The Feudal System
Feudalism emerged in response to the need for governments to be able to protect their subjects. The system worked because lower classes agreed to serve upper classes in exchange for protection. When the system ran smoothly, it led to peace and prosperity for everyone. Above all, the king relied on the system to enable him to run the land smoothly.
At the very top of the feudal system was the king. He presided over the land he ruled, directing and controlling what happened in his kingdom. But, in an age before computers and phones, how could the king actually manage a vast kingdom? Good question. Answer: Nobility and Knights.
The King divided his kingdom among the nobility, the richest and most powerful families in the realm. Each noble operated a particular portion of the kingdom, overseeing and governing it. In exchange for the power the nobles got over the local population, they pledged their loyalty to the King. Part of that loyalty meant a willingness to raise a local army should the King call for it. (In those days, armies were localized and ordinary men took up arms at the command of their local nobility).
Knights and Vassals
Even the land of the nobility was divided up into smaller parcels run by knights or vassals. Both of these groups traded military support for land in the local manors. As higher ranking people, knights often presided over an entire manor, while vassals presided only over the land needed to support their families. In both cases, the knights and vassals had command over the serfs that worked the land. In exchange for this control, they promised to fight in defense of the lord and the king if needed.
By far the largest category of people in the middle ages was the serfs. The serfs encompassed a majority of the population. Some serfs, such as cobblers, bakers, coopers, or blacksmiths, had relative freedom and even owned their own homes or businesses. Most, however, lived a very hard life and were almost like slaves. They were tied to the land they worked and didn’t own anything. They barely made enough to survive and were often hungry.