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Time Period Of European Feudalism Essay



A pyramid of fiefs

How did the feudal system arise?


Feudal complexity

How did towns fit into the feudal system?

The rise of representative assemblies

The decline of feudalism

Further study


The term “feudalism” is used by historians to describe a social-political system which was a key feature of medieval Europe.

Not all historians like the word. They regard it as unsuitable in describing an extraordinarily complex situation. However, the alternative is to get bogged down in detailed descriptions and qualifications which risk overwhelming all but specialist historians. As a shorthand, feudalism will do as well as any other.

The word “feudal” derives from the word fief. In brief, a fief was a piece of property which a person was given on condition that he (almost never she) performed certain services to the one who gave it.

A person who received a fief was held to be a vassal of the one who had given him the fief, who was his lord.

In the agrarian society of medieval Europe, a fief was usually a specified parcel of land. The services usually entailed military service for a set amount of time each year (usually 40 days). This would depend on the amount of land involved, which was calculated in multiples of knight’s fees. A knight’s fee was a sufficient amount of land to support one knight – enough land, in other words, to support a warrior and his very expensive war-horses, armour and weapons, plus his family and servants (including at least one servant to aid him while on campaign).

So, if a vassal had been granted a fief worth 40 knight’s fees (a very large fief), he would be obliged to furnish his lord with 40 knights for 40 days a year. If he had only been given one knight’s fee, he would either undertake the service himself or (if old or frail) send a substitute.

A vassals was also obliged to provide his lord with money from time to time – for example, when the lord’s son came of age, or the lord’s daughter got married, or if the lord was captured in battle and needed ransoming (quite a common occurrence – a soldier would far prefer to take an enemy prisoner than kill him, as a defeated opponent was worth a lot more alive than dead). He also had a duty to provide his lord with advice. This last was very important for what it led on to (see below, Representative Government).

In return for these services, the lord would promises to protect his vassal (a very valuable commitment in violent times); and to “give him justice” (that is, support him in court).

All these promises and counter-promises were accompanied by solemn oaths, so that the whole was underpinned by strong religious sanctions – which, in a deeply religious age, counted for a great deal.

Harold swearing oath on holy relics to William, Duke of Normandy.

A pyramid of fiefs

A fief-holder was able to hive off part of his fief to form a smaller fief for a vassal of his own (in exchange for the traditional obligations, of course). So, a powerful vassal of a king, say, who had a fief worth 40 knight’s fees, could grant his own vassals lesser fiefs of 5 knight’s fees each from his own fief. They in turn could grant a fief of one knight’s fee to a vassal of their own.

In this way, most fief-holders were both lords and vassals; and kingdoms came to resemble, from top to bottom, a pyramid of greater and lesser fiefs. Those who held just one knight’s fee were lords of the peasants who farmed the land in the small fief. In feudal society everyone was supposed to have a lord – except the king at the top, who had no lord (at least, not on Earth: he was regarded as God’s vassal).

The different ranks of fief-holders formed the aristocracy of medieval European society. A feudal kingdom was divided amongst several great “magnates” (leading nobles such as dukes and counts who controlled large fiefs), who were the direct vassals of the king. These magnates had lesser barons as their vassals, who had the holders of individual knight’s fees as their vassals. Until the 9th or 10th centuries, this fief-holding was in theory for one lifetime only. It gradually became hereditary in practice, and from about 1000 was hereditary in law as well: fiefs were granted to the vassal and his heirs after him.

Privatized power

The main implication for all this was that power was widely distributed. A king was regarded as owning all the land of his kingdom, and to command its entire military and economic resources. However, the practice was very different from the theory.

For military purposes, the mechanism by which a feudal king could mobilize the military resources of his realm was to order his vassals, the magnates, to provide him with soldiers. The magnates in turn ordered their own vassals (the lesser barons) to provide them with soldiers to fight for the king. These barons then ordered their vassals to go and join the lord’s standard and fight for the king. All this gave the vassals and sub-vassals a great deal of power to raise troops, which they frequently used against a king rather than on his behalf.

In terms of exercising justice, making laws, and overseeing administrative matters, a similar situation prevailed. The king presided over his magnates in the royal council. The magnates oversaw justice and administration within their own fiefs, and lesser vassals did likewise within their sub-fiefs. At the bottom of the pyramid, the manor courts, presided over by the holder of a knight’s fee, oversaw the affairs of the village. As lesser lords jealously guarded their legal jurisdictions against encroachment from above, feudal administration tended to be very fragmented and localised.

From all this, it is clear that a fief was not just a piece of private property, in the sense of how we would think of such a thing; it carried with it what we would now regard as public responsibilities, which would normally today be exercised by a public body (central government, local government, law court and so on). These public responsibilities had been granted way to an individual along with the land over which they were exercised. The distinction between private and public matters was blurred to the point of non-existence.

How did the feudal system arise?

With the peace and stability of the Roman empire gone, the Germanic invaders established several kingdoms but struggled to impose order and organisation on their territories. One of these Germanic kingdoms, that of the Franks, conquered most of the others to rule a large area of western Europe. The Frankish kings appointed dukes and counts to rule the various districts into which their realm was divided.

From the early 9th century onwards, the lands of western Europe came under renewed attack, now from the Vikings in the north, the Arabs in the south, and the Magyars in the east. These invaders raided deep into the interior. Vikings sailed far up rivers to strike at unsuspecting towns, villages and monasteries, and bands of Magyars rode on their fast ponies on long raids from central Europe as far as western France.

At the same time, the Frankish realm was falling apart. Members of the Frankish family fought amongst themselves for territory, and the ceaseless civil wars created a disordered and fragmented society. At the best of times the kings would have found it hard to provide effective protection against the Vikings raiders, given the primitive communications of the day. In the anarchic conditions of the 9th and 10th centuries, they found it impossible.

In these circumstances the local dukes and counts (who we will call “magnates”, and who now routinely passed their offices on from father to son) filled the power vacuum and were able to organize resistance (or payment) to invaders. They built up local defences around a growing network of castles – new defensive structures which give much-needed protection in a violent and disorderly society.

Within their territories, the magnates increasingly usurped the royal authority. Within the domains of the magnates, however, the same process of disintegration prevailed. Command of a castle gives its local lord strong protection against foreign raiders, against neighbouring lords – and against superiors. Commanders of castles (“Castellans”) increasingly treated their castles and the land around as their own private property.

The result was that public authority at every level disintegrated, and the functions of government – military, judicial, administrative – became privatised in the hands of regional magnates and local lords. Royal power was limited to kings’ own semi-private territories (royal domains). In their wider realms, they could no longer issue orders to officials obedient to his command; instead they had to gain the cooperation of the magnates through negotiation. When a king lost the support of his magnates, as happened on a regular basis, he lost control of his kingdom.

It is this devolution of power from king to count, and from count to local lord, that gave rise to the social-political system we call feudalism. It was based on personal loyalties and mutual obligations between kings, magnates, local lords and their followers. It was only through these ties that some kind of order was able to prevail throughout the medieval realms, and that kings were able to mobilise the military resources of their kingdoms. As feudal relationships became more established, the Church was called upon to give them religious sanction in the ceremonies of investiture in which lords and vassals swore solemn oaths to sanctified the agreements between them.


It can be seen from the above that feudalism arose as a response to circumstances in which endemic warfare was the order of the day. The feudal society was one organised for war; a central reason for its coming into being was the need for kings and great lords to call forth armies of mounted warriors – as is clear from the fact that the entire fief-system was based on multiples of knights’ fees.

From the 10th century at the latest the central figure of medieval warfare was the mounted warrior – known by various names in different parts of Europe – chevalier in France, cavalier in Italy, caballero in Spain, ritter in Germany and knight in England.

The innovation which gave mounted warriors a distinct advantage over soldiers fighting on foot seems to have been the iron stirrup. This allowed them to put their whole weight behind their weapons – lances, battle axes, great swords – which, combined with the height the horse gave them a decisive military superiority.

These mounted soldiers began life as the henchmen of the magnates and local lords. However, with the increasing expense of their equipment – horses, armour and so on – lords found it more convenient to grant many of them their own small fiefs, so that they could pay their own expenses. This turned them into fully-fledged, albeit junior, members of the landed aristocracy. In most of Europe (the British Isles are the exemption here, as in much else) this knightly class gained all the legal privileges of the higher nobility.


Manors were economic and political units – blocs of farm land which formed the base on which the whole panoply of fief-holding was built. Fiefs consisted of one or more manors; and manors provided a fief-holder with income, status and power.

Manorialism had its origins in Roman times. The classical estates which had dominated the land-holding patterns of Greek and Roman society – large, slave-run farms surrounding villa complexes – evolved into proto-manors of the later Roman empire. The evolution took place for a number of reasons: sources of cheap slaves became less reliable; heavy taxation impoverished the class of independent peasant farmers, who sought protection by selling their lands to local landowners; new laws bound peasants to their hereditary farms, thus starting them down on the road to serfdom; and many lesser landowners, like the independent peasants, were crushed by the weight of taxation and so were forced to sell to larger landowners. In this way estates grew larger, and gangs of slaves were succeeded by peasant masses tied to the estate on an hereditary basis.

These large estates of the late Roman empire were much more economically self-sufficient than their predecessors had been. For example, workshops allowed the farming equipment to be maintained – and much of it probably made – on site. More of the food produced was for home consumption. The estates became less tied into the urban market economy, which was in any case shrinking drastically as trade routes were disrupted.

This self-sufficiency enabled these estates to survive much better than the towns during the anarchy of the years when the western Roman empire collapsed. In this period they became the dominant social and economic unit, their owners – old Roman families alongside new German chieftains, with the two gradually intermarrying to form a single group – the new landed aristocracy.

The period of anarchy must also have forced the estates to function as so many little principalities, seeing to their own defence and administering their own law and order. From being merely landowners, the estate owners became local lords. The new German kings did not maintain standing professional armies, as the Romans had done, but continued to use the tribal levies, as their ancestors had done. Under this system, German tribal nobles, who had been invested with some of these estates (theoretically a third of all land was given to the new German invaders), had to bring themselves and their warriors to the royal standard at the start of a campaign. For the rest of the time these followers lived in their lord’s hall, provided for out of the proceeds of the estate.

In the new disorders of the 9th and 10th centuries, these primitive arrangements were modified by the emergence of formal feudal lord/vassal relationships. At the same time the old tribal warrior, fighting on foot, became the mounted warrior, who was a much more expensive military asset. This led to the sub-infeudation of the larger estates as these mounted warriors received grants of land by which to support themselves. The old estates became lordships consisting of several knight’s fees, with much of their land now parcelled out amongst new manors of one knight’s fee each.

For traditionally, manors were at least the equivalent of one knight’s fee. Originally they were formed of single village communities, but over time, as pieces of land were given away here and acquired there, many manors came to be scattered through several neighbouring villages; the corollary of this was that villages were often divided amongst more than one manor. Alternatively they could be lumped together with other villages into a large manor (of several knight’s fees).

The defining feature of a manor was that it was “held in the hand” (the word manor comes from the Latin for “hand”) by a lord. This lord could be a secular lord like a knight or a baron, or an ecclesiastical lord like a church or monastery. Whoever or whatever the lord was, he or it had control over the land and people of the manor. This power involved economic power – the lord had a right to a share in their labour or income; and judicial/administrative power – the people of the manor were subject to the manorial court, presided over by the lord or his official, which ordered their lives.

The great hall at Penshurst Place, Kent, built in the mid 14th century

 A manor usually consisted of three parts:

1. demesne land, directly under the control of the lord and his officials, the purpose of which was to support him and his household;

2. dependant land, which carried obligations to the lord, usually mainly labour service but often including contributions in kind, or even money gifts; and

3. free lands, for which the peasants paid money rent.

Dependant land was farmed by “serfs”: peasants who were bound to the manor on an hereditary basis, and had hereditary obligations to the lord. These usually involving working on his demesne land for a set number of days per week, and giving him gifts in kind or money on certain days. Serfs were not allowed to leave the manor without the lord’s permission. Nor were they allowed to marry without his permission, and usually had to pay a “fine” (or tax) for doing so. When a son inherited land from his father he also had to pay a fine, and most punishments in the manorial court were dealt out as fines (hence our association of the word “fine” with punishment).

The balance between demesne, dependent and free land varied from manor to manor, and more so from region to region (for example, there tended to be many more free peasants in southern Europe, whereas it has been estimated that serfs made up 90% of the peasants in 12th century England and northern France). It also varied over time, as a lord took more land into his demesne, or divided more land amongst his serfs and free peasants.

As well as labour services and rents in kind or money, lords could usually extract fees for the use of the manor’s mill, bakery or wine press.

Costumes of slaves or serfs, from the sixth to the twelfth centuries
collected by H. de Vielcastel from original documents in European libraries

Manors usually attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. The work of making and repairing equipment, for example, was carried out as far as was practicable within the manor. Towns were few and far between, and transporting goods to and from them was slow and expensive, so self-sufficiency was a sensible aim.

Feudal complexity

It is common in school text books for feudalism to be depicted as a pyramid – and we indeed have suggested the same, above. However, it should be nor in one that feudalism could give rise to fiendish complexity; spaghetti might represent it better.

We have seen how the original manors covered singe villages, but often came later to be scattered over several. As in this case, most complexities arose after fief-holding had become hereditary.

For example, a vassal of one lord might marry the heiress of the vassal of another lord, thus acquiring obligations to a different lords. What happened if these lords became enemies? This was not an unusual situation. The most famous case is probably that of the dukes of Burgundy, who in the 15th century held lands from both the king of France and the emperor of Germany, who were hereditary rivals.

Things could get more complicated still. The counts of Anjou, vassals of the king of France, acquired by marriage, inheritance and a good bit of skulduggery several surrounding fiefs including of Aquitaine and Normandy. He thus ruled more of France than his normal superior, the king – and this was before he inherited the throne of England as king Henry II (reigned 1153-89).

How did towns fit into the feudal system?

Fiefs and manors were essentially blocks of land from which income could be drawn, in the form of a share in the labour of the peasantry, or in the produce of the soil, or of money revenue from these. It was a system for a rural economy.

This made sense when, in the centuries after the fall of Rome, towns were few and far between, and those which did still exist were tiny.

The inhabitants of towns did not fit neatly into the feudal scheme of things. Many early towns were located in areas between manors. They formed no part of any fief and were answerable directly to the king. As it was quite impossible for a king to deal with each individual within a town, they dealt with towns as whole communities – which in practice meant with the leaders of the towns.

It followed from this that towns were able to run their own affairs with a comparatively free hand, and that townsmen, as individuals, were free of feudal obligations. This was most clearly expressed in the medieval proverb that “towns make free”. Famously, if a serf arrived in a town and was able to stay there for a year and a day without being caught and sent back to his manor, he became a free citizen of that town.

As time went by, many new towns grew up within existing fiefs. However, it was almost as impossible for a lord to deal with each individual townsman as it was a king. They too related to towns as whole units, dealing with their leaders, who thus gained a large measure of control over the life of the town. If a town became wealthy, its leaders were able to bargain with their superiors, whether king or lords, for more autonomy. Large towns and cities thus came to run their own affairs with minimal interference from kings and other rulers. The revenue they contributed to the royal and feudal coffers effectively purchased their autonomy. In England and France, the key cities of London and Paris were treated with great respect by their kings, while smaller cities enjoyed a high degree of freedom from royal or feudal interference. The cities of Spain gained the right to govern themselves, and those of central Italy which were part of the Papal States owed only loose obedience to the pope (a duty which they frequently ignored).

In parts of Europe, many cities became effectively independent states in their own right. In Germany, even fairly minor towns gained a large measure of independence due to the problems the Holy Roman emperors had in imposing their will across their realms. In Flanders, the cities of Ghent, Bruges and Ypres became self-governing city-states, only nominally subject to the local count. In northern Italy, the wealth of leading towns such as Venice, Genoa, Milan and Florence made them amongst some of the most powerful states in Europe.

The rise of representative assemblies

It can be seen from this description of the feudal system that at heart of it was a system of relationships between lords and their vassals, with rights and duties on both sides. It followed from this that medieval lords did not have dictatorial powers over their vassal. For example, a lord had no rights to help himself to his vassal’s property. Indeed, embedded in the system of western European feudalism was the principle that a lord could not tax his subjects without their consent.

The key to rulers gaining the consent of their leading subjects was to seek their advice: to bring them in on his thinking, listen to their anxieties, and adapt his policies accordingly. Indeed, as we have seen, one of the duties of a vassal to his lord was to provide him with counsel; and vassals regarded this duty as one of their most cherished privileges, that their lord should consult with them on important matters. Each lord had his council of vassals, which provided the forum for such consultation.

Over time, as towns and cities became wealthier, kings’ “great councils” expanded to include not only leading nobles and churchmen, but also representatives from the major towns. The great councils evolved into assemblies which represented the main “estates” of the medieval realm: nobility, church and commoners (and in some cases, as in Sweden, peasants formed their now estate).

These assemblies went by different names: in Spain, they were the Cortes; in France, the Estates-General; in Germany, the Landtage, in Scandinavia the Rigstag or Rikstag; and in England, Scotland, Ireland, Sicily, the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples, they were Parliaments. They all had similar origins, in rulers’ needs to raise more money than they could squeeze from their own private resources.

One of the key principles that underlay this development was the idea that one person could speak for many. This meant not only communicating their views but committing them to action (such as paying a tax). Given the responsibility of this role, it was important that the representative should be someone who commanded the confidence of the majority of those whom he represented. The notion of electing representatives by majority vote thus took hold, and so developed a practice which would lie at the heart of modern democracy.

The decline of feudalism

In the centuries after 1000, the economy of western Europe expanded vastly, along with its population. Coinage increasingly came in to circulation, and a money economy gained ground.

In these circumstances, the shortcomings of feudalism as a way of raising troops became glaringly obvious. The expanding economies of their kingdoms enabled kings (often in consultation with representative assemblies) to raise taxes and pay for armies of full-time professional soldiers. This development of coursed increased the importance of representative assemblies; it also struck at the very heart of feudalism, with nobles and knights becoming primarily landed gentry rather than serving warriors.

The old Feudal system is beginning to give way to early Modern Europe.

Above all, these developments put much more power into the hands of monarchs and their officials. Gradually, these were able to wrest control of justice and administration from fief-holders, so that centralised states were able to emerge.

In some places, such as England and Holland, the later Middle Ages saw the manorial economy replaced by something new. The Black Death of the mid-14th century, along with subsequent local outbreaks of plague which kept the population of western Europe in check, caused a shortage of labour, which naturally increased its value. The labour services which serfs owed thus became less profitable to the lords, who came therefore to prefer money rents instead. Manors were increasingly divided up into individual private farms, each under its own tenant farmer. In these areas, serfdom had more or less vanished by the end of the Middle Ages.

In these ways, while elements of feudalism continued in many parts of western Europe up to the 18th and 19th centuries, the feudal system as a whole, with its hierarchy of fiefs and lords and vassals, had died out by the 16th century. In same places, where this process was most advanced, fiefs, whose lords enjoyed political, military, judicial and economic power over them, had become simply landed estates, which were economic units only. In other places they remained units of localised power. Nowhere, however, were they the centres of military and lordly power they had been in the high Middle Ages.

Further study

An overview of medieval European civilization

The medieval Church

Medievial European government and warfare

The medieval European economy


Look at a sequence of maps showing an outline of medieval European history

This article is about the classic, or medieval, Western European form of feudalism. For feudalism as practiced in other societies, as well as that of the Europeans, see Examples of feudalism.

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour. Although derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief),[1] 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 Middle Ages.[2] In its classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944),[3]feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs.[3]

A broader definition of feudalism, as described by Marc Bloch (1939), includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but also those of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry bound by manorialism; this is sometimes referred to as a "feudal society". Since the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown's "The Tyranny of a Construct" (1974) and Susan Reynolds's Fiefs and Vassals (1994), there has been ongoing inconclusive discussion among medieval historians as to whether feudalism is a useful construct for understanding medieval society.[4][5][6][7][8][9]


There is no commonly accepted modern definition of feudalism, at least among scholars.[4][7] The adjective feudal was coined in the 17th century, and the noun feudalism, often used in a political and propaganda context, was not coined until the 19th century,[4] from the French féodalité (feudality), itself an 18th-century creation.

In a classic definition by François-Louis Ganshof (1944),[3]feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs,[3] though Ganshof himself noted that his treatment related only 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 those of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and those living by their labour, most directly the peasantry bound by manorialism; this order is often referred to as "feudal society", echoing Bloch's usage.

Since the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown's "The Tyranny of a Construct" (1974)[5] and Susan Reynolds's Fiefs and Vassals (1994),[6] there has been ongoing inconclusive discussion among medieval historians as to whether feudalism is a useful construct for understanding medieval society.[4][7][8]

Outside a European context, the concept of feudalism is often used only by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of feudal Japan under the shōguns, and sometimes medieval and GondarineEthiopia.[11] However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing feudalism (or traces of it) in places as diverse as Spring and Autumn period in China, 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 similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to prevail.[12] 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 term "féodal" was used in 17th-century French legal treatises (1614)[13][14] 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).[15] In the 19th century the adjective "feudal" evolved into a noun: "feudalism".[15] The term feudalism is recent, first appearing in French in 1823, Italian in 1827, English in 1839, and in German in the second half of the 19th century.[15]

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).[16] Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents.[16] The first attested instance of this is from 984, although more primitive forms were seen up to one-hundred years earlier.[16] The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below.[16]

The most widely held theory was proposed by Johan Hendrik Caspar Kern in 1870,[17][18] being supported by, amongst others, William Stubbs[16][19] and Marc Bloch.[16][20][21] 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."[20][21] 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.[20][21]

Another theory was put forward by Archibald R. Lewis.[16] 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).[22] 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.."[16]

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').[16][23] 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.[23]


Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralization of an empire: especially in the Carolingian empires, which lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure[clarification needed] necessary to support cavalry without the ability to allocate 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.[24]

These acquired powers significantly diminished unitary power in these empires. Only when the infrastructure existed to maintain unitary power—as with the European monarchies—did feudalism begin to yield to this new power structure and eventually disappear.[24]

Classic feudalism[edit]

See also Feudalism in England, Feudalism in the Holy Roman Empire and Examples of feudalism

The classic François-Louis Ganshof version of feudalism[4][3] describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms 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 the protection of 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]


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.[25]

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.[26]

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:[27] 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.[28] (what Georges Duby called collectively the "seigneurie banale"[28]). Power in this period became more personal.[29]

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.[30] 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.[31]

End of European feudalism[edit]

Further information: Abolition of feudalism in France

Feudalism itself decayed and effectively disappeared in most of Western Europe by about 1500,[32][33] partly since the military power of kings shifted from armies consisting of the nobility to professional fighters (effectively reducing the nobility's power), but also because the Black Death reduced the nobility's hold on the lower classes. The system lingered on in parts of Central and Eastern Europe as late as the 1850s. Russia finally abolished serfdom in 1861.[34][35]

However, 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.[36]

Originally the peasants were supposed to pay for the release of seigneurial dues; these dues affected more than a fourth of the farmland in France and provided most of the income of the large landowners.[37] 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.[38]

Feudal society[edit]

Main article: Manorialism

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 classical 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'sDe 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).[15] 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.[39] 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.[40]

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.[41] 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’.[42] 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'.

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.,[41] 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.[41]

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,[41] 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.

Challenges to the feudal model[edit]

In 1974, U.S. 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.[41] 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.[41] 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.[43]

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.[44] 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.[45] 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.[41]

Richard Abels notes that "Western Civilization and World Civilization textbooks now shy away from the term 'feudalism'."[46]

See also[edit]




  1. ^feodum – see The Cyclopedic Dictionary of Law, by Walter A. Shumaker, George Foster Longsdorf, pg. 365, 1901.
  2. ^Noble, Thomas (2002). (36). The foundations of Western civilization. Chantilly, VA: Teaching Co. ISBN 978-1565856370. 
  3. ^ abcdefFrançois Louis Ganshof (1944). Qu'est-ce que la féodalité. Translated into English by Philip Grierson as Feudalism, with a foreword by F. M. Stenton, 1st ed.: New York and London, 1952; 2nd ed: 1961; 3d ed: 1976.
  4. ^ abcdef"Feudalism", by Elizabeth A. R. Brown. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  5. ^ abcdBrown, Elizabeth A. R. (October 1974). "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe". The American Historical Review. 79 (4): 1063–88. doi:10.2307/1869563. JSTOR 1869563. 
  6. ^ abcReynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 ISBN 0-19-820648-8
  7. ^ abc"Feudalism?", by Paul Halsall. Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
  8. ^ ab"The Problem of Feudalism: An Historiographical Essay", by Robert Harbison, 1996, Western Kentucky University.
  9. ^Charles West, Reframing the Feudal Revolution: Political and Social Transformation Between Marne and Moselle, c. 800–c. 1100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  10. ^ abBloch, Marc, Feudal Society. Tr. L.A. Manyon. Two volume. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961 ISBN 0-226-05979-0
  11. ^ ab"Reader's Companion to Military History". Archived from the original on 2004-11-12. 
  12. ^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. 
  13. ^"Feudal (n.d.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 16, 2007. 
  14. ^Cantor, Norman F. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. Harper Perennial, 1994.
  15. ^ abcdFredric L. Cheyette. "FEUDALISM, EUROPEAN." in New Dictionary of the History Of Ideas, Vol. 2, ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Thomas Gale 2005, ISBN 0-684-31379-0. pp. 828–831
  16. ^ abcdefghiMeir Lubetski (ed.). Boundaries of the ancient Near Eastern world: a tribute to Cyrus H. Gordon. "Notices on Pe'ah, Fay' and Feudum" by Alauddin Samarrai. Pg. 248–250, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1998.
  17. ^"fee, n.2." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017. Web. 18 August 2017.
  18. ^H. Kern, 'Feodum', De taal- en letterbode, 1( 1870), pp. 189-201.
  19. ^William Stubbs. The Constitutional History of England (3 volumes), 2nd edition 1875–78, Vol. 1, pg. 251, n. 1
  20. ^ abcMarc Bloch. Feudal Society, Vol. 1, 1964. pp.165–66.
  21. ^ abcMarc Bloch. Feudalism, 1961, pg. 106.
  22. ^Archibald R. Lewis. The Development of Southern French and Catalan Society 718–1050, 1965, pp. 76–77.
  23. ^ abAlauddin Samarrai. "The term 'fief': A possible Arabic origin", Studies in Medieval Culture, 4.1 (1973), pp. 78–82.
  24. ^ abGat, Azar. War in Human Civilization, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. pp. 332–343
  25. ^Medieval Feudalism, by Carl Stephenson. Cornell University Press, 1942. Classic introduction to Feudalism.
  26. ^Encyc. Brit. op.cit. It was a standard part of the feudal contract (fief [land], fealty [oath of allegiance], faith [belief in God]) that every tenant was under an obligation to attend his overlord's court to advise and support him; Sir Harris Nicolas, in Historic Peerage of England, ed. Courthope, p.18, quoted by Encyc. Brit, op.cit., p. 388: "It was the principle of the feudal system that every tenant should attend the court of his immediate superior"
  27. ^Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, p. 522-3.
  28. ^ abWickham, The Inheritance of Rome, p. 518.
  29. ^Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, p.522.
  30. ^Wickham, p.523.
  31. ^Elizabeth M. Hallam. Capetian France 987–1328, p.17.
  32. ^"The End of Feudalism" in J.H.M. Salmon, Society in Crisis: France in the Sixteenth Century (1979) pp 19–26
  33. ^Charles McLean Andrews (1912). Short history of England. p. 174. 
  34. ^John Merriman, A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Age of Napoleon (1996) pp 12–13
  35. ^Jerzy Topolski, Continuity and discontinuity in the development of the feudal system in Eastern Europe (Xth to XVIIth centuries)" Journal of European Economic History (1981) 10#2 pp: 373–400.
  36. ^Lefebvre, Georges (1962). The French Revolution: Vol. 1, from Its Origins To 1793. Columbia U.P,. p. 130. 
  37. ^Robert Forster, "The survival of the nobility during the French Revolution." Past and Present (1967): 71–86 in JSTOR.
  38. ^Paul R. Hanson, The A to Z of the French Revolution (2013) pp 293–94
  39. ^Robert Bartlett. "Perspectives on the Medieval World" in Medieval Panorama, 2001, ISBN 0-89236-642-7
  40. ^Richard Abels. "Feudalism". usna.edu. 
  41. ^ abcdefgPhilip Daileader, "Feudalism", The High Middle Ages, Course No. 869, The Teaching Company, ISBN 1-56585-827-1
  42. ^Peter Singer, Marx: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) [first published 1980], p. 91.
  43. ^Reynolds, p 11
  44. ^John Whitney Hall, "Feudalism in Japan—a reassessment," Comparative studies in Society and History (1962) 5#1 pp: 15–51 in JSTOR
  45. ^Karl Friday, "The Futile Paradigm: In Quest of Feudalism in Early Medieval Japan," History Compass 8.2 (2010): 179–196.
  46. ^Richard Abels, "The Historiography of a Construct: 'Feudalism' and the Medieval Historian." History Compass (2009) 7#3 pp: 1008–1031.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bloch, Marc, Feudal Society. Tr. L.A. Manyon. Two volumes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961 ISBN 0-226-05979-0
  • Ganshof, François Louis (1952). Feudalism. London; New York: Longmans, Green. ISBN 0-8020-7158-9. 
  • 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
France in the late 15th century: a mosaic of feudal territories
Depiction of socage on the royal demesne in feudal England, c. 1310

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