The feudal system lasted for approximately six centuries. Its structure varied from nation to nation and manor to manor. Essentially, the Feudal System granted large tracts of land to lords, who offered the protection of their estate and their court to those who swore allegiance to them. However, in practice, the feudal system was the economic dependence and military support of the common man to his superior in return for protection. Thus, under the Feudal System, European society was divided into two distinct classes, those who were landholders and those who were tied to the land.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the Barbarian tribes introduced feudalism into Europe. Although the origins of the feudal system lay in Italy and Germany, its most characteristic development came in France. Originally, feudal societies were composed of slaves, serfs, and freemen. The serf often tilled a plot of land owned by a lord or Baron. Free serfs built villages around the baronial villas. The freemen included nobles, clerics, professionals, most merchants, artisans, and peasants who owned their land with little or no obligation to any feudal lord.
The barons in feudal Europe often owned more than one manor or estate. In the Middle Ages, land proprietorship and management became the sole source of wealth. The power of the landed aristocracy created by this system lasted until the Industrial Revolution. At the top of the feudal hierarchy were the church and the king, as the feudal system had both secular and religious regimes. By the 12th century, the Church was a feudal and hierarchical structure of mutual protection and service headed by the pope. The secular feudal regime was headed by the king, the lord of all vassals. Theoretically, the king was the vassal of God and governed by divine right. Practically, the king was elevated by war, inheritance or election. In the feudal regime, where the judges and executors of civil law were usually illiterate, custom and law were largely one and the same.
The feudal system was also characterized by the traditions of chivalry and knighthood, with their emphasis on honor and service.