Monday, April 9, 2012

Document Based Question: The Decline of Feudalism

The feudalism system was established in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, and was based upon loyalty. In feudalism, the distinction between the four major social classes (kings, lords, knights, serfs) were prominently drawn, and each class depended on each other. However, during the decline of feudalism, these lines began to blur and fade. Several factors contributed to this decline, namely the signing of the Magna Carta, the onset of the Bubonic Plague, and the Hundred Years' War. These events impacted the system of feudalism on any different levels.

King John was pressured into signing the Magna Carta in 1215 AD by rebellious barons who threatened to desert him if their desired course of action was not taken. The Magna Carta reduced the power of the kings, forcing them to ask permission of their lords before making decisions. It also ensured people convicted of crimes a trial by jury, instead of a trial by ordeal or combat. King John was against signing the Magna Carta, but quickly saw the power his lords had to abandon or overthrow him. "King John, seeing that he was far inferior in strength to the barons... granted the underwritten laws and liberties," states Roger of Wendover. In other words, King John only signed the document in a desperate, last resort attempt to hold his throne. By granting those rights mentioned in the Magna Carta, King John overturned many of the rules of feudalism, and gave the people what they weren't entitled to, if based on feudalism. This upset of feudalism's social hierarchy contributed to its eventual decline by paving the way to limited monarchy.

Carried from Asia by the rats that stowed away on trade ships and transmitted by fleas, the Bubonic Plague, or "Black Death", as it is commonly referred to, devastated over one third of Europe's population. The loss of so many citizens proved detrimental to the economy. Livestock wandered about aimlessly, with no one to herd them. Abandoned cities were collapsed due to their lack of maintenance. "Because of the fear of death, there were low prices for everything," (Knighton) as that was the only thing that merchants could do to lure people into buying their goods, since people were wary of each other, as they feared catching the plague. Alas, the plague not only affected the economy of feudal Europe, but the social pyramid as well. Because the majority of the working class succumbed, it became near impossible for business operations to flourish. The survivors of the Black Death were able to demand huge sums of money or rights for their services. Money and rights inevitably lead to power for the common people something unheard of in true feudalism. So, not only did the Bubonic Plague impact feudalism on an economic level, but a social one as well.

The Hundred Years' War was fought between the French and the English for land. During that time, their monarchs collected taxes to support large, professional armies, reducing their dependency on knights. This, in turn, reduced the power of lords, as a major role they played in feudal society was providing knights to fight for the king. Additionally, advancements in military technology, like the invention of the English longbow and the cannon weakened armies of knights. These new weapons were able to pierce through armor and bring down castle walls, exposing the knights inside. Once wounded, knights became useless, so their value fell dramatically. In the painting by Jean Froissart of The Battle of Crecy, the well organized, professional English army is using their longbows to kill French knights. The knights were much more scattered, and some were laying dead on the ground. Soon, the class of knights was diminishing, bringing lords down with them.

Thus, feudal Europe was on a path of rapid decline. As the lowest social class rose in power, the higher ones (lords and knights) fell. Additionally, trade was halted by the war and plague, leading to a collapse in the economy. Finally, people were granted rights that they could not have under feudalism. All these events were the result of three events- the signing of the Magna Carta. the Black Death, and The Hundred Years' War. These events spurred the fall of the Medieval socio-economic system of feudalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment