Feudalism is a group of institutions used to carry on government on a local basis. Feudalism originated in medieval Europe in places where there was no central government or organized state after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was later developed by the Franks into a complicated political system and was adopted in most of Europe. From this basis an entire social and economic system developed.
Feudalism, probably the most important institution of the Middle Ages, was based upon the rule of the military class. After the collapse of the empire of Charlemagne in the 9th century, government fell into the hands of counts, who were regional commanders. To strengthen their own position and to keep peace among the lesser lords of their regions, the counts became lords to these lesser men, who became vassals. It was the duty of the lord to protect the vassal, and he frequently gave the vassal a fief, a piece of land either to be rented or to be held in perpetuity. The vassal paid homage and swore fealty, or fidelity, to the lord and had to help the lord in battle. The vassal or vassals of a lord sat in court with the lord to decide legal cases in the district. If two vassals of a lord claimed the same village or piece of land, the lord decided whose claim was valid. If the lord fell into the hands of the enemy, the vassals had to pay for his release.
Both the vassals and the lords derived their livelihood from their fiefs, which included one or many manors. But some portion of their lives was spent in fighting on horseback. Meanwhile, their serfs worked the fields of the fiefs at home. Peasants did not participate in war. The churchmen, or first estate, could become lords and could have their private armies if they wanted to.
The more powerful lords, with more vassals to help them, soon began to extend their fiefs by defeating smaller lords with fewer vassals. In 987 the great lords of France chose Hugh Capet as their king, and all became his vassals. The rulers of England and what later became Germany were chosen similarly. Later on the English kings became for a while vassals to the French kings because they held some fiefs in French territory.
The feudalistic system of government was based upon mutual rights and obligations among kings, lords, and vassals. The peasants, or serfs, were excluded from government. The kings could discipline their disobedient vassals, but if a king violated the rights of a vassal, all the vassals could join against such a king. Under feudalism no one had absolute authority. The kings, lords, and vassals together made up the nobility.