Feudalism is another one of those concepts that can be entertainingly and deliciously demonstrated in a classroom setting by having students play the roles of the different social stations in the pyramid and making candy representative of the rights and obligations due between lords and vassals. The teacher provides a running narrative of how feudalism works throughout this activity, making it a very interactive lecture.
You’ll need to have each student bring in a bag of candy for this exercise. The candy needs to be individually wrapped (ie mini Twix or Snickers) so that it can be traded around.
Select six students to be the actors in the feudal pyramid:
Have the king sit on a raised chair at the front of the class, with the clergy and the noble on either side and in front of him, and then with the knights spaced evenly in front of them. Each student in the feudal pyramid will need two plastic bags: one to keep his personal stash of candy, and one to collect “rights and obligations” candy from his vassal. Also move the desks in the class into several groups, one for each knight.
Then, follow the procedure below. As I do this, I like to draw the relevant part of the feudal pyramid on the board.
- The clergy and nobility have agreed to become vassals of the king. Likewise, the knights have agreed to become vassals to the clergy and nobility. Assign each knight to be the vassal of the clergyman or noble
- Each knight has been granted a piece of land and peasants to work it. Explain that this grant is called a fief, and the land itself is a manor. Assign each group of desks to one of the knights, and tell the students who are not part of the pyramid that they are peasants
- Now comes the fun part. Under feudalism, peasants were allowed to live on their lord’s manor and received his protection. In return, they had several obligations to the lord. Explain this to the class, and then begin to enumerate these obligations, listed below. Each time you explain one of the obligations, instruct the knights to collect a portion of each peasant’s candy to represent those obligations. You want the peasants to end up with one or two pieces of candy, and there are 5-6 obligations, so collect about 1/5 of their candy every time.
- A large portion of all crops grown on the manor.
- Several days of labor per week on the lord’s projects.
- A tithe – a direct payment to the church.
- Permission to marry.
- A payment to be able to grind grain using the lord’s mill.
- Here’s the thing. The rights and obligations went right up the pyramid: knights owed nobles their fealty, and the nobles owed the same to the king. So each time the knights go around to collect candy, have the knights give half of their collection to their lord (clergyman or nobleman), and the lord should in turn give half of that share to HIS lord (the king). The only exception to this is the collection of the tithe – the knights should give their entire collection directly to the clergyman.
- At some point, remind the knights that they have a duty to protect the peasants. Start taking candy from one of the knights fiefs to illustrate this – the knight should try to stop you!
- After all obligations have been enumerated and explained, ask the peasants to count how many pieces of candy they have left. Have the knights, nobleman, clergyman, and king do the same. Emphasize that the clergyman will have as much candy as the king, or even more – this is a result of the tithe, and it helps illustrate why the church was so powerful in medieval Europe.
- Have the students copy the notes from the board, which for me end up looking something like this:
Also, let the students eat the candy now.
My students learn feudalism really well. The lecture moves along at a leisurely but engaging pace, and students take an active part in what would otherwise be a dry and dense subject.
Once again, not the most time-efficient way to communicate content, but doing it this way engages the entire class, puts the students in into real historical roles so that they could understand the pros and cons of being in each position in the hierarchy, and it includes a kinesthetic element.