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Feudalism was the system in 10th-13th century European medieval societies where a social hierarchy was established based on local administrative control and the distribution of land into units (fiefs). A landowner (lord) gave a fief, along with a promise of military and legal protection, in return for a payment of some kind from the person who received it (vassal).

The payment of the vassal to the lord typically came in the form of feudal service which could mean military service or the regular payment of produce or money. Both lord and vassal were freemen and the term feudalism is not generally applied to the relationship between the unfree peasantry (serfs or villeins) and the person of higher social rank on whose land they laboured.

Problems of Definition

Although the term 'feudalism' and 'feudal society' are commonly used in history texts, scholars have never agreed on precisely what those terms mean. The terms were applied to European medieval society from the 16th century onwards and subsequently to societies elsewhere, notably in the Zhou period of China (1046-256 BCE) and Edo period of Japan (1603-1868). The term feudalism was not used by the people who lived in the Middle Ages. Neither can the feudal system, once defined, be applied uniformly across different European states as there were variations in laws and customs in different geographical areas and in different centuries. As a consequence, many historians beleive that the term feudalism is only of limited use in understanding medieval societies.

The Oxford English Dictionary has as concise a definition for feudalism as anywhere while still including its various levels of application:

The dominant social system in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord's land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.

Origins of Feudalism

The word 'feudalism' derives from the medieval Latin terms feudalis, meaning fee, and feodum, meaning fief. The fee signified the land given (the fief) as a payment for regular military service. The system had its roots in the Roman manorial system (in which workers were compensated with protection while living on large estates) and in the 8th century kingdom of the Franks where a king gave out land for life (benefice) to reward loyal nobles and receive service in return. The feudal system proper became widespread in Western Europe from the 11th century onwards, largely thanks to the Normans as their rulers carved up and dished out lands wherever their armies conquered.

The vassal received any income from the land, had authority over its inhabitants & could pass the same rights on to his heirs.

Lords & Vassals

Starting from the top of society's pyramid, the monarch – a good example is William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087) who considered all the lands of England as his personal property – could give a parcel of land (of no fixed size) to a noble who, in return, would be that monarch's vassal, that is he would promise loyalty and service when required. Thus, a personal bond was created. The most common and needed service was military service. Military obligations included fighting in that monarch's army or protecting assets of the Crown such as castles. In some cases, a money payment (known as scutage), which the monarch then used to pay mercenary soldiers, might be offered instead of military service. The vassal received any income from the land, had authority over its inhabitants and could pass the same rights on to his heirs.

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The nobles who had received land, often called suzerain vassals, could have much more than they either needed or could manage themselves and so they often sub-let parts of it to tenant vassals. Once again, the person was given the right to use and profit from this land and in return, in one form or another, then owed a service to the landowner. This service could again take the form of military service (typical in the case of a knight) or, as tenants might be of a lower social class (but still be freemen) and they might not have had the necessary military skills or equipment, more usually they offered a percentage of their revenue from the land they rented (either in money or produce) or, later in the Middle Ages, made a fixed payment of rent. There were also irregular special fees to be paid to the lord such as when his eldest daughter married or his son was knighted.

The arrangement which created a vassal was known as 'homage' as they often knelt before their particular feudal lord and swore an oath of loyalty, for which, in return, they not only received the land but also their lord's protection if and when required. The promise of protection was no small matter in times of war, when there were frequent raids from hostile neighbouring states, and when there was a perpetual danger of general banditry. Protection also came in the form of legal support and representation if a vassal found himself in a civil or church court. A tenant usually handed down their tenancy to their heir although it was sometimes possible to sell the right of tenancy to a third party, provided the lord who owned the land agreed.

Another type of relationship in feudal societies, especially in medieval Germany and France, involved the allod, an inalienable property, i.e. one that could not be taken back. Holders of an allod still owed some form of allegiance to a superior local lord but the relationship was not based on land ownership and so that allegiance was harder to enforce.

The feudal system perpetuated itself as a status quo because the control of land required the ability to perform military service & land was required to fund military service.

The feudal system perpetuated itself as a status quo because the control of land required the ability to perform military service and, because of the costs involved (of weapons, armour and horses), land was required to fund military service. Thus there was a perpetual divide between the landed aristocracy (monarchs, lords, and some tenants) and those who worked the land for them who could be free or unfree labourers. Unfree labourers were serfs, also known as villeins, who were at the bottom of the social pyramid and who made up the vast majority of the population. The peasantry worked, without pay, on the land owned or rented by others to produce food for themselves and, just as importantly, food and profit for their masters. They were often treated as little more than slaves and could not leave the estate on which they lived and worked. The term feudalism, however, is generally applied by modern historians only to the relationship between lords and vassals, and not the peasantry. Rather, the relationship between serf and landowner or tenant is referred to as the manorial system after the most common unit of land, the 'manor'.

Consequences & Effects

The consequence of the feudal system was the creation of very localised groups of communities which owed loyalty to a specific local lord who exercised absolute authority in his domain. As fiefs were often hereditary, a permanent class divide was established between those who had land and those who rented it. The system was often weighted in favour of the sovereign as when a noble died without an heir, his estate went back to the monarch to either keep for themselves or to redistribute to another noble. Monarchs could distribute land for political purposes, fragmenting a noble's holdings or distancing him from the court. It also became difficult to keep track of who owned what which led to such controls as Domesday Book of 1087.

Additional effects were the presence of vassals in the local courts which deliberated on cases involving the estates of their lords. Thus, there could be a clear conflict of interest and lack of impartiality, even if the more serious criminal cases were referred to the courts of the Crown.

In addition, the system of feudal relationships could create serious unrest. Sometimes a monarch might insist on active military service because of a war but nobles might also refuse, as happened to King John of England in 1215 and the Barons' Revolt which led to the signing of the Magna Carta. In 1215, and in subsequent revolts in the 13th century, the barons were acting collectively for their own interests which was a direct threat to the entire system of feudalism, based as it was upon single lords and vassals working out their own private arrangements. Military service was reduced to fixed terms, typically 40 days in England, in an effort to reduce the burden on nobles so that they did not leave their lands unattended for too long. However, 40 days was not usually enough to see out a campaign and so a monarch was obliged to pay mercenaries, dealing another blow to the tradition of feudalism and vassalage.

Decline of Feudalism

Medieval feudalism was essentially based on the relationship of reciprocal aid between lord and vassal but as that system became more complex over time, so this relationship weakened. Lords came to own multiple estates and vassals could be tenants of various parcels of land so that loyalties became confused and even conflicting with people choosing to honour the relationship that suited their own needs best.

Another blow to the system came from sudden population declines caused by wars and plagues, particularly the Black Death (which peaked between 1347-1352), and by peasant revolts (most famously in England in 1381). Such crises caused a chronic shortage of labour and the abandonment of estates because there was no one to work them. The growth of large towns and cities also saw labour leave the countryside to find a better future and the new jobs available there.

January 1, 1100 - Japanese Feudalism

​Japanese feudalism was a social, political, and economic system in Japan that lasted from the 11th century until it’s eventual demise in the 19th century. This system was structured very similarly to the system of feudalism in Europe seen earlier. In Japanese Feudalism, the structure or hierarchy of power was determined by the many different social classes, whereby power was reflected and represented through title and social status.

​The first class in this feudal pyramid was the emperor. Although emperors were at the top of the pyramid, they were nothing more than figureheads, or people who had little to no political power. The class below the emperor was the shogun, which was a part of the warrior division of classes in Japan. Although the shogun wasn’t technically the official leader, they held more power than the emperor and served as the true mastermind behind the emperor’s actions. The power and influence from these shoguns was immense and shown through the manipulation of the emperor. The emperor was simply a puppet to the shogun’s game and ambition.

​In addition to the shogun, the rest of this warrior class was made up of diamyo, samurai, and ronin. The daimyo’s responsibility was to assist the shogun and was in charge of the employment of samurai and the protection that those samurai provided to the upper classes of the feudal pyramid. The samurai’s duty was to protect and defend daimyo’s territory and land against rival daimyo. After the diamyo came the ronin, who were also samurai warriors, but did not have a daimyo to work for. This status of being a ronin could occur for multiplereasons. One way a samurai could become a ronin is if their master died. Furthermore, samurai could become a ronin if their master lost power and they were expelled.

​Next in line were the peasants. In feudal Japan, the peasants made up almost 90% of the population and were typically farmers and fishermen. The idea of strength in numbers really came into play when talking about the peasants of feudal Japan. Although they were near the bottom of the pyramid and seemingly played a small role in society, their value was enormous to the continuation of this feudal system and the survival of Japan as well. These peasants were depended on for food and labor. Without this group of people there truly would be no support for the entire system let alone the top of the pyramid. Finally, on the bottom of the feudal pyramid came the artisans and merchants class. This class consisted of craftsmen and traders who worked for a living trying to sell and perfect their trade. Even though these two classes were on the bottom of the pyramid, they still played a role in the spread of culture as represented through art and certain trades. All of these different social classes may appear to be completely different, but in reality they are essential to each other. Without one of these classes, the balance of this system is completely jeopardized. Each class can not exist without the others and the support they provide.

​In many ways this system of feudalism was similar to feudalism in Europe, and was only different from a cultural standpoint. One prime example of the many similarities between the two systems were knights and samurai. These two types of warriors virtually held the same concepts of protecting their leaders and doing everything in their power to serve their country. In the case of Japan, the leader that was protected was the shogun, and in Europe the feudal lord was protected by knights. In addition, they both followed a feudal lord and were split into different territories that fought each other for power.

​Lastly, Japanese feudalism ended abruptly when there was not enough resources to feed this growing population. Japanese feudalism is significant to world history because this system led to a closed country policy and an isolated Japan. Instead of exploring the world around them with the resources that they had, Japan kept to themselves and had minimal contact with outside sources. It is amazing that in a time filled with discovery and exploring, Japan saved and preserved what made their country and culture special and tried not to tarnished what they believed was the ideal lifestyle. Furthermore, it is significant to analyze the effects of this system because of the thought of what the world would be like today if this system didn’t exist and if Japan didn’t isolate themselves because of it. All in all, when the different classes did come together, a highly efficient, effective, and powerful system was formed that would prove itself throughout the test of time in Japan.


Bisson, Thomas N. "The 'Feudal Revolution.'" Past and Present 142 (February 1994): 6&ndash42.

Bloch, Marc Léopold Benjamin. Feudal Society. Translated by L. A. Manyon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Brunner, Otto. "'Feudalismus,' ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeshichte." Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz, Abhandlungen der geistes-und sozialwissenschaftlichen Klasse no. 10. Mainz, 1958. Translated as "Feudalism: The History of a Concept." In Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: Selected Readings, edited by Fredric L. Cheyette, 32&ndash61. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1968.

Cheyette, Fredric L. "Some Reflections on Violence, Reconciliation, and the Feudal Revolution." In Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture, edited by Warren C. Brown and Piotr Górecki. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington Vt.: Ashgate, 2003.

Coulborn, Rushton, comp. Feudalism in History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1956.

Mazauric, Claude. "Note sur l'emploi de 'régime féodal' et de 'féodalité' pendant la Révolution Française." In Sur la Révolution Française: Contributions à l'histoire de la révolution bourgeoise, by Claude Mazauric, 119&ndash134. Paris: Éditions sociales, 1988.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de. L'esprit des lois. Books 28&ndash31. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pleiade, 1958.

Pollock, Frederick, and Frederic William Maitland. The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1905.

Poly, Jean-Pierre, and Éric Bournazel. La mutation féodale, Xe&ndashXIIe siècles. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980.

Reynolds, Susan. Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Stubbs, William. Constitutional History of England. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1874&ndash1878.

Waitz, Georg. Deutsche Staats-Wörterbuch. Vol. 6. Edited by Johann Caspar Bluntschli and Karl Brater. Stuttgart, Germany: Expedition des Staats-Wörterbuchs, 1861.

Wunder, Heide. "Einleitung." In Feudalismus: Zehn Aufsätze, compiled by Heide Wunder, 10&ndash76. Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1974.

The Middle Ages: The Rise of Islam

Meanwhile, the Islamic world was growing larger and more powerful. After the prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, Muslim armies conquered large parts of the Middle East, uniting them under the rule of a single caliph. At its height, the medieval Islamic world was more than three times bigger than all of Christendom.

Under the caliphs, great cities such as Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus fostered a vibrant intellectual and cultural life. Poets, scientists and philosophers wrote thousands of books (on paper, a Chinese invention that had made its way into the Islamic world by the 8th century). Scholars translated Greek, Iranian and Indian texts into Arabic. Inventors devised technologies like the pinhole camera, soap, windmills, surgical instruments, an early flying machine and the system of numerals that we use today. And religious scholars and mystics translated, interpreted and taught the Quran and other scriptural texts to people across the Middle East.

The incentives for feudalism

While Kings fought each other on the stage of the wider world, it was often difficult within a given kingdom to keep the Dukes happy with each other, and even within a Duchy it would be difficult to keep the Counts on good terms. The reason was simple: all of these people were essentially heads of their own mini-states, and as such could tax their subjects directly, and raise armies to defend themselves and their subjects – and conquer new lands.

The core reason that feudalism worked was that the oath of fealty a vassal swore to their liege (e.g. Count to Duke or Duke to King) included a provision that the subject would pay a tax to their liege – usually some combination of cash and military service – and, crucially, that their liege would defend them from any foreign threats. Thus, there was something significant in it for both parties: the weaker party was protected, and the stronger party was paid.

Internal conquest

However, the liege would often not be in a position to intervene in wars between his own subjects, or the subjects of his subjects, and furthermore would not always be required by feudal law to do so – the relationship only goes up one level. A Baron who is vassal to a Count pays taxes to that Count, not to the Duke to whom the Count is a vassal, and likewise the Duke will not necessarily be particularly interested if another Baron within his domain declares war on the first Baron to take his castle – that’s for the Count to deal with.

And so complex webs of alliances and familial ties were formed in the feudal world, to ensure that every noble could be sure that their territorial claims were backed by military force.

The fact that subjects within a kingdom conquered other subjects within the same kingdom, along with the fact that titles were inherited based on often-complex family lines, led to strange things happening in feudal Europe. For instance, a German Electorate within the Holy Roman Empire inherited the entirety of Great Britain at one point, giving us the royal family that rules the UK today.

Feudalism - History

The basic government and society in Europe during the middle ages was based around the feudal system. Small communities were formed around the local lord and the manor. The lord owned the land and everything in it. He would keep the peasants safe in return for their service. The lord, in return, would provide the king with soldiers or taxes.

A Feudal Knight by Unknown

Under the feudal system land was granted to people for service. It started at the top with the king granting his land to a baron for soldiers all the way down to a peasant getting land to grow crops.

The center of life in the Middle Ages was the manor. The manor was run by the local lord. He lived in a large house or castle where people would gather for celebrations or for protection if they were attacked. A small village would form around the castle which would include the local church. Farms would then spread out from there which would be worked by the peasants.

King - The top leader in the land was the king. The king could not control all of the land by himself, so he divided it up among the Barons. In return, the Barons pledged their loyalty and soldiers to the king. When a king died, his firstborn son would inherit the throne. When one family stayed in power for a long time, this was called a dynasty.

Bishop - The Bishop was the top church leader in the kingdom and managed an area called a diocese. The Catholic Church was very powerful in most parts of Medieval Europe and this made the Bishop powerful as well. Not only that, but the church received a tithe of 10 percent from all the people. This made some Bishops very rich.

Barons and Nobles- The Barons and high ranking nobles ruled large areas of land called fiefs. They reported directly to the king and were very powerful. They divided up their land among Lords who ran individual manors. Their job was to maintain an army that was at the king's service. If they did not have an army, sometimes they would pay the king a tax instead. This tax was called shield money.

Lords and Knights - The lords ran the local manors. They also were the king's knights and could be called into battle at any moment by their Baron. The lords owned everything on their land including the peasants, crops, and village.

Medieval Castle by Fred Fokkelman

Most of the people living in the Middle Ages were peasants. They had a hard rough life. Some peasants were considered free and could own their own businesses like carpenters, bakers, and blacksmiths. Others were more like slaves. They owned nothing and were pledged to their local lord. They worked long days, 6 days a week, and often barely had enough food to survive.

Development in the 19th and 20th centuries

In the 19th century, influenced by Adam Smith and other Scottish thinkers, Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95) made “the feudal mode of production” one stage in their visionary reading of Western historical development the feudal model followed “the ancient mode of production” and preceded capitalism, socialism, and communism. Marx and Engels rejected the traditional understanding of feudalism as consisting of fiefs and relations among the elite and emphasized the lords’ exploitation of the peasants as the essence of the feudal mode of production. Marx and Engels did not try to establish that the feudal period had existed universally they formulated for Asia the idea of a specific Asiatic mode of production. Still, by incorporating “the feudal mode of production” into their design, they endowed it with seminal significance. Their followers came to view the feudal stage as a necessary prerequisite for the emergence of socialism, and socialist scholars and activists sought traces of it throughout the world.

Marx and Engels’s model of Western historical development indicates how popular the feudal construct had become by the middle of the 19th century. Their modification of the construct to serve their own purposes demonstrates its pliancy. However, they were not unique in having shaped the feudal construct to suit their particular perspective. The Australian medieval historian John O. Ward isolated 10 different sets of phenomena that historians had associated with feudalism. Some employed narrow legalistic definitions like those elaborated by 16th-century lawyers. Others, following the English historian Thomas Madox (1666–1726/27) and the French historian Marc Bloch (1886–1944), equated feudalism with feudal society. They saw feudalism as encompassing many if not most aspects of medieval society: peasants, whether free, unfree, or semi-free a ruling warrior class with subordinates compensated for military service by grants of land rather than money fragmentation of power and disorder—yet with the family and the state retaining their importance. The American historian Joseph R. Strayer (1904–87) laid special emphasis on the splintering of political and public power and authority, and he believed that systematized feudal institutions and customs were compatible with the formation of large political units, which he viewed as recognizable precursors of contemporary nation-states. Although Bloch and Strayer employed the feudal construct throughout their careers, both admitted the idiosyncrasy of the various definitions of the feudal labels that have been proposed, and both acknowledged that focusing on the construct inevitably obscures the human beings, both individuals and groups, whose actions historians are dedicated to comprehending.


There is no commonly accepted modern definition of feudalism, at least among scholars. [4] [7] The adjective feudal was in use by at least 1405, and the noun feudalism, now often employed in a political and propagandistic context, was coined by 1771, [4] paralleling the French féodalité (feudality).

According to a classic definition by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), [3] feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility and revolved around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs, [3] though Ganshof himself noted that his treatment was only related to the "narrow, technical, legal sense of the word".

A broader definition, as described in Marc Bloch's Feudal Society (1939), [10] includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but the obligations of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and those who lived off their labor, most directly the peasantry which was bound by a system of manorialism this order is often referred to as a "feudal society", echoing Bloch's usage.

Outside its European context, [4] the concept of feudalism is often used by analogy, most often in discussions of feudal Japan under the shoguns, and sometimes in discussions of the Zagwe dynasty in medieval Ethiopia, [11] which had some feudal characteristics (sometimes called "semifeudal"). [12] [13] Some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing feudalism (or traces of it) in places as diverse as China during the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE), ancient Egypt, the Parthian Empire, the Indian subcontinent and the Antebellum and Jim Crow American South. [11]

The term feudalism has also been applied—often inappropriately or pejoratively—to non-Western societies where institutions and attitudes which are similar to those which existed in medieval Europe are perceived to prevail. [14] Some historians and political theorists believe that the term feudalism has been deprived of specific meaning by the many ways it has been used, leading them to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society. [4] [5]

The applicability of the term feudalism has also been question in the context of some Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, with scholars observing that the medieval political and economist structure of those countries bears some, but not all, resemblances to the Western European societies commonly described as feudal. [15] [16] [17] [18]

The root of the term "feudal" originates in the Proto-Indo-European word *péḱu, meaning "cattle", and possesses cognates in many other Indo-European languages: Sanskrit pacu, "cattle" Latin pecus (cf. pecunia) "cattle", "money" Old High German fehu, fihu, "cattle", "property", "money" Old Frisian fia Old Saxon fehu Old English feoh, fioh, feo, fee. The term "féodal" was first used in 17th-century French legal treatises (1614) [19] [20] and translated into English legal treatises as an adjective, such as "feodal government".

In the 18th century, Adam Smith, seeking to describe economic systems, effectively coined the forms "feudal government" and "feudal system" in his book Wealth of Nations (1776). [21] The phrase "feudal system" appeared in 1736, in Baronia Anglica, published nine years after the death of its author Thomas Madox, in 1727. In 1771, in his History of Manchester, John Whitaker first introduced the word "feudalism" and the notion of the feudal pyramid. [22] [23]

The term "feudal" or "feodal" is derived from the medieval Latin word feodum. The etymology of feodum is complex with multiple theories, some suggesting a Germanic origin (the most widely held view) and others suggesting an Arabic origin. Initially in medieval Latin European documents, a land grant in exchange for service was called a beneficium (Latin). [24] Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents. [24] The first attested instance of this is from 984, although more primitive forms were seen up to one-hundred years earlier. [24] The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below. [24]

The most widely held theory was proposed by Johan Hendrik Caspar Kern in 1870, [25] [26] being supported by, amongst others, William Stubbs [24] [27] and Marc Bloch. [24] [28] [29] Kern derived the word from a putative Frankish term *fehu-ôd, in which *fehu means "cattle" and -ôd means "goods", implying "a moveable object of value". [28] [29] Bloch explains that by the beginning of the 10th century it was common to value land in monetary terms but to pay for it with moveable objects of equivalent value, such as arms, clothing, horses or food. This was known as feos, a term that took on the general meaning of paying for something in lieu of money. This meaning was then applied to land itself, in which land was used to pay for fealty, such as to a vassal. Thus the old word feos meaning movable property changed little by little to feus meaning the exact opposite: landed property. [28] [29] It has also been suggested that word comes from the Gothic faihu, meaning "property", specifically, "cattle". [30]

Another theory was put forward by Archibald R. Lewis. [24] Lewis said the origin of 'fief' is not feudum (or feodum), but rather foderum, the earliest attested use being in Astronomus's Vita Hludovici (840). [31] In that text is a passage about Louis the Pious that says annona militaris quas vulgo foderum vocant, which can be translated as "Louis forbade that military provender (which they popularly call "fodder") be furnished." [24]

Another theory by Alauddin Samarrai suggests an Arabic origin, from fuyū (the plural of fay, which literally means "the returned", and was used especially for 'land that has been conquered from enemies that did not fight'). [24] [32] Samarrai's theory is that early forms of 'fief' include feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others, the plurality of forms strongly suggesting origins from a loanword. The first use of these terms is in Languedoc, one of the least Germanic areas of Europe and bordering Muslim Spain. Further, the earliest use of feuum (as a replacement for beneficium) can be dated to 899, the same year a Muslim base at Fraxinetum (La Garde-Freinet) in Provence was established. It is possible, Samarrai says, that French scribes, writing in Latin, attempted to transliterate the Arabic word fuyū (the plural of fay), which was being used by the Muslim invaders and occupiers at the time, resulting in a plurality of forms – feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others – from which eventually feudum derived. Samarrai, however, also advises to handle this theory with care, as Medieval and Early Modern Muslim scribes often used etymologically "fanciful roots" in order to claim the most outlandish things to be of Arabian or Muslim origin. [32]

Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralization of an empire: especially in the Carolingian Empire in 8th century AD, which lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure [ clarification needed ] necessary to support cavalry without allocating land to these mounted troops. Mounted soldiers began to secure a system of hereditary rule over their allocated land and their power over the territory came to encompass the social, political, judicial, and economic spheres. [33]

These acquired powers significantly diminished unitary power in these empires. However, once the infrastructure to maintain unitary power was re-established—as with the European monarchies—feudalism began to yield to this new power structure and eventually disappeared. [33]

Classic feudalism Edit

The classic François-Louis Ganshof version of feudalism [4] [3] describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. In broad terms a lord was a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and protection by the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal land tenure, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship. [3]

Vassalage Edit

Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony, which was composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered into a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, whilst the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces. Fealty comes from the Latin fidelitas and denotes the fidelity owed by a vassal to his feudal lord. "Fealty" also refers to an oath that more explicitly reinforces the commitments of the vassal made during homage. Such an oath follows homage. [34]

Once the commendation ceremony was complete, the lord and vassal were in a feudal relationship with agreed obligations to one another. The vassal's principal obligation to the lord was to "aid", or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court, whether manorial, baronial, both termed court baron, or at the king's court. [35]

It could also involve the vassal providing "counsel", so that if the lord faced a major decision he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. At the level of the manor this might be a fairly mundane matter of agricultural policy, but also included sentencing by the lord for criminal offences, including capital punishment in some cases. Concerning the king's feudal court, such deliberation could include the question of declaring war. These are examples depending on the period of time and location in Europe, feudal customs and practices varied see examples of feudalism.

The "Feudal Revolution" in France Edit

In its origin, the feudal grant of land had been seen in terms of a personal bond between lord and vassal, but with time and the transformation of fiefs into hereditary holdings, the nature of the system came to be seen as a form of "politics of land" (an expression used by the historian Marc Bloch). The 11th century in France saw what has been called by historians a "feudal revolution" or "mutation" and a "fragmentation of powers" (Bloch) that was unlike the development of feudalism in England or Italy or Germany in the same period or later: [36] Counties and duchies began to break down into smaller holdings as castellans and lesser seigneurs took control of local lands, and (as comital families had done before them) lesser lords usurped/privatized a wide range of prerogatives and rights of the state, most importantly the highly profitable rights of justice, but also travel dues, market dues, fees for using woodlands, obligations to use the lord's mill, etc. [37] (what Georges Duby called collectively the "seigneurie banale" [37] ). Power in this period became more personal. [38]

This "fragmentation of powers" was not, however, systematic throughout France, and in certain counties (such as Flanders, Normandy, Anjou, Toulouse), counts were able to maintain control of their lands into the 12th century or later. [39] Thus, in some regions (like Normandy and Flanders), the vassal/feudal system was an effective tool for ducal and comital control, linking vassals to their lords but in other regions, the system led to significant confusion, all the more so as vassals could and frequently did pledge themselves to two or more lords. In response to this, the idea of a "liege lord" was developed (where the obligations to one lord are regarded as superior) in the 12th century. [40]

End of European feudalism (1500–1850s) Edit

Most of the military aspects of feudalism effectively ended by about 1500. [41] This was partly since the military shifted from armies consisting of the nobility to professional fighters thus reducing the nobility's claim on power, but also because the Black Death reduced the nobility's hold over the lower classes. Vestiges of the feudal system hung on in France until the French Revolution of the 1790s, and the system lingered on in parts of Central and Eastern Europe as late as the 1850s. Slavery in Romania was abolished in 1856. Russia finally abolished serfdom in 1861. [42] [43]

Even when the original feudal relationships had disappeared, there were many institutional remnants of feudalism left in place. Historian Georges Lefebvre explains how at an early stage of the French Revolution, on just one night of August 4, 1789, France abolished the long-lasting remnants of the feudal order. It announced, "The National Assembly abolishes the feudal system entirely." Lefebvre explains:

Without debate the Assembly enthusiastically adopted equality of taxation and redemption of all manorial rights except for those involving personal servitude—which were to be abolished without indemnification. Other proposals followed with the same success: the equality of legal punishment, admission of all to public office, abolition of venality in office, conversion of the tithe into payments subject to redemption, freedom of worship, prohibition of plural holding of benefices . Privileges of provinces and towns were offered as a last sacrifice. [44]

Originally the peasants were supposed to pay for the release of seigneurial dues these dues affected more than a quarter of the farmland in France and provided most of the income of the large landowners. [45] The majority refused to pay and in 1793 the obligation was cancelled. Thus the peasants got their land free, and also no longer paid the tithe to the church. [46]

The phrase "feudal society" as defined by Marc Bloch [10] offers a wider definition than Ganshof's and includes within the feudal structure not only the warrior aristocracy bound by vassalage, but also the peasantry bound by manorialism, and the estates of the Church. Thus the feudal order embraces society from top to bottom, though the "powerful and well-differentiated social group of the urban classes" came to occupy a distinct position to some extent outside the classic feudal hierarchy.

The idea of feudalism was unknown and the system it describes was not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Medieval Period. This section describes the history of the idea of feudalism, how the concept originated among scholars and thinkers, how it changed over time, and modern debates about its use.

Evolution of the concept Edit

The concept of a feudal state or period, in the sense of either a regime or a period dominated by lords who possess financial or social power and prestige, became widely held in the middle of the 18th century, as a result of works such as Montesquieu's De L'Esprit des Lois (1748 published in English as The Spirit of the Laws), and Henri de Boulainvilliers’s Histoire des anciens Parlements de France (1737 published in English as An Historical Account of the Ancient Parliaments of France or States-General of the Kingdom, 1739). [21] In the 18th century, writers of the Enlightenment wrote about feudalism to denigrate the antiquated system of the Ancien Régime, or French monarchy. This was the Age of Enlightenment when writers valued reason and the Middle Ages were viewed as the "Dark Ages". Enlightenment authors generally mocked and ridiculed anything from the "Dark Ages" including feudalism, projecting its negative characteristics on the current French monarchy as a means of political gain. [47] For them "feudalism" meant seigneurial privileges and prerogatives. When the French Constituent Assembly abolished the "feudal regime" in August 1789 this is what was meant.

Adam Smith used the term "feudal system" to describe a social and economic system defined by inherited social ranks, each of which possessed inherent social and economic privileges and obligations. In such a system wealth derived from agriculture, which was arranged not according to market forces but on the basis of customary labour services owed by serfs to landowning nobles. [48]

Karl Marx Edit

Karl Marx also used the term in the 19th century in his analysis of society's economic and political development, describing feudalism (or more usually feudal society or the feudal mode of production) as the order coming before capitalism. For Marx, what defined feudalism was the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) in their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom and principally by means of labour, produce and money rents. [49] Marx thus defined feudalism primarily by its economic characteristics.

He also took it as a paradigm for understanding the power-relationships between capitalists and wage-labourers in his own time: "in pre-capitalist systems it was obvious that most people did not control their own destiny—under feudalism, for instance, serfs had to work for their lords. Capitalism seems different because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs." [50] Some later Marxist theorists (e.g. Eric Wolf) have applied this label to include non-European societies, grouping feudalism together with Imperial Chinese and pre-Columbian Incan societies as 'tributary'. [ citation needed ]

Later studies Edit

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Horace Round and Frederic William Maitland, both historians of medieval Britain, arrived at different conclusions as to the character of English society before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Round argued that the Normans had brought feudalism with them to England, while Maitland contended that its fundamentals were already in place in Britain before 1066. The debate continues today, but a consensus viewpoint is that England before the Conquest had commendation (which embodied some of the personal elements in feudalism) while William the Conqueror introduced a modified and stricter northern French feudalism to England incorporating (1086) oaths of loyalty to the king by all who held by feudal tenure, even the vassals of his principal vassals (holding by feudal tenure meant that vassals must provide the quota of knights required by the king or a money payment in substitution).

In the 20th century, two outstanding historians offered still more widely differing perspectives. The French historian Marc Bloch, arguably the most influential 20th-century medieval historian, [49] approached feudalism not so much from a legal and military point of view but from a sociological one, presenting in Feudal Society (1939 English 1961) a feudal order not limited solely to the nobility. It is his radical notion that peasants were part of the feudal relationship that sets Bloch apart from his peers: while the vassal performed military service in exchange for the fief, the peasant performed physical labour in return for protection – both are a form of feudal relationship. According to Bloch, other elements of society can be seen in feudal terms all the aspects of life were centered on "lordship", and so we can speak usefully of a feudal church structure, a feudal courtly (and anti-courtly) literature, and a feudal economy. [49]

In contradistinction to Bloch, the Belgian historian François-Louis Ganshof defined feudalism from a narrow legal and military perspective, arguing that feudal relationships existed only within the medieval nobility itself. Ganshof articulated this concept in Qu'est-ce que la féodalité? ("What is feudalism?", 1944 translated in English as Feudalism). His classic definition of feudalism is widely accepted today among medieval scholars, [49] though questioned both by those who view the concept in wider terms and by those who find insufficient uniformity in noble exchanges to support such a model.

Although he was never formally a student in the circle of scholars around Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre that came to be known as the Annales School, Georges Duby was an exponent of the Annaliste tradition. In a published version of his 1952 doctoral thesis entitled La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise (Society in the 11th and 12th centuries in the Mâconnais region), and working from the extensive documentary sources surviving from the Burgundian monastery of Cluny, as well as the dioceses of Mâcon and Dijon, Duby excavated the complex social and economic relationships among the individuals and institutions of the Mâconnais region and charted a profound shift in the social structures of medieval society around the year 1000. He argued that in early 11th century, governing institutions—particularly comital courts established under the Carolingian monarchy—that had represented public justice and order in Burgundy during the 9th and 10th centuries receded and gave way to a new feudal order wherein independent aristocratic knights wielded power over peasant communities through strong-arm tactics and threats of violence.

In 1939 the Austrian historian Theodor Mayer [de] subordinated the feudal state as secondary to his concept of a Personenverbandsstaat (personal interdependency state), understanding it in contrast to the territorial state. [51] This form of statehood, identified with the Holy Roman Empire, is described as the most complete form of medieval rule, completing conventional feudal structure of lordship and vassalage with the personal association between the nobility. [52] But the applicability of this concept to cases outside of the Holy Roman Empire has been questioned, as by Susan Reynolds. [53] The concept has also been questioned and superseded in German histography because of its bias and reductionism towards legitimating the Führerprinzip.

Challenges to the feudal model Edit

In 1974, the American historian Elizabeth A. R. Brown [5] rejected the label feudalism as an anachronism that imparts a false sense of uniformity to the concept. Having noted the current use of many, often contradictory, definitions of feudalism, she argued that the word is only a construct with no basis in medieval reality, an invention of modern historians read back "tyrannically" into the historical record. Supporters of Brown have suggested that the term should be expunged from history textbooks and lectures on medieval history entirely. [49] In Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994), [6] Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown's original thesis. Although some contemporaries questioned Reynolds's methodology, other historians have supported it and her argument. [49] Reynolds argues:

Too many models of feudalism used for comparisons, even by Marxists, are still either constructed on the 16th-century basis or incorporate what, in a Marxist view, must surely be superficial or irrelevant features from it. Even when one restricts oneself to Europe and to feudalism in its narrow sense it is extremely doubtful whether feudo-vassalic institutions formed a coherent bundle of institutions or concepts that were structurally separate from other institutions and concepts of the time. [54]

The term feudal has also been applied to non-Western societies in which institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to have prevailed (See Examples of feudalism). Japan has been extensively studied in this regard. [55] Friday notes that in the 21st century historians of Japan rarely invoke feudalism instead of looking at similarities, specialists attempting comparative analysis concentrate on fundamental differences. [56] Ultimately, critics say, the many ways the term feudalism has been used have deprived it of specific meaning, leading some historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society. [49]

Richard Abels notes that "Western Civilization and World Civilization textbooks now shy away from the term 'feudalism'." [57]

Feudalism Today

As mentioned earlier, the term &ldquofeudalism&rdquo is still heard today, but its uses and meaning have become far too broad and widely applied to be accurate. There are some forms of such a hierarchical system that date back to Egyptian times, but the term itself was not coined until the 19th century. Things akin to feudal systems have continued throughout modern history, such as the Indian caste system, as well as criminal organizations, the Jim Crow American South, and North Korea (today), among others.

Mafia organizations across the world are perhaps the best example of modern feudal systems, wherein a powerful leader controls a certain section of a city or country, with lieutenants and high-ranking members controlling smaller areas within these regions. Individuals, renters and businesses must often pay &ldquoprotection&rdquo money to these mafia bosses, which can often represent a large portion of their income, ensuring that they remain oppressed and under the thumb of their &ldquofeudal lords&rdquo.

On a purely philosophical level, some might even argue that 21st century capitalism is a shiny version of feudalism (neo-feudalism), wherein people perpetually owe money on their homes (property tax) and income (income tax) on both a state and national level (in the case of the United States, for example). Many workers are not compensated adequately for their work, but are instead given a living wage, whereas their superiors and the companies for which they work are able to reap much larger profits. The income inequality present in so many westernized countries is comparable to that same inequality between feudal lords and serfs more than 1,000 years ago.

Feudalism in France

In its origin, the feudal grant of land had been seen in terms of a personal bond between lord and vassal, but with time and the transformation of fiefs into hereditary holdings, the nature of the system came to be seen as a form of “politics of land.” The 11th century in France saw what has been called by historians a “feudal revolution” or “mutation” and a “fragmentation of powers” that was unlike the development of feudalism in England, Italy, or Germany in the same period or later. In France, counties and duchies began to break down into smaller holdings as castellans and lesser seigneurs took control of local lands, and (as comital families had done before them) lesser lords usurped/privatized a wide range of prerogatives and rights of the state—most importantly the highly profitable rights of justice, but also travel dues, market dues, fees for using woodlands, obligations to use the lord’s mill, etc. Power in this period became more personal and decentralized.

Watch the video: The Decline of Feudalism and Rise of Capitalism: Part 1 (August 2022).