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Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste, c.14th.c.(?)
Roland pledges his fealty to Charlemagne; from a manuscript of a chanson de geste, c.14th.c.(?)
Feudalism was a set of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries, which, broadly defined, was a system for structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.

Although derived from the Latin word feodum or feudum (fief),[1] then in use, the term feudalism and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the medieval period. In its classic definition, by Fran ois-Louis Ganshof (1944),[2] feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs.[2]

There is also a broader definition, as described by Marc Bloch (1939), that includes not only warrior nobility but the peasantry bonds of manorialism, sometimes referred to as a "feudal society". Since 1974 with the publication of Elizabeth A. R. Brown's The Tyranny of a Construct, and Susan Reynolds' Fiefs and Vassals (1994), there has been ongoing inconclusive discussion among medieval historians as to whether feudalism is a useful construct for understanding medieval society.[3][4][5][6][7]



There is no broadly accepted modern definition of feudalism.[3][6] The adjective feudal was coined in the 17th century, and the noun feudalism was not coined until the 19th century, often used in a political and propaganda context.[3] By the mid-20th century, Fran ois Louis Ganshof's Feudalism, 3rd ed. (1964; originally published in French, 1947), became a standard scholarly definition of feudalism.[2][3] Since at least the 1960s, concurrent with when Marc Bloch's Feudal Society (1939) was first translated into English in 1961, many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect, adding the peasantry bonds of manorialism, sometimes referred to as a "feudal society".[3][8] Since the 1970s, when Elizabeth A. R. Brown published The Tyranny of a Construct (1974), many have re-examined the evidence and concluded that feudalism is an unworkable term and should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussion, or at least used only with severe qualification and warning.[3][4]

Outside a European context, the concept of feudalism is normally used only by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of Japan under the shoguns, and sometimes medieval and Gondarine Ethiopia.[9] However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing it in places as diverse as ancient Egypt, the Parthian empire, the Indian subcontinent, and the antebellum American South.[9]

The term feudalism has also been applied often inappropriately or pejoratively to non-Western societies where institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to prevail.[10] Some historians and political theorists believe that the many ways the term feudalism has been used has deprived it of specific meaning, leading them to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.[3][4]

Classic feudalism

See also Feudalism in England and Examples of feudalism

The classic Fran ois-Louis Ganshof version of feudalism[2][3] describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal land tenure, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship.[2]


Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony, which composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, whilst the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces. Fealty comes from the Latin fidelitas and denotes the fidelity owed by a vassal to his feudal lord. "Fealty" also refers to an oath that more explicitly reinforces the commitments of the vassal made during homage. Such an oath follows homage.[11]

Once the commendation ceremony was complete, the lord and vassal were now in a feudal relationship with agreed-upon mutual obligations to one another. The vassal's principal obligation to the lord was to "aid", or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer to calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court, whether manorial, baronial, both termed court baron, or at the king's court itself.[12]

It could also involve the vassal providing "counsel", so that if the lord faced a major decision he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. At the level of the manor this might be a fairly mundane matter of agricultural policy, but also included the handing down by the lord of sentences for criminal offences, including capital punishment in some cases. Concerning the king's feudal court, such deliberation could include the question of declaring war. These are examples; depending on the period of time and location in Europe, feudal customs and practices varied; see examples of feudalism.

Feudal society

Depiction of socage on the royal demesne in feudal England, ca. 1310 The phrase "feudal society" as defined by Marc Bloch[8] expands on the definition proposed by Ganshof and includes within the feudal structure not only the warrior aristocracy bound by vassalage, but also the peasantry bound by manorialism. Thus the entire society from top to bottom is bound by feudalism.

History of feudalism

Feudalism traditionally emerges as a result of the decentralization of an empire. This was particularly the case within the Japanese and Carolingian (European) empires which both lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to support cavalry without the ability to allocate land to these mounted troops. Mounted soldiers began to secure a system of hereditary rule over their allocated land and their power over the territory came to encompass the social, political, judicial, and economic spheres as well.[13]

These acquired powers significantly reduced the presence of centralized power in these empires. Only when the infrastructure existed to maintain centralized power as with the European monarchies did Feudalism begin to yield to this new organized power and eventually disappear.[13]


The term feudalism is recent, first appearing in French in 1823, Italian in 1827, English in 1839, and in German in the second half of the nineteenth century.[14] It derived from "feodal" which was used in seventeenth-century French legal treatises (1614)[15][16] and translated into English legal treatises as "feodal government". In the 18th century Adam Smith popularized the forms "feudal government" and "feudal system" in his book Wealth of Nations (1776).[14] In the 19th century the adjective "feudal" (i.e. "the feudal government") evolved into a noun: feudalism.[14]

The term "feudal" or "feodal" is derived from the medieval Latin word feodum. The etymology of feodum is complex with multiple theories, some suggesting a Germanic origin (the most widely held view) and others suggesting an Arabic origin. Initially in medieval Latin European documents, a land grant in exchange for service was called a beneficium (Latin).[17] Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents.[17] The first attested instance of this is from 984, although more primitive forms were seen up to one-hundred years earlier.[17] The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below.[17]

The most widely held theory is put forth by Marc Bloch.[17][18][19] Bloch said it is related to the Frankish term *fehu- d, in which *fehu means "cattle" and - d means "goods", implying "a moveable object of value."[18][19] When land replaced currency as the primary store of value, the Germanic word *fehu- d replaced the Latin word beneficium.[18][19] This Germanic origin theory was also shared by William Stubbs in the nineteenth century.[17][20]

Another theory was put forward by Archibald R. Lewis.[17] Lewis said the origin of 'fief' is not feudum (or feodum), but rather foderum, the earliest attested used being in Astronomus's Vita Hludovici (840).[21] In that text is a passage about Louis the Pious which says annona militaris quas vulgo foderum vocant, which can be translated as "Louis forbade that military provender (which they popularly call "fodder") be furnished.."[17]

Another theory by Alauddin Samarrai suggests an Arabic origin, from fuy (the plural of fay).[17][22] Samarrai's theory is that early forms of 'fief' include feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others, the plurality of forms strongly suggesting origins from a loanword. Indeed the first use of these terms is in Languedoc, one of the least Germanized areas of Europe and bordering Muslim Spain. Further, the earliest use of feuum (as a replacement for beneficium) can be dated to 899, the same year a Muslim base at Fraxinetum (La Garde-Freinet) in Provence was established. It is possible, Samarrai says, that French scribes, writing in Latin, attempted to transliterate the Arabic word fuy (the plural of fay), which was being used by the Muslim invaders and occupiers at the time, resulting in a plurality of forms - feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others - from which eventually feudum derived.[22]

Historiography of feudalism

The idea of feudalism was unknown and the system it describes were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Medieval Period. This section describes the history of the idea of feudalism, how the concept originated among scholars and thinkers, how it changed over time, and modern debates about its use.

Evolution of the idea

The idea of a feudal state or period, in the sense of either a period or a regime dominated by lords who possess financial or social power and prestige, became a widely held in middle of the 18th century, thanks to works such as Montesquieu's De L'Esprit des Lois (1748; published in English as The Spirit of the Laws), and Henri de Boulainvilliers s Histoire des anciens Parlements de France (1737; published in English as An Historical Account of the Antient Parliaments of France or States-General of the Kingdom, 1739).[14] In the 18th century, writers of the Enlightenment wrote about feudalism to denigrate the antiquated system of the Ancien R gime, or French monarchy. This was the Age of Enlightenment when writers valued reason and the Middle Ages were viewed as the "Dark Ages". Enlightenment authors generally mocked and ridiculed anything from the "Dark Ages" including feudalism, projecting its negative characteristics on the current French monarchy as a means of political gain.[23] For them "feudalism" meant seigneurial privileges and prerogatives. When the French Constituent Assembly abolished the "feudal regime" in August 1789 this is what was meant.

Adam Smith used the term "feudal system" to describe a social and economic system defined by inherited social ranks, each of which possessed inherent social and economic privileges and obligations. In such a system wealth derived from agriculture, which was organized not according to market forces but on the basis of customary labor services owed by serfs to landowning nobles.[24]


Karl Marx also used the term in political analysis. In the 19th century, Marx described feudalism as the economic situation coming before the rise of capitalism. For Marx, what defined feudalism was that the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) rested on their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom.[25] Marx thus considered feudalism within a purely economic model.[25]

Later studies

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Horace Round and Frederic William Maitland, both historians of medieval Britain, arrived at different conclusions as to the character of English society before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Round argued that the Normans had brought feudalism with them to England, while Maitland contended that its fundamentals were already in place in Britain before 1066. The debate continues today, but a consensus is building: England before the Conquest had commendation, which embodied some of the personal elements in feudalism.

William the Conqueror introduced a modified northern French feudalism to England which countered decentralized aspects of feudalism abroad. In 1086 he required oaths of loyalty to the king by all, even the vassals of his principal vassals, who held by feudal tenure. Holding by feudal tenure meant that vassals must provide the quota of knights required by the king or a money payment in substitution.

In the 20th century, the historian Fran ois-Louis Ganshof was very influential on the topic of feudalism. Ganshof defined feudalism from a narrow legal and military perspective, arguing that feudal relationships existed only within the medieval nobility itself. Ganshof articulated this concept in Feudalism (1944). His classic definition of feudalism is the most widely known today[25] and also the easiest to understand, simply put, when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.

One of Ganshof's contemporaries, the French historian Marc Bloch, was arguably the most influential 20th century medieval historian.[25] Bloch approached feudalism not so much from a legal and military point of view but from a sociological one. He developed his ideas in Feudal Society (1939 40; English 1961). Bloch conceived of feudalism as a type of society that was not limited solely to the nobility. Like Ganshof, he recognized that there was a hierarchical relationship between lords and vassals, but Bloch saw as well a similar relationship obtaining between lords and peasants.[25]

It is this radical notion that peasants were part of feudal relationship that sets Bloch apart from his peers. While the vassal performed military service in exchange for the fief, the peasant performed physical labour in return for protection. Both are a form of feudal relationship. According to Bloch, other elements of society can be seen in feudal terms; all the aspects of life were centered on "lordship", and so we can speak usefully of a feudal church structure, a feudal courtly (and anti-courtly) literature, and a feudal economy.[25]

Feudalism revisionism

In 1974, U.S. historian Elizabeth A. R. Brown[4] rejected the label feudalism as an anachronism that imparts a false sense of uniformity to the concept. Having noted the current use of many, often contradictory, definitions of feudalism, she argued that the word is only a construct with no basis in medieval reality, an invention of modern historians read back "tyrannically" into the historical record. Supporters of Brown have suggested that the term should be expunged from history textbooks and lectures on medieval history entirely.[25] In Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994),[5] Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown's original thesis. Although some contemporaries questioned Reynolds's methodology, other historians have supported it and her argument.[25] Note that Reynolds does not object to the Marxist use of the term feudalism.

The term feudal has also been applied to non-Western societies in which institutions and attitudes similar to those of medieval Europe are perceived to have prevailed (See Other feudal-like systems). Ultimately, critics say, the many ways the term feudalism has been used have deprived it of specific meaning, leading some historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.[25] Others have taken the concept to its heart: the contract between a lord and his or her vassals, a reciprocal arrangement of support in exchange for service.

See also

  • Bastard feudalism
  • Cestui que
  • Charter of Liberties
  • Chivalry
  • Concordat of Worms
  • English feudal barony
  • Gentry
  • Landed property
  • Majorat
  • Manorialism
  • Manor
  • Medieval demography
  • Middle Ages
  • Neofeudalism
  • Nulle terre sans seigneur
  • Quia Emptores
  • Sark
  • Scottish feudal barony
  • Serfdom
  • Statutes of Mortmain
  • Vassal
  • Feudalism in England
  • Protofeudalism


  • Knights
  • Medieval warfare


  • Fengjian (Chinese)
  • Indian feudalism
  • Mandala (Southeast Asian history)


  • Bloch, Marc, Feudal Society. Tr. L.A. Manyon. Two volumes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961 ISBN 0-226-05979-0
  • Brown, Elizabeth, 'The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe', American Historical Review, 79 (1974), pp. 1063 8.
  • Cantor, Norman F., Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth century. Quill, 1991.
  • Guerreau, Alain, L'avenir d'un pass incertain. Paris: Le Seuil, 2001. (Complete history of the meaning of the term.)
  • Poly, Jean-Pierre and Bournazel, Eric, The Feudal Transformation, 900 1200., Tr. Caroline Higgitt. New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1991.
  • Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 ISBN 0-19-820648-8


External links

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