Feudalism comes from the Late Latin word feudum, itself borrowed from a Germanic root fehu, a commonly used term in the Middle Ages which means fief, or land held under certain obligations by feodati. Even though the word origin is from the Middle Ages, the concept of feudalism was not invented until the 17th century, in the modern era. Because feudalism is a modern concept, to understand what feudalism is, it is helpful to understand the history of the term since its invention, the key definitions of feudalism used by various historians, and recent modern interpretations and revolts.
Many definitions of the term exist. In order to understand what feudalism is, a working definition is desirable. The definition described in this article is based on a narrowly-defined legal relationship: feudalism is a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility of Europe during the Middle Ages revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A broader social popular definition of feudalism which includes the peasantry bonds of Manorialism is described in Feudal society.
What is feudalism?
Three elements existed and characterize the period: lords, vassals and fiefs. Feudalism is defined by how these three elements fit together.
A lord was a noble who owned land. A vassal was given land by the lord. The land was known as a fief. In exchange for the fief, the vassal would provide military service to the lord. The obligations and relations between lord, vassal and fief form the basis of feudalism.
Lords, vassals and fiefs
Before a lord will grant land, or fief, to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony comprised of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. In homage, the vassal would promise to fight for the lord at his command. Oath of fealty comes from the Latin fidelitas, or faithfulness, which means that the vassal will remain faithful to the lord. Once the commendation was complete, the lord and vassal were now in a feudal relationship with agreed-upon mutual obligations to one another.
The lord foremost was obligated to grant a fief or its revenues to the vassal; the fief is the primary reason the vassal chose to enter into the relationship. In addition, the lord sometimes had to fulfill other obligations to the vassal and fief. One of those obligations was its maintenance. Since the lord had not given the land away, only loaned it, it was still the lord’s responsibility to maintain the land, while the vassal had the right to collect revenues generated from it. Another obligation that the lord had to fulfill was to protect the land and the vassal from harm.
The vassal, in turn, had two obligations to the lord. First and most importantly, he had to provide “aid”, or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer to calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was, in fact, the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. The vassal also had to provide the lord with “counsel”. If the lord faced a major decision, such as whether or not to go to war, he would summon all his vassals and hold a council.
The land-holding relationships of feudalism revolved around the fief. Depending on the power of the granting lord, grants could range in size from a small farm to a much larger area of land. The size of fiefs was described in irregular terms quite different from modern area terms; see medieval land terms. The lord-vassal relationship was not restricted to members of the laity; bishops and abbots, for example, were also capable of acting as lords.
Examples of feudalism are helpful to understand fully feudalism and feudal society. Feudalism was practiced in many different ways, depending on location and time period, and thus a high-level encompassing conceptual definition does not always provide a reader with the intimate understanding that historical examples can show.
History of the term “feudalism”
In order to better understand what the term feudalism means, it is helpful to see how it was defined and how it has been used since its 17th Century creation.
Invention of feudalism
The word feudalism was not a medieval term. It was invented by French and English lawyers in the 17th century to describe certain traditional obligations between members of the warrior aristocracy. The term first reached a popular and wide audience in Montesquieu’s De L’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws) in 1748. Since then it has been redefined and used by many different people in different ways.
“Feudalism” in history
The term feudalism has been used by different political philosophers and thinkers throughout history.
- Enlightenment thinkers on feudalismStarting in the late 18th Century during the French revolution, radicals wrote about feudalism to tar the antiquated system of the ancien regime, or French monarchy. This was the age of Enlightenment when reason was king and the radicals were appealing to the negative image of the Dark Ages. Enlightenment authors generally mocked and ridiculed anything from the “Dark Ages” including Feudalism, projecting its negative characteristics on the current French monarchy as a means of political gain.
- Karl Marx on feudalismLike the French revolutionaries, Karl Marx also used the term feudalism for political ends. In the 19th Century Karl Marx described feudalism as the economic situation coming before the inevitable rise of capitalism. For Marx, what defined feudalism was the military elite accumulating the surplus wealth of those under them by exploitation through military dominance. This was the definition of feudalism to Marx, a purely economic model.
Historians on feudalism
The term feudalism is, among medieval historians, one of the most widely debated concepts. There exist many definitions of feudalism and indeed some have revolted against it, saying the term does not exist at all.
- Origins of English feudalism are debated
In the late 19th and early 20th Century historians John Horace Round and Frederic William Maitland, who focused on medieval Britain, arrived at different conclusions as to the character of English society prior to the start of Norman rule in 1066, the former arguing for a Norman import of feudalism and the latter contending that the fundamentals were already in place in Britain – a debate which continues to this day.
- Ganshof and classic view of feudalism
A historian whose concept of feudalism remains highly influential in the 20th Century is Francois-Louis Ganshof, who belongs to a pre-Second World War generation. He defines feudalism on very narrow legal and military perspective, arguing that feudal relationships existed only within the medieval nobility itself. Ganshof articulted this concept in Francois-Lois Ganshof, Feudalism (Trans. Philip Grierson; New York: Harper & Row, 1964). It is Ganshof’s classic definition of feudalism that is the most widely known today and also the easiest to understand. Simply, when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.
- Marc Bloch and sociological view of feudalism
One of Ganshof’s contemporaries, a French historian by the name of Marc Bloch, is arguably the most influential medieval historian of the 20th Century. He approached feudalism not so much from a legal and military point of view but from a sociological one. He developed his ideas in his book Feudal Society (Trans. L.A. Manyon; 2 volumes; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961; ISBN 0226059790). Marc Bloch did not conceive of feudalism as being limited soley to nobility, but as a type of society. Like Ganshof, he recognized that there was a hierarchal relationship between lords and vassals, but saw as well a similar relationship obtaining between lords and peasants. This radical notion that peasants are part of the feudal relationship sets Bloch apart from his peers. While the vassal performed military service in exchange for the fief, the peasant performed physical labour in return for protection. Both are a form of feudal relationship. According to Bloch, other elements of society can be seen in feudal terms; all the aspects of life were centered on “lordship,” and so we can speak usefully of a feudal church structure, a feudal courtly (and anti-courtly) literature, a feudal economy. See Feudal society.
More recently there has been a revolt by some historians regarding the use of the term feudalism, with some arguing that the term should not be used at all.
Revolt against the term feudalism
In 1974, U.S. historian Elizabeth A.R. Brown, in “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe” (American Historical Review 79), challenged the value of using the word at all, rejecting the label as an anachronistic construct which imparted a false sense of uniformity to the concept. She noted that with so many different, contradictory feudalism definitions circulating that, in the absence of any accepted definition, feudalism is a construct with no basis in medieval reality, an invention of modern historians read back “tyrannically” into the historical record. Supporters of Brown have gone so far as to suggest that the term should be expunged from history textbooks and lectures on medieval history entirely. In Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted, Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown’s original thesis. Although some of her contemporaries questioned Reynolds’ methodology, her thesis has received support from certain historians. Who would support the removal of the term feudalism? Those historians who have been traditionally disadvantaged in the profession – such as women historians and historians not from the elite institutions – who gain advantage by shaking up the status quo have been some of the most vocal supporters of Brown and Reynolds in rejecting the term feudalism. The historians and institutions that benefit the most from the status quo, the more conservative elements of the historical profession, are generally more interested in keeping the traditional term feudalism, such as defined by Francois-Lois Ganshof and Marc Bloch.
Origins of feudalism
Vassalage agreements similar to what would later develop into legalized medieval feudalism originated from the blending of ancient Roman and Germanic traditions. The Romans had a custom of patronage whereby a stronger patron would provide protection to a weaker client in exchange for gifts, political support and prestige. Germans had a custom of equality among warriors, an elected leader who kept the majority of the wealth (land) and who distributed it to members of the group in return for loyalty.
Decline of feudalism
Feudalism had begun as a contract, the exchange of land tenure for military service. Over time, as lords could no longer provide new lands to their vassals, nor enforce their right to reassign lands which had become ‘de facto’ hereditary property, feudalism became less tenable as a working relationship. By the 13th c. Europe’s economy was involved in a transformation from a mostly agrarian system to one that was increasingly money-based and mixed. Land ownership was still an important source of income, and still defined social status, but even wealthy nobles wanted more liquid assets, whether for luxury goods or to provide for wars. A noble vassal was expected to deal with most local issues and could not always expect help from a distant king. The nobles were independent and often unwilling to cooperate for a greater cause (military service). By the end of the Middle Ages, the kings sought a way to become independent of willful nobles, especially for military support. The kings first hired mercenaries and later created standing national armies.
Historian J. J. Bagley noted that the 14th Century marked the end of the true feudal age and began paving the way for strong monarchies, nation states, and national wars of the 16th Century. Much 14th Century feudalism had become artificial and self-conscious. Already men were finding it a little curious. It was acquiring an antiquarian interest and losing its usefulness. It was ceasing to belong to the real world of practical living.
Did feudalism exist?
The following are historic examples that call into question the traditional use of the term feudalism.
Extant sources reveal that the early Carolingians had vassals, as did other leading men in the kingdom. This relationship did become more and more standardized over the next two centuries, but there were differences in function and practice in different locations. For example, in the German kingdoms that replaced the kingdom of Eastern Francia, as well as in some Slavic kingdoms, the feudal relationship was arguably more closely tied to the rise of serfdom, a system that tied peasants to the land (for more on this see the works of Leonard Blum on the history of serfdom).
Moreover, the evolution of the Holy Roman Empire greatly affected the history of the feudal relationship in central Europe. If one follows long-accepted feudalism models, one might believe that there was a clear hierarchy from Emperor to lesser rulers, be they kings, dukes, princes, or margraves. These models are patently untrue: the Holy Roman Emperor was elected by a group of seven magnates, three of whom were princes of the church, who in theory could not swear allegiance to any secular lord.
The French kingdoms also seem to provide clear proof that the models are accurate, until we take into consideration the fact that, when Hrolf or Rollo the Gangler kneeled to pay homage to Charles the Simple in return for the Duchy of Normandy, accounts tell us that he knocked the king on his rump as he rose, demonstrating his view that the bond was only as strong as the lord — in this case, not strong at all.
The autonomy with which the Normans ruled their duchy supports the view that, despite any legal “feudal” relationship, the Normans did as they pleased. In the case of their own leadership, however, the Normans utilized the feudal relationship to bind their followers to them. It was the influence of the Norman invaders which strengthened and to some extent institutionalized the feudal relationship in England after the Norman Conquest.
Since we do not use the medieval term vassalage how are we to use the term feudalism? Though it is sometimes used indiscriminately to encompass all reciprocal obligations of support and loyalty in the place of unconditional tenure of position, jurisdiction or land, the term is restricted by most historians to the exchange of specifically voluntary and personal undertakings, to the exclusion of involuntary obligations attached to tenure of “unfree” land: the latter are considered to be rather an aspect of Manorialism, an element of Feudal society but not of feudalism proper.
Cautions on use of term Feudalism
“Feudalism” and related terms should be approached and used with considerable caution owing to the range of meanings associated with the term. It is important to remember that no medieval society ever described itself or its institutions and relationships as “feudal”. Though used in popular parlance to represent all voluntary or customary bonds in medieval society, or a social order in which civil and military power is exercised under private contractual arrangements, the term is best considered appropriate only to the voluntary, personal undertakings binding lords and free men to protection in return for support which characterised the administrative and military order.
Extrapolations of the meaning of feudalism
One example of this exists in the People’s Republic of China. The official view of history there being based on Marxism, attempts to fit Chinese in Marxist historical periods and hence defines Chinese history from the Zhou Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty as part of the feudal period. In order to do this, new concepts had to be invented such as bureaucratic feudalism which most Western historians would consider a contradiction in terms.
As a result of this Marxist definition, feudal, as used in a Chinese context is very commonly used as a pejorative term meaning old and unscientific, and this usage is also common among both academic and popular writers from Mainland China, even those who are anti-Marxist. The use of the term feudal to describe a period in Chinese history was common among Western historians of China of the 1950s and 1960s, but became increasingly uncommon after the 1970s, and the prevailing consensus among Western historians is that using the term feudal to describe Chinese history confuses more than it clarifies as it assumes strong commonalities between Chinese and European history that may not exist.