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), 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. In its classic definition, by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), 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.
A broader definition of feudalism, as described by Marc Bloch (1939), includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but 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.
There is no commonly accepted modern definition of feudalism, at least among scholars. 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. By the mid-20th century, François Louis Ganshof's Feudalism, 3rd ed. (1964; originally published in French, 1947), became a standard scholarly definition of feudalism.
Since at least the 1960s, when Marc Bloch's Feudal Society (1939) was first translated into English in 1961, many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect that includes not only the nobility but all three estates of the realm, adding the peasantry bonds of manorialism and the estates of the Church; this is sometimes referred to as "feudal society" since it encompasses all members of society into the feudal system. Since the 1970s, when Elizabeth A. R. Brown published The Tyranny of a Construct (1974), many 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 often used only by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of feudal Japan under the shoguns and sometimes medieval and Gondarine Ethiopia. However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing feudalism (or traces of it) in places as diverse as ancient Egypt, the Parthian empire, the Indian subcontinent and the Antebellum and Jim Crow American South.
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. 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.
The term "feodal" was used in 17th-century French legal treatises (1614) 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). In the 19th century the adjective "feudal" evolved into a noun: "feudalism". 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.
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). Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents. The first attested instance of this is from 984, although more primitive forms were seen up to one-hundred years earlier. The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below.
The most widely held theory is put forth by Marc Bloch. Bloch said it is related to the Frankish term *fehu-ôd, in which *fehu means "cattle" and -ôd means "goods", implying "a moveable object of value." Bloch explains that by the beginning of the 10th century it was common to value land in monetary terms but to pay for it moveable objects of equivalent value, such as arms, clothing horses or food. This was known as feos a term which 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 morphed little by little to feus meaning the exact opposite: landed property. This Germanic origin theory was also shared by William Stubbs in the 19th century.
Another theory was put forward by Archibald R. Lewis. 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). In that text is a passage about Louis the Pious which says annona militaris quas vulgo foderum vocant, which can be translated as "Louis forbade that military provender (which they popularly call "fodder") be furnished.."
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'). 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. Indeed 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.
Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralization of an empire: especially in the Carolingian empires which both lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure 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.
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.
The classic François-Louis Ganshof version of 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. 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.
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.
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.
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
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: 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. (what Georges Duby called collectively the "seigneurie banale"). Power in this period became more personal.
France in the late 15th century: a mosaic of feudal territories
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. 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.
End of European feudalism
Feudalism itself decayed and effectively disappeared in most of Western Europe by about 1500. It lingered on in parts of Central and Eastern Europe as late as the 1850s. Russia finally abolished serfdom in 1861.
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 4 August 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.
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. 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.
The phrase "feudal society" as defined by Marc Bloch expands on the definition proposed by Ganshof 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 entire society from top to bottom is bound by feudalism.
Historiography of feudalism
The idea of feudalism was unknown and the system it describes were 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
The concept of a feudal state or period, in the sense of either a regime or a period dominated by lords who possess financial or social power and prestige, became widely held in the middle of the 18th century, as a result of works such as Montesquieu's De L'Esprit des Lois (1748; published in English as The Spirit of the Laws), and Henri de Boulainvilliers’s Histoire des anciens Parlements de France (1737; published in English as An Historical Account of the Antient Parliaments of France or States-General of the Kingdom, 1739). 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. 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.
Karl Marx also used the term in political analysis. In the 19th century, Marx described feudalism as the economic situation coming before the 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. 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’. Many 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.'
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 is building: England before the Conquest had commendation, which embodied some of the personal elements in feudalism.
William the Conqueror introduced a modified northern French feudalism to England which countered decentralized aspects of feudalism abroad. In 1086 he required oaths of loyalty to the king by all, even the vassals of his principal vassals, who held by feudal tenure. 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, 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 and also the easiest to understand, simply put, when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.
One of Ganshof's contemporaries, the French historian Marc Bloch, was arguably the most influential 20th-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 (1939–40; English 1961). Bloch characterised feudalism as a type of society that was not limited solely to the nobility. Like Ganshof, he acknowledged that there was a hierarchical relationship between lords and vassals, but Bloch also acknowledged the existence of a similar relationship between lords and peasants.
It is this radical notion that peasants were part of 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.
Although he was never formally a student in the circle of scholars around Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre that came to be known as the Annales School, Georges Duby was an exponent of the Annaliste tradition. In a published version of his 1952 doctoral thesis entitled La société aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise (Society in the 11th and 12th centuries in the Mâconnais region), and working from the extensive documentary sources surviving from the Burgundian monastery of Cluny, as well as the dioceses of Mâcon and Dijon, Duby excavated the complex social and economic relationships among the individuals and institutions of the Mâconnais region and charted a profound shift in the social structures of medieval society around the year 1000. He argued that in early 11th century, governing institutions—particularly comital courts established under the Carolingian monarchy—that had represented public justice and order in Burgundy during the 9th and 10th centuries receded and gave way to a new feudal order wherein independent aristocratic knights wielded power over peasant communities through strong-arm tactics and threats of violence.
In 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 suggested 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's methodology, other historians have supported it and her argument. 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.
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. 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. 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.