the surface a lower soil level [which contained more nutrients]” (Pounds 194). Peasants even had a considerable amount of power within their own villages. As long as they paid rent, the aristocracy chose to leave them more or less alone.
Peasants also had some power to change. Peasant revolts were fairly common and enjoyed some modest success. Within there own villages, peasants had no institutions, so there were few laws that had to be followed and enforced. This sort of anarchistic government forced peasants to be very communal and work together with a unified world view in order to be successful. Peasants relied upon the aristocracy for protection but were left by the rulers to organize themselves.
Some argue that during Feudalism death was far too prevalent for it to be considered a successful form of political economy. The Feudal times were dominated by war, famine, and plague. One out of every two children failed to reach the age of ten. The famine and plague were the negative aspects that resulted from such a rapid population increase. With a massive amount people living in relatively close quarters for the first time, society did not know how to deal with the sanitation and the food supply. The Feudal society always responded to large die-offs with an increased marriage rate and a drop in the marriage age.
One of the reasons why Feudalism was able to survive as long as it did was because of how the two social classes were able to rely upon each other. Much of their interaction was based around agriculture and the food supply. As evidence from the length of the period, I believe that Feudalism was a successful form of political economy that had much to offer to peasants and aristocrats alike.
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