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Starting from the top of society’s pyramid, the monarch – a good example is William the Conqueror (r.1066-1087 CE) who considered all the lands of England as his personal property – could give a parcel of land (of no fixed size) to a noble who, in return, would be that monarch’s vassal, that is he would promise loyalty and service when required.As a consequence, many historians beleive that the term feudalism is only of limited use in understanding medieval societies.
The term feudalism was not used by the people who lived in the Middle Ages.
Neither can the feudal system, once defined, be applied uniformly across different European states as there were variations in laws and customs in different geographical areas and in different centuries.
The system was often weighted in favour of the sovereign as when a noble died without an heir, his estate went back to the monarch to either keep for themselves or to redistribute to another noble.
Monarchs could distribute land for political purposes, fragmenting a noble’s holdings or distancing him from the court.
The system had its roots in the Roman manorial system (in which workers were compensated with protection while living on large estates) and in the 8th century CE kingdom of the Franks where a king gave out land for life () to reward loyal nobles and receive service in return.
The feudal system proper became widespread in Western Europe from the 11th century CE onwards, largely thanks to the Normans as their rulers carved up and dished out lands wherever their armies conquered.
The promise of protection was no small matter in times of war, when there were frequent raids from hostile neighbouring states, and when there was a perpetual danger of general banditry.
Protection also came in the form of legal support and representation if a vassal found himself in a civil or church court.
It also became difficult to keep track of who owned what which led to such controls as Domesday Book of 1087 CE.
Additional effects were the presence of vassals in the local courts which deliberated on cases involving the estates of their lords.