Monday, January 21, 2008

Feudalism and Society in Middle Earth

In the middle ages society was organized into a strict hierarchy consisting of kings, clergy, nobles, vassals, and peasants. These classes were tied to one another in some manner in order for each to sustain themselves. The medieval ethos was that of loyalty and privilege. A medieval person viewed this social structure as honorable and by today's standards would not view themselves as inferior (in the modern sense) for belonging to a lower class. In the eighth century a system known as vassalage rose out of the Carolingian Empire, which consisted of vassals, or "faithful men," who were tied by a sacred oath to a local lord or noble. This was instituted to organize regional districts by creating loyal men who were ultimately tied to the king. In 768, Charlemagne became the king of the Franks (a people who resided in modern day France and Germany) and created a very sucessful vassalage system known as the "missi dominici," or "agents of the Lord." The vassal would swear fealty, or loyalty and honor, to a man of higher status. In turn, the lord or noble would provide the vassal with what he needed. In J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy, the relationship that Frodo and Sam have to me clearly reflects the medieval feudalistic system of vassalage. Sam takes to his duty as Frodo's gardener with honor and a sense of privilege. Sam never has a problem with being "under" Frodo. In our modern society, we seem to be immersed in rugged individualism, whereas in Medieval Europe feudalism tied people together by necessity; and at times it created a strong sense of community. The Shire appears to reflect the typical social structure in the middle ages. Other political systems in Middle Earth like Rohan and Gondor to me represent the epitomy of feudalism.

7 comments:

Eachus24601 said...

Sam also reminds me of apprenticeships in the crafts during medieval times. You were pretty much locked into your position whether you liked it or not.

It's really obvious with Germany. Names like Schmidt, Shumaker, and other families are named after the trades they were bound to.

Eachus24601 said...

That reminds me, what do Merry and Pippin do for a living? Is Sam the only person with a job?

Eileen Joy said...

Mike--I'm glad you brought up the idea of medieval vassalage in relation to Sam and Frodo's relationship, as I definitely believe Tolkien had that in mind when constructing this relationship. But I think it is also very important that we keep in mind that much of what we know about the medieval system of vassal-to-lord or, in Anglo-Saxon culture, thane-to-chieftan relationship comes from fictionalized texts, such as "The Song of Roland" and "Beowulf." Yes, there are Frankish legal codes and legal-type documents, like charters, that will tell us alot about how society was structured during the Middle Ages, but I don't think we should assume that *everyone* in the Middle Ages readily accepted their status as a thane, servant, or vassal to someone else and many among the poor were completely left out and defenseless. Two great books on this subject are:

Sharon Farmer, "Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor" [Cornell University Press]

Warren A. Brown, "Unjust Seizure: Conflict, Interest, and Authority in Early Medieval Society" [Cornell University Press]

Mike Pilato said...

Thank you for the references. I suppose my point was that the hierarchical system was more perceived among the "middle classes" as a natural outworking of how society was meant to be during that time. I agree with you that the peasantry, or serfs if you will, had very difficult lives as they had no chance for social mobility; and as a student of medieval history, I hope I wasnt implying that "everyone" would have readily accepted servitude. I mainly was referring to Charlemagne's system of the sacred relationship his vassals shared with him.

5 said...

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Steve Backhus said...

I agree to somw extent with your midieval points. One major factor that you cannot diascount is that religion was central (primal even) to life in the time frame you are refering to. Charlemagne thought of himself as the new Pope. I think the LOTR focus is much more on the band.

I agree that Sam's position is one of servatude, but I don't think that this servant relation ever emerges in the LOTR text, at least from Frodo's viewpoint which is important.

Steve Backhus

Mike Pilato said...

I never discounted that religion was central to Medieval society. In fact the relationships between vassals and lords were bound by oaths under God. Charlemagne did not think of himself as the new pope whatsoever; Charlemagne thought of himself as the defender of western Christendom, the King of the Franks who carried on the legacy of the Carolingian empire begun by Pepin III. Kings and Popes carried different roles in medieval europe. He was reluctant to even be crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas day in the year 800. I suggest you read Einhard's "The Life of Charlemagne." Furthermore, you can see this vassal relationship embodied in the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor later in the books.