Feudalism was the natural response to the greatest political need of the Dark Ages: security. Since there was no central government capable of providing this security, men fell back on their own resources, making local arrangements. Already, in the last chaotic centuries of imperial rule, Roman magnates had supported, and had been supported by, groups of clients. Among the Germanic tribes beyond the imperial frontiers, a roughly similar system of armed personal retainers had existed. From these precedents and from sheer necessity, feudalism was created in the Carolingian state in the ninth and tenth centuries. Thence it was transplanted in Spain, the British Isles, and eastern Germany. Although historians dogged by the need to generalize speak of feudalism, actually feudal institutions varied greatly from district to district. However, certain elements were common, or at least general, in the mature feudalism of Western Europe in the years from 1000 to 1200. Men turned for protection to local magnates, some of whom had official positions, others of whom were simply powerful private citizens. These magnates were glad to have men under them because their subordinates could serve them in a number of useful ways. The subordinates were called vassals and their superiors, lords. There was nothing dishonorable about being a vassal. Even the Church became involved in the system with bishops and abbots serving as both lords and vassals of laymen. Although everywhere there were some upperclass freemen who were not vassals, feudal lawyers were essentially correct in their contention, "No land without a lord." The system was too useful to one or both parties not to spread. The kings secured officials and, above all, an army at little or no financial cost; the magnates obtained recognition of considerable independence and the support of armed clients; and the lesser warriors got a measure of political and economic security. [excerpt]
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Bloom, Robert L. et al. "2. Medieval Feudalism. Pt. II: Medieval, Political, and Economic Development: Feudalism and Manorialism." Ideas and Institutions of Western Man (Gettysburg College, 1958), 6-23.