From the 9th and 10th centuries, a political, social and economic system 
called feudalism developed in western Europe. This system survived until the Early 
Modern Period.
The kings lost power and shared it with the clergy and nobility. Therefore, the king lost 
authority to the nobles, who also had castles and knights under their command.
The society was divided into closed groups. It included a minority formed of nobles 
and clergymen, who enjoyed privileges such as not paying taxes.
The economic system was based on peasants working on the land. Meanwhile, the 
king and the privileged groups appropriated part of the peasants’ production.
The fief, this means the LAND of the lord or manor´s land was divided into two parts.
The demesne and the tenements or holdings
• DEMESNE. Land that was exploited directly by the lord. It consisted of 
farmland, pastures and wood. It was farmed by serfs. The lord was also the 
owner of the mill, the press and the oven. All the peasants had to use and pay 
for the services if they needed to obtain products.
• TENEMENTS OR HOLDINGS. Plots of land the lord gave to free peasants in 
exchange for rent or part of the harvest, and for carrying out different services 
for the lord on his land
The king’s vassals could also establish pacts with other nobles and knights, converting 
them into lords of new vassals. Power relationships were therefore fragmented and 
privatised, as they depended on personal relationships between lords, vassals and 
serfs who were organised into a hierarchical structure.
The king was at the top of the hierarchy of personal relationships. He granted fiefs to 
the nobles, also known as manors, in exchange for their loyalty.
He was considered as a first amongst equals; in other words, the king was the highest 
noble in the kingdom. Therefore, his power was limited to his own fiefs, known as the 
royal domain or lands of the crown. He could only administer justice and collect taxes 
on this land.

Through the feudal pact, nobles received fiefs (manors). The vassal therefore became 
lord of the lands in the fief and of the serfs who worked them. Clergymen, such as 
bishops, could also receive feuds and act like feudal lords. Therefore, members of 
the nobility became direct vassals of the king. They obeyed him and helped him with 
his armies when the king demanded it (auxilium).
In addition, senior nobles and clergymen met with the king in the royal curia or court. 
In it, they functioned as vassals, giving the king advice (consilium).
Nobles with the highest lineage reproduced feudal pacts with their immediate 
inferiors. They were similar to those they had established with the king. As a 
result, nobles with lower lineage in turn became vassals of the great nobles, from 
whom they had received less important fiefs.
The lesser nobility and knights obeyed their immediate lord and went to war when 
he summoned them.
2.4. SERFS
Peasants who worked in the fiefs were at the bottom of the hierarchy. They were the 
serfs of a lord, who could be the king in the lands of the crown, a noble in feudal 
manors or a clergyman in ecclesiastical manors.
The status of serfdom regulated the relationship between the serf, who was forced to 
work on the lands of the fief and to pay different kinds of taxes, and the feudal lord, 
who offered protection to peasants in his fief.
The inhabitants of the fief, called serfs, were under the authority of the lord, as they 
lived on his land and were subject to his privileges. The model of the relationship 
between serfs and lords is known as serfdom.
Under this model, the serfs obtained certain benefits from their lord:
• The right to protection by the lord’s army against attacks from the 
• The right to live on the lands of the fief and to work on them.
• In return, the serfs who lived and worked in the fief had to accept the 
manorial and jurisdictional privileges, as well as meeting 
other obligations.

SERFDOM: People became serfs by birth and were not free to leave the fief in which 
they were born. They were therefore forced to accept the privileges of the feudal lord.
LEGAL REGIME: The manorial jurisdiction was very hard on serfs. The lords could even 
carry out abusive practices, known as feudal abuses, such as mistreating their serfs.
LABOUR SERVICE: People were obliged to do certain tasks for the lord. These labour 
services, known as corvées, included vigilance and repairing the walls of the feudal 
In the manors, the authority of the king 
was superseded by the feudal 
lords. This led to the 
fragmentation of royal power. 
This fragmentation of power 
was followed by the 
fragmentation of the law, as 
not all social groups were 
equal before the law. 
Therefore, social groups that 
shared power with the 
monarch enjoyed 
many privileges.
Feudal society was organised into three groups or social orders which would later be 
known as estates. Each estate had its own obligations and rights. In addition, these 
were closed groups, as it was very difficult to change the social order.
Two of these estates, the nobility and clergy, were entitled to privileges. However, 
most of the population, which belonged to the third estate, did not have any 
privileges. This social structure was based on the activities that each group carried out 
in society.

Farming and livestock rearing were the basis of the feudal economy. However, these 
activities were not very productive. Although the serfs had resources like communal 
lands, which were usually used as pastures, they often had to ask the lord for loans, 
meaning that their dependence was increased.
In addition, the technical means used to grow crops were very rudimentary and, 
therefore, the land had a low yield. Technical improvements which increased 
agricultural productivity were only introduced after the 11th century.
The serfs began to implement some innovations in agricultural uses, such as using 
manure to fertilize the soil and the moldboard plough, which enabled better soil 
To increase the productivity of the land, the serfs started using a three-year rotation 
system. This consisted of alternating crops of grains and pulses with fallow, when the 
land is left uncultivated to help regenerate it.
Muslims who set foot on the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century only settled in 
the richest agricultural regions, such as the valleys of the Guadalquivir, the Ebro and 
the east coast.
In poorer areas, like the mountains of the north of the Peninsula, there was much less 
pressure from the conquerors and enclaves of Christian resistance were organised. 
During the 8th century, Christians fought to secure their enclaves. Later, they began a 
phase of expansion, mainly in the west.
The society of Christian territories was organised following the dominant feudal 
system in Europe, but with some unusual characteristics.
The nobility was strengthened in the fight against the Muslims. Given the need for 
men to go to war, rich peasants who had a horse and weapons were ennobled.
In border areas, there were many free landholding peasants who did not work for a 
manor. In the safest areas, like Galicia, there were many serfs.
The first independent Christian settlements emerged in mountainous areas with low 
levels of Romanisation, so there were no major cities. Only some cities had significant 
administrative and religious functions, like Oviedo, León and Barcelona.
A subsistence economy dominated in these territories. This was based on growing 
cereals and raising livestock.

Trade was scarce, and only León and Barcelona had commercial activity beyond that of

local markets.


The activity of Christian settlements was focused in the monasteries, including those

of Ripoll (Cataluña) and Sahagún (Gerona). In the monasteries, books were copied, and

chronicles were written that reflected the main events of each kingdom.

Two styles developed in art: Asturian pre-Romanesque and Mozarabic.


The feudal structure of society was maintained. The nobility and the clergy continued

to be the privileged classes, but inhabitants of cities enjoyed more freedom than

peasants. There were big differences within the urban population.

The great merchants and bankers were among the richest classes. Their wealth was

based on the possession of goods and money, but not on land ownership. These

classes dominated the municipal government, forming the urban oligarchy.

Below them were small traders and craftsmen. They were joined by professionals

related to the arts and the law. These trades were boosted by the development of

cultural life, due to the foundation of ecclesiastic universities.

The largest social class was formed of workers and peasants who worked the land

surrounding the city.

Finally, the most disadvantaged social class included many beggars with no resources.

The most important urban professions were those of merchants, bankers, craftsmen

and men of law, which did not fit into the three-estate class system. In fact, the

interests of cities often opposed those of the nobility. Kings took advantage of this

situation, supporting the economic development of cities to counter the power of the

nobles. In addition, monarchs also obtained economic benefits in exchange for their

support as they collected various taxes from the cities, and their trade and craft



After the fall of the Roman Empire, long-distance trade had almost totally disappeared

in much of western Europe. The insecurity of roads, lack of coins and general poverty

meant that only basic goods were traded for subsistence. However, in the High Middle 
Ages, particularly from the 12th century onwards, there was major economic 
expansion that favoured the revitalisation of trade, both in local markets and in long-
distance trade. This expansion was due to several reasons