During the Middle Ages, the rulers that filled the void after the fall of the Roman emperors in Western Europe were often incapable of controlling all of their lands. In exchange for loyalty, a king often granted an estate, called a fief, to a noble. The nobles, called lords, constructed large estates on their fiefs called manors. This system of loyalties and protections is known as Feudalism, a term derived from the fiefs.
The lord and his family often lived in a fortified castle constructed to be safe from enemy attack. These castles were unlike the images of fairy tales. They were built for protection rather than comfort. Early castles were often constructed of wood rather than stone. When under attack, the people of the manor retreated to the castle for protection.
Motte-and-bailey castles were constructed on large mounds called mottes. The earth used to build the motte formed a ditch. Entrance to the castle would come from a drawbridge over the ditch. The drawbridge could be retracted as an enemy approached. The bailey was the enclosed area below the castle where most of the work of the manor was done.
In the early middle ages, knights were warriors who fought on horseback using swords and lances. Stirrups are supports for a horseback rider’s feet. The introduction of stirrups allowed the cavalry to remain on their horses. A knight attacking on horseback with a lance tucked under his arm caused tremendous damage to his foe. The galloping horse was also a moving target that was difficult for an enemy force to attack. Many skilled knights became members of the nobility, and in time, the knighthood lost its connection with the cavalry.
Peasant farmers relied on the lord’s protection as German, Viking, Magyar, and Moorish armies overran small houses and farms throughout Europe. Some peasants were freemen who owned or rented land from the lord, but most were serfs.