Early medieval Europe went through profound social changes which laid the foundation of the feudal system that survived until the 19th century in some parts of Europe. The emergence of the distinctive medieval social organization was a combination of several factors including the collapse of the Roman institutions, barbarian invasions and economic decline which has started already in late antiquity.
Classical world was not the same after the Crisis of the Third Century and cessation of territorial expansion of the Roman Empire. Most of the Roman trade networks collapsed in the 3rd century, while the cessation of territorial expansion resulted in lack of slave labour force which was the driving force of the Roman economy. Changed economic conditions forced small landowners and city dwellers to seek work at powerful landowners becoming coloni who were not much different from the medieval serfs. Just like later serfs, coloni worked on large estates, paid a rent to the landowner and were tied to the land.
The barbarian newcomers were free peasants but the period of general instability and frequent wars forced them to seek protection at owners of large estates who were mostly former tribal and military leaders. In exchange for their “achievements”, the barbarian chieftains seized the land of the former Roman aristocrats and eventually emerged as the medieval social elites. They offered protection to peasants and small landowners in exchange for their land and their personal freedom. The majority of free population voluntarily accepted serfdom as well as granted serfdom for their descendants although they have not have much choice. Landlords would not provide them protection unless they would not have offered something in exchange, while a small piece of land and their personal freedom was de facto all they had to offer.
The formation of the feudal society that was one of the most distinctive characteristics of medieval Europe has had its origin in the late antiquity. The barbarian invasions undoubtedly contributed to the social changes that led to formation of the “classic” medieval society but in a way, the barbarian peoples merely adopte