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Feudalism in western Europe

Feudalism in other areas

Emergence and demise of feudal systems


Feudalism conventionally denotes the type of society and the political system originating in western and central Europe and dominant there during the greater part of the Middle Ages. However, the term is also applied to other societies and systems of government with similar characteristics, in antiquity and in modern times; in the Marxist usage it refers to a type of society and economy characterized by serfdom, generally succeeding the economic systems based on slavery and preceding capitalism.

The word from the Germanic fehu-od(from which is derived the English and French fief)— that is, “property in cattle” and, later, “tenure” or “property in land”-stresses the importance, in the system, of land tenure and the rights and privileges attached to it. Since the seventeenth century, the complex of tenurial and personal relationships and economic, social, and political dependencies that centered on the fief have increasingly been regarded as a scaffold of social stratification and political organization. This view, often reflecting actual political and social problems in eighteenth-century England and France, created the notion of a period dominated by “feudal laws” (Montesquieu) that were comprehensive enough to denote a regime and to dominate and rule a society. The later meaning of the word, although basically rooted in eighteenth-century usage, came to denote, through abuse of language, such social realities as the political predominance of a landholding aristocracy and the exploitation of the small and weak by the powerful. It also came to denote any political system in which the power of the state was weakened or paralyzed by the privileges of the few and made inefficient by the fractioning of political power, or by the opposition of powerful political or economic aristocratic factions.

Historical scholarship since the nineteenth century has brought to light more and more of the variety of economic, social, and political forms to be found in feudal societies at any one time, as well as the changes inevitable in any social and political framework lasting over five hundred years. Nevertheless, some major features do recur, and a certain rhythm of evolution seems to have been common to rather large areas as they reacted to similar economic, social, and political changes. Hence, it is possible to speak about feudal institutions without implying that all aspects of economic, social, and political life predominant in the greater part of the European Middle Ages were always present. Such institutions can also be found in other societies; sometimes they evolve from similar conditions, but often they are isolated phenomena in different frameworks or without the interrelations deemed essential in the European system. (In these cases the term “feudal tendencies” might be a better description.)

Despite the great variety of definitions of feudalism, some minimal common characteristics of a fully developed feudal system would be accepted by most scholars. These include: (1) lord-vassal relationships; (2) a personalized government that is most effective on the local level and has relatively little separation of political functions; (3) a system of landholding consisting of the granting of fiefs in return for service and assurance of future services; (4) the existence of private armies and a code of honor in which military obligations are stressed; and (5) seignioral and manorial rights of the lord over the peasant (see Coulborn 1956; Hall 1962).

Perhaps the fullest definition of feudalism in the political sphere was given by Weber ([1922] 1957, pp. 375-376), who considered feudalism one type of “patriarchal authority.” According to Weber: (1) The authority of the chief is reduced to the likelihood that the vassals will voluntarily remain faithful to their oaths of fealty. (2) The political corporate group is completely replaced by a system of relations of purely personal loyalty between the lord and his vassals and between these, in turn, and their own subvassals (subinfeudation). (3) Only in the case of a “felony” does the lord have a right to deprive his vassal of his fief. (4) There is a hierarchy of social rank, corresponding to the hierarchy of fiefs, but it is not a hierarchy of authority in the bureaucratic sense. (5) The elements in the population who do not hold fiefs with some political authority are “subjects”-that is, patrimonial dependents. (6) Powers over the individual budgetary unit (domains, slaves, and serfs), the fiscal rights of the political group to the receipt of taxes and contributions, and powers of jurisdiction and compulsion to military service are all objects of feudal grants.

In the social sector an important element of feudalism is the bearing of arms as a class-defining profession. Here feudalism is distinguished by a relative closing of the social status system in which (for the groups dependent primarily on the land) the distribution of goods and services is closely integrated with the hierarchy of social statuses. Within the economic sector feudal government and society appear uniformly to rest upon a landed, or locally self-sufficient, economic base as distinguished from a pastoral, commercial, or industrial one. The merchant community, although it may play a significant role in the economy, is essentially outside the feudal nexus. The appearance of certain technological features of government and economy, notably centralized communications and means of large-scale political organization, serve to undermine the feudal institutions (Hall 1962).

Whatever the variations within the economic, social, or political sphere, perhaps the most important problem in the analysis of feudal societies or systems is the extent to which in any given place we can find these feudal characteristics developing or coexisting in all the major institutional spheres. The classical age of feudalism is usually dated from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries and located in northern France. Other societies in different historical periods, whether European or non-European, are compared to this northern French society to determine the extent to which feudal institutions and tendencies developed within them.

Feudalism in western Europe

The specific features of feudalism were the outcome of the encounter of two types of society, the Romanized and the Germanic. Their fusion into a new society, the Romano-Germanic, was accompanied by a merging and reshaping of their respective institutions. Neither the German nor the Roman traditions were homogeneous, and throughout central and western Europe they differed according to the strength of the local (often pre-Roman, Celtic) institutions and the effectiveness of Romanization, on the one hand, and the distance of the new Germanic societies from their earlier, preinvasion habitats, on the other.

At the time of their encounter, both societies were in a state of transition. The late Roman or Romanized West was passing through the profound crisis of a disintegrating empire, a weakening of central power, and a dislocation of the bureaucratic state machinery; the economic breakdown was seen in the diminishing importance of cities as centers of administration and of specialized economic activities, in the process of devaluation, and in the slowing down of the money economy. State and society were groping for new norms of existence. Public authority was delegated to the great landowners, who already exercised some authority over their immediate dependents; economic life was shifting from city to countryside and was concentrated on the larger estates, which tried to achieve autarchy in supplying their needs; insecurity was creating private warrior bands; freed slaves were being absorbed into the peasantry, who lost their status as free men to become the dependent semiservile “colonate.” The Germanic tribes (Sippen), through migration and settlement, had loosened or lost their tribal ties. There remained the cohesion of families and of the newer and weaker village communities, which in time came to represent territorial units rather than strong kinship relations. The transition from tribal to state organization continued in the fifth and sixth centuries, but the lack of a competent administration combined with an extremely low level of literacy and restricted money circulation helped to weaken the traditional units; nowhere was a state structure able to take over and to fulfill its public duties.

The early medieval state, like that of the Frankish Merovingians (end of the fifth to beginning of the eighth century), presents, consequently, a juxtaposition of divergent elements of state and society (hardly ever integrated into a coherent whole). From this point of view, the features associated with feudalism are the direct outcome of a society striving for patterns of organization and cohesion in a period of declining state power and the disruption of traditional kinship security groups.

The most striking feature of the developing system is the new stratification of society. Roman social hierarchy was far more polarized than that of the Germanic tribes. The latter, although not egalitarian, as some nineteenth-century historians claimed, was basically a society of free men with a charismatic and hereditary chieftainship. The new administrative and military needs had already singled out the royal Merovingian entourage of warriors and officials and had sanctioned their standing by a higher Wergeld. At the beginning of the eighth century, however, the permanent need for professional, highly trained military men (mounted warriors) brought about a radical change in society. The former peasant-warrior lost his military value. Private bands of warriors, a phenomenon that had its antecedents as much in the imperial bodyguard and in the private armies of the Roman senatorial class as in the ancient Germanic followers (Gefolgschaft) of the chieftain, sprang up around the king and local magnates.

Vassalage . The nexus between the chieftain and his free followers was taken over by the institution of vassalage ( although the word itself points to a more humble origin, as “vassal” derives from the Celtic gwas, meaning “youngster” or “servant”). Beginning in the early Carolingian period (eighth century), the new institution was integrated into the framework of state and society until it became official, recognized and sanctioned in public law and put to the service of the state. With the tremendous expansion of the empire of Charles the Great and for two centuries thereafter, vassalage as a type of social cohesion became the normal way of assuring not only military service but also public authority. Although the ancient oath of fealty of subjects to the ruler remained, it was felt that it did not sufficiently assure either loyalty or political allegiance. Consequently, an oath of vassalage, more binding and directly linked with the ruler, was demanded from appointed officials. The heads of military and administrative circumscriptions—dukes, marquis, and counts—became vassals of the king. This new type of relation, which abandoned the charismatic character of the earlier period, was based mainly on the notions of fealty and absolute loyalty, strengthened by the religious element inherent in the oath itself, and it bound the contracting parties in a contractual relation.

The principles of vassalic relations, first applied at the highest state level, spread rapidly to the lower rungs of the social ladder. Magnates and royal officials assured their own standing and the performance of the services of their office by contracting vassals, and the same process continued downward to the simple warrior and local administrative officer. Thus, a pyramidal structure of bonds and dependencies arose, a scaffold of state structure and state machinery, the apex of which, ideally, was the king.

Economic and social relations . The economic premises of the new social order were rooted in early medieval economy and grew out of the same social changes that made vassalic relations possible. The weakening of the Sippe not only created insecurity but also changed the economic bases of existence. The village community, far weaker than the Sippe organization, could not offer adequate security, and social cohesion took the new form of individuals seeking the protection of the powerful man in their vicinity, drawing both on the patronclient pattern of the Roman tradition and on the Germanic notion of Grundherr, the rich and strong proprietor, whose influence transcended the boundaries of his property and his direct dependents. Such proprietors included ecclesiastical institutions as well as secular lords. The peasants—and often whole villages—commended themselves into the protection of the powerful, relinquishing their property and receiving it back as a “precarium” (from preco,“to beg for”), a possession (later, hereditary tenure) burdened by certain economic obligations. Conversely, they received the protection of the establishment or the lay lord. This protection against outside (fiscal, administrative, military, or juridical) pressures not only made the peasant economically dependent but also initiated the process through which he lost his standing as free man and citizen. His dealings with state authority were henceforth channeled through his overlord. In this sense, the king, who combined competences of state sovereignty (often theoretical in the ninth and tenth centuries) and vassalic suzerainty, lost his subjects, whom he could reach only through the mediation of their overlords.

The material basis of the vassalic contract was the fief. This was usually an agricultural territory (but there existed also money fiefs) granted by the lord to the vassal at the “homage” (from homo,“man”) ceremony when the vassal swore to serve the lord as his “man.” At the highest level of the feudal echelon the fief was usually a seigniory— that is, an economic and political entity invested with public powers of administration, taxation, and jurisdiction. A seigniory might comprise anything from a single village to a large complex of villages. It was the degree of public authority and the degree of immunity from the interference of an overlord which differentiated it from a simple fief and fixed its place in the hierarchy of fiefs in the kingdom. The seigniory comprised, as a rule, a large territory where the exercise of public rights was shared, in different degrees, by the lord and the men who became his vassals (“subvassals” of the overlord) through enfeoffment and homage. Public power became an object of inheritance, since it accompanied the inheritance of the fiefs and seigniories.

At the bottom of the feudal ladder was the simple knight who owed to the overlord his own service and was supported by a fief just large enough to assure him a living in keeping with the standards of his class. Such a fief could coincide with a village or part of it, and its economic organization was usually described as a manorial economy. The lord of the manor also had noneconomic rights over the tenants on his manor, the most characteristic being the rights of jurisdiction deriving from land tenure.

The movement of commendation, common to all strata of society, brought about a complete transformation of its social stratification and cohesion and, finally, of the concepts of the state and its authority. Thousands of links of dependence ran from the apex to the lowest echelons of society. Their scope, meaning, and aim changed from step to step. Whereas in higher echelons commendation created a professional caste of warriors soon to become the nobility, in the lower echelons it created a class of people serving the lords in different capacities. As long as the service was basically military, the link of commendation created vassalage, which had come to be regarded as the only condition fitting a free man. Lower down, commendation created serfdom of varying degrees, but always connoting economic dependence, social degradation, and exclusion from the community of free men and subjects.

The hierarchic principle of cohesion and dependence was sustained economically by the legal hierarchy of land and by the fixed relation of men to land. Only where feudalization did not penetrate the depth of society were there free communities, direct subjects of royalty, and allodial (entirely independent) property. Ireland and Scotland preserved clannish cohesion; Frisia preserved independent communities; in Saxony and parts of Spain there were free men; and German nobility kept allodial property late into the twelfth century. In all other territories all land except the royal domain had the legal status of tenure or dependent possession.

The main economic feature of the fief was the holder’s privilege not to work the land himself but to receive income in specie, money, and work from the peasant population. The peasants themselves held their land as servile tenures astricted as to payments and services, which varied widely according to the type of servile tenure. But it is a striking feature of the system that the obligations of the peasant were those deriving from his own legal status and that of the land he held. The theoretical symmetry between the status of a man and that of his holding was soon destroyed by marriage and inheritance. A serf might, for example, be the tenant of a “free mansus” (mansus,“a unit of family holding”), his duties deriving from his status as serf and the obligations inherent in the free mansus.

Stabilization of the system . Around 1100 the major features of feudalism began to stabilize and integrate into a coherent politico-economic system. Yet, complete integration was never achieved. Rights of possession, economic privileges, and public authority often remained undefined, consequently competing and overlapping. Starting in the second half of the twelfth century, political theoreticians with legal training tried to describe the institutions of government and society as forming a logical whole. One of the stabilizing factors was the general rule linking vassalage with fiefs and their regular, hereditary transmission. Occurring on all levels of the feudal hierarchy, it assured a solid scaffold of social structure. Not only were the simple knight, his immediate overlord, and every lord up to the apex of the feudal hierarchy henceforth concerned with fiefs and seigniories, as pure vassalage links would have postulated, but the family as a whole became a major factor in the feudal mechanism. On the upper level of the hierarchy, that of the great tenants-in-chief of the crown with quasi-state authority, it was the dynasty that counted. Below them, the traditional vassals of the dynasty were often regarded not only as members of the household (maisnie) but as a part of the noble lineage (lignage). The relations between lords and vassals were often conceived in terms of family relations, and the competences of the lord were not unlike the Germanic mundeburdumor the Roman patria potestas. The custom of sending the vassals’ children to be raised at the court of the overlord strengthened this type of relation, as did the meetings of the vassals at the lord’s court in times of festivity, which were held as much for business reasons as for socializing.

Rise of the nobility . In the twelfth century a two-hundred-year-old process of class formation came to an end, producing a class of nobility. The old warrior class of the eighth century was by then a class pursuing the profession of arms, which assured it a privileged place in society and a major share in political power; moreover, it was a class which could transmit its economic, social, and political standing to its descendants, becoming, consequently, a hereditary nobility. Despite the marked differences within the class itself, differences based primarily on the extent of political power and the control of economic resources, all fief holders regarded themselves, and were regarded by others, as the highest class in society.

The most characteristic feature of the military nobility was its new warrior ideal—the knight. “Knighthood” was a designation of rank and dignity; it was, by implication, the expression of the new ethos—chivalrousness. Fusing ancient Germanic ideals of the “heroic age” with newer concepts of ecclesiastical origin, chivalry (from chevalier,“a mounted warrior”) expressed the worldly ideals of the fighting class and the new ethical teachings of the church. Fighting should not be an end in itself but should serve social and religious ideals in a basically other-world-oriented society. Biblical virtues—the protection of women, the weak, and the poor and the defense of religion— were the aims that enabled the church to sanction war and bloodshed. The ideal of the “Christian knight” (miles Christianus) which represented the ethos of the warrior caste, imprinted its character on the period. Its early, extreme theoretical formulation was by Bernard of Clairvaux, who regarded the knight as a permanent candidate for martyrdom, and its early institutionalization was in the military orders created at the time of the Crusades in the Holy Land and the Christian reconquest of Spain.

The ideals of monasticism and warriorship merged into the ideal of the Christian knight par excellence. Chivalry became institutionalized, adopting a military-ecclesiastical initiation rite (“dubbing”) and elaborating a code of behavior and a set of virtues fitting a member of the class. Henceforth, membership in the nobility depended not only on origin but on the formal act of “knighting.” The chivalrous virtues and rules of behavior and the image the class had of itself were perpetuated by upbringing and education. The noble child passed a period of graded apprenticeship, living with a noble family (very often the vassal’s overlord ) before dubbing, which could be given only by someone who was himself a knight. The introduction of chivalric rites and what became in the later part of the thirteenth century a formal code of chivalrous behavior made the noble class more exclusive, thus affecting social mobility. The code became, especially after the fourteenth century, extremely formalized and served to exclude non-members who acquired economic position in non-noble pursuits (commerce and banking) and who, by buying fiefs, tried to penetrate the ranks of nobility. It also excluded knights who engaged in commercial pursuits.

While the nobility was guarding its ranks against outsiders, its own internal differentiation proceeded swiftly. The baronial class, in many cases, split into magnates, “greater barons,” or grandes; beneath them “smaller barons,” or hidalgos; and below them simple knights. Although social mobility existed, it tended to be rather limited. Marriages and dowries were usually contracted in a closed class market, and marriage with a lower-born noble was regarded with disdain. Local variations always existed—for example, social mobility was greater in England than on the Continent, and German ministeriales(sometimes serfs but in any case not nobles) in royal military service were ennobled and could exercise the highest state functions, even at the end of the twelfth century (although Germany at this time was not yet entirely feudalized). The features and ideals of the nobility that are described above survived long after the class lost its political standing and parts of its economic position or even economic privileges.

Growth of political units . As the links o’f cohesion strengthened, the administrative framework, grouping fiefs and seigniories into larger political units, became clearer. Generally speaking, there were two main lines of development. One was the creation of strong local principalities (Anjou, Normandy, Flanders), which at the turn of the eleventh century succeeded in dominating the different seigniories in their territories, recapturing some of the public authority (control of castles and mints —in some places a monopoly of the princely dynasty), and often developing princely bureaucratic administrations. This process built up the strong centralized provinces, which during the next hundred years were taken over by the Capetians and became the foundations of the kingdom of France.

The second line was followed by Germany. In twelfth-century Germany, less feudalized than France, public authority was often still in the hands of local princely dynasties with allodial possessions, who exercised their competences not as the king’s vassals but, theoretically, as his officials. Their power was strengthened at the beginning of the century when the “quarrel of investiture” weakened the standing of royalty. To create stronger cohesion and forge links of dependence, the crown tried to bring the highest nobility into direct vassalic dependence, in the process resigning to it public authority in the principalities. The principalities, by forging vassalic links with the local nobility, were supposed to become well-ordered administrative units directed by the crown. The principalities achieved, indeed, strong governments, but the crown never succeeded in bringing them into a rigid state framework. Germany, especially after the interregnum at the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (middle of thirteenth century), was made up of principalities and their rulers (Länder and Landesherren) within a loose framework of the empire. Legislation forced the emperor to enfeoff noble escheats, which could otherwise have enlarged the royal domain and thus strengthened his position at the expense of the princely class. Finally, the principle of election of the emperor by the imperial electors (Kurfürsten) assured their dominance. Consequently, Germany never reached any degree of state unity. On the contrary, the principalities became independent, strongly organized states, with princely power based on authority delegated by the emperor and on vassalic links obligatory within their territories. In England, after the Norman conquest, sovereignty and suzerainty assured a preponderant power to the crown. Feudal particularistic tendencies, brought to light in the middle of the twelfth century by rival claims to the throne, were quickly checked, leaving royalty in full possession of its powers. In Italy the development followed the lines of Germany, but the place of the principalities was taken by the emerging cities, the “communes,” which created territorial units virtually independent of the central power.

The decline of feudalism . The decline of feudalism was a general phenomenon of European history that owed as much to the economic transformations of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as it did to features inherent in the feudal system itself. The economic transformations were the result of the twelfth-century “urban revolution.” The revival of money economy, the renewal of city life with its more complex division of labor, the rise of the new social stratum of burgesses—all proclaimed new needs and new possibilities. They enabled the state to perform and enlarge its functions without constant recourse to feudal services. The new market situation enabled the peasants to accumulate money from the sale of surplus production and initiated the commutation of manorial services into money payments. The final result was the disruption of the manorial economy and a profound change in the standing of the nobility.

Insecurity decreased in the far better policed states of the central Middle Ages, and the rural population did not depend for its survival or defense on the local magnate. The political power he wielded could be, and was, more efficiently used by state officials. Inherited political power consequently lost its practical and moral justification.

The change in the position of the feudal lord is even more marked when compared with the all-important lord-vassal relations of the earlier period. As already mentioned, the inheritance of fiefs greatly contributed to the solidity of the system. At the same time, it brought with it a notable change in the feudo-vassalic establishment. As heredity was the rule and the renewal of the vassalic oath usually only a formality, the economic element in the relationship overshadowed the personal and intimate elements. Previously undefined and unlimited duties of service were replaced by fixed and measured obligations. Thus, the military service was fixed for 40 days yearly; other aids and services were measured in stereotyped proportions according to the size of the fief. The fact that from the end of the tenth century a vassal could hold fiefs from different lords created a problem of multiple, often opposed, loyalties.

The weakening of the ties of dependence in the upper strata of society and the process of dissolution on the manorial level brought about a complete transformation in patterns of social cohesion and state organization. Different strata of society became crystallized in the pattern of “estates.” The estate grouped people of the same social class, who had a similar economic standing and enjoyed the same privileged position in the state in relation to the crown and to other estates. Unlike the former feudal links of cohesion, which were vertical, the new links binding man to man were horizontal. Men joining others of their own class sought assurance and confirmation of their privileged position more than security and protection. A man’s standing was no longer described in terms of dependence on a feudal overlord, but in terms of his belonging to a given “estate.” The hierarchic pattern continued to exist but as a hierarchy of strata of society rather than a hierarchy of individuals. Moreover there were no formal links of dependence between the different estates. In a sense, all were in direct relation to the crown, and all claimed a share in political power, whether on the national or the local level.

Feudalism in other areas

Japan . Outside western Europe, the greatest convergence of feudal characteristics in the various institutional spheres probably occurred in Japan, where it developed at the end of the twelfth century and persisted in its “pure” form until the Tokugawa regime. Here we may follow Hall’s analysis (1962).

The origin of feudalism in Japan seems to have coincided with the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate by Minamoto Yoritomo in 1192. Although vassalage and enfeoffment may have existed even before the twelfth century, only a small portion of Japanese society was organized around these practices by 1192. In Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) the legal government was still centered on the emperor. It operated through the traditional civil administration (greatly weakened) and an expanding system of semipublic domains (shōen). Independent of these administrative and fiscal relationships, there were numerous more informal hierarchies based upon clan ties and military allegiances. Military hierarchies tended to form around the local magnates. It was primarily through the development of hierarchies of such allegiances as they came to center upon the office of shogun, or military dictator (or on certain other high military posts), that feudal institutions crystallized.

Yoritomo’s importance to the development of feudalism in Japan lay in regularizing and extending the practice of pledges of military allegiance combined with protection of landholdings. Yoritomo’s authority to appoint shugo, or “constables,” and jito, or “stewards,” and to interfere in the shōen system was based on his assertion of supreme military command in a time of national crisis. Through such appointments and through the increase of legal powers, the feudal nexus in government and society steadily encroached upon the imperial-shoen complex, giving rise to a new type of institutional nexus.

At the apex of the state structure military authority gradually overshadowed civil authority, and during the thirteenth century the balance between civil and military power shifted steadily in the direction of the latter. Similarly, at the provincial level, military interests gained over civilian as the shugo increasingly took on the stature of military governors. Locally, the shugo were able to build up their economic support largely through the plural holding of jitō rights to numerous shōen. They used their superior status in the shogunal hierarchy to assert their influence among local bushi, or members of the military class. Before long the shugo had absorbed many civil administrative powers at the same time that they achieved personal leadership of province-wide military bands, which they organized increasingly on a lord-vassal basis. Below the shugo the step-by-step expansion of the jito’s land rights among the bushi also served to extend the feudal element in Japanese society.

As local bushi became ryōshu, or landed proprietors, they began to divide these lands among family members or retainers, extending the practice of combining grants of land with ties of military loyalty. The new military bonds forged between shugo and proprietary jitō or between jitō and vassal families became the basis of this ever-widening feudal system of social and political organization.

The warfare that embroiled most of Japan during the middle of the fourteenth century hastened feudal trends in all parts of the country. Under the Ashikaga shogunate (1338-1573) the imperial center lost all of its effective power. The shogunate, now located at the very seat of the imperial court in Kyoto, absorbed most of the powers and functions of the civil government, although even now the emperor continued to play a crucial role as the ritual symbol of sovereignty and the source of the shogun’s delegated authority.

In the provinces the key figures were the shugo, who by the end of the fourteenth century had developed into true regional overlords, having acquired the combined powers of the former civil and military governors. They held title, under the shogun, to territories the size of entire provinces, serving as the ultimate authority in both civil and military affairs.

By 1500, however, most of the jurisdictional territories of the shugo had been broken into fragments and a wave of new magnates of local origin had inherited the pieces. The shugo had disappeared and with them not only a generation of bushi leaders but also the last remnants of imperial law and civil land management based on the shōen.

The end of this relatively “pure” type of feudalism came in Japan with the more centralized Tokugawa regime (1603-1867). Although based on the feudal structures and to some extent perpetuating them, this regime, through its policy of centralization, in fact froze the feudal institutions, depriving them of vitality and autonomy.

Japanese feudalism differed from the European pattern in several important respects: (1) the continuous importance of the imperial center in spite of its loss of political function; (2) the weakness, perhaps even total absence, of contractual elements in the relations between lords and vassals; (3) the full, personal, familistic expression of these relations; and (4) the lack of any representative institutions. Nevertheless, like the European pattern, it is a major example of feudalism, since it clearly demonstrated a relatively high degree of convergence of feudal characteristics in the different institutional spheres.

Russia . In other societies the extent of such convergence was smaller. The regime of the feudal (patrimonial) principality in medieval Russia was accompanied by a certain immunity from political authority, conferred by private possession of land. The connection became firmly established because of the importance of military functions in local politics in pre-Muscovite central Russia and, later, its national importance in Muscovy. Whenever possession of land was hereditary, the authority connected with it was also hereditary. This was the normal pattern in pre-Muscovite times, and it again became general in the seventeenth century, the nonhereditary pomest’e(“benefice” or “military holding”) being merely a historical interlude, even if a rather long one. In pre-Muscovite Russia the essential sociopolitical relation was not between lord and vassal but between the votchinnik(“patrimonial lord”) and the population of his votchina(’landed possession” or “patrimony”), which came close to that of ruler and subject. There was no link between the prince’s service and possession of land, and although there was hereditary landholding, the prince’s service was not hereditary, and subjects were free to leave their principalities. Yet, even though the pomest’e was not hereditary, there was a connection between military function and possession of land. It was based not on a feudal contract involving mutual fealty between a suzerain and a vassal, but rather on the absolute sovereignty of the tsar, who, requiring service from any of his subjects, granted a pomest’e in return for such service (Szeftel 1956).

Three distinct types of sociopolitical structure are relevant to Russian feudalism: the votchina regime, the pomest’e regime, and Western feudalism.

The votchina regime was characterized by the growth of the manorial power of the lord of the estate over the population laboring on it or merely settled in its vicinity. Such power could be enforced by immunity privileges. The votchina estates were owned by political rulers (princes), by private persons, or by the church. Although it represented, to a certain extent, the social aspects of feudal tendencies the votchina system did not contain a counterpart to the political aspects. There was no formal political connection between the vassal’s service and the control of the land.

The pomest’e regime tended to make the control of the land depend on service rendered to the state by the landholder. There was no dispersion of political power in this regime as it grew up in the Muscovite state of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The power was concentrated in the person of the supreme ruler, the tsar.

In the standard type of feudalism (Western feudalism ) some characteristics of both the votchina and the pomest’e regimes are combined. However, for this type to develop, certain traits which were lacking in either or both of these regimes are essential. Like the votchina regime, the standard type of feudalism presupposes the expansion of the manor and the growth of the manorial rights of the lord. On the other hand, like the pomest’e regime, feudalism of the standard type is characterized by the conditionality of rights on the land. The control of the land by the lower-class landlord depends on the service he renders to the seignior.

The important point of difference between the pomest’e regime and feudalism of the standard type is that while in the former political power is concentrated in the hands of the supreme ruler, in the latter the political authority is usually dispersed. Thus, no lord-vassal relationship of the western European type could develop in pre-Muscovite Russia, no code of chivalry was based on it, and there could be no consistent heredity of functions.

The key to understanding the differences between the Russian and Western developments is the great migratory and resettlement movement in medieval central Russia. This mobility of the rural population was fundamentally caused by the rapid exhaustion of soil that was not too fertile to begin with and by extensive primitive agriculture. Although the movement produced some feudal traits in Russian life, it was also the source of instability in social relationships. In Russia the shifting local population did not provide the “free servant” with many bases to rely on, and there was no other protection for his liberty than the temporary character of his service and the right of free departure.

Byzantium . The constellation of feudal characteristics in the Byzantine Empire was rather different from that found in Russia, centering primarily on the system of the pronoia(“providence,” “foresight,” “care”). To give lands to a person in pronoia is to give lands into his care. In practice it meant that estates were given for administration to high officers of the state or army, to monasteries, and to private persons, as a reward for services.

The grants differed from simple donations in that the pronoia land was bound to the recipient, the pronoiarios; that he received it for a definite period only, usually for life; that he could not sell the pronoia estate; and that it was not hereditary.

The system developed under the eleventh-century Byzantine rulers who tried to reduce the power of the military class and to increase that of the civil bureaucracy by demilitarizing the administration. This policy clearly reflected the decay of the former organization of the military-peasant colonies (themes). The military commander (strategos), who usually served as governor of a province, was replaced by the praetor, who had been the supreme justice on the staff of the strategos. The practor, of course, was a civilian, and thus, the primacy of the military command in the themes gave way to the primacy of a civilian administration based upon the new aristocracy of scholars and civilians in the capital.

But the preponderance of the civilian aristocracy in the capital did not lead to a strengthening of the central power in the rural districts. Generals and great landowners outweighed the civilians. The emperors of the Ducas dynasty had already been compelled to give great privileges both to their civilian adherents and to their military or landowning adversaries; with the accession of Alexius Comnenus, 1081-1118, the military aristocracy took over the state. It was under the Ducas that the pronoia system was first developed and that Byzantium approached quasi feudalization. The new class of the pronoia owners became liable for military service, replacing the former class of peasant soldiers of the decaying system. The owner of a pronoia estate, when summoned, had to appear with a certain number of horsemen, according to the size of the pronoia.

Since within the pronoia the formerly free peasants became more or less serfs, they came under the jurisdiction of the pronoiarios, although this jurisdiction was restricted. The central government, thus, gave up many of its prerogatives including that of direct taxation, and the pronoiarios became small rulers, whose estates appeared as little kingdoms within the empire. The crown became more and more dependent on them, which contributed to the weakening of the central government and to the decline and disintegration of the empire (Ostrogorski 1940; Kantorowicz 1956).

In sum, Byzantine feudalism was characterized by the relative predominance of economically independent small estates combined with a growing political decentralization—without, however, the concomitant development of an over-all system of vassalage, a feudal-chivalrous military class, or special feudal political institutions.

Parallel cases. The Byzantine type of feudalism is found in many other societies, especially in periods of the decline of great empires—to some extent at the end of the Roman Empire, in the later Sassanid period in Iran, and in the aftermath of Asoka’s kingdom in India. In many cases institutions of this type of feudalism developed when officials abused their rights to collect taxes and turned their offices into hereditary fiefs. In other cases the political traits of feudalism (usually many politically self-sufficient patrimonial units having some interrelations and an orientation toward one budding center) were more highly developed than feudal economic characteristics. Such cases can be found in China under the Shang and, even more clearly, under the Chou; in ancient Mesopotamia under the Kassites, in Mittani, in the Iran of the Parthian regime, in the iqtâ’ institution of medieval Islam, and possibly in ancient Egypt.

In none of these cases, however, was there a fully developed system of vassal-lord relations or a full-fledged social organization of a military-political class. At most, only rudiments of each existed.

Emergence and demise of feudal systems

In spite of all the differences in their origins and features, the feudal systems of the various societies analyzed above—and many more could be included —manifest some common characteristics. Perhaps most important is that they played a major role in the development of “high” cultures or civilizations. Feudal systems can be found, even if in varying degrees, in almost all of the great civilizations of the past, where they were central in keeping and developing great traditions under circumstances often inimical to their maintenance.

The importance of this characteristic can best be seen by examining the varying conditions under which feudal institutions develop. One such set of conditions is the partial dismemberment of relatively comprehensive, widespread sociopolitical systems (Hintze 1929; Coulborn 1956). The reasons for such dismemberment may vary greatly: the clash of cultures, the invasions of nomads, or the development of internal contradictions that cause the imperial system to lose its effectiveness and its essential resources. However, the dismemberment is not by itself crucial to the development of feudalism; rather, it is the combination of the dismemberment and the persistence or development of the ideals of a “great empire” and of orientations toward broader societal frameworks among some of the elite groups (such as the church or the new military class) who gain control over the governmental and economic functions and the contradictions between the idea of an empire and the lack of material and administrative positions to administer one. In some cases, such as that of Chinese feudalism, these orientations were developed by active groups that were unable to establish any viable broader system but, nevertheless, developed some vision of such a system. [See EMPIRES.]

Within most feudal systems, ideological orientations to such broader frameworks were of great importance, even if they were only partially institutionalized. Any feudal system is, thus, always characterized by some inherent imbalances in its structure, as it contains more and less differentiated centripetal and centrifugal structures and orientations. However, the exact location of such institutional imbalances in any feudal system—whether in the economic, political, or cultural sphere— varies greatly.

The demise of the feudal system is predicated on changes in those conditions—technological, political, and economic—that increase the effectiveness of the wider frameworks and that may enable the restoration or the establishment of unitary frameworks and of central powers within them. In less differentiated societies this can give rise to a restoration of patrimonial or imperial systems. In more differentiated societies—as in western Europe and in Japan—the feudal background made the later transition to modernity easier and more stable, and in some cases, it might have facilitated —after a period of the “estate” system or of absolutism—the development of a relatively pluralistic system.




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FEUDALISM. Strictly speaking, feudalism refers to the medieval dependency/service relationship between lords and their vassals or to the political subordination and service of lesser lords to higher lords or princes. These medieval relationships faded in the early modern centuries as princes developed institutionally complex states and replaced unreliable feudal levies with mercenaries and, eventually, standing armies. Although the properties of lords and knights, called fiefs, often retained distinct laws that governed their transmission, feudalism in the strict sense survived only as a vestigial institution in the early modern centuries.

What most commentators and detractors called feudalism between 1500 and 1800 was technically lordship. Karl Marx and modern Marxist historians considered feudalism an oppressive economic system, a means of production. While feudalism in some settings assumed the appearances of an economic system, notably in the large noble and ecclesiastical estates of eastern Germany, Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary that were worked by serf labor, feudalism was actually a much broader institution. It was both a fiscal system for the support of the governing classes and a system of local governance. One of the oldest and most durable institutions in European history, feudalism emerged in the early medieval centuries, reproduced and reshaped itself century after century, and spread into newly colonized regions. Retaining many of its medieval features until its violent demise in the wake of major political revolutions, feudalism survived in France until the Revolution of 1789 and in much of central and eastern Europe until the Revolutions of 1848.


In the Middle Ages, feudalism/lordship was the institutional and territorial expression of the unlimited governing authority of lords: princes, high aristocrats, bishops, and abbots. Lords exercised governing authority by birthright or by office, and the inhabitants of the lords' domains were their subjects. Feudalism expressed itself in many institutions, which, like a fine net, covered the entire landmass of urban centers, rural villages, mountain ranges, rivers, and roads. Feudalism was a fiscal system that supported the governing class. Lords in turn assigned part of their fiscal assets to agents as remuneration for their administrative tasks and to knights for military service. The fiscal burdens of feudalism took any form deemed suitable by the lords: payments in cash, in kind, in labor services, or in military services. There were direct taxes on men and land as well as a variety of indirect taxes such as tolls on rivers or roads and taxes assessed in markets and fairs. Lords collected taxes when property changed hands, mortuary fees when old tenants died, and entrance fees when new tenants assumed possession of landholdings. There were fees for the obligatory use of feudal grain mills, grape and olive presses, and ovens.

Feudalism was also a system of local governance. All-purpose agents of the lords, such as mayors in the villages and towns, not only collected the lord's taxes but supervised the communal assembly and administered justice with the cooperation of the most notable residents. Above the mayors there were intermediate agents such as provosts, then higher officials often called bailiffs, and a corresponding hierarchy of fiscal, judicial, and administrative offices. At the apex stood the lord with his household and central administration. Although kings and princes such as dukes and counts normally had more extensive and complex lordships than bishops, abbots, barons or lesser lords, these lordships were all remarkably similar.


Feudalism was absolutely unassailable in law in the early modern centuries. Normally the king or prince himself was the principal lord and still derived significant revenues from his feudal holdings. Rent rolls, urban and village charters, the day-to-day administrative, fiscal, and judicial records of lords, as well as the publicly verifiable custom of the lordships were upheld in both the lowliest and the highest courts. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, judicial officials of kings and princes held public inquiries and assembled written compilations of provincial customary law in France and in the western parts of the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. In Prussia, the codifications appeared later in the eighteenth century. In England, manorial records served the same purpose.

By the beginning of the early modern era, about 1450 or 1500, feudalism already had a thousand years of history behind it in the core lands of the old Roman Empire and at least two or three hundred years in the most recently settled areas. At the end of the Middle Ages there were already distinct regional patterns of feudalism, which became more pronounced between 1500 and 1800. These regional variations affected feudalism mainly as a fiscal system, while feudalism as a system of local government survived almost everywhere in Europe. The feudal systems of Europe in their fiscal expressions fell into three broad zones that extended from west to east. These regional variations were the result of differences in economic development, population density, and political organization.

The first zone included England, the Netherlands, and the lower Rhineland area of Germany as well as France, Spain, and Italy. This first zone encompassed the most densely populated, the most economically developed, and the most politically advanced areas of Europe. The customary laws viewed the holdings under the feudal authority of lords as secure, usually perpetual, tenures. Consequently, those who actually possessed the land and used it had rights tantamount to property ownership. Lords could not dismiss their tenants and confiscate their property without due cause, such as the failure to pay annual dues for a number of years, and even then only with formal judicial procedures. Likewise, once established, the regular annual feudal taxes were normally viewed as immutable. Kings, princes, and central governments generally reserved for themselves the right to assess new taxes and to increase rates. In most of this part of Europe, serfdom had largely disappeared by 1500. The most common burdens of medieval serfdom had been restrictions on transfer of tenures except in the direct line of succession (mortmain), prohibition of marriage outside the lordship, mandatory residence, and unregulated taxes and labor services. Although remnants of these practices survived here and there, they were largely governed by the provisions of customary law.

Powerful economic forces that emanated from expanding urban centers and international trade produced significant changes in property ownership and land use in this zone in the early modern era, but these changes occurred slowly at a pace measured in generations and even centuries. Nobles, well-to-do urban residents, state officials, and even prosperous peasants bought perpetual tenures near cities, in rural villages, even in remote areas with easy access to commercial routes. From piecemeal purchases of land that often stretched over generations, they assembled large farms and vineyards that produced for the expanding markets. The physical appearance of the landscape changed as consolidated capitalist farms partially replaced peasant villages. Economically, the newly created or expanded farms of the better-off classes were market-oriented, capitalist enterprises worked by tenant farmers or sharecroppers on short-term leases.

Although the new owners of former peasant lands sometimes cleared their lands of the old feudal taxes by paying for their abolition, more often than not they simply stacked short-term market leases over the perpetual tenures. The network of feudal fiscal rights assigned to landed property were so deeply imbedded in law, especially when they belonged to ecclesiastical lords, charitable organizations, or towns, that the old feudal burdens survived but took on an increasingly archaic appearance. In heavily urbanized northern Italy, the partial elimination of the perpetual tenures and the more widespread stacking of short-term renewable leases over preexisting tenures were already very advanced by 1500. Elsewhere, the changes occurred mainly between 1500 and 1750 or 1800. Roughly half the land held by peasant perpetual tenants in 1500 passed into the hands of nonpeasants by the 1780s. In England this process was called enclosure. Enclosure began in the late Middle Ages and peaked in the eighteenth century. Normally, English enclosure brought with it the elimination of the feudal fiscal rights. In the areas of England unaffected by enclosure, feudal tenures, called copyholds, survived until 1922.

The second zone encompassed the most anciently settled core lands of the Holy Roman Empire, those areas that had been settled prior to the thirteenth century, with the notable exception of the lower Rhineland (Cologne, Mainz, the Rhenish Palatinate, etc.), which belonged to the first zone. This zone included Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Alsace, Hesse, Brunswick, Saxony, Thuringia, and Franconia. The determining factor here was the modesty or mediocrity of any force, whether demographic, economic, or political, that could have produced significant change. Although there was a dense network of rural villages, the cities and towns were very small and quite undynamic between 1500 and 1800. Most of Germany lay well outside the major trade routes in Europe. Politically the area was fragmented into hundreds of small states.

Feudal estates here consisted of clusters of peasant villages or scattered peasant holdings subject to an array of feudal taxes. Lords rarely had directly held farms of notable size in 1500 or in 1800. The forces that partially transformed the landscape in the first zone were too weak to produce similar results here. Upper-class investors such as nobles, ecclesiastical institutions, and burghers lent money to peasant tenants and piled new rents on old feudal taxes. They even bought up feudal tenures, often by foreclosing on bad peasant debts. But they did not disturb peasant farming. Although much of the land in many peasant villages near the larger towns technically belonged to burghers who were legally the tenants, the investors almost always immediately retroceded the foreclosed lands to the existing peasant farmers. Capitalist, freestanding farms worked by tenant farmers on short-term leases were very uncommon. In the absence of strong market forces, the short-term leases or life leases that multiplied in the rebuilding of this part of Germany after the Thirty Years' War faded into perpetual arrangements by the eighteenth century. Lords were content to retain peasants to farm their tenures and pay feudal taxes generation after generation.

The third zone extended eastward along the Baltic from Denmark and Holstein through the German states of Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, and the two Pomeranias to Prussia and then south through Poland, Silesia, Bohemia, and Hungary, ending with Austria and the other possessions of the Habsburgs in the southeastern Alps. This entire zone was very lightly populated and both economically and politically underdeveloped. Central governments of kings and princes were weak, while nobles were comparatively strong and independent. Plagues and ruinous wars repeatedly devastated the fragile network of settlement in this zone between 1300 and 1700. Although the feudal practices here were the same as those in use everywhere in Europe, the whiplash effects of cyclical devastation did not allow feudalism to develop much beyond the stages characteristic of parts of western Europe in the Carolingian era of 750 to 950.

Lords in this third zone, whether princes, ecclesiastical institutions, barons, or knights, had an abundance of land but could find little peasant labor. They made heroic efforts century after century to colonize their lands, but no sooner had settlement begun to produce its first fruits than some fresh calamity undermined it. Out of necessity, lords relied primarily on their own directly held lands to support themselves. Such farms expanded between 1500 and 1800, not principally through consciously planned depopulating enclosure, but because abandoned peasant tenures and entire villages fell back into the hands of the lords. The most heavily damaged regions in the era of the Thirty Year's War, for example, lost on average half their population.

To work their directly held lands, lords in this zone hired landless day laborers as permanent staff and as temporary wage labor, and they relied on feudal labor services assessed on peasant farmers and cottagers. Normally, lords did not simply impose arbitrary labor services on their existing subjects, but rather offered lands to new colonists with labor services as a condition of tenure. With each new wave of devastation, feudal labor services became more important. To retain labor, lords also multiplied restrictions on the personal movement and land transfers of their subjects. The result was a new form of serfdom, born of insurmountable poverty and underpopulation. It was only after 1750 that the positive pull of markets for grain and livestock had much of an impact on these eastern European forms of feudalism.


Everywhere in Europe, lords retained wide rights of local jurisdiction and local governance. Although the polemical literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries painted a very unflattering portrait of the feudal courts, in fact they performed indispensable services as lower courts of first instance with jurisdiction over civil and criminal affairs. They survived because the states had neither the political need to abolish them nor the revenues to replace them. From at least the sixteenth century in the more advanced states and from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries elsewhere, the men who staffed the feudal courts were legally trained professionals who received an annual salary. The feudal courts were incorporated into the judicial hierarchy of the state with rights of appeal in western Europe by 1500 or shortly thereafter, but in Austria, Bohemia, and Brandenburg-Prussia this did not occur until the middle of the eighteenth century. Feudalism also survived as a system of local governance. Feudal officials retained their traditional supervisory role in the administration of the smaller towns and the rural villages, while royal or princely officials usually controlled the important cities.


Opposition to the feudal system grew steadily from the middle of the eighteenth century. Peasants had always hated both the system and the tithe, the obligatory feudal tax for the support of the church. While most nobles everywhere understandably defended feudalism, members of the non-noble elite were of two minds. On the one hand, anyone who aspired to assimilation into the nobility routinely purchased feudal rights and estates since they were the socially indispensable prestige properties of the aristocracy. On the other hand, the non-noble elites were increasingly aware that the feudal system and the legal nobility were hopelessly antiquated institutions. Opposition to feudalism among the non-noble elites was based on the overall transformation of society, not on the economic burden of feudalism per se. Consequently, opposition was much more vocal in France and Italy than in Prussia, Austria, or Bohemia.

Enlightened reformers began to eliminate feudalism here and there from the middle of the eighteenth century. The task was monumentally difficult. Rulers such as Frederick II of Prussia could abolish personal serfdom or improve conditions of tenure on their own domain lands, but not on the lands of other lords. Lords had legitimate property rights that could not simply be dismissed without compensation. The reforms began timidly with the removal of restrictions on personal freedom that were degrading but that produced little revenue for the lords. In 1778 Louis XVI of France abolished all forms of serfdom on directly held royal estates and the right of pursuit of serfs for the entire realm. From the 1770s, enlightened rulers in Denmark, Piedmont-Sardinia, and Austria promoted the liquidation of feudal fiscal rights with elaborate and costly schemes to make redemption payments to lords that were financially beyond the means of most peasants. Political revolutions eventually swept aside the remnants of the feudal system.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Estates and Country Houses ; Landholding ; Property ; Serfdom in East Central Europe .


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feudalism (fyōō´dəlĬzəm), form of political and social organization typical of Western Europe from the dissolution of Charlemagne's empire to the rise of the absolute monarchies. The term feudalism is derived from the Latin feodum, for "fief," and ultimately from a Germanic word meaning "cow," generalized to denote valuable movable property. Although analogous social systems have appeared in other civilizations, the feudalism of Europe in the Middle Ages remains the common model of feudal society.

Characteristics of European Feudalism

The evolution of highly diverse forms, customs, and institutions makes it almost impossible to accurately depict feudalism as a whole, but certain components of the system may be regarded as characteristic: strict division into social classes, i.e., nobility, clergy, peasantry, and, in the later Middle Ages, burgesses; private jurisdiction based on local custom; and the landholding system dependent upon the fief or fee. Feudalism was based on contracts made among nobles, and although it was intricately connected with the manorial system, it must be considered as distinct from it. Although some men held their land in alod, without obligation to any person, they were exceptions to the rule in the Middle Ages.

In an ideal feudal society (a legal fiction, most nearly realized in the Crusaders' Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem), the ownership of all land was vested in the king. Beneath him was a hierarchy of nobles, the most important nobles holding land directly from the king, and the lesser from them, down to the seigneur who held a single manor. The political economy of the system was local and agricultural, and at its base was the manorial system. Under the manorial system the peasants, laborers, or serfs, held the land they worked from the seigneur, who granted them use of the land and his protection in return for personal services (especially on the demesne, the land he retained for his own use) and for dues (especially payment in kind).

The Fief

The feudal method of holding land was by fief; the grantor of the fief was the suzerain, or overlord, and the recipient was the vassal. The fief was formally acquired following the ceremony of homage, in which the vassal, kneeling before the overlord, put his hands in those of the lord and declared himself his man, and the overlord bound himself by kissing the vassal and raising him to his feet. The vassal then swore an oath of fealty, vowing to be faithful to the overlord and to perform the acts and services due him. This formal procedure served to cement the personal relationship between lord and vassal; after the ceremony the lord invested the vassal with the fief, usually by giving him some symbol of the transferred land. Honors or rights, as well as land, could be granted as fiefs. Gradually the system of subinfeudation evolved, by which the vassal might in his turn become an overlord, granting part of his fief to one who then became vassal to him. Thus very complex relationships, based on fiefs, developed among the nobles, and the personal ties between overlords and vassals were weakened. Originally the fief had to be renewed on the death of either party. With the advent of hereditary succession and primogeniture, renewal of the fief by the heir of the deceased became customary, and little by little the fief became hereditary.

Military Service

The feudal system rested on the unsettled conditions of the times and thus on the need of the lord for armed warriors and the need of the vassal for protection. The nobility was essentially a military class, with the knight as the typical warrior. Since equipping mounted fighters was expensive, the lord could not create his armed force without the obligation of the vassal to supply a stipulated number of armed men, a number that varied from the service of the vassal himself to the service of hundreds in private armies. The gradations of nobility were, therefore, based on both military service and landholding. At the bottom of the social scale was the squire, originally the servant of the knight. Above the knight were classes that varied in different countries—counts, dukes, earls, barons, and other nobles. The vassal owed, in addition to military service, other dues and services that varied with local custom and tended to become fixed. The obligation of the overlord in the feudal contract was always the protection of the vassal.

History of Feudalism in Europe


The feudal system first appears in definite form in the Frankish lands in the 9th and 10th cent. A long dispute between scholars as to whether its institutional basis was Roman or Germanic remains somewhat inconclusive; it can safely be said that feudalism emerged from the condition of society arising from the disintegration of Roman institutions and the further disruption of Germanic inroads and settlements. Of course, the rise of feudalism in areas formerly dominated by Roman institutions meant the breakdown of central government; but in regions untouched by Roman customs the feudal system was a further step toward organization and centralization.

The system used and altered institutions then in existence. Important in an economic sense was the Roman villa, with the peculiar form of rental, the precarium, a temporary grant of land that the grantor could revoke at any time. Increasingly, the poor landholder transferred his land to a protector and received it back as a precarium, thus giving rise to the manorial system. It was also possible for the manorial system to develop from the Germanic village, as in England.

The development of fiefs was also influenced by the Roman institution of patricinium and the German institution of mundium, by which the powerful surrounded themselves with men who rendered them service, especially military service, in exchange for protection. More and more, this service-and-protection contract came to involve the granting of a beneficium, the use of land, which tended to become hereditary. Local royal officers and great landholders increased their power and forced the king to grant them rights of private justice and immunity from royal interference. By these processes feudalism became fixed in Frankish lands by the end of the 10th cent.

The church also had great influence in shaping feudalism; although the organization of the church was not feudal in character, its hierarchy somewhat paralleled the feudal hierarchy. The church owned much land, held by monasteries, by church dignitaries, and by the churches themselves. Most of this land, given by nobles as a bequest or gift, carried feudal obligations; thus clerical land, like lay land, assumed a feudal aspect, and the clergy became participants in the temporal feudal system. Many bishops and abbots were much like lay seigneurs. This feudal connection between church and state gave rise to the controversy over lay investiture.


Feudalism spread from France to Spain, Italy, and later Germany and Eastern Europe. In England the Frankish form was imposed by William I (William the Conqueror) after 1066, although most of the elements of feudalism were already present. It was extended eastward into Slavic lands to the marches (frontier provinces), which were continually battered by new invasions, and it was adopted partially in Scandinavian countries. The important features of feudalism were similar throughout, but there existed definite national differences. Feudalism continued in all parts of Europe until the end of the 14th cent.


The concentration of power in the hands of a few was always a great disruptive force in the feudal system. The rise of powerful monarchs in France, Spain, and England broke down the local organization. Another disruptive force was the increase of communication, which broke down the isolated manor, assisted the rise of towns, and facilitated the emergence of the burgess class. This process was greatly accelerated in the 14th cent. and did much to destroy the feudal classifications of society.

The system broke down gradually. It was not completely destroyed in France until the French Revolution (1789), and it persisted in Germany until 1848 and in Russia until 1917. Many relics of feudalism still persist, and its influence remains on the institutions of Western Europe.

Other Feudal Systems

Other ages and other lands have seen the development of feudal institutions. In Japan the feudal system was well ordered before the 10th cent., and it persisted with modifications until the 19th cent. (see bushido; daimyo). In other areas, as in China, where feudal practices were in existence by 1100 BC, society became feudalistic but not precisely feudal. Feudalism in India and in the Saracen and Ottoman civilizations was in many ways analogous to Western feudalism, but it proved less durable than its European counterpart. The existence of feudalism in several civilizations has given rise to theories of feudalism as a necessary and inevitable stage of political development. Some scholars, however, consider the European feudal system a unique phenomenon.


See F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, The History of English Law (2d ed. 1898, repr. 1968); R. W. Carlyle and A. J. Carlyle, A History of Medieval Political Theory in the West (6 vol., 1903–36; repr. 1962); H. Pirenne, Medieval Cities (tr. 1925, repr. 1969); J. W. Thompson, Feudal Germany (1927; repr., 2 vol., 1962); C. Stephenson, Mediaeval Feudalism (1942, repr. 1956); A. L. Poole, Obligations of Society in the XII and XIII Centuries (1946, repr. 1960); R. Coulborn, ed., Feudalism in History (1956, repr. 1965); F. L. Ganshof, Feudalism (3d Eng. ed. 1964); D. Herlihy, ed., The History of Feudalism (1970); J. R. Strayer, Feudalism (1979).

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A series of contractual relationships between the upper classes, designed to maintain control over land.

Feudalism flourished between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in western Europe. At its core, it was an agreement between a lord and a vassal. A person became a vassal by pledging political allegiance and providing military, political, and financial service to a lord. A lord possessed complete sovereignty over land, or acted in the service of another sovereign, usually a king. If a lord acted in the service of a king, the lord was considered a vassal of the king.

As part of the feudal agreement, the lord promised to protect the vassal and provided the vassal with a plot of land. This land could be passed on to the vassal's heirs, giving the vassal tenure over the land. The vassal was also vested with the power to lease the land to others for profit, a practice known as subinfeudation. The entire agreement was called a fief, and a lord's collection of fiefs was called a fiefdom.

The feudal bond was thus a combination of two key elements: fealty, or an oath of allegiance and pledge of service to the lord, and homage, or an acknowledgment by the lord of the vassal's tenure. The arrangement was not forced on the vassal; it was profitable for the vassal and made on mutual consent, and it fostered the allegiance necessary for royal control of distant lands.

The bond between a lord and a vassal was made in a ceremony that served to solemnize the fief. The vassal knelt before the lord and placed his hands between those of the lord as a sign of subordination. Immediately afterward, the lord raised the vassal to his feet and kissed him on the mouth to symbolize their social equality. The vassal then recited a predetermined oath of fealty, and the lord conveyed a plot of land to the vassal.

In the seventeenth century, more than three centuries after the death of this particular social practice, English scholars began to use the term feudalism to describe it. The word was derived by English scholars from foedum, the Latin form of fief. The meaning of feudalism has expanded since the seventeenth century, and it now commonly describes servitude and hierarchical oppression. However, feudalism is best understood as an initial stage in a social progression leading to private ownership of land and the creation of different estates, or interests in land.

Before feudalism, the European population consisted only of wealthy nobility and poor peasants. Little incentive existed for personal loyalty to sovereign rulers. Land was owned outright by nobility, and those who held land for lords held it purely at the lords' will. Nevertheless, the feudal framework was preceded by similar systems, so its exact origin is disputed by scholars. Ancient Romans, and Germanic tribes in the eighth century, gave land to warriors, but unlike land grants under feudalism, these were not hereditary.

In the early ninth century, control of Europe was largely under the rule of one man, Emperor Charlemagne (771–814). After Charlemagne's death, his descendants warred over land ownership, and Europe fell apart into thousands of seigniories, or kingdoms run by a sovereign lord. Men in the military service of lords began to press for support in the late ninth century, especially in France. Lords acquiesced, realizing the importance of a faithful military.

Military men, or knights, began to receive land, along with peasants for farmwork. Eventually, knights demanded that their estates be hereditary. Other persons in the professional service of royalty also began to demand and receive hereditary fiefs, and thus began the reign of feudalism.

In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England from France and spread the feudal framework across the land. The feudal relationship between lord and vassal became the linchpin of English society. To become a vassal was no disgrace. Vassals held an overall status superior to that of peasants and were considered equal to lords in social status. They took leadership positions in their locality and also served as advisers for lords in feudal courts.

The price of a vassal's power was allegiance to the lord, or fealty. Fealty carried with it an obligation of service, the most common form being knight service. A vassal under knight service was obliged to defend the fief from invasion and fight for a specified number of days in an offensive war. In wartime, knight service also called for guard duty at the lord's castle for a specified period of time. In lieu of military service, some vassals were given socage, or tenure in exchange for the performance of a variety of duties. These duties were usually agricultural, but they could take on other forms, such as personal attendance to the lord. Other vassals were given scutage, in which the vassal agreed to pay money in lieu of military service. Priests received still other forms of tenure in exchange for their religious services.

A lord also enjoyed incidental benefits and rights in connection with a fief. For example, when a vassal died, the lord was entitled to a large sum of money from the vassal's heirs. If the heir was a minor, the lord could sell or give away custody of the land and enjoy its profits until the heir came of age. A lord also had the right to reject the marriage of an heiress to a fief if he did not want the husband as his vassal. This kind of family involvement by the lord made the feudal relationship intimate and complex.

The relationship between a lord and a vassal depended on mutual respect. If the vassal refused to perform services or somehow impaired the lord's interests, the lord could file suit against the vassal in feudal court to deprive him of his fief. At the same time, the lord was expected to treat the vassal with dignity, and to refrain from making unjust demands on the vassal. If the lord abused the vassal, the vassal could break faith with the lord and offer his services to another lord, preferably one who could protect the vassal against the wrath of the defied lord.

Predictably, the relationship between lord and vassal became a struggle for a reduction in the services required by the fief. Lords, as vassals of the king, joined their own vassals in revolt against the high cost of the feudal arrangement. In England, this struggle culminated in the magna charta, a constitutional document sealed by King John (1199–1216) in 1215 that signaled the beginning of the end for feudalism. The Magna Charta, forced on King John by his lords, contained 38 chapters outlining demands for liberty from the Crown, including limitations on the rights of the Crown over land.

Other circumstances also contributed to the decline of feudalism. As time passed, the power of organized religion increased, and religious leaders pressed for freedom from their service to lords and kings. At the same time, the development of an economic wealth apart from land led to the rise of a bourgeoisie, or middle class. The middle class established independent cities in Europe, which funded their military with taxes, not land-based feudal bonds. Royal sovereigns and cities began to establish parliamentary governments that made laws to replace the various rules attached to the feudal bond, and feudal courts lost jurisdiction to royal or municipal courts. By the fourteenth century, the peculiar arrangement known as feudalism was obsolete.

Feudalism is often confused with manorialism, but the two should be kept separate. Manorialism was another system of land use practiced in medieval Europe. Under it, peasants worked and lived on a lord's land, called a manor. The peasants could not inherit the land, and the lord owed them nothing beyond protection and maintenance.

Feudalism should also be distinguished from the general brutality and oppression of medieval Europe. The popular understanding of feudalism often equates the bloody conquests of the medieval period (500–1500) with feudalism because feudalism was a predominant social framework for much of the period. However, feudalism was a relatively civil arrangement in an especially vicious time and place in history. The relationship of a vassal to a lord was servile, but it was also based on mutual respect, and feudalism stands as the first systematic, voluntary sale of inheritable land.

The remains of feudalism can be found in contemporary law regarding land. For example, a rental agreement is made between a landlord and a tenant, whose business relationship echoes that of a lord and a vassal. State property taxes on landowners resemble the services required of a vassal, and like the old feudal lords, state governments may take possession of land when a landowner dies with no will or heirs.

further readings

Amt, Emilie, ed. 2000. Medieval England 1000–1500: A Reader. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press.

Boureau, Alain. Lydia G. Cochrane, trans. 1998. The Lord's First Night: The Myth of the Droit de Cuissage. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Chen, Jim, and Edward S. Adams. 1997. "Feudalism Unmodified: Discourses on Farms and Firms." Drake Law Review 45 (March): 361–433.

Dunbabin, Jean. 2000. France in the Making: 843–1180. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Ganshof, F.L. 1996. Feudalism. Toronto, Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto Press in Association with the Medieval Academy of America.

Hoyt, Robert S., and Stanley Chodorow. 1976. Europe in the Middle Ages. 3d ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich.

Lazarus, Richard J. 1992. "Debunking Environmental Feudalism: Promoting the Individual through the Collective Pursuit of Environmental Quality." Iowa Law Review 77.


English Law.

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The term feudalism is used to describe a variety of social, economic, and political obligations and relationships that were prevalent in medieval Europe, especially from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, though the feudal system existed before and well after that period in several cases. For instance, serfdom was not abolished officially in czarist Russia until 1861. Feudalism also has been used to describe ancient or former social and political systems in Japan, China, India, the Middle East, and North Africa. The term is controversial and has been said to be overapplied or misapplied by historians and social scientists.

Feudalism was never a single monolithic system practiced by all societies in Europe. There was a great deal of variation across societies in the practice and rites of the feudal order in nations such as France, the German states, England, Spain, and Russia. Although feudalism in Japan, India, China, and Africa had a few common elements, those systems differed significantly from the European varieties. Nonetheless, the term feudalism has been applied most regularly and commonly to many medieval European systems of social, economic, and political organization.


Feudalism emerged as a form of social, economic, and political organization after the fall of the Roman Empire between 300 and 500 CE and especially after the death of the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne in 814. The origins of feudalism are numerous and debated but tend to be identified as an intermixture of Germanic and Roman law as well as Catholic doctrine. However, its origins were as practical as they were legal or philosophical. Repeated invasions and attacks from the north and east had made the lands of the former Roman and Holy Roman empires insecure. New patterns of governance and security were required to protect crops, animals, and persons.

The feudal system was one of hierarchy in which nobles, who were sovereign over the most valuable commodity of that timelandruled over peasants (serfs) who were tied permanently to the land. The system was social in that it distinguished between classes: nobility and peasantry; economic in that it divided the major means of productionland for agricultureamong the elite nobility; and political in that it created a hierarchical power structure than ran from kings and other high nobles down to middle and lower nobles and finally to peasants, who had limited or no social, economic, and political power.


The feudal system was based on what later would be called a contract, or constitution, encompassing the obligations and allegiances that bound king to lord. The feudal contract consisted of homagium and investitures, in which a tenant offered his fealty and a commitment of support by paying homage to a lord and the lord would grant the tenant an investiture, or title over the land, for a specific tenure in return for payments. Thus, it was a mutual relationship: The lord extended his protective services to his new vassal and his lands, and the tenant agreed to pay dues of wealth, food, arms, and military service to the lord.

The lowest rung on the feudal ladder was occupied by the peasantry. Before the tenth and eleventh centuries most farmers held tenancy of their own land through contracts with regional lords or nobles. However, as invasion and attack became more significant and the costs of security increased, lords began making higher demands of their tenants. This forced more tenants into direct servitude as serfs: peasants tied to the land and in service to the lord for an extended and perhaps permanent period. Although slavery generally had disappeared from medieval Europe, the economy was dominated by labor-intensive agricultural production, and peasants were needed to perform those tasks.


The feudal system expanded and became the dominant form of social, economic, and political organization in Europe because of both its success in providing security and stability and its promotion by the Catholic Church. The feudal order received strong support in the church and among the clergy, who saw its social and political hierarchy as a desirable form of governance and its economic organization as one of potential profit. The sovereignty and legitimacy of kings and nobles were tied closely to the Catholic Church, which thus was able to prosper by supporting and expanding the feudal order in Europe. The ascendancy of the church to great wealth and power coincided with the expansion of feudalism.

Feudalism began to decline in parts of western Europe by the fourteenth century as a result of pressure from a number of interrelated events. The Renaissance (starting in the late fourteenth century), the Reformation (beginning in 1517), and the Industrial Revolution (beginning in the mid-1700s) led to significant philosophical, social, economic, and political transformation across western Europe. The Reformation and the Thirty Years War (16181648) challenged and upended the Catholic Churchs monopoly of spiritual and political authority, and the Industrial Revolution made the feudal agricultural order an anachronism. City-states and other feudal arrangements no longer were capable of providing social, economic, and political order and security in a more individualist and industrialized western Europe. The emergence of the modern state system based on nationality and the conceptions of popular and state sovereignty replaced that of the feudal state. The French Revolution of 1789 often is cited as supplying the death blow to the remnants of the ancient feudal regime. Although feudalism all but disappeared from western Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, it survived in eastern Europe and Russia, which were affected far less by the progressive influences of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution.

Feudalism has remained a topic of debate and study in the social sciences. In his early works, Karl Marx (Marx and Engels 2006) argued that feudalism, as a mode of production, was a necessary condition of societies on their way to capitalism and eventually communism. Some elements of feudal thought can be found in modern Catholic political doctrine and the principles of Christian democracy in many European societies and political parties. In addition, the feudal order has had long-standing social implications for class division, hierarchy, and identity in many European societies to the present day.

Beyond Europe, feudalism has been widely used to describe systems of elite-peasant socioeconomic and political arrangements in China, India, Japan, and especially Latin America. In the latter, latifundia relationships between landlords and peasants established during Spanish colonization survived the independence of the Latin American states. While resembling the European model imported from Spain, the feudalism of Latin America was also characterized by racial divisions between the white Spanish elite and the Indian or mixed-race peasantry, as well as imported African slaves. This, as well as other differences, have led to these systems being described as semi-feudal or proto-feudal. In conclusion, while feudalism has primarily been used in the European context, there have been numerous comparable systems in Latin America, East Asia, South Asia, and elsewhere, where the concept of feudalism may be applicable.

SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; French Revolution; Hierarchy; Landlords; Latifundia; Marx, Karl; Mode of Production; Monarchy; Peasantry; Roman Catholic Church; Sovereignty; Stratification


Laclau, Ernesto. 1977. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: New Left Books.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2006. The Communist Manifesto, ed. Garth Stedman Jones. New York: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1848.)

Stephenson, Carl. 1942. Mediaeval Feudalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Vinogradoff, Paul. 1924. Feudalism. In Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 3. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Wiarda, Howard J. 1995. Latin American Politics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Paul S. Adams

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feudalism Some historians have argued that feudalism is a technical term that can only be applied to Western European institutions of the Middle Ages. Others (including most sociologists) have conceptualized the phenomenon in a more abstract way, as a general method of political organization, and one which can therefore be identified in other times and places (such as Tokugawa Japan).

The term originated in seventeenth-century England as a way of talking about a mode of landholding that was then rapidly disappearing. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was widely taken up by legal scholars and in this way entered the vocabularies of the founders of sociology. Although the founders typically used the term to refer to the type of society from whence capitalism had emerged in Western Europe, none of them explicitly formulated a fully developed concept of feudalism. However, as will become apparent below, highly influential embryos of such a concept may be derived without much difficulty from the historical writings of both Karl Marx and Max Weber.

There have been and there remain disputes about how the concept of feudalism should be formulated. All of the specifically sociological conceptualizations are nomothetic (generalizing) in character. The best-known ideographic (individualizing) formulation is that arrived at by the French historian Marc Bloch in his Feudal Society (1961). Bloch's account deserves some attention, not only because it has been highly influential in itself, but also because the contrast between it and the various sociological alternatives illustrates some of the central disputes about concept formation in the social sciences.

Bloch's methodological premiss is that each society is unique and has to be understood in its own terms. (He only grudgingly admits, mentioning Japan specifically, that something like feudalism may have existed outside of the West European context.) His work is also profoundly empiricist and humanist in Louis Althusser's senses of these terms. The consequences of these premisses are apparent in his formulation of the core relation of feudalism–vassalage. In the course of a highly detailed study of France during the Middle Ages, he defines vassalage as ‘the warrior ideal’, or a contract of mutual benefit freely entered into ‘by two living men confronting each other’. From this relationship all the other characteristics of feudal societies follow: hereditary succession; enfeoffment (the granting of land by lords to their vassals); the fragmentation of authority; and the existence of a confinable and taxable but otherwise self-disciplining peasantry. What inevitably (but regrettably in Bloch's view) followed from the institutionalization of vassalage, was the tarnishing of ‘the purity of the (original) obligation’, and the gradual dissolution of the way of life constructed around it.

Almost by definition, no properly sociological approach to social phenomena is likely to start from the assumption that each society must be considered separately and as wholly unique, and this certainly has proved to be the case in the literature relating to feudalism in Western Europe (if not in Japan). On the contrary, the sine qua non of most macro-sociological explanation is the assumption of comparability, and what differentiates explanations from one another is whether they depend upon comparisons that were made before or after the formulation of the concepts upon which they rest; that is, whether they depend upon empiricist or realist modes of formulation, respectively.

Where the mode of formulation is empiricist, as in the case of the contributors to the collection edited by Joseph Strayer and Rushton Coulborn (Feudalism in History, 1956), a large number of cases of possible feudalisms are compared and any shared characteristics are then formed into a generalization. Interestingly, in this case the generalization is to all intents and purposes the same as that produced by Bloch, minus the romanticism and, by the same token, any means of grasping the internal dynamics of the system.

Because it is not a straightforward empirical generalization Weber's ideal type of feudalism does not share this weakness. Although it is nowhere explicitly formulated, this ideal-type may be extracted relatively easily from the discussions of feudal social relations to be found in Weber's Economy and Society (1922) and General Economic History (1923). In Weberian terms, feudalism represented an instance of the routinization of charisma, in the context of a traditional mode of domination. Thus, power was organized in a patrimonial manner, underpinned by a system of enfeoffment, and rested upon a system of exploitation whereby serfs (unfree peasants) were forced, in exchange for the right to work land, to pay varying and often multiple forms of rent (in labour, cash, or kind) to their lords. According to Weber it was the last of these, the struggles over rent, that gave the system its internal dynamic.

There is some textual evidence to suggest that Weber derived his concept of feudal rent from that constructed by Marx on the basis of the latter's realist mode of concept formation. Certainly, there are striking similarities between the two concepts, as well as in the reasoning used in their support. Most importantly, both theorists explain why exploitation took the form of rents extracted on the basis of the lords' superior might by arguing that the lords had no alternative, given their exclusion from the process of production. However, in their book Precapitalist Modes of Production (1975), Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst argue that Marx would have, or at least should have, revised this argument, in the light of the advances he made in refining his general concept of mode of production in Capital. They support this stance by arguing that feudal lords did in fact play an important role in the production process. On this basis, then, Hindess and Hirst argue that the importance ascribed by Marx and others to political coercion as the critical component of feudalism should be rejected, as a sign of conceptual underdevelopment, and replaced by a specification of the economic relations which allowed the lords to extract surplus product from the serfs.

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feudalism. An abstract term derived from the adjective ‘feudal’, and commonly used to highlight those features believed to be characteristic of western European society during the Middle Ages. The word was coined in the 19th cent. and is analogous to the earlier French term feodalité. It is based on the Latin noun feudum (or feodum) which is now usually translated as ‘fief’ and understood to mean property held by a tenant in return for service. This notion of feudal tenure was used by 16th-cent. French legal historians as a key to understanding the origins and development of aristocratic rights and powers in France in the centuries after the fall of Rome. In the 17th cent. Sir Henry Spelman argued that it was imported into England by the Normans. Hence Maitland's crack that it was Spelman who introduced the feudal system into England. In the 18th cent. historically minded intellectuals such as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and David Hume believed that societies went through a ‘feudal’ stage—an idea subsequently taken over by Marxist historians who have, however, emphasized the labour services owed by peasants to manorial lords rather than the military or governmental service owed by high-status tenants, which was central to the older tradition. Particularly influential was Montesquieu's hypothesis that when aristocratic fiefs became hereditary in France (which he dated to the 9th cent.), royal government collapsed and ‘feudal anarchy’ resulted.

Most British historians have remained within the old tradition of thought, partly because if all that is required for a society to be labelled ‘feudal’ is that tenants of any kind owe service in return for their lands, the term is thought to embrace too wide a range of social structures to be useful, and partly because the whole notion of feudalism originating in France and spreading out from there has become thoroughly entrenched. The view that the Normans brought ‘feudalism’ to England, and that during the next two centuries French and English invaders and settlers took it to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland remains widely held—and also widely disputed. Since it is clear that, throughout the British Isles, rulers before 1066 expected political and military service from their landed élites, those historians who believe that William the Conqueror feudalized England have had to define feudalism in terms of precisely those features which they believe he introduced: castles, the ‘feudal quota’ (that is, the obligation of the king's tenants to provide a quota of knights to serve, usually without pay, for 40 days), and the ‘feudal incidents’ (that is, the king's right to exploit the deaths, marriages, and wardships of his tenants both for profit and as an instrument of political control).

One problem with feudalism is that the ‘facts’ on which it is said to be based—e.g. that fiefs became hereditary in 9th-cent. France, or that William I introduced ‘feudal incidents’ and the quota—are themselves highly contentious. So many different definitions of feudalism have been offered—or, worse, simply assumed—that a degree of confusion has been the inevitable result. The adjective ‘feudal’ is commonly used to denote almost any social system regarded as being oppressive or backward. In these circumstances it is not surprising that some American and British medieval historians believe that both word and concept are past their sell-by date and should be abolished. French historians, more at ease with abstractions than their Anglo-Saxon colleagues, continue to use the term freely and much as Montesquieu did, though now with—thanks to the work of Georges Duby—a new orthodoxy dating the breakdown of public power and hence the ‘feudal revolution’ to c. ad 1000.

John Gillingham

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"feudalism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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According to the nearly unanimous consensus of Western scholars, preSoviet Russian scholars, and most Soviet scholars until the midto late1930s, feudalism never appeared in Russia. By the end of the 1930s, however, it became the entrenched dogma in the Soviet Union that Russia had experienced a feudal period. PostSoviet Russian historians have been unable to rid themselves of this erroneous interpretation of their own history, in spite of Western arguments to the contrary that have been advanced since 1991.

The fundamental issue is whether the term "feudalism" has any meaning other than "agrarian regime," that is, that most of the population lives in the countryside and makes its living from farming and that most of the gross domestic product is derived from agriculture. If that is all it means, then Russia was feudal until after World War II. Most definitions of feudalism, however, involve other criteria as well, which, as defined by George Vernadsky and others, typically encompass: (1) a fusion of public and private law; (2) a dismemberment of political authority and a parcellization of sovereignty; (3) an interdependence of political and economic administration; (4) the predominance of a natural, i.e., nonmarket, economy; (5) the presence of serfdom. Presumably all of these criteria, not just one or two, should be present for there to be feudalism in a locality.

The first historian to posit the existence of feudalism in Russia was Nikolai PavlovSilvansky (1869-1908), who based his theory primarily on the political fragmentation of Russia from the collapse of the Kievan Russian state in 1132 to the consolidation of Russia by Moscow by the early sixteenth century. The basic problem with that thesis is that there was no serfdom until the 1450s. Moreover, there were no fiefs. In 1912 Lenin defined feudalism as "land ownership and the privileges of lords over serfs." Mikhail Pokrovsky (1868-1932) worked out a "Soviet Marxist" understanding of Russian feudalism and traced its origin and major cause (large landownership) to the thirteenth century. "Feudalism" was necessary to legitimize the October Revolution and Soviet power. According to Marx, human history went through the stages of (1) primordial/primitive communism;(2) slaveowning; (3) feudalism; (4) capitalism; (5) imperialism; (6) socialism; (7) communism. The fact that Russia in reality never experienced "stages" two through five made it difficult to claim that the October Revolution was historically inevitable and therefore legitimate. Inventing "stages" three through five was therefore politically necessary.

A major problem for the Soviets was that Russia never knew a slaveowning stage (as in Greece and Rome). This "problem" was worked out in the early 1930s by a Menshevik historian, M. M. Tsvibak (who was liquidated a few years later in the Great Purges), with the claim that Russia had bypassed the slaveowning period entirely, that feudalism arose about the same time as the Kievan Russian state during the ninth century, or even earlier. Boris Grekov, the "dean" of Soviet historians between 1930 and 1953 (he allegedly had no use for Stalin), earlier had alleged that Russia had passed through a slaveowning stage, but he took the Tsvibak position in the later 1930s, and that remained the official dogma to the end of the Soviet regime. As a result, nearly all of Russian and Ukrainian history was deemed feudal and succeeded by "capitalism" with the freeing of the serfs from seignorial control in 1861.

See also: marxism; peasantry; slavery


Hellie, Richard. (1971). Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vernadsky, George. (1939). "Feudalism in Russia." Speculum 14:302-323.

Richard Hellie

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"Feudalism." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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FEUDALISM. The origins of European feudalism are in eighth-century France, where estates were granted in exchange for military service. In England, feudalism evolved into the manorial system, in which a bound peasantry was subject to the rule of landlords. English feudalism was a system of rights and duties binding an upper class (nobility) in loyalty and responsibility to a king or lord in exchange for land (fiefs) worked by peasant labor (serfs). In exchange for their labor, peasants received the protection and rule of the landowner. This system benefited the nobility, as they essentially held public power privately, and the monarchy, to whom the nobles were bound in both civil and military capacities. The peasant class functioned as a slave labor force. Under feudalism, public authority, privilege, and power were tied to land ownership as much as lineage, and service to the state was rendered not out of duty to a throne or flag but out of individual relationships between the noble and the ruling lord.

In colonial America, feudalism began as an extension of the English manorial system. In addition to the Puritans and the Protestants, who came from England to the New World seeking religious freedom, some early colonists came to expand their estates by establishing feudal domains. While the Puritans and the Protestants established colonies in New England, the Anglicans established the proprietary colonies of Maryland, the Carolinas, and Delaware, and the Dutch brought similar systems to New Amsterdam (later New York) and New Jersey. Similar systems came to the Americas in the seigneurial system of New France (Canada) and the encomienda system of the Spanish colonies of Latin America.

The Dutch established a system of patroonship, closely resembling traditional feudalism, in which large tracts of land were granted by Holland's government to anyone bringing fifty or more settlers to the area. The settlers then became tenants subject to the landlord's rule. The system did not thrive, however, and eventually the English took over the Dutch colonies.

Proprietary colonies originally resembled the European feudal system only in part. New settlers were a mix of self-sufficient farmers who did not own their land and wealthy planters who brought serfs with them. These settlers brought feudalistic customs that strongly influenced the society, culture, and economy developing in the southern colonies, which, in true feudal style, were organized around a mercantile economy while the northern colonies slowly industrialized. Feudalism depends on plentiful free labor, and the southern colonies quickly began to rely on slavery. Despite the apparent conflict with America's emerging democracy, feudal elements such as local rule, a class system dictated by social customs, and an economy based on forced labor survived in the South well after the American Revolution (1775–1783). Slavery continued to be a linchpin of the U.S. economy until the Fourteenth Amendment ended the institution after the Civil War (1861–1865). Slavery was then replaced with sharecropping, a system in which former slaves and other poor farmers, though theoretically free, were still bound to landowners.


Bloch, Marc. Feudal Society: Social Classes and Political Organization. Translated by L. A. Manyon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Orren, Karen. Belated Feudalism: Labor, the Law, and Liberal Development in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.


See alsoPlantation System of the South ; Proprietary Colonies ; Slavery ; andvol. 9:The Theory of the Leisure Class .

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feudal system

feudal system Social system that prevailed in most of Europe from the 9th century to the late Middle Ages, based on the tenure of land. The system originated from the need to provide for a permanent group of knights to assist the king in his wars. All land was theoretically owned by the monarch and leased out to tenants-in-chief in return for their attendance at court and military assistance; and they, in turn, let out fiefs to knights in return for military service and other obligations. The Church too was sometimes required to render military service for its land. Feudalism collapsed in 16th-century England, but persisted into the 18th century in other parts of Europe.

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"feudal system." World Encyclopedia. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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feu·dal·ism / ˈfyoōdlˌizəm/ • n. historical the dominant social system in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord's land and give him homage, labor, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection. DERIVATIVES: feu·dal·ist n. feu·dal·is·tic adj.

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"feudalism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 18 Dec. 2017 <>.

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

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