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As fiefs were often hereditary, a permanent class divide was established between those who had land and those who rented it. 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. It also became difficult to keep track of who owned what which led to such controls as Domesday Book of CE. Additional effects were the presence of vassals in the local courts which deliberated on cases involving the estates of their lords. Thus, there could be a clear conflict of interest and lack of impartiality, even if the more serious criminal cases were referred to the courts of the Crown.

In addition, the system could create serious unrest. Sometimes a monarch might insist on active military service because of a war but nobles might also refuse, as happened to King John of England in CE and the Barons' Revolt which led to the signing of the Magna Carta.

The King: Leader of the Feudal System

In CE, and in subsequent revolts in the 13th century CE, the barons were acting collectively for their own interests which was a direct threat to the entire system of feudalism, based as it was upon single lords and vassals working out their own private arrangements. Military service was reduced to fixed terms, typically 40 days in England, in an effort to reduce the burden on nobles so that they did not leave their lands unattended for too long.

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However, 40 days was not usually enough to see out a campaign and so a monarch was obliged to pay mercenaries, dealing another blow to the tradition of feudalism and vassalage. The feudal system was essentially based on the relationship of reciprocal aid between lord and vassal but as that system became more complex over time, so this relationship weakened. Lords came to own multiple estates and vassals could be tenants of various parcels of land so that loyalties became confused and even conflicting with people choosing to honour the relationship that suited their own needs best.

Another blow to the system came from sudden population declines caused by wars and plagues, particularly the Black Death which peaked between CE , and by peasant revolts most famously in England in CE. Such crises caused a chronic shortage of labour and the abandonment of estates because there was no one to work them. The growth of large towns and cities also saw labour leave the countryside to find a better future and the new jobs available there.

By the 13th century CE, the increase in commerce and the greater use of coinage changed the way the feudal system worked. Conversely, a monarch could now distribute money instead of land in his system of rewards. A rich merchant class developed with no ties of loyalty to anyone except their sovereign, their suppliers and their customers. Even serfs could sometimes buy their freedom and escape the circumstances into which they were born. All of these factors conspired to weaken the feudal system based on land ownership and service even if feudalism would continue beyond the medieval period in some forms and in some places.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

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