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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

System of administration, standard in England after the Norman *Conquest, by which the upper levels of a military society assign land to those below them in return for military service when required. The process begins when a king, at the peak of the feudal pyramid, entrusts large areas of newly conquered or confiscated land to individual barons, as *William the Conqueror did after 1066; these territories are then subdivided as each lord assigns fiefs (parcels of land from which income can be derived) to his own vassals. This is a rapid and effective way of controlling an area, trouble arising only in later generations when those who have inherited fiefs may have less personal loyalty to their lord or king.

Feudalism developed among the *Franks under *Charlemagne in the 8C and spread eventually through most of Europe. When the *Vikings conquered northwest France in the 10C they adopted the system, and it was their Norman descendants who accelerated its development in England (there is evidence of earlier beginnings of a native feudalism among the Anglo-Saxons).

At the bottom of feudal society were the peasants, who worked the land on the *open-field system. They fell into two classes. Free peasants paid for their right to farm the land by performing military service when required, or agricultural service at other times; the villeins (or serfs) were tied to the land, for their payment was a given number of days of work on the fields of the lord of the manor. From the 12C the obligations of both groups began to be commuted for payment of a cash 'quitrent', enabling the lord to hire full-time labourers of his own.

A free peasant taking this option held his land as a freehold of the manor, and a villein as a 'copyhold' (a less secure tenure). By the second half of the 14C the free peasants had been transformed into the distinctly non-feudal *yeomanry, and many of the villeins were wage labourers capable of such equally non-feudal gestures as the *Peasants' Revolt.

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