Feudal practices varied from place to place and developed and altered with the passage of time. Nonetheless, certain general conceptions were accepted almost everywhere. One of the most significant was that of a feudal contract. The lord owed something to the vassal, just as the vassal owed something to the lord. When they entered into their relationship, the vassal rendered formal homage to his lord; that is, he became the lord’s “man.” He also promised him aid and counsel.
The Early Middle Ages in Western Europe
To these widely varying social and political combinations scholars give the name feudalism. Feudal institutions were the arrangements that made survival possible during the early Middle Ages. The arrangements were made between important people who were concerned with maintaining order, though the customs that evolved also applied to the masses of population. One of the most influential arrangements was the war-band (or Gefolge) of the early Germans (or the comitatus, as Tacitus called it in Latin).
It is all very well to speak of relative anarchy before and after Charlemagne, but what was anarchy like and how were human relations governed? Did everyone just slaughter everyone else indiscriminately? What were the rules that enabled life to go on, however harshly?
By about the year 1000 England was a centralized monarchy; France was nominally ruled by an elected king who was feebler than his great supporters; Germany was divided into duchies, one of which, Saxony, had asserted its supremacy and claimed the old imperial title; and Italy still remained anarchic, although the papacy had begun to revive.
By the end of the ninth century, Carolingian power in the German territories had almost disappeared in the face of challenges by ambitious local magnates and threats from Norsemen, Slays, and the Magyars. Their predecessors, the Huns and Avars, had vanished, but the Magyars stayed, forming the nucleus of a Hungarian state. The Hungarian language thus remains the only non-Indo-European tongue in Europe except for Finnish and Basque.
In England, savage Danish attacks on the northern and eastern shores soon led to settlement. The chief barrier to the Danes was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex under Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). Although Alfred defeated the Danes, he had to concede the whole northeast of England to them, a region thereafter called the Danelaw. By the mid-tenth century, Alfred’s successors had reunited the Danelaw to Wessex, whose royal family ruled over all England.