The Middle Ages, Lesson Plan
The Vassal System Game
Prior knowledge: Kids have already studied serfs and peasants, and have reviewed manorism, feudalism, and fiefs. With the Middle Ages, we start at the bottom of the pyramid (serfs and peasants) and work our way up.
Prep: Create one vassal card per student. Four cards are noble cards. They are: A Noble, B Noble, C Noble, D Noble. The rest say Vassal.
Ask: Does anyone remember what a manor is? Get some answers. Refer to your word wall if you have one. Clarify if needed: Say: A manor is not a house It is a piece of land and everything on that piece of land including people, huts, the manor house, the village, the animals, the works.
Say: In the Middle Ages, in times of trouble, which were often and nearly continuous, a warrior, the lord of a manor (a vassal) had to have quick access to a large group of fighting men that he could call on for help to protect his manor. Vassals could promise their loyalty to more than one person. You could pledge your support to 10 or 12 lords. But you might have a problem if two or more of your lords went to war with each other. Here is what you had to consider when pledging your loyalty:
If you didn't keep your promise, your land would be taken away from you and given to someone on the winning side.
If you did not have enough fighting men to protect your land, you would lose a battle, and your land would be taken from you.
If you pledged your support to several lords so you would have enough fighting men to protect your land if attacked, you risked two of your lords declaring war on each other. Since you promised both your support, you could send your knights to one side or the other, and hope the side you picked won. If that side lost, your land would be taken from you. Even if your side won, your position as a vassal would be weakened. If the winner of this battle could not count on you to keep your promise in future battles, you might find your land taken anyway. Or you might find your lord rejects you as a vassal, and you might stand alone against attack in the future.
Say: Today we are going to take a look at what happens when a vassal is called upon to honor his pledge.
Distribute the vassal cards. Hand out the four noble cards. Select four students to be nobles. Then hand out the vassal cards. Direct your students to decide to whom you are going to pledge your support. On your cards, quickly write down A, B, C, D, or any combination. For example, you might pledge to A and B, or C and D, or A and D or A, C, D. It's up to you. It's your risk. You have 30 seconds to make up your mind and write down your selection.
Then say: Here's the situation.
Battle One: Noble A and Noble D have gone to war.
Ask: Who is Noble A? Place whichever student is Noble A on one side of the room.
Ask: Who is Noble D? Place whichever student is Noble D on the other side of the room.
Say: All vassals who have pledged to support Noble A but not Noble D move to stand with A. All vassals who have pledged to support Noble D but not Noble A move to stand with D. Those vassals who have pledged to support both Nobles A & D please move to the back of the room. Back of the room, you are awaiting trial. You promised your support. You did not show. There will be a hearing made up of other vassals. If you are found guilty, you have to give me your fiefdom. Scared? You should be. Without land, how will you eat? How will you earn the money you need to honor your other pledges? As for Noble A and Noble B, which one has the most warriors. You will probably win. Turn to the losers and say: Oh dear. Not so lucky today. You will probably lose. You will probably die in battle, but if you live through the battle, you will be stripped of your lands and your family will be kicked off the manor. Where will they go? What will they do? Who cares. Your manor will be given to a warrior for bravery in battle. Your family is your problem. If the new landlord decides to let you live, feel lucky.
Then say: Thank you for your service. You may all take your seats and those still alive, and still have their lands, prepare for Battle Two.
Battle Two: Noble B and Noble C have gone to war.
Ask: Who is Noble B? Place whichever student is Noble B on one side of the room.
Ask: Who is Noble C? Place whichever student is Noble C on the other side of the room.
Say: All vassals who have pledged to support Noble B but not Noble C move to stand with B. All vassals who have pledged to support Noble C but not Noble B move to stand with B. Those vassals who have pledged to support both Nobles B & C please move to the back of the room. You are awaiting trial. Some of you feel you have been wrongly accused. You sent men as you promised. You sent men to both sides. You kept your promise to both. The vassals at your trial might agree with you. If so, your land is saved. If not, your land is forfeited and your family will be removed from the manor.
Then Say: Again, thank you for your service. All students take your seats.
Say: For those of you who managed to survive though these battles, I have sad news for you. Nobles E, F, G, and H are headed your way. They have been marching in your direction for days. By tomorrow, they will arrive. You did not get the word. You've been busy worrying about these other battles. I think you're in a bit of trouble. You should have left more warriors at home to defend your manor. Is there any chance you might have learned these men were coming? (Get some answers - spies, one of your knights is in love with the daughter of Noble E and she told you. ) If you did learn these men were coming, you might be saved. Nobles A, B, C, and D might decide to stop their infighting, and join forces to fight this new threat. If that happened, you might be saved. You might be forgiven for not showing up for battle, or for supporting both sides, if you stood up now and fought against this new threat.
Conclude the Battles: That's how things were done in the Middle Ages. In the absence of a strong central government and the presence of nearly continuous war, the vassal system at least gave people a fighting chance. It was extremely important that you kept your promises. But things were decided based on what was going on. You could be on the winning side be given more land and serfs, and thus more power and wealth. Or you could be on the losing side, and come out okay if your services were needed for a new battle. Or, of course, you could lose everything. War was the way to riches. It was also the way to poverty and death.
Ask: Let's review this. If you were my vassal, what kind of power would I have over you? (Get some answers.)
Say: If I were attacked, I would expect you to serve me as a warrior without pay for as long as I was being attacked. If I was the one attacking, you would have to be my warrior for six weeks for free, and then if the battle continued I would have to pay all your expenses. If I wanted you to come to my castle for any puny reason, you had to come.
Ask: If I were getting married, what would you have to do? (Help pay for the wedding.) If I were held hostage, what would you have to do? (Help pay the ransom.)
Say: I gave you land and serfs. In exchange, you promised to do certain things to help and protect me. If you don't honor your promise, you will be tried, convicted, and stripped of your lands.
Ask: What happens if you choose not to participate in this system? You'd just rather not have land at all. What would happen to you? (Get some answers.)
Say: You could join the church if they would have you. You could become a peasant. A peasant thought it was pleasant to be a peasant. Not the life for you? So, what would you do? (Get some answers.)
Say: There was nothing else. For hundreds of years, there were only three major groups of people in the Middle Ages - the common people, the church, and the nobility. There was no television or radio or internet or cell phones. There was only war. The Crusades helped to end feudalism. So did the increase in population, the rise of towns, and the new middle class. People started to see that they needed something besides constant war, and that something was strong central governments - the rise of powerful monarchies. But change took a very long time. And change was slow.