Fixed ideas about teaching the Feudal System? Time to change!

The Norman Conquest marked the start of a new long evolutionary process. Those living in The Middle Ages were sophisticated people. It was a time of building. Building not just in the sense of undertaking the construction of magnificent cathedrals and impregnable castles made from stone, but building ways of organising life, faith, government and society. If it’s time to refresh your teaching and build respect for the ‘inventive’, ‘highly organised’, ‘creative’ people alive in the era of the Battle of Hastings, this piece and associated references might provide some ideas.

The Feudal System is a window through which learners can understand so much about Norman England. Here’s how to make it memorable, to build their sense of period and to inspire their curiosity about structures in society.

I’m all for a bit of etymology in the history classroom and teaching ‘The Feudal System’ lends itself well to that. Bates suggests the word lordship is more often used to describe changes in the way England’s aristocratic elite organised their powers. Morris makes the continuing case for feudal deriving from the Medieval Latin feodum which was a parcel of land given to some knights for their service and so it fits to describe a society that was everywhere affected by the arrival of knights and castles.

William the Conqueror has a problem to solve! He is the King, but how best to organise everyone else? Taking a tiered approach here are your ingredients for success:

  • 1 paper crown (or more substantial if you like)
  • Ruler (to act as a sword)
  • 4 white stickers with feudal labels or sugar paper tabards if preferred.
  • 21st Century Jobs Card Sort (about 6 will do)

1. Start with the word meritocracy. Gauge learners’ starting points. Prompts; have you heard of merits? Do you know any other -cracy words?  I imagine they’d know democracy (You can have a lot of fun with this link: ) Make sure that they are clear that ‘-cracy’ means government, rule or influence. Then introduce the school organisational structure – what do they make of that?! What word best fits the organisational system?


2. Give learners a big question to be thinking about: ‘Do we live in a meritocracy?’ This leads to further ongoing questions and debate….in theory we do, in practice there are barriers to this. Education often comes up in discussion as a catalyst for change. Debates about equality and diversity may well ensue.

3. In groups of three, issue learners with some cards to sort in terms of the ‘merits’ or otherwise of these roles; e.g. barista, barrister, cleaner, builder, hairdresser, doctor. Ask students to reach consensus and rank them. More debate and questions follow. What criteria have they used? They justify, argue and get fired up.

4. Now that you have provoked thought, built bothered-ness, made learners care… (call it what you will!) it’s time to rewind to the Middle Ages. Ask learners how they think the set up might be different? Make some predictions, draw a diagram perhaps. This provides great insight and allows you to see what mental models they hold, gauging understanding, preconceptions and starting points. See the menu to explore on page 74 of this HA publication.

5. Tease out the importance of landholding and then introduce the idea of land tenure (feu-, more etymology) Now in groups of four issue the stickers or tabards; Villein, Knight, Tenant in Chief, King. Using the information on the page below, learners need to organise themselves to rehearse speeches to act out The Feudal Hierarchy. In this way they will get to grips with the tied system of duties and rewards. Incentivise the class by saying two groups (depending on time) chosen ‘at random’ will ‘bring the diagram to life’. See if you can enlist a colleague to be the audience and take tableau photographs.


6. An alternative is a ‘maps from memory’ (aka diagrams from memory) approach whereby learners work as a team, or perhaps just in pairs, and, relay style, they have a limited time to look at a diagram, memorise it and return to their table and add to the illustration.


Once this is understood, follow up questions will depend on your desired outcomes.

Identifying the substantive concepts that learners need to understand is a key part of planning to teach any historical topic. Luckily there are plenty of tried and tested ideas being shared. Here are some: TH_167__MMO

And finally…

If you need to read more about the period, try the article by David Bates ‘1066 in 2016’ in The Historian 131 Autumn 2016 or get hold of a copy of Marc Morris’ book on ‘The Norman Conquest.

The model in this article could be adapted to other complex concepts that we need to explain in the history classroom. Why not try out some of these ideas with concepts such as the Tudor Great Chain of Being or the French Estates System or the 19th century British class system? Do share great ideas with us! Follow the Historical Association @histassoc and join at for access to resources to support your teaching.


Thanks to Carmel Bones, history education consultant for this post and to Paul Holden, History Department, Pendle Vale College, Nelson, Lancashire for his help with pictures.


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