The Carolingians are responsible for introducing three quintessential medieval things: serfdom and the rise of the medieval manor, feudalism, and trial by ordeal.
First, the medieval manor.
When the Roman latifundia die out, they are replaced by the medieval estates. While this happens, we also see the disappearance of large-scale slavery. Slavery is replaced by a different large-scale peasant-based system called serfdom; this transition is slow, stretching across many centuries, as well as uneven (one can still locate substantial pockets of agricultural slavery even as late as 1000). Even so, by the year 1000, slavery is clearly on the way out, with serfdom on the rise.
Roman estates generally consisted of two parts: one part was called the ‘tendencies’ or what the estate owner rented out to people in exchange for cash payments. Part two was the ‘domain’, land which was to be farmed by slaves owned by the estate owner.
Roman slaves were quite different from the common laborer: they lived in ‘gangs’, or groups of dozens, or even hundreds, of fellow slaves. They were kept in barracks, sometimes underground, and is considered owned property. Roman slaves have no legal standing and are judged according to whoever owns them. Likewise, they have no right to a family life; the reproduction of children does not mean that your children are ‘your’ children—they belong to the slave master since slavery is a hereditary condition: at any time, your children or wife may be sold. Theoretically, the Roman slave is obligated to give all of their labor to their owner in as great of a degree and intensity as the owner wishes. Additionally, whatever the Roman slave produces is the property of the owner. If you are a Roman slave owner, then the domain is going to be the largest part of the estate and where you are going to get most of your profits.
In a broad outline, medieval manors resemble Roman estates. Manors consist of two parts—the tendencies and the domain. However, the size and relationship between the two parts differ; it is the tendency which comprises most of the manor with the domain being but a small chunk. Moreover, between these two parts, there exists an important link which doesn’t exist in the Roman estates. The labor performed on the domain, namely, does not come from slave gangs but from people living on the tendencies. In this case, serfs.
Serfs are slaves in that they are an unfree human being. They are the property that is owned by someone else. What is different is that the power of a lord over a serf is not as extensive as the power of a master over a slave. A serf does not have a legal standing, has their family life controlled by the owner, it is a hereditary status, and is tied to the land in which they live. Serfs, however, do not live in barracks, but rather, in small individual houses located on tendencies, so they are living rather far away from the person who owns them. Serfs are expected to work on the domain for a certain number of days per week. Additionally, there are restrictions on how much labor an owner can demand of a serf. In the Carolingian period, it was common for the serf to owe three days a week of work to the lord. The rest of the time, a serf can farm the territory on the tendency for themselves and keep part of what they produce. Serfs also have a legal right to a family; though serfs can be sold, owners may not break up the family but must sell the family together, as a block. Likewise, a serf also could not be sold away from the land in which they lived; this guaranteed them a degree of economic security. Sure, they could not leave the land but they also could not be forced off of it.
Why serfdom happens is unknown. It could have been a shortage of slaves which spurred on serfdom, or perhaps, although this is unlikely, it was a kind of humanitarianism. It could have been a kind of economic sense, where owners wanted to see a higher rate of production in realizing that if the laborers had something to work toward then there would be a net gain. What we do know is this: that the transition likely begins sometime in the middle of the seventh century. Furthermore, it begins in the area around Paris. As the Carolingians push outward from Paris, they bring with them this form of agricultural organization.
The Carolingians are also responsible for the spread of feudalism in medieval Europe.
Feudalism refers to a relationship between two people, usually members of the aristocracy. One party is known as the lord while the other is known as the vassal. In this relationship, the lord is the superior member. The Lord provides the vassal with means of support, especially means of support which will allow the vassal to acquire military equipment (knightly armor, mini-war horses, the lance, training time, etc.). In return, the vassal is expected to return certain services for the lord.
The word ‘feudalism’ comes from the Latin feualdom or ‘fief’. A ‘fief’ consists of a parcel of land. This land could vary in size from half a village to an entire county. The lord would present the fief to the vassal and the vassal is allowed to collect revenues from the fief (fines, taxes, tolls, etc.). The revenues gained from this parcel of land, this fief, would then be used to purchase the equipment of a knight.
Both the lord and vassal have specific demands which they must perform. A lord owes the vassal protection; if a vassal gets into a fight with another vassal, then their lord, and other vassals must come to the protection of the vassal who started the fight (and likewise for the other side’s vassal). A lord also owes the vassal ‘maintenance’ or the means of support, usually a fief, which the vassal gets to enjoy. In return for this, the vassal must provide the lord with two things: (1) consul, a vassal must provide advice to their lord whenever the lord demands it; (2) Aid, specifically, military service. A vassal must show up wherever their lord demands, often carrying their military equipment.
In order for a vassal to receive a lord and a lord to receive a vassal, both parties had to go through what was known as a ‘commendation’. This special ceremony had two parts to it: the act of homage and the oath of fealty. In the former, the vassal would appear before the lord and had to make various gestures of submission to the lord (one should be bareheaded, lack any kind of weapon), such as kneeling. In turn, the lord would then take his hands and put them on the outside of your hands, so as to show that he is the superior, and squeeze hard and announce his willingness to accept you as a vassal. That is the act of homage. After comes the oath of fealty. This is an oath of loyalty in which the vassal takes his still sweltering hands and places them either on a bible or a saint’s relic and then swears that he will never betray the trust or lord in any way. Once this ceremony is complete, the vassal has the right to take possession of the fief and they are considered lord and vassal.
These individual elements of feudalism existed before the Carolingian period. The Merovingian Franks granted fiefs to people, even late Roman people sometimes granted fiefs to certain individuals in return for service. Even the ceremony of commendation have pre-Carolingian origins; one can find this ceremony being practiced during the Merovingian period and even during the later Roman Empire. What the Carolingians do, however, perhaps as earlier as Charles Martel, is to bring together these disparate parts into a single whole. They unite the ceremony of commendation with the practice of granting fiefs, they also make military service the overwhelming type of service required by those who receive fiefs. Whereas Merovingian’s’ would give fiefs for many different reasons, Carolingians would only give fiefs in exchange for military service. The Carolingians spread this practice by dividing up conquered lands in accordance with the granting of fiefs, which, in turn, normalized the practice and the union of these elements.
The third element, the trial by ordeal, was something that the Romans never employed. In fact, most of the Germanic groups who entered the empire did not employ this tactic either. Trial by Ordeal seems to be largely a Frankish invention. Had the Franks not become as powerful as they became, trial by ordeal likely would have never become as prominent as it did.
Frankish law, as early as the sixth century, refers to trial by ordeal, in at least one manner, as trial by boiling water. In this ordeal, an accused individual, or someone involved in civil litigation whose claims were being doubted, would try to prove their case by plunging their hand in a cauldron of boiling water. At the bottom, there would be a small rock which would need to be grabbed. The idea were to grab the rock as quickly as possible. One’s hand would then be examined by a priest and wrapped up. Then you would have to wait three days. After the three days, the priest would unwrap and look at your hand. If your hand was badly injured, if you had blistered and the burns were serious, then you were guilty. But if somehow you had escaped harm during the ordeal, then you were either innocent or your claims were truthful. As Carolingian power grows, so does the spread of this practice, which other territories, even those not under Carolingian control, take up.
Of course, this trial by boiling water was simply one kind of ordeal. Eventually, numerous ordeals take up residence alongside this antiquated one. Other such ordeals are: the ordeal of hot iron (take a piece of hot iron, walk three paces then put it down, bandage hands and examine as before), ordeal of cold water (stream is blessed by priest; if you sink, then you are innocent, if you float you are guilty since the stream as rejected you), and the odd ordeal by cross (two litigants stand apart from each other with their arms spread out, and whoever dropped their arms first loses the case).
It should be noted that trial by ordeal was not used willy-nilly even in the Carolingian period. It is used as a last resort when normal methods of finding guilt or innocence lack results. The first line of defense in Carolingian law is to take testimony and try to find truth in that manner. If you could not rely on witnesses, then you would rely on oath-taking, in which someone would swear to his innocence and then which would have to find ten or twenty oath swearers who also swore that the accused was innocent. Only if you couldn’t rely on testimony or oath-taking then one would go to the trial by ordeals.
It should also be noted that in intellectual circles, there is a lot of debate as to whether this practice makes any sense at all. Leading critics pointed out that there was only one instance of what could be roughly identified as a ‘trial by ordeal’ in the Bible, but there was plenty of instances where God told humanity to use judges. Furthermore, critics pointed out that there was something presumptuous, if not blasphemous, about demanding miracles of God whenever. Other points against trial by ordeals were logical, in that, if trials found out a person’s guilt or innocence, then why do we not go to trial as our first line of defense, instead of out last? The idea that we only used it as the last line of defense meant that we did not actually believe in it, to begin with. Though even a pope condemned the practice, there were many who defended the practice of trial by ordeal, sometimes out of pragmatic monetary concerns, and others out of biblical. And because what a pope thought didn’t matter as much as what a Carolingian king thought, the practice continued until the 13th century when a powerful pope and religious structure condemns the practice altogether.