Definition . The term feudalism refers to an economic, political, and social system that prevailed in Europe from about the ninth century to the fifteenth century. With the chronic absence of effective centralized government during the Middle Ages, kings and local rulers granted land and provided protection to lesser nobles known as vassals. In return, these vassals swore oaths of loyalty and military service to their lords. Peasants known as serfs were bound to the land and were subject to the will of their lords.
European Medieval Feudalism . European medieval feudalism has become the foremost example of an interrelationship between a social class system and an economy. Having been influenced, however, by previous cultures and their economies, especially those that combined agricultural and exchange bases, the medieval economic environment cannot be understood through exclusive examination of the feudal system. The backdrop of Greek and Roman civilization and the fundamental need for survival formed the foundation for a far more heterogeneous medieval economic culture, useful for sustenance and for social organization. To these two ends, traders, artisans, peasants, churchmen, and the nobility created an economy that enveloped Europe’s contemporary medieval population. It was comprised of many different elements: trade alliances; exchange methods, both interest bearing and interest free; a manorial system combined with a monetarized vassalage (nobles avoiding military service by paying their overlords); professional guilds; agriculturally self-sufficient monasteries; urban communes; and tax-based kingdoms, some of which were transformed into representational fiscal monarchies. The composite European medieval economy, derived from these many diverse elements, departed radically from economies of earlier Western cultures.
General Characteristics . No one social class system or economic form was realized for Europe over the course of the whole Middle Ages. A postmedieval new economy, often identified as capitalism, was merely in formation and would not be considered all-enveloping for centuries to come. Undeniably, one element of the medieval world was the traditional economy of land and military service, leading to a feudal-based social-class system; the other was an urban society where merchants and artisans undertook trade and commerce in an economy based on money, or capital. For the urban environment, merchants, artisans, and customers formed the core of the society because towns served as centers for the individuals who lived and worked there. They saw manufacture as the most important endeavor, to provide goods for sale and purchase in the local mercantile economy. Furthermore, local manufacture was to have an impact in other areas, such as regional fairs, port cities, and eventually long-distance trade destinations.
Urban Economy . During the Middle Ages, the economy did not become fully urban. As medieval towns grew into cities and frequently dominated the abutting countryside, the agricultural economy kept itself at an independent distance, was rarely stimulated by market supply and demand, and remained relatively ignorant of means of economic progress. The late medieval nobility complained that changes in the workforce had violated its source of livelihood, virtual free labor assumed since the beginnings of the feudal economy, and set forth in many feudal codes of law which had fixed the purpose of the peasantry. The rural economy continued nonetheless to be the safer source of sustenance for many people, who saw in its connection to the soil the chance for the family to survive in good and bad years. The fact that the vast majority of the medieval population was rural overpowered some towns’ premature bid for communal independence, and the urban environment was vulnerable to the vagaries of agricultural provisioning. In the later fourteenth century the peasantry was recast as a
political force but remained fundamentally an economic tool as it had been for the whole of the Middle Ages.
Christian Church . During the same period as feudalism and urban growth, the Christian Church was expanding and exploring new forms of social and economic expression. Established in Rome in the first century of the Christian era, the Christian faith had arrived in Europe during the Roman Empire and was spread throughout Western Europe during the first millennium, as missionaries traveled to and beyond the present-day British Isles, Germany, France, and Spain. Medieval clergymen wrote many works, among them some in which they discussed two sets of economic and social ideals, occasionally offering guidance as to how to achieve them. The ascetic approach was for men and women planning to be monks and nuns, but it was also for young women, widows, and the devoted. The more worldly approach was for men and women leading integrated, secular lives.
Modern Study . In 1776 Adam Smith took the idea for the viability of a nation and wrote “an elementary treatise on that very extensive and difficult science,” political economy, presenting his ideas in the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations to explain how “those [obstacles to the progress of national prosperity] which arose from the disorders of the feudal ages, tended directly to disturb the internal arrangements of society.” Part of his pioneering work, such as that devoted to “what the circumstances are, which, in modern Europe, have contributed ... to encourage the industry of towns, at the expence of that of the country,” has received less attention in more-recent times. Nevertheless, his work is still considered so significant as to have defined the beginnings of the science of economics. To this perspective have since been added, however, studies focused specifically on the economy of the Middle Ages: trade, commercial production and services, economic structure, and social organizations. Though older and less well documented than the eighteenth century of Smith, the Middle Ages offers equal opportunity for comprehensive, innovative, and perhaps unanticipated analyses of its economy and social class system.
Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Paul Halsall, ed., Internet Medieval Source Book, <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html>.
John Hicks, A Theory of Economic History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).
M. M. Postan, E. E. Rich, and Edward Miller, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
George Unwin, Studies in Economic History (London: Macmillan, 1927).