Picture an anthill, taken over by a group of red ants.  They rush in and crawl into the hill and the whole colony of black ants is run out.  The black ants run every which way across the forest floor, looking for a new home.  Now picture Europe from high above.  You are so high in the sky that people look as small as ants.  It's the 5th century C.E.  Rome has just fallen.  The Germanic Tribes, the red ants, just came in and beat Rome.  There is no more army to keep everyone safe.  So the people in the country have to build new lives.  Everything is different now.  Everything they once knew is gone.  There are no longer enough of them to build the big anthill that was Rome.  From around 900 C.E. until 1500 C.E. they found a new way to live and keep each other safe.

It's time for the people to find a new way of living . . . in the feudal system. 

The people are used to a way of living.  Like ants, they are used to following a leader (the queen!).  Now that Rome has fallen, instead of one great leader, there are many.  In different places across Europe, people that had wealth and an army could call themselves king . . . until someone else defeated them.  Usually, they would team up with several other people with an army to form their kingdoms in the Middle Ages.  A king was someone who controlled large pieces of land and ruled over the people and land.  He is the one person at the top of the feudal system, while most people are at the very bottom.  Not unlike the queen of the anthill, everyone wants to keep the king happy, mostly because he has the most power.  In some places, people even believe that the king received his high place in life from God.  They were not about to argue with that.  

Now that the anthill, I mean, Roman empire, is gone, and all the people are without an emperor and one big government to keep an eye on all the land.  Instead there are many kings who decide what to do with their separate countries.  Some of these kings didn't have much money, but they would be able to give away land that they owned (or took over).  Each king knows it's easier to run a large piece of land by breaking it up into smaller parts.  Even though you're king, you still need to keep the people who live in your kingdom happy with your rule.  A fief was a piece of land that the king could give to someone in the feudal system and to pay the king back, they would promise to serve and fight for the king.  Who can he trust to keep this land safe?  The black ants who fought the red ants, of course.  

Back when the anthill was attacked, back when Rome fell, these kings had too much land to look over and needed help from people that had power through workers or soldiers.  The king would want these people to fight for him and take care of his land.  To pay them, he would give them a fief to look after and rule over.  A lord was a powerful person, under the king, that kept a piece of land safe, managed the people who there, and fought for the king in time of need.  The lord would watch over the people who farmed and would have soldiers that the king could use if they needed them.  Now the ants have someone to watch over them and work to do.  

After the big hill fell, the ants were scared.  Everything they knew was gone and they had to build new lives.  They wanted someone to keep them safe for fear the red ants could return at any time.  A serf was a peasant who worked the land in exchange for protection.  They might be a farmer, blacksmith, baker or any other job that needed doing.  Most of what the serf earned, made, or grew went to the lord, and some of the lord's money went to the king, keeping him rich and happy.  This might seem like a good deal, but the serfs had traded one kind of fear for another.  The lord could collect a lot of money and did not leave them with more than they needed to live.  Many were also not allowed to leave the lord's land without his permission and could be killed by the lord if he chose to kill them.  Some could own their own business, but others were treated like slaves.  Maybe the red ants were not so bad after all. 

After the great anthill fell to the red ants, the ants had to find a new way to live.  After the fall of Rome, people also had to found a way to do this in the Middle Ages.  The king broke up his land into fiefs, which could be ruled over by lords who kept an eye on the serfs, protecting them but also taking as much as they could from their work.  The feudal system stayed in place for more than 600 years, from 900 C.E. until 1500 C.E.  That is until the serfs realized that Germanic Tribes were no longer attacking them.  The ones who were really hurting them and taking all their money were the lords and the king . . .   Neither the big anthill nor the empire may ever form again. 


Annenberg Learner.  "The Middle Ages: Feudal Life"  Learner, 2011.  <http://www.learner.org/interactives/middleages/feudal.html>