Feudalism, European

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In everyday speech, f eudal can mean "aristocratic" (in contrast to democratic), "sumptuous," "reactionary," "hierarchic" (as opposed to egalitarian), "primitive," "medieval," or simply "despotic" or "oppressive" when speaking about political, social, or economic regimes. Since the nineteenth century it has been used this way, most often as a term of opprobrium, in English, German, and the Romance languages. Feudalism in the sense of either a period or a regime dominated by lords or domination by people who possess financial or social power and prestige is a relatively late arrival. It first appeared in French in 1823, Italian in 1827, English in 1839, and in German only in the second half of the nineteenth century. What it refers to, however, had already appeared as la féodalité in the Comte de Boulainvilliers's Histoire des anciens Parlements de France (1737; published in English as An Historical Account of the Antient Parliaments of France or States-General of the Kingdom, 1739). The expression, derived from seventeenth-century legal treatises, was translated as "feodal [ sic ] government" in the English version and popularized as both "feudal government" and "the feudal system" in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776).

As a term of art used by historians, the adjective feudal and the noun feudalism may mean many things, most of them variants on one or more of three basic conceptions. First, they meant the legal rules, rights, and obligations that governed the holding of fiefs (feuda in medieval Latin), especially in the Middle Ages. This was the only meaning of feudal in any language before the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this definition was extended to encompass the nature of government at the time when fiefs were a prominent form of landholding, in particular one in which those who held fiefs exercised powers of jurisdiction and constraint either by their own customary right or by grant or usurpation from the king or emperor. In this definition such grants and usurpations are often referred to as "the privatization of public powers." Second, they meant a social economy in which landed lords dominated a subject peasantry from whom they demanded rents, labor services, and various other dues and over whom they exercised justice. This was essentially the meaning given to the term by Adam Smith and later adopted by Karl Marx. Third, they meant a form of sociopolitical organization dominated by a military class or Estate, members of which were connected to each other by ties of lordship and honorable subordination ("vassalage") and in turn dominated a subject peasantry. Lordship gave protection and defense; vassalage required service, especially service in arms. This personal relationship inseparably involved a tenurial relationship as well, the vassal holding land of his lord. Feudal domination therefore took shape within an economy where the primary source of wealth was land and its products. It was supported by a complex of religious ideas promoted by a hierarchical church that was integrated into the structure of lordship.

These three conceptions are clearly related. Modern historians may insist that one or another or some combination is the "true" or "correct" definition or may discuss one while recognizing that alternative definitions exist. German historians in the later nineteenth century invented separate terms for these different concepts: Lehnwesen for the first; Feudalismus for the second and third. British and American historians may refer to the first as feudalism and the second as manorialism, while the third may be called feudal society.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the English legal historian F. W. Maitland argued that "feudalism is an unfortunate word" that had been given an "impossible task" (Pollock and Maitland, vol. 1, pp. 6667). And since the 1960s a number of historians, particularly in the United States and in England, have argued that the confusion caused by these different meanings is reason enough to ban the term from professional use. A more complex objection to the use of the term in any of its meanings has come from the difficulty historians have in reconciling the historical assumptions that lie behind all conceptions of feudalism with what they find in their detailed research into medieval social, political, and economic relationships. There has also been a shift in the academic discipline providing the tools to study medieval society. Almost all nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century students of the subject came to it from training in the lawRoman law on the Continent and the common law in England; their accounts were shaped by legal categories. In the second half of the twentieth century, especially in the United States, anthropology increasingly influenced the conceptual framework of medievalists and therefore the way in which they read the sources. In this light, they found many legal-institutional concepts wanting, among them the concept feudalism.

History of the Concept

All the definitions of feudalism were born in the ideological conflicts of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and the revolutionary politics that swept out of France across Europe in the nineteenth century. They have been shaped by the ideologies of economic liberalism, political egalitarianism, democracy, and socialism, particularly the Marxist variety. They have also been shaped by nineteenth-century philosophies of history that were created in the same ideological environment. Since the eighteenth century the invidious meanings of feudal in popular polemical usage and the attempts by historians to give the term a technical, professional meaning have never been far apart.

The eighteenth century.

On 11 August 1789, the French revolutionary National Assembly abolished the "feudal regime" (régime féodal ). A jurist who was asked to explain to an assembly committee what exactly the act had abolished replied that it included not only rights belonging to or derived from fiefs properly speaking but all lordly rights, including rights to peasants' labor (corvées ), crop sharing (champart ), rents, monopolies (banalités ), and all rights of justice "for rights of justice follow the fief and there is no fief without rights of justice."

In abolishing these lordly rights, especially those of justice, the assembly took the final logical step in a program that royal jurists had been promoting since the late sixteenth centuryto establish that all rights of justice and command belonged to the state (res publica ), were embodied in the king, and were exercised by royal commission or grant. If that were so, then all claims on the wealth or work of others, if they were not freely contracted, were likewise public powers held of the king. Once "the people," represented in the assembly, came to embody the state, they could reclaim what had once been alienated.

During the eighteenth century the two components of the "feudal regime," lordly rights over dependent tenants and lordly rights to positions of authority, had been defended by appeals to history. This is hardly surprising, for landlords pressed for funds were increasingly hiring specialists, called "feudists," to examine their ancient muniments and discover dues and rights long forgotten. Two diametrically opposed versions of the historical record emerged. One, represented notably by L'abbé Dubos in his Histoire critique de l'établissement de la monarchie françoise dans les Gaules (1734; Critical history of the establishment of the French monarchy in Gaul), argued that the original Frankish kings were appointed by the Roman emperors and themselves appointed the nobility to its positions and commissioned nobles to exercise their powers. Against Dubos, Boulainvilliers and, especially, Montesquieu, in his L'esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of laws), argued, on the contrary, that the Frankish kings and nobility with their followers had come as conquerors. The nobility, whose eminence was recognized by both grants of fiefs and participation in the assemblies that these authors believed were the precursors of the Estates, had from the beginning exercised justice over their subordinates. As they constructed their historical narratives, Boulainvilliers and Montesquieu stopped at many of the way stations that would continue to be the standard monuments of the history of feudalism in twentieth-century textbooks: the Germanic war bands described by Tacitus, the early Frankish antrustiones (royal followers), Carolingian oaths of fidelity, the capitulary of Quierzy, which made noble offices hereditary, and many others.

By 1789 the debate over the historical origin of noble rights had also been transformed by a dramatic change in the concept of liberty. For Boulainvilliers and Montesquieu, liberty meant the rights that distinguished one person or group from others, the meaning it had had since the Middle Ages. Liberty for them was what the modern world calls "privilege." It was in this sense that Charles Forman declared his translation of Boulainvilliers into English to be "for the instruction of British lovers of liberty." For the revolutionaries of 1789, in contrast, féodalité was the antithesis of liberté, which could be realized only by equality before the law. The only distinctions the law could legitimately recognize were differences in property, excluding all those rights of exaction and justice that aristocrats had claimed as their property. Property was the realm of "private" activity; justice, taxation, and all powers of command were "public."

When combined with the earlier historical narratives, this revolutionary redefinition of liberty bequeathed two fundamental themes to all nineteenth-and twentieth-century historical accounts of "feudalism." First, feudalism involved the devolution of "public" power into "private" hands, a process that happened when the ruler granted such powers to his or her followers, or when the followers usurped them, or when the state, embodied in royal power, broke up. The historical problem became to discover exactly when and how this devolution occurred and how the "feudal state" was held together. Second, in the feudal regime all rents and obligations that were not freely contracted, whether in money, in kind, or in labor services, were the product of the political, social, and military domination of the strong over the weak, of lords over peasants. Again the historical problem was to discover how and when this developed.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It was in nineteenth-century Germany that these two themes diverged, each eventually becoming the domain of an academic discipline as well as a polemical model. After the Napoleonic wars, aristocratic privileges and princely governments were partially restored in the lands of the old Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, national unity was more than ever the fervent desire of many intellectuals. Legal and constitutional historians in the developing universities sought to reconcile the twothe status quo and the desire for unityby making "feudal government," Lehnwesen, the fundamental character of the old Germanic state. By defining Lehnwesen in a narrow technical sense as the law of fiefs (and inventing a new name for it) and at the same time universalizing it into a constitutional form, they sought to cleanse the idea of feudalism of its embarrassing polemical connotations inherited from the French Revolution. The narratives they developed were essentially variations on Montesquieu's, although they also debated whether the original German nations were unitary states of ruler and subjects (Waitz, vol. 6, pp. 357367), or already "feudalized," as earlier historians had claimed, and if they were unitary, how and why the system of fiefs developed with its fragmentation of state power. They resolved the old debate between the "Romanist" origin of noble powers and the "Germanic" by making the "institutional" side of feudalism Roman and the "personal," Germanic.

Whatever the differences among historians, all were convinced that the "feudal state" was an organized hierarchy of fiefs and powers, from the king down to the most minor lord. The "feudal pyramid" was born. Thus they gave the German princes historical legitimacy while still asserting the existence of a "-German constitution." William Stubbs adopted this German definition in his three-volume Constitutional History of England (18741878), asserting that William the Conqueror brought feudalism "full blown" from France. It has remained the "technical" meaning of feudalism in British historiography ever since.

Meanwhile, philosophers of history and political polemicists, most notably Karl Marx, sought to place feudalism among the stages in the historical development of human society. For Marx, the critical questions to ask in defining each stage were: Who owns the means of production? And what are the class relations to those means of production? In the stage of feudalism, landlords are the owners, and they use political and military force to extract surpluses from their peasant subjects. This conception of feudalism was the required view in the Soviet world. Since World War II it has also had a large following among western European historians. Non-Marxist or semi-Marxist "stage narratives" of the origins of feudalism have also proliferated, combining the story of the subjection of the peasantry to political and military force with various aspects of the other "technical" feudal narrative (Poly and Bournazel; Bisson).

Problems with all conceptions of feudalism have come from the discovery that before the thirteenth century fiefs had an insignificant place in aristocratic landholding; that, other than in England, peasants owed few if any labor services and in some places owned some of their land and held the rest by rental contracts; that the conception of serfdom varied widely from place to place and changed radically over time; that the relations among landholding, lordship, and fidelity likewise varied widely in space and time. Historians have questioned whether and in what ways one can speak of law and legal institutions in Europe before the revival of Roman law in the twelfth century. They have also questioned whether one can speak in any meaningful way of an early medieval state. This and much else has led some historians to argue that the concept no longer has a place in historical discourse.

See also Bushido ; Economics ; History, Economic ; Honor ; Marxism ; Monarchy .


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Bloch, Marc Léopold Benjamin. Feudal Society. Translated by L. A. Manyon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

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Cheyette, Fredric L. "Some Reflections on Violence, Reconciliation, and the Feudal Revolution." In Conflict in Medieval Europe: Changing Perspectives on Society and Culture, edited by Warren C. Brown and Piotr Górecki. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington Vt.: Ashgate, 2003.

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Pollock, Frederick, and Frederic William Maitland. The History of English Law before the Time of Edward I. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1905.

Poly, Jean-Pierre, and Éric Bournazel. La mutation féodale, XeXIIe siècles. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1980.

Reynolds, Susan. Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Stubbs, William. Constitutional History of England. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 18741878.

Waitz, Georg. Deutsche Staats-Wörterbuch. Vol. 6. Edited by Johann Caspar Bluntschli and Karl Brater. Stuttgart, Germany: Expedition des Staats-Wörterbuchs, 1861.

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Fredric L. Cheyette

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