Nuit du 4 août 1789 dans l’ Assemblée nationale française / Musée de la Révolution française, Wikimedia Commons
Generally, feudalism has been regarded as the fabric of medieval society, and the stage of social and economic development that preceded Capitalism.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 10.03.2018
Feudalism is a political system of power dispersed and balanced between king and nobles. This is a weak system and it refers to a general set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility of Europe during the Middle Ages, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs.
However, other definitions of feudalism exist. Since at least the 1960s, many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect, adding the peasantry bonds of manorialism, referred to as a “feudal society.” Still others, since the 1970s, have reexamined the evidence and concluded that feudalism is an unworkable term which should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussion, or at least only used with severe qualification and warning. Outside of a European context, the concept of feudalism is normally only used by analogy (called “semi-feudal”), most often in discussions of Japan under the shoguns, and, sometimes, medieval and Gondarine Ethiopia.
Generally, feudalism has been regarded as the fabric of medieval society, and the stage of social and economic development that preceded Capitalism. As such, feudalism provided stability within societies, restoring public order and strengthening the monarchy. As humankind progressed, however, this system was broken down and the Industrial Revolution changed the structure of societies, allowing greater development of science and technology in the modern age.
Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste / Wikimedia Commons
The word, “feudalism,” was not a medieval term, but an invention of sixteenth century French and English lawyers to describe certain traditional obligations between members of the warrior aristocracy. Not until 1748 did it become a popular and widely used word, thanks to Montesquieu’s De L’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws).
The earliest known use of the term feudal was in the seventeenth century (1614), when the system it purported to describe was rapidly vanishing or gone entirely. No writer in the period in which feudalism was supposed to have flourished ever used the word itself. It was a pejorative word used to describe any law or custom that was seen as unfair or out-dated. Most of these laws and customs were related in some way to the medieval institution of the fief (Latin: Feodum, a word which first appears on a Frankish charter dated 884), and thus lumped together under this single term. “Feudalism” comes from the French féodalisme, a word coined during the French Revolution.
Every peculiarity of policy, custom and even temperament is traced to this Feudal origin… I expect to see the use of trunk-hose and buttered ale ascribed to the influence of the feudal system (Humphry Clinker, 1771).
Feudal society is a sometimes debated term used to describe the medieval social order of western and central Europe and sometimes Japan (particularly in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries) characterized by the legal subjection of a large part of the peasantry to a hereditary landholding elite exercising administrative and judicial power on the basis of reciprocal private undertakings. However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing it in places as diverse as Ancient Egypt, Parthian empire, India, and the American South of the nineteenth century.
The term’s validity is questioned by many medieval historians who consider the description “feudal” appropriate only to the specifically voluntary and personal bonds of mutual protection, loyalty, and support among members of the administrative, military, or ecclesiastical elite, to the exclusion of involuntary obligations attached to tenure of “unfree” land.
Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 3, verso: March: Peasants plowing in front of a castle, French manuscript c. 1415, Limbourg brothers / Condé Museum, Wikimedia Commons
Three primary elements characterized feudalism: Lords, vassals, and fiefs; the structure of feudalism can be seen in how these three elements fit together. A lord was a noble who owned 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 fief, the vassal would provide military service to the lord. The obligations and relations between lord, vassal, and fief form the basis of feudalism.
Lords, Vassals, and Fiefs
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 composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command. 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. Once the commendation was complete, the lord and vassal were now in a feudal relationship with agreed-upon mutual obligations to one another.
The lord’s principal obligation was to grant a fief, or its revenues, to the vassal; the fief is the primary reason the vassal chose to enter into the relationship. In addition, the lord sometimes had to fulfill other obligations to the vassal and fief. One of those obligations was its maintenance. Since the lord had not given the land away, only loaned it, it was still the lord’s responsibility to maintain the land, while the vassal had the right to collect revenues generated from it. Another obligation that the lord had to fulfill was to protect the land and the vassal from harm.
The vassal’s principal obligation to the lord was to provide “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 to 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 sometimes had to fulfill other obligations to the lord. One of those obligations was to provide the lord with “counsel,” so that if the lord faced a major decision, such as whether or not to go to war, he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. The vassal may have been required to yield a certain amount of his farm’s output to his lord. The vassal was also sometimes required to grind his own wheat and bake his own bread in the mills and ovens owned and taxed by his lord.
The land-holding relationships of feudalism revolved around the fief. Depending on the power of the granting lord, grants could range in size from a small farm to a much larger area of land. The size of fiefs was described in irregular terms quite different from modern area terms; see medieval land terms. The lord-vassal relationship was not restricted to members of the laity; bishops and abbots, for example, were also capable of acting as lords.
There were, thus, different “levels” of lordship and vassalage. The King was a lord who loaned fiefs to aristocrats, who were his vassals. Meanwhile, the aristocrats were in turn lords to their own vassals, the peasants who worked on their land. Ultimately, the Emperor was a lord who loaned fiefs to Kings, who were his vassals. This traditionally formed the basis of a “universal monarchy” as an imperial alliance and a world order.
Common Features of Feudal Societies
Features common among feudal societies, but which do not necessarily define them, include:
- An overwhelmingly agrarian economy, with limited money exchange, necessitating the dispersion of political authority and the substitution of arrangements involving economic support from local resources.
- The strength of the Church as an ally and counterpart to the civil-military structure, supported by its right to a share (tithe) of society’s output as well as substantial landholdings, and endowed with specific authority and responsibility for moral and material welfare.
- The existence of structures and phenomena not of themselves explicitly feudal (urban and village organizations, royal executive power, free peasant holdings, financial and commercial activity) but each incorporated into the whole.
Alongside such broad similarities, it is important to note the divergences both within and between feudal societies (in forms or complexity of noble association, the extent of peasant dependency or the importance of money payments) as well as the changes which occurred over time within the overall structure (as in Bloch’s characterization of the eleventh-century onset of a “second feudal age”).
In particular, one should avoid envisaging the social order in terms of a regular “feudal pyramid,” with each man bound to one superior lord and the rank of each clearly defined, in a regular chain of allegiances extending from the king at the top to the peasantry at the bottom: Aside from the contrast between free and unfree obligation, allegiance was often given to more than one lord, while an individual might possess attributes of more than one rank.
Nor should the medieval theory of the “three estates” or the “three orders” of feudal society—”those who make war” (miles, knights), “those who pray” (priests, monks) and “those who labor” (peasants, serfs) (bellatores, oratores, et laboratores) be considered a full description of the social order: While those excluded from the first two came over time to be counted among the third, nobles and clerics alike assumed administrative functions in the feudal state, while financial support was relied upon increasingly as a substitute for direct military service. Nobles were defined by the occupation they obtained and no longer by right of birth and are placed in power by the investiture.
The values of men who fought under the first of the “three orders” were first, his horse, second, his son, and third, his wife. A soldier’s horse, in feudal society, was considered the price of two and a half generations or two men and a boy. The role of women consisted of maintaining the household economy: Controlled peasants and regulating what crops will and will not be grown and sold.
“Those who prayed” consisted of priests, monk, and other authorities of the church. The church willingly supported the three orders. “Those who work,” peasants and serfs, consisted of the majority of the population and suffered the most.
While few would deny that most of France, England, parts of Spain and the Low Countries, western and central Germany and (at least for a time) northern and central Italy satisfied Bloch’s criteria over much of the period, the concept remains of greatest use as an interpretive device for comparative study of local phenomena, rather than as a blanket definition of the medieval social order.
Early Forms of Feudalism in Europe
Medieval map of Jerusalem by Konrad Grünenberg / Wikimedia Commons
Feudal society evolved in its developed form in the northern French heartland of the Carolingian monarchy of the eighth-tenth centuries, but has its antecedents also in late Roman practice. Feudalism reached its most developed form in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Vassalage agreements similar to what would later develop into legalized medieval feudalism originated from the blending of ancient Roman and Germanic traditions. The Romans had a custom of patronage whereby a stronger patron would provide protection to a weaker client in exchange for gifts, political support, and prestige. In the countryside of the later Empire, the reforms of Diocletian and his successors attempted to put certain jobs, notably farming, on a hereditary basis. As governmental authority declined and rural lawlessness (such as that of the Bagaudae) increased, these farmers were increasingly forced to rely upon the protection of the local landowner, and a nexus of interdependency was created: The landowners depended upon the peasants for labor, and the peasants upon the landowners for protection.
Ancient Germans had a custom of equality among warriors, an elected leader who kept the majority of the wealth (land) and who distributed it to members of the group in return for loyalty.
The Rise of Feudalism
The Europe of the early Middle Ages was characterized by economic and population decline and by external threat. Feudalism evolved as a way of maintaining a stable population engaged in farming (towns had been in decline since the end of the Western Empire) and to ensure that levies could be raised to face down external threats.
Decline of Feudalism
Feudalism had begun as a contract, the exchange of land tenure for military service. Over time, as lords could no longer provide new lands to their vassals, nor enforce their right to reassign lands which had become de facto hereditary property, feudalism became less tenable as a working relationship. By the thirteenth century, Europe’s economy was involved in a transformation from a mostly agrarian system to one that was increasingly money-based and mixed. The Hundred Year’s War instigated this gradual transformation as soldier’s pay became amounts of gold instead of land. Therefore, it was much easier for a monarch to pay low-class citizens in mineral wealth, and many more were recruited and trained, putting more gold into circulation, thus undermining the land-based feudalism. Land ownership was still an important source of income, and still defined social status, but even wealthy nobles wanted more liquid assets, whether for luxury goods or to provide for wars. This corruption of the form is often referred to as “bastard feudalism.” A noble vassal was expected to deal with most local issues and could not always expect help from a distant king. The nobles were independent and often unwilling to cooperate for a greater cause (military service). By the end of the Middle Ages, the kings were seeking a way to become independent of willful nobles, especially for military support. The kings first hired mercenaries and later created standing national armies.
The Black Death of the fourteenth century devastated Europe’s population but also destabilized the economic basis of society. For instance, in England, the villains were much more likely to leave the manorial territory—seeking better paid work in towns struck by a labor shortage, while the crown responded to the economic crisis by imposing a poll tax. The resulting social crisis manifested itself in the peasants’ revolt.
Examples of Feudalism
Ancien Régime [- The (Many) Weaknesses
Feudalism was practiced in many different ways, depending on location and time period, thus a high-level encompassing conceptual definition does not always provide a reader with the intimate understanding that detail of historical example provides.
In the eighteenth century, writers of the Enlightenment wrote about feudalism in order to denigrate the antiquated system of the Ancien Régime, or French monarchy. This was the Age of Enlightenment, when Reason was king and the Middle Ages was painted 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.
Karl Marx also used the term for political ends. In the nineteenth century, Marx described feudalism as the economic situation coming before the inevitable rise of capitalism. For Marx, what defined feudalism was that the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) rested on their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom. “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), chapter 2). Marx thus considered feudalism within a purely economic model.
Among the complexities of feudal arrangements there existed no guarantee that contracts between lord and vassal would be honored, and feudal contracts saw little enforcement from those with greater authority. This often resulted in the wealthier and more powerful party taking advantage of the weaker. Such was (allegedly) the case of Hugh de Lusignan and his relations with his lord William V of Aquitaine. Between 1020 and 1025 Hugh wrote or possibly dictated a complaint against William and his vassals describing the unjust treatment he had received at the hands of both. Hugh describes a convoluted intermingling of loyalties that was characteristic of the period and instrumental in developing strain between nobles that resulted in competition for each other’s land. According to Hugh’s account William wronged him on numerous occasions, often to the benefit of William’s vassals. Many of his properties suffered similar fates: seized by opponents and divided between they and William. William apparently neglected to send military aid to Hugh when necessary and dealt most unfairly in the exchange of hostages. Each time Hugh reclaimed one of his properties, William ordered him to return it to whoever had recently taken it from him. William broke multiple oaths in succession yet Hugh continued to put faith in his lord’s word, to his own ruin. In his last contract with William, over possession of his uncle’s castle at Chizes, Hugh dealt in no uncertain terms and with frank language:
Hugh: You are my lord, I will not accept a pledge from you, but I will simply rely on the mercy of God and yourself.
William: Give up all those claims over which you have quarreled with me in the past and swear fidelity to me and my son and I will give you your uncle’s honor [Chizes] or something else of equal value in exchange for it.
Hugh: My lord, I beg you through God and this blessed crucifix which is made in the figure of Christ that you do not make me do this if you and your son were intending to threaten me with trickery.
William: On my honor and my son I will do this without trickery.
Hugh: And when I shall have sworn fidelity to you, you will demand Chize castle of me, and if I should not turn it over to you, you will say that it is not right that I deny you the castle which I hold from you, and if I should turn it over to you, you and your son will seize it because you have given nothing in pledge except the mercy of God and yourself.
William: We will not do that, but if we should demand it of you, don’t turn it over to us.
While perhaps an embellishment of the truth for the sake of Hugh’s cause, and not necessarily a microcosm of the feudal system everywhere, the Agreement Between Lord and Vassal is evidence at least of corruption in feudal rule.
A medieval mounted knight in armour / Wikimedia Commons
Feudalism in twelfth century England was among the better structured and established in Europe at the time. However, it could be structurally complex, which is illustrated by the example of the barony of Stafford as described in a survey of knight’s fees called The Black Book Exchequer (1166).
Feudalism is the exchange of land for military service, thus everything was based on what was called the knight’s fee, which was the amount of money and/or military service a fief was required to pay to support one knight. Thus, either a fief could provide the service of a knight, or an equivalent amount of money to allow a lord to hire a knight.
The knight’s fee value of a fief varied based on the size and resources of a particular fief. The lord of Stafford, Robert of Stafford, was responsible for 60 knight’s fees for his Stafford fief. Robert sub-let 51 of those 60 knight’s fees in the form of 26 sub-fiefs, the largest fief provided 6 fees, while the smallest 2/3 of a fee. Thus in all, the 26 sub-fiefs paid 51 fees. Further, some of these sub-fiefs had sub-sub-fiefs with fees of their own, and sometimes went a layer below that. In all, 78 fiefs were part of the Stafford estate, 26 of them reporting directly to Robert and the rest layers below. It was a system of tenants and leases and sub-tenants and sub-leases and so on, each layer reporting vassalage to the next layer up. The knight’s fee was the common base unit of denomination. Often lords were not so much lords presiding over great estates, but managers of a network of tenants and sub-leases.
Some of the Stafford tenants were themselves lords, and this illustrates how complex the relationships of lord and vassal could become. Henry d’Oilly, who held 3 fees from Robert of Stafford, also held over 30 fees elsewhere that had been granted to him directly by the king. Thus while Henry was the vassal of his lord Robert, Henry was himself a lord and had many sub-fiefs that he also managed. It would have also been possible and not uncommon for a situation where Robert of Stafford was a vassal of Henry elsewhere, creating the condition of mutual lordship/vassalage between the two. These complex relationships invariably created loyalty problems through conflicts of interests; to resolve this the concept of a liege lord was created, which meant that the vassal was loyal to his liege lord above all others no matter what. However, even this sometimes broke down when a vassal would pledge himself to more than one liege lord.
From the perspective of the smallest land owner, multiple networks of lordship were layered on the same small plot of land. A chronicle of the time says “different lordships lay on the land in different respects.” Each lord laid claim to a certain aspect of the service from the land.
The Swedish variant of feudalism consisted of landowners resourceful enough to commit to the maintenance a soldier with a horse in the liege lord’s army; in compensation they obtained exemption from land taxation (so-called frälse, blessing). This led to a curb in the relative local democracy in the Viking era, in favor of local lords who succeeded in exercising administrative and judicial power over their less powerful neighbors. The King also depended more on such vassals and their resources.
Examples of Semi-Feudalism
Outside of a medieval European historical context, the concept of feudalism is normally only used by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of Japan under the shoguns. In addition, some modern states still retain some vestiges of historic feudalism.
Pakistan and India
Sir Khwaja Salimullah was a zamindar with the title of Nawab. His family’s landholdings in Bengal were one of the largest and richest in British India. / Wikimedia Commons
The Zamindari system is often referred to as a feudal-like system. Originally the Zamindari System was introduced in the pre-colonial period to collect taxes from peasants, and it continued during colonial British rule. After independence Zamindari was abolished in India and East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh), but it is still present day in Pakistan. In modern times historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models and today it is rare for Zamindari to be described as feudal by academics; it still done in popular usage, however, but only for pejorative reasons to express disfavor, typically by critics of the Zamindari system.
Drogon Chogyal Phagpa, one of the Five Sakya patriarchs, first Imperial Preceptor of the Yuan dynasty and vice-king of Tibet / Wikimedia Commons
In 1264, the feudal lordship over Tibet was given to Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, fifth leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism by the Mongolian emperor, Kublai Khan.
In 1953, the greater part of the rural population—some 700,000 of an estimated total population of 1,250,000—were serfs. Tied to the land, they were allotted only a small parcel to grow their own food. Serfs and other peasants generally went without schooling or medical care. They spent most of their time laboring for the monasteries and individual high-ranking lamas, or for a secular aristocracy that numbered not more than 200 families. In effect, they were owned by their masters who told them what crops to grow and what animals to raise. They could not get married without the consent of their lord or lama. A serf might easily be separated from his family should the owner send him to work in a distant location. Serfs could be sold by their masters, or subjected to torture and death.
Along with the upper clergy, secular leaders did well. A notable example was the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, who owned 4,000 square kilometers of land and 3,500 serfs. He also was a member of the Dalai Lama’s lay Cabinet.
In People’s Republic of China, official views of history are based on Marxism, and attempts have thus been made to describe Chinese historical periods in Marxist terminology. Chinese history from the Zhou Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty is thus described as the “feudal period.” In order to do this, new concepts had to be invented such as bureaucratic feudalism, which most Western historians would consider a contradiction in terms.
As a result of this Marxist definition, feudal, as used in a Chinese context, is commonly a pejorative term meaning “old unscientific.” This usage is common among both academic and popular writers from Mainland China, even those who are anti-Marxist. The use of the term feudal to describe a period in Chinese history was also common among Western historians of China of the 1950s and 1960s, but became increasingly rare after the 1970s. The current prevailing consensus among Western historians is that using the term ‘feudal’ to describe Chinese history confuses more than it clarifies, as it assumes strong commonalities between Chinese and European history that may not exist.
Edo Castle, 17th century / Wikimedia Commons
The Tokugawa shogunate was a feudal-like military dictatorship of Japan established in the seventeenth century lasting until 1868. It marks a period often referred to loosely as ‘feudal Japan’, otherwise known as the Edo period. While modern historians have become very reluctant to classify other societies into European models, in Japan, the system of land tenure and a vassal receiving tenure in exchange for an oath of fealty is very close to what happened in parts of medieval Europe, and thus the term is sometimes used in connection with Japan.
The system of land tenure in Scotland was until recently overwhelmingly feudal in nature. In theory, this meant that the land was held under The Crown as ultimate feudal superior. Historically, The Crown would make a grant of land in return for military or other services and the grantees would in turn make sub-grants for other services and so on. Those making grants—the “superiors”—retained a legal interest in the land (“dominium directum”), and so a hierarchical structure was created with each property having a number of owners, co-existing simultaneously. Only one of these, the vassal, has what in normal language would be regarded as ownership of the property (“dominium utile”).
The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000 abolished the feudal system of land tenure in Scotland and replaced it with a system of outright ownership of land. Since the Act became fully effective from November 28, 2004, the vassal owns the land outright and superiority interests disappeared. The right of feudal superiors to enforce conditions was ended, subject to certain saving provisions of a restricted nature. Feu duty was abolished although compensation may be payable. The delay between Royal assent and coming into force was a result of the great number of transitional arrangements needed to be put into place before final abolition and because of the close relation that the 2000 Act has to the Title Conditions Act 2003.
Unique in England, the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire continues to retain some vestiges of the feudal system, where the land is still farmed using the open field system. The feudal court now only meets annually, with its authority now restricted to management of the farmland.
The tiny island of Sark, in the Channel Islands, remained until the beginning of the twenty-first century as a feudal state. The island is a fiefdom of the larger nearby island of Guernsey and administered independently by a Seigneur, who is a vassal to the land’s owner—the Queen of the United Kingdom. Sark was the last remaining feudal state in Europe.
Sark’s ruling body voted on October 4, 2006, to replace the remaining tenement seats in Chief Pleas with a fully elected democratic government, abolishing the Seigneur, the change to be implemented by summer 2007.
Feudalism According to Historians
Use and Definition of the Term
Cleric, knight and Peasant / An inhabited initial from a 13th-century French text representing the tripartite social order of the Middle Ages: the ōrātōrēs (those who pray – clerics), bellātōrēs (those who fight – knights, that is, the nobility), and labōrātōrēs (those who work – peasants and members of the lower middle class). / Wikimedia Commons
Among medievalists, the term feudalism is one of the most disputed concepts. The following are historical examples that call into question the traditional use of the term feudalism.
Extant sources reveal that the early Carolingians had vassals, as did other leading men in the kingdom. This relationship became more and more standardized over the next two centuries, but there were differences in function and practice in different locations. For example, in the German kingdoms that replaced the kingdom of Eastern Francia, as well as in some Slavic kingdoms, the feudal relationship was arguably more closely tied to the rise of Serfdom, a system that tied peasants to the land.
When Rollo of Normandy kneeled to pay homage to Charles the Simple in return for the Duchy of Normandy, he knocked the king on his rump as he rose, defiantly demonstrating his view that the bond was only as strong as the lord. Clearly, it was possible for “vassals” to openly disparage feudal relationships.
The Normans ruled autonomously, despite any legal “feudal” relationships. In the case of their own leadership, however, the Normans utilized the feudal relationship to bind their followers to them. It was the influence of the Norman invaders which strengthened and to some extent institutionalized the feudal relationship in England after the Norman Conquest.
Feudalism is sometimes used indiscriminately to encompass all reciprocal obligations of support and loyalty in the place of unconditional tenure of position, jurisdiction or land. The term is often restricted by most historians to the exchange of specifically voluntary and personal undertakings, to the exclusion of involuntary obligations attached to tenure of “unfree” land: The latter are considered to be rather an aspect of Manorialism, an element of feudal society but not of feudalism proper.
Cautions on Use of ‘Feudalism’
Owing to the range of meanings they have, feudalism and related terms should be approached and used with considerable care. A circumspect historian like Fernand Braudel puts feudalism in quotes when applying it in wider social and economic contexts, such as “the seventeenth century, when much of America was being ‘feudalized’ as the great haciendas appeared” (The Perspective of the World, 1984, p. 403).
Medieval societies never described themselves as feudal. Popular parlance generally uses the term either for all voluntary or customary bonds in medieval society or for a social order in which civil and military power is exercised under private contractual arrangements. However, feudal is best used only to denote the voluntary, personal undertakings binding lords and free men to protection in return for support which characterized the administrative and military order.
Other feudal-like land tenure systems have existed, and continue to exist, in different parts of the world, including Medieval Japan.
Debating the Origins of English Feudalism
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth 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 imported feudalism, while Maitland contended that its fundamentals were already in place in Britain. The debate continues to this day.
In the broader conception of feudal society, as developed in the 1930s, by the French Annaliste historian Marc Bloch, the prevailing features include the absence of a strong central authority, and the diffusion of governmental power through the granting of administrative and legal authority over particular lands (fiefs) by higher lords (including the king) to vassals sworn by voluntary oath to support or serve them, usually (though not exclusively) by military means. The second major tenant is the obligation attached to particular holdings of land that the peasant household should supply the lord with specified labor services or a part of its output (or cash in lieu thereof) subject to the custom of the holding.
A historian whose concept of feudalism remains highly influential in the twentieth century is François-Louis Ganshof, who belongs to a pre-Second World War generation. Ganshof defines feudalism from a narrow legal and military perspective, arguing that feudal relationships existed only within the medieval nobility itself. Ganshof articulated this concept in Feudalism (1944). His classic definition of feudalism is the most widely known today and also the easiest to understand: Simply put, when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.
Marc Bloch and Sociological Views of Feudalism
Marc Bloch / Wikimedia Commons
One of Ganshof’s contemporaries, a French historian named Marc Bloch, was arguably the most influential twentieth century medieval historian. Bloch approached feudalism not so much from a legal and military point of view but from a sociological one. He developed his ideas in Feudal Society (1939). Bloch conceived of feudalism as a type of society that was not limited solely to the nobility. Like Ganshof, he recognized that there was a hierarchal relationship between lords and vassals, but Bloch saw as well a similar relationship obtaining between lords and peasants.
It is this 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 labor 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.
Revolt against the Term ‘Feudalism’
In 1974, U.S. historian Elizabeth A. R. Brown 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 gone so far as suggesting that the term should be expunged from history textbooks and lectures on medieval history entirely. In Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994), Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown’s original thesis. Although some contemporaries questioned Reynolds’ methodology, other historians have supported it and her argument. Note that Reynolds does not object to the Marxist use of feudalism.
The term “feudal” has also been applied—often inappropriately or pejoratively—to non-Western societies in which institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to have prevailed. Ultimately, critics say, the many ways the term “feudalism” has been used have deprived it of specific meaning, leading many historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.
- Online Etymology Dictionary, Feudal. Retrieved September 16, 2007.
- web.archive.org, Reader’s Companion to Military History. Retrieved December 27, 2007.
- Marc Bloch, Feudal Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
- www.opsi.gov.uk, Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act 2000. Retrieved December 28, 2007.
- BBC News, Feudal island brings in democracy. Retrieved December 28, 2007.
- Jerry H. Bentley, Traditions & Encounters: a Global Perspective on the Past [2nd ed], page 408
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