With the decline of the Roman Empire and particularly with the onset of Viking and Magyar raids during the 9th and 10th centuries, political authority became increasingly fractured and localized throughout western and central Europe. The model for political authority developed from the Roman and Frankish tradition of seignorialism. In this tradition, large landowners provided farmland and protection to their tenants in return for taxes and labor. This tradition gradually evolved into a variety of forms, collectively known as feudalism.
In general, all types of feudal relations in the Middle Ages shared two features. First, and most importantly, all political relationships were based on personal bonds, or contracts, between two individuals, whether between king and noble or noble and peasant. Such mutual loyalty had been the basis for the comitatus, a group of warriors in ancient German societies. By the time of Charlemagne, the formation of a lord-vassal relationship between two warriors, or nobles, was increasingly formalized, usually involving the exchange of military service and loyalty for land. Land tenure—the key to personal wealth and power—was the second universal element of feudal relations. In most instances, kings were the largest landowners, and they secured the support of other nobles by giving each of them an estate, or fief.
By the beginning of the 11th century, most parts of Germany were dominated by aristocrats. Everywhere nobles monopolized the right to bear arms. They held supreme jurisdiction within their own lands and dispensed all types of justice.
Only taxation, which was considered an exceptional and generally temporary practice in medieval Europe, required the approval of the emperor and all of the other nobles. The German nobles and the emperor gathered irregularly and in different locations in an imperial assembly, or diet, eventually called the Reichstag. A similar meeting within a territory, or land, was called a Landtag.
The German nobility ranged from the powerful seven electors and the princes of more than 240 states to the minor imperial knights who held fiefs directly from the emperor.
Violent conflicts among noble families were common throughout the Middle Ages and usually aimed at expanding a dynasty’s landholdings. Arranged marriages provided another method of dynastic expansion and consolidation. Beginning in the 11th century, many families constructed castles, both for defense and as a sign of social importance.
About 90 percent of the German population during the Middle Ages lived in small, rural communities and worked on the land. In many regions peasant families entered into an unfree relationship with landowners, commonly known as serfdom. Serfs were required to give part of their labor to the landlord. The majority of those who worked the soil in Germany, though, were free tenant farmers who gave nobles a share of their annual harvest as rent. Peasants—all of those who farmed the land and bred livestock—relied on local secular and ecclesiastical patrons for various kinds of protection, both from invaders and criminals as well as from natural disasters such as famine and flood.
The material conditions of the peasants’ lives were generally harsh. Infant and child mortality was exceptionally high: One out of two babies born did not reach adulthood. Most Germans lived in one-room wooden or mud shacks with all the members of their family and even some domesticated animals. The diet consisted largely of bread, some vegetables, and beer or wine. Meat was expensive and generally reserved for holidays and other special occasions. Whether tenant or serf, peasants relied on the lord for most services—including milling and baking—and were required to provide him with their own labor at certain times. Famine and taxes occasionally drove some individuals to revolt, but the result was always violent suppression. More often peasants negotiated with landlords for better conditions or simply fled to the nearest city. "Germany" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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