Following the collapse of the Roman Empire Western Europe became a politically fragmented region of warring states from which a radically new social, military, and political order developed.

The shrinking Byzantine Empire - immediately before the final collapse

The end of the Roman Empire was neither uniform nor sudden: it was a complex process rather than a single event.

First, the empire split in two. Then, between 395 and 476[1], the western half disintegrated and was replaced by a patchwork of new Germanic kingdoms. Meantime, the eastern half, the Byzantine Empire, survived more or less intact for almost 250 years, and in an increasingly truncated form for another 750 years after that.

Four milestone events mark the long decline of Byzantium. At the Battle of Yarmuk in 636, the Arabs won control of Syria. At the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Seljuk Turks won control of Eastern Anatolia (now Eastern Turkey). By these two defeats, the Byzantine Empire lost half its territory.

The Battle of ManzikertIn 1204, the Crusaders (from Western Europe) sacked the city of Byzantium itself. The city never recovered: the population was reduced from 500,000 in 1203 to 35,000 in 1261. And in 1453, with most of its remaining territory already overrun, the city was finally captured by the Ottoman Turks.

The Byzantine Empire represented an attempt to fossilise the social order of Late Antiquity. A decaying form of ancient military imperialism, it was highly exploitative and deeply conservative.

Despite this, it endured for more than a millennium after 395, whereas its western counterpart, with a similar social structure, lasted less than a century. Why the difference?

Byzantium had shorter frontiers to defend and richer territory. In 395, when the final division occurred, it contained only one-third of the Late Roman army, but produced two-thirds of the empire’s tax revenues. The Byzantine Empire was repeatedly able to block invasions by deploying large, high-tech, professional armies on relatively narrow fronts.

Western Europe, by contrast, became a politically fragmented region of warring states. This was the geopolitical context for the rise of feudalism.

The 6th century Byzantine emperor JustinianBetween the 5th and 9th centuries, most Western European states were essentially tributary in character. The state collected taxes and used them to pay soldiers under the direct control of the king.

But these same states acquired some feudal characteristics, as rulers sought to control territory more effectively by parcelling it out to their kinsmen and retainers in return for military service. And this feudal element, over time, became more important.

This was partly because the states were small, unstable, and relatively weak. It was also because heavily armoured cavalry increasingly dominated the battlefield.

The 9th and 10th centuries were a period of particular turmoil. Kings were overthrown and civil wars raged. Towns disappeared. Long-distance trade declined. Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens mounted deep and devastating raids.

In response to this crisis, without the dead weight of strong imperial elites and infrastructures, the way was open to forge a radically new social, military, and political order.

To crush domestic rebels, defend borders against raiders, and beat back armies of rival kings, early medieval rulers made a virtue of necessity: they turned embryonic feudalism into a fully-fledged system. They created immensely strong armed bodies of men by rooting the state in private landlordism.

The Duchy of Normandy, a state created by 10th century Viking settlers, was an extreme example. Power was highly centralised. The ruler was the legal owner of all land, and his appointees held the great estates. These men were his vassals, his tenants-in-chief, liable to be cast down if they earned their master’s disfavour.

Under them, land was further subdivided, into fiefs each able to support a knight, each sufficient to free a man from the need to labour, allowing him to devote himself full-time to war and training for war, and to provide him with the horses, chainmail armour, and weaponry of a heavy cavalryman.

Norman knights and Saxon infantry on the Bayeux TapestryHere was the core of the Norman state: several thousand armoured horsemen, organised in lordly retinues, bound by ties of personal loyalty and dependence, and rooted in the control and wealth of landed estates.

The armoured knight was the tank of the 11th century battlefield. A frontal charge by a bloc of several hundred knights, close-packed and several ranks deep, was virtually unstoppable on open ground.

Heavy horse was as central to early medieval warfare as heavy infantry had been to the wars of the Greeks and Romans. Feudalism was the most effective socio-economic mechanism for producing it.

By linking landholding and military service, feudalism forged a tight bond between the state and the ruling class. It also ensured that the agrarian base of the system was carefully tended, since the maintenance of rank came to depend partly on the good management of estates.

But there were dangers. The system was inherently unstable. State power was directly related to the number of fiefs and knights controlled by the ruler, intensifying the struggle between rival polities for territory.

Moreover, to avoid fiefs being subdivided and becoming non-viable (i.e. unable to support a knight), the rule of primogeniture prevailed, whereby the eldest son inherited the entire estate. Younger sons therefore had to fight for their place in the world.

Denied an inheritance and threatened with loss of rank, they had to survive through mercenary service or winning themselves a new fiefdom. This was true of knights, nobles, and princes – all ranks of the feudal aristocracy produced younger sons able to maintain caste only through military force.

Opportunities were numerous. Civil and foreign wars were frequent. Competition for territory ensured that feudal ruling classes were internally divided and rival feudal polities always at loggerheads. Younger sons, out for booty, pay, and land, provided the cutting edge of these conflicts.

Feudalism was therefore unstable, dynamic, and expansionist. During the middle part of the 11th century, the Normans conquered much of northern France, the whole of England, and virtually the whole of southern Italy and Sicily.

Feudal violence was contradictory. It was essential to the survival of the feudal states: the warrior host defended the homeland, conquered new territory, and maintained internal order. But the violence had a dynamic of its own and the potential to blow the feudal order apart.

Pressure valves were needed to release the system’s surplus violence. This was the genesis of the Crusades. In the 200-year confrontation between the Crusaders and the Arab-Turkish states of the Middle East, we see displayed both the power and the limits of the new feudal order created by the politico-military anarchy that characterised early-medieval western Europe. To this we turn next.


[1] All dates are AD/CE

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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