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Feudalism is a decentralized sociopolitical structure in which a weak monarchy attempts to control the lands of the realm through reciprocal agreements with regional leaders.[1] In its most classic sense, feudalism refers to the Medieval European political system composed of a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs. Although derived from the Latin word feodum (fief), then in use, the term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Medieval Period.

There is no broadly accepted modern definition of feudalism. The term, which was coined in the early modern period (17th century), was originally used in a political context, but other definitions of feudalism exist. Since at least the 1960s,[2] many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect, adding the peasantry bonds of manorialism, sometimes referred to as a "feudal society". Still others since the 1970s have re-examined the evidence and concluded that feudalism is an unworkable term and should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussion, or at least used only with severe qualification and warning.

Outside a European context, the concept of feudalism is normally used only by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of Japan under the shoguns, and sometimes medieval and Gondarine Ethiopia. However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing it in places as diverse as ancient Egypt, the Parthian empire, the Indian subcontinent, and the antebellum American South.[3]

The term feudal has also been applied—often inappropriately or pejoratively—to non-Western societies where institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to prevail.[4] Ultimately, the many ways the term feudalism has been used has deprived it of specific meaning, leading many historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.[citation needed]



Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste

Lords, vassals and fiefs

Three primary elements characterized feudalism: lords, vassals, and fiefs; the group of feudalism can be seen in how these five elements fit together. A lord granted land (a fief) to his vassals. 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.

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 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.[citation needed]

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. The aristocrats, through subinfeudation, were lords to their own vassals, Knights who were in turn lords of the manor to the peasants who worked on the 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.



The word feudalism was not a medieval term but an invention of 16th century French and English lawyers to describe certain traditional obligations between members of the warrior aristocracy.[5] The earliest known use of the term feudal was in the 17th century (1614),[6] when the system it purported to describe was rapidly vanishing or gone entirely. No writers in the period in which feudalism was supposed to have flourished are known to have used the word itself.

It was often used as a pejorative by later commentators to describe any law or custom that they perceived as unfair or out-dated.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] "Feudalism" comes from the French féodalisme, a word coined during the French Revolution.[citation needed]

"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

Evolution of the term

Feudalism became a popular and widely used term in 1748, thanks to Montesquieu's De L'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws). 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.[7]

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 imported feudalism, while Maitland contended that its fundamentals were already in place in Britain. The debate continues today.

In the 20th century, the historian François-Louis Ganshof was very influential on the topic of feudalism. 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 Feudalism (1944). His classic definition of feudalism is the most widely known today[8] and also the easiest to understand, simply put, when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.

Bloch and sociological views

One of Ganshof's contemporaries, the French historian Marc Bloch, was arguably the most influential 20th century medieval historian.[8] 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 (1939–40; English 1960). 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 hierarchical 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 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.


Karl Marx also used the term in political analysis. In the 19th 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.[8] "The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist."[9] Marx thus considered feudalism within a purely economic model.

Revolt against the term

In 1974, U.S. historian Elizabeth A. R. Brown[10] 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.[8]

In Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994), Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown's original thesis. Although some contemporaries questioned Reynolds's methodology, other historians have supported it and her argument.[8] Note that Reynolds does not object to the Marxist use of feudalism.

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 Other feudal-like systems). 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.[8]

Questioning feudalism

Use and definition of the term

Cleric, knight and peasant

The following are historical examples given by Susan Reynolds 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 did become 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.

Moreover, the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire greatly affected the history of the feudal relationship in central Europe. Long-accepted feudalism models could imply that there was a clear hierarchy from Emperor to lesser rulers, be they kings, dukes, princes, or margraves. These models are patently untrue: the Holy Roman Emperor was elected by a group of seven magnates, three of whom were princes of the church, who in theory could not swear allegiance to any secular lord.

The French kingdoms also seem to provide clear proof that the models are accurate, until it is considered that, when Rollo of Normandy knelt to pay homage to Charles the Simple in return for the Duchy of Normandy, accounts tell that he knocked the king down as he rose, demonstrating his view that the bond was only as strong as the lord—in this case, not strong at all. This reveals that it was possible for 'vassals' to openly disparage feudal relationships.

The autonomy with which the Normans ruled their duchy supports the view that, despite any legal "feudal" relationship, the Normans did as they pleased. 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.

In modern times, controversy has existed over the use of the term feudalism. Though it 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 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.[citation needed] 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 systems

Other feudal-like land tenure systems have existed, and continue to exist, in different parts of the world, including Medieval Japan.

See also


  1. ^ Lanny B. Fields, Russell J. Barber, Cheryl A. Riggs, The Global Past: Prehistory to 1500 (St. Martin's Press, 1998).
  2. ^ Concurrent with when Marc Bloch's Feudal Society (1939) was first translated into English in 1960.
  3. ^ "Reader's Companion to Military Historyhi". 
  4. ^ Cf. for example: McDonald, Hamish (2007-10-17). "Feudal Government Alive and Well in Tonga". Sydney Morning Herald. ISSN 0312-6315. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 
  5. ^ Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. Harper Perennial, 1994.
  6. ^ feudal. (n.d.).Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 16, 2007, from website:[1]
  7. ^ Robert Bartlett. "Perspectives on the Medieval World" in Medieval Panorama, 2001, ISBN 0892366427
  8. ^ a b c d e f Philip Daileader, "Feudalism", The Hight Middle Ages
  9. ^ Quote from The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), chapter 2.
  10. ^ Brown, Elizabeth A. R. (1974-10). "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe". The American Historical Review 79 (4): 1063. doi:10.2307/1869563. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 


  • Bloch, Marc, Feudal Society. Tr. L.A. Manyon. Two volumes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961 ISBN 0-226-05979-0
  • Brown, Elizabeth, 'The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe', American Historical Review, 79 (1974), pp. 1063–8.
  • Cantor, Norman F., Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth century. Quill, 1991.
  • Ganshof, François Louis (1952). Feudalism. London; New York: Longmans, Green. 
  • Guerreau, Alain, L'avenir d'un passé incertain. Paris: Le Seuil, 2001. (complete history of the meaning of the term).
  • Poly, Jean-Pierre and Bournazel, Eric, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200., Tr. Caroline Higgitt. New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1991.
  • Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 ISBN 0-19-820648-8

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