Between the years of absolute rule by Roman emperors and the years of absolute monarchy fostered by the Renaissance is the time of feudalism.
This medieval system, along with its economic analogue called ‘manorialism,’ provided a respite from a strictly top-down authority model. Feudal relationships were built on mutual obligation: the lord’s obligation to provide for the serf was as binding as the serf’s obligation to do agricultural work for the lord.
Manorialism is also called ‘seigneurialism.’
Legally, a serf had a claim on his lord. By contrast, a slave in the Roman Empire had no claim on the emperor, and subject in a Renaissance absolutist monarchy had no claim on the king.
It’s difficult, or impossible, to give an exact starting time for feudalism. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., it gradually emerged as Germanic tribal patterns were applied to the remnants of Romans estates in northwestern Europe, e.g., in Gaul.
One Germanic tribe, the Franks, took leadership roles in Gaul. The collapse of Roman authority left a ‘power vacuum’ and threatened to leave the region in chaos. The Franks stepped in and began to organize.
Feudalism, along with Frankish political influence, spread through much of Europe.
The variations and historical stages of feudalism are many and complex. But at its core are a few simple ideas. One of them was localized control instead of centralized government. As the details of feudal agreements responded to local conditions, many slightly different forms of feudalism emerged, as historian Irma Simonton Black writes:
Indeed, in the Middle Ages, as in most of history, it is a serious mistake to try to separate opposing forces into the all good and the all bad. Historical developments are rarely that simple. The relationship of nobles and serfs had grown up over a period of centuries.
Given the serf’s legal claim on his lord, and given the flexibility to adjust feudal contracts and oaths to local conditions, feudalism represents a historical moment of legal recognition for the individual, located historically between Roman imperialism and Renaissance absolutism.