(Disclaimer: This is a translation of a german blogpost and therefore its details mostly apply to the medieval Holy Roman Empire. The political development of medieval England, France and Italy was different in many ways, both from the Empire and from each other. But the general statements about decentralisation very much apply for most of medieval Europe.)
By far THE most important feature of the middle ages in my opinion, but strangely a term that rarely appears in popular history-books about the period.
What exactly does decentralisation mean?
In a centralized state, like the Roman Empire for example, political power as well as economical means are focussed at one central point.
The governments of the individual provinces are not free in their decisions, but have to follow the general orders of the central government in Rome. Most of the taxes generated in those provinces also have to be passed on to Rome.
In a decentralized system like medieval feudalism however, things are quite different:
Without the complex administrative structures and the vast army of officials the roman state had, a medieval ruler can only control very limited parts of his territory. There he puts so-called „bailiffs“ in charge, officials of sorts who are directly accountable to him, enforce his will and collect taxes for him.
He then gives the rest of his estates as „fiefs“ to so-called „vassals“, who are mostly independent from him, so long as they maintain law and order, protect the area against enemies and raise a certain number of well trained and equipped men-at-arms that they themselves have to lead as a knight in case of war. In return, they can keep all revenue from their fief and don´t have to pay taxes to their lord.
That means the lord only gets taxes from those estates that he directly controls through his bailiffs, his so-called „domain“, and thus must make do with very limited funds.
This will not change until the very end of the middle ages, when the reintroduction of „roman law“ together with an administration that has grown much more complex and sophisticated again enables the princes to retake political control over their vassals and to collect taxes from their estates.
The famous „renaissance-prince“, as described by Machiavelli, is born.
As we saw, power and resources are distributed over a far larger group of people in the middle ages compared to the periods directly preceeding and following.
This fact is, in my eyes, one of, if not THE most important feature of the whole period and we will see how it determines a lot of what defines the middle ages, for better or worse.
In times of tight public budgets, the most relateble problem for us today is probably the fact, that medieval rulers are unable to finance big public projects.
The reason why we don´t know of any medieval amphitheatres or aqueducts is not that noone had the necessary knowledge or skills anymore, but rather that the lords lacked the necessary funds.
Tasks that today are perfomed by the state, like public healthcare, education, supervision of trade or social welfare for the poor and ill, are taken over either by the communities themselves or by the only organisation that after the fall of the roman empire still has a europe-spanning, centralized administration and the funds, that come with it: The Catholic Church.
Today, we are used to every human having certain inalienable rights that are guaranteed by the state. The people in the middle ages, however, only have the rights that their community guarantees them. Be it the village community of the peasant, the Order of the monk, the guild of the craftsman or the complex social networks of nobility: People in the middle ages are dependent on the protection and care of their group.
Even in court, their rights greatly depend on the renown and power of the community that they belong to.
Without the group, one is an „outlaw“. Outside of the law and it´s protection. Without any human rights.
Therefore it is absolutly vital to conform to the rules and standards of one’s community.
The middle ages are no place for individualists. Those who don´t care what others think of them quickly find themselves without protection or allies.
The same applies to the church: Not only does it take over a lot of public tasks due to its immense economic power, the rulers of europe need it´s organisational network and it´s sophisticated administration to at least somewhat efficiently govern their realms.
For this, however, all of the ruler’s subjects have to also be subjects of the church.
Due to this, apostasy from the church is synonymous with political rebellion against the ruler and therefore is supressed with the same level of force, like the heretical movement of the Cathars in the late 12th/ early 13th century.
Pagan people like the Saxons or the Prussians are forcefully christianized after being conqueredto enable their conquerors to establish the administrative structures of the church in lands, that before were only very loosely organized by tribal structures.
For the same reason, more and more pagan rulers adapt christianity on their own and christianize their realms.
There is no centrally managed standing army. In times of war, the small military forces of the knightly vassals have to be called to a gathering point to form an army.
This makes it impossible to permanently monitor a territory and protect it against intruders or bandits.
Instead, permanent protection is limited to the settlements and their immediate surroundings. Only if news of bandits or enemy forces attacking the area reach the lord, does he send out his men-at-arms hunt down the intruders.
Conflicts between the independent vassals are frequent and often escalate to small wars, so-called „feuds“. Their Lords rarely have the power to prevent that from happening.
While those conflicts are both shorter and happen on a much smaller scale than the wars the absolute monarchs of later periods will be able to wage, they are also far more frequent.
Due to the lack of a standing army, those conflicts don´t consist of skirmishes between border troops, but instead mostly of raids deep into enemy territory that hit the civilian population hard.
Contrary to popular belief, arts and sciences DO receive substantial support from the authorities (especially by the church), but not nearly to the extent that the royal and princely courts of the renaissance are able to.
On the other hand, the weak central authority is what allows the commoners to profit greatly from the economic boom of the high and late middle ages.
Due to both a period of stable and warm climate and new inventions in agriculture, the harvests keep improving and crop failures are rare.
Forests are cleared and swamps are drained to create new farmland. Between the years 1200 and 1300 the number of cities in what today is called Germany increases twentyfold! And those cities keep growing fast.
In the slavic lands east of the river Elbe that, at the beginning of the high middle ages are relatively sparsely populated, the local rulers are actively trying to attract settlers from the west.
Even though Europe´s population keeps growing, the economy grows even faster, and soon the demand for workers exceeds the supply.
The recruiters from the east are offering farmland that the settlers can work not as unfree serfs but as free tenants.
They even offer an exemtion from taxes for the first few years after the founding of the new settlements.
Other lords who have just cleared new farmland also start offering better conditions to everyone who is willing to work for them.
Growing cities guarantee to grant freedom to all escaped serfs who manage to stay within the city limits for at least a year and a
day without being claimed back by their lord.
All this competition over a finite supply of workers forces the noble landowners to make more and more concessions, so their peasants won´t just leave and look for work under better conditions elswhere.
Technically, being unfree, they aren´t allowed to leave but what is their lord supposed to do?
He doesn´t have enough men to constantly monitor his estate and his serfs and he certainly doesn´t have the means to search for an escaped subject, who might be anywhere.
There are even documented cases where villages or cities complained to a different lord about how unfairly their current lord was treating them and asked him to become their new lord instead.
After being asked for help like that, the lord now has a valid and accepted reason to declare feud.
Over time, some cities and villages manage to accumulate a remarkable amount of priviliges by strategically switching sides like that.
Especially the cities with their economic power are often able to coerce their lords into giving them more and more freedoms, rights and priviliges and some even manage to become completely independent. Those „imperial cities“ only owe allegiance to the emperor.
The class barriers are generally more open than most would supect today.
Raises from rags to riches, from a simple serf to a knight, are of course extremely rare (even though they DO happen!), but over the course of a few generations that each make a single small step up the social ladder, a family can significantly improve (or worsen) its standing in society.
Again, especially in the cities.
Of course it goes without saying that only a minority of the population manages to rise like that. But it still happens far more often than one would suppose at first glance.
Feuds are frequent but generally short and confined to a small area due to the very limited resources of the lords.
Of course this offers little comfort to the people living in the area affected by the fighting and raiding. But the likelihood that of all villages it is mine that gets raided in the forseeable future, is pretty low because of it.
Wars that last for years and devastate and depopulate whole regions are extremely rare in the middle ages and only become the norm with the huge mercenary armies of the renaissance princes.
In summary, one can say that in a feudal system with it´s weak central government the relationship between rulers and ruled is less shaped by a total dependance of the latter on the former, but rather from a complex network of mutual dependencies.
Every part of society has to rely on the other parts and is very much aware of it.
THAT is what the medieval „doctrine of the three estates“ is about: The prayers, the fighters and the workers each perform a vital task for the other two.
It says a lot that only in the early modern age those three estates were assigned numbers, indicating a hierarchy between them. In the idealist vision of the medieval authors all three were equally improtant (Even though in reality, the prayers and the fighters rule over the workers. The doctrine of the three estates is an ideal, no depiction of the actual state of affairs).
And yet, in his commentary on Plato´s Politeia, Thomas Aquinas makes a sharp distinction between monarchy (by which he means the feudal system he lives in) and dictatorship and states the difference that in a monarchy the ruler needs the support and approval of his subjects to be able to rule.
At the end of the Middle Ages, several factors come together that fundamentally change the conditions again:
The concessions they had to make to their peasants, along with the „agrarian crisis of the late middle ages“, has greatly weakened the small noble landowners. At the same time, the bureaucracy of the princely courts has developed enough to be able to directly manage their entire territory again.
With the re-establishment of “roman law”, the princes regain political control over thir weakened vassals. And they begin to charge taxes in the fiefs of their vassals again which the populace has to pay in addition to the taxes they are already paying to their lord.
Due to the previously mentioned agrarian crisis (caused in part by the end of the medieval warmth period and the beginning of the so-called “small ice age”) the balance between supply of and demand for labor shifts again, so now workers become plenty and therefore expendable.
The prince can now afford not to care, if all of his subjects survive the next winter since he has no problem finding new people to work his fields the following year.
Due to this abundance of workers, a peasant has nothing to gain from running away anymore.
There are more than enough other people desperately seeking work everywhere, so no one will offer him better conditions than those he has at the moment.
And even if he where to try: Contrary to the weak landowning nobles the princes now have the necessary resources to hunt down escaped subjects and return them to their lords.
In every city und every regional law court now resides an official who not only oversees that city leaderships and the local nobles adhere to the prince´s laws and commands but also checks if new arrivals meet the description of recently escaped serfs.
While the big residential cities and important centers of trade and production continue to get supported by the prince, many small and medium cities and towns slowly but surely decrease in wealth and importance. The same applies to many of the lesser nobles who didn´t manage to make themselves useful as military officers, administrators or diplomats.
In summary, large parts of the middle class of knights and citizens lose their wealth, power, rights and importance to their sovereign.
With all the administrative and economical power that gets focussed on them now comes an enormous amount of millitary force.
And so it is no wonder that the peasant uprisings in the late middle ages and early modern era trying to keep or reclaim their medieval priviliges are at first very successful against the levied troops of the nobles but ultimately get crushed by the mercenary armies of the princes.
While the transition from feudalism to the modern centralized states made the situation of the majority of the population significantly worse, art and philosophy flourish under the patronage of the princes. The cultural movement known as the renaissance begins.
In the holy roman empire (that this text focussed on) this process happens on the level of the smaller and larger principalities, while the empire itself will keep its feudal structure in wich the emperor is at best the first among equals.
In France and England however, the political and economical power instead focuses on the King, allowing both countries to develop into nation states.