“Feudalism” is neither a medieval term nor does it have a single, agreed upon definition. In recent decades, some historians have even questioned the historical and heuristic value of the term. Lordship, dependent tenures, and manors were real institutions in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries, even if the words used to connote them also bore other meanings and differed from region to region. "Feudalism," on the other hand, is a historical construct that one must define before using. Like all historical constructs “feudalism,” however defined, describes an “ideal type” rather than any particular historical society. This article will begin with descriptions of the traditional models of feudalism, emphasizing the one favored by Anglophone historians, and then explain the current historiographical controversies this term has generated.
The term 'feudal' was invented by Renaissance Italian jurists to describe what they took to be the common customary law of property. Giacomo Alvarotto's (1385-1453) treatise De feudis ("Concerning Fiefs") posited that despite regional differences the regulations governing the descent of aristocratic land tenure were derived from common legal principles, a customary shared 'feudal law.' This juridic concept of 'feudalism' was subsequently extended to cover the aggregate of institutions connected with the support and service of knights and with the descent of their tenures ("fiefs").
DEFINITIONS OF FEUDALISM
British and American historians have used "feudalism" as a short hand
to describe a political, military, and social system that bound together the
warrior aristocracy of
In the Anglo-American paradigm, “feudalism” is associated with the fragmentation of central authority, as political power and jurisdictional in the tenth and eleventh centuries devolved into the hands of 'private' individuals, that is, of nobles who held franchises, immunities or banal rights. In theory the king stood at the apex of a feudal network of personal loyalty and land tenure, since he was the lord of lords and the ultimate source of all rights over land. Before the late twelfth century, however, feudal kings were often merely the first among equals, and their claims to authority often masked their limited actual power.
Among the leading theorists of this approach are the Belgian historian Francois-Louis Ganshof (1895-1980), the English historians John Horace Round (1854-1928) and Sir Frank Merry Stenton (1880-1967), and the American historians Carl Stephenson (1886-1954) and Joseph Strayer (1904-1987). Ganshof’s definition of feudalism may be offered as prototypical of this school: “a body of institutions creating and regulating the obligations of obedience and service--mainly military service--on the part of a free man (the vassal) towards another free man (the lord), and the obligations of protection and maintenance on the part of the lord with regard to his vassal. The obligation of maintenance had usually as on its effects the grant by the lord to his vassal of a unit of real property [actually the grant of tenure] known as a fief.”
An alternative definition of "feudalism" favored by Marxist historians focuses on the economic and juridical privileges enjoyed by a landowning aristocracy over a subordinate peasantry. This economic definition of feudalism derives from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. French Enlightenment philosophes, notably Montesquieu in his The Spirit of the Laws (1748), understood the 'feudal law' to be a system of exploitation of peasants viewed against the backdrop of the parceling out of national sovereignty to private individuals. For them féodalité denoted the aggregate of seigneurial privileges and prerogatives, which could be justified neither by reason or justice. When the National Constituent Assembly abolished the 'feudal regime' in August 1789 this is what they meant. Across the channel, Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations (1776) coined the phrase 'feudal system' to describe a form of production governed not by market forces but by coercion and force. For Smith the 'feudal system' was the economic exploitation of peasants by their lords, which led to an economy and society marked by poverty, brutality, exploitation, and wide gaps between rich and poor. This economic definition of feudalism found its way into the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883), who saw feudalism as a particular mode of production standing between the slave economy of the ancient world and modern capitalism.
French historians have tended to combine the two definitions through the linked phrase Féodalité et Seigneurie, the Feudal and Seigneurial Systems. For historians such as Marc Bloch (1886-1944), Georges Duby (1919-1996), and their followers, feudalism is a general term that embraces the key aspects of the prevailing medieval social, political, and economic arrangements. German historians have also tended to use the term feudalism (Lehnswesen) broadly, emphasizing the twin elements of landed lordship over peasants (Grundherrschaft) and political decentralization. Like the French historians of feudalism, German scholars emphasize the emergence of a regime of serfdom in place of the slave and free peasant rural economy of the Carolingian era. German historians such as Otto Hintze (1861-1940), Heinrich Mitteis (1889-1952), and the Austrian Otto Brunner (1898-1992) have presented “feudalism” as an “ideal” stage in state formation not limited to the medieval West.
VASSALAGE AND THE FIEF
Vassalage was the
protective relationship set up by one free man (the lord) over another (his
“man”). Like “feudalism,” “vassalage” is a
modern construct. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the words most widely
used to describe honorable dependents were miles (soldier), fidelis
(faithful man), homo ('man'). The
term “vassal,” derived from a Celtic word (gwassawl) meaning a servant or young boy, was rarely used after the
ninth century, except in chansons de geste where it most often connoted
a warrior. The ceremony through which an individual became the vassal of a lord
included the vassal’s sacred oath of loyalty and an act of ritual
submission (“homage”). The
origins of the lord-man relationship may be found in the conditions of 7th and
The antecedents of medieval 'vassalage' were complex and various. Among them one can number the Roman patron/client relationship; Roman 'friendship' agreements, convenientiae, used to end legal disputes or to forge alliances among the powerful; the bucellarii, Roman soldiers detached to serve as the personal bodyguards of private landowners in the late Roman Empire; and the Germanic war-band, termed the 'comitatus' by the Roman historian Tacitus, ca. A.D. 100. From the patron/client relationship and the convenientiae came the notion of contract and mutual obligations that were religiously and morally binding (fides--fealty/faith). The Germanic war-band and the institution of the bucellarii contributed to vassalage the idea of military service in exchange for maintenance (support through gifts of food, clothing, shelter, and weapons), oaths, the ceremony of homage, and, perhaps most importantly, the erosion of the boundaries between 'state' and 'household.' One should not, however, draw too fine distinctions among the four sources, as they historically and conceptually overlap. By the sixth century, Roman bucellarii and Germanic war-bands had merged into the Merovingian obsequia, the entourages of Frankish kings and nobles, but even before that the military followings of Roman and German magnates probably shared much in common.
Just as lords had many vasssals, vassals could have several lords. “Liege lordship” was the mechanism developed for determining the table of priorities of loyalty. The liege lord was a vassal’s primary lord, to whom he owed loyalty and service above all others. In the second half of the twelfth century Henry II of England (1154-1189) and then King Philip Augustus of France (1179-1223) in imitation of Henry developed an ideal of royal liege lordship in which the king was defined as the primary lord of every free man who held land in the realm, regardless of who that man’s immediate personal lord might be.
is the word from which feudalism derives.
The word most often used to denote dependent tenures in Merovingian and
Carolingian Francia was beneficium,
while in Anglo-Saxon England such holdings were termed lænland. Neither word,
however, implied a specific type of service. Both could range from the large
endowments of royal vassals in return for loyalty and military obligation to
quite modest precarial tenures whose tenants rendered their lords menial
services. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the Latin
term feodum (also feudum, fevum, and in French, fief)
began to be used interchangeably with beneficium.
In this period, however, 'fief' still lacked a precise definition: it could be
used either to describe dependent tenure held by a man from his lord, as it is
used now by historians, or it could denote simply property. In
thirteenth-century charters from
Giving fiefs was
beneficial to both lord and vassal. Land meant that the vassal could marry and
raise a family. Possession of landed estates was equivalent to manhood. The
grant of fiefs was also beneficial to the lord, since the lord's
"honor" (complex of lands) usually consisted of widely scattered
holdings that were difficult to exploit or control anyway. Interestingly, there
is a series of charters from twelfth-century
The confusion over
the definition of property created a problem for the lord: how was he to
maintain his legal ownership of the property in face of its de facto ownership
by the vassal? The tension between the vassal's desire to transform the fief
into hereditary property, and the lord's desire to retain the fief as his property
resulted in a compromise, the so-called feudal incidents mentioned above. The
fief, thus, became hereditary tenure; the eldest son of a deceased vassal would
inherit, but first he had to do homage and swear fidelity to the lord and pay a
“relief” for the land (a monetary recognition of the lord's
continuing proprietary rights over the property). King Henry II of
A second problem
faced by the lord was the difficulty of exacting as much service as he wished
from his feudal tenants. Services over the tenth and eleventh century tended to
become fixed as customary obligations. Thus throughout northern
This brings us
back to the idea of the fief as a
social institution. Knight-service in war was far less common than 1) castle-guard, the obligation of a
vassal to serve in a castle garrison of the lord; 2) suit in court, that is, the vassal's obligation to attend the
lord's court, to give him counsel, and to help him judge disputes; 3) accompanying
the lord when he traveled or attended the court of his lord--meant to increase the social status of the lord; or 4) hospitality to the lord or to his servants.
Most feudal incidents, indeed,
reflected the social relationship between the lord and his vassal and the mixed
proprietary rights each had over the fief. To go by the legal treatises
attributed (perhaps mistakenly) to Glanvill (late 1180s) and Bracton (second
quarter of the thirteenth century) the most important rights that a lord in
late twelfth-century England could claim over vassals who held land from him
were relief, wardship and marriage, aids, and escheat. Wardship and marriage referred to a lord’s right to control
descent of fief by choosing husbands of female heirs and guardians of minors, preferably
in consultation with heir's closest male adult kinsmen. An “aid”
was economic help given by the vassal to his lord. Fief-holders in
DEBATE OVER THE ORIGINS OF FEUDALISM IN
debate over English feudalism has largely revolved around the question whether
William the Conqueror introduced the conjoined institutions of vassalage, fief,
and knight service from
MARC BLOCH’S FIRST AND SECOND FEUDAL AGES
In 1939, Marc Bloch, one of the fathers of the "Annales" school and arguably the most prominent modern medievalist after Henri Pirenne (1862-1935), published the first volume of Feudal Society, a study of feudalism as a system of social relations. (The second volume appeared in the following year while Bloch was in hiding.) Bloch, appreciating the difficulty of trying to define "feudalism," opted instead to describe the characteristics of "feudal society":
A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e. the fief) instead of a salary, which was out of the question; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and, whithin the warrior class, assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority--leading inevitably to disorder; and, in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State, of which the latter, during the second feudal age, was to acquire renewed strength.
Bloch identified two distinct feudal ages. The First Feudal Ages, lasting from the collapse of the Carolingian Empire to the mid eleventh century, was characterized by the breakdown of the central authority of the state, in part as a consequence of the Viking raids. Authority during this period devolved upon the localities. Motte-and-bailey castles, man made hills with wooden towers on top of them and enclosures created by ditches and pallisades at their base, sprang up all over the western half of the Carolingian Empire. The castellans who controlled these castles were essentially politically autonomous, despite the efforts of counts and dukes to rein them in and the exalted theocratic claims made by kings and their ecclesiastical supporters. The economy was primitively agrarian; the little trade that there was largely long-distance luxury trade, in which the west exchanged slaves and raw materials for the luxuries of the east.
Second Feudal Age, which began around 1050 and continued until around 1250, was
the product of a European economic take-off.
Agricultural revolution (three field rotation, heavy plough, horse
harness, windmills) and the expansion of commerce led to the growth of towns
and the rebirth of a cash economy. These
economic changes helped kings and the great princes of
THE FEUDAL REVOLUTION DEBATE
Marc Bloch was
vague about precisely when his “First Feudal Age” began. Georges Duby, arguably the most influential French
medieval historian of the second half of the twentieth century, remedied this.
In La société
aux XIe et XIIe siècles dans la région mâconnaise
(1953) Duby proposed that
The reaction against the “Feudal Transformation” thesis was not slow in coming. Dominique Barthelemy's research on the Vendomais proved to him that the feudal transition was a phantom. He contended that changes to terminology had been misinterpreted as actual social and political changes. The new paradigm also drew fire from the 'hyper-Romanists' who see the persistence of Roman order into the twelfth century and who challenge the validity of the public versus private paradigm itself. The question of whether there was a “Feudal Transformation” around the year 1000 was vigorously debated in the journal Past and Present. T.N. Bisson in 1994 (vol. 142) initiated it with a defense of Duby’s thesis, but with important modifications, followed by criticisms by Barthelemy and Stephen White (1996: vol. 152), and by T. Reuter and Chris Wickham (1997: vol. 155). Bisson emphasizes the transformation of violence from 'political' (maintenance of public order through public officials and courts) to non-political and non-constructive (the use of violence by castellans and others to increase or maintain their power, without any sense of creating political institutions or structures.) Bisson's restatement takes into account that the shift from slavery/free peasants to serfs was gradual and that serfdom coexisted with both in the tenth through twelfth centuries. He also acknowledges that the 'revolution' was not complete by 1200 and was, in fact, a continuing process. Bisson makes the interesting point that even in the twelfth century the 'officers and agents' of counts, dukes, and kings did not enforce law and order or implement the orders and regulations of their lords, but ruled with arbitrary force under their lords.
This debate is far
from over. Richard Barton findings for the
The evidence does suggest a break down in public order maintained through public officials and courts in late tenth- and eleventh-century France and Italy, and although the transformation from the free/slave peasant dichotomy to general servility (serfdom) was gradual and hardly unidirectional, the trend from 950 to 1150 was toward the domination of peasant villages by lords claiming proprietary and juridical rights over these lands and the authority to command the labor of their inhabitants. Such “banal” lordships, moreover, derived their power from the possession of castles and the service of knights. England and Germany, however, cannot easily be accommodated under the 'feudal transformation' paradigm, and White, Janet Nelson, and Barthelemy are right in maintaining that the Carolingian world of the ninth and tenth centuries was also marked by the use of extra-judicial violence as a tool for disputes resolution among the elites. One also must acknowledge that the idea of public (that is, royal) authority continued throughout this period in the person of counts and dukes, whatsoever their actual powers and their de facto relationship with the kings whom they nominally served.
CRITICISM OF THE CONSTRUCT OF “FEUDALISM”
The variety of definitions of “feudalism” employed by scholars led the American historian Elizabeth Brown to question the utility of the term for the study of the Middle Ages. In an article in the American Historical Review 79 (1974) entitled, "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe," she contended that it would be best to discard entirely the term “feudalism” because it is fundamentally misleading. "As far as pedagogy is concerned," Brown declared, "students should certainly be spared an approach that inevitably gives an unwarranted impression of unity and systematization. ... To advocate teaching what is acknowledged to be deceptive and what must later be untaught reflects an unsettling attitude of condescension toward younger students.” Brown's criticism is far-reaching. She regards not only feudalism but all isms--'abstract analytic constructs formulated and defined as a shorthand means of designating the characteristics that the observers consider essential to various time periods, modes of organization, movements, and doctrines'--as artificialities that distort through simplification and which are fraught with the unstated assumptions of those who coined these terms. As Brown concludes, "The tyrant feudalism must be declared once and for all deposed and its influence over students of the Middle Ages finally ended. Perhaps in its downfall it will carry with it those other obdurate isms—manorial, scholastic, and human—that have dominated for far too long the investigation of medieval life and thought."
Brown's criticisms have been developed further by Susan Reynolds in an influential monograph, Fiefs and Vassals (1994). Reynolds surveyed the documentary evidence for dependent military tenures in England, France, Germany and Italy, and concluded that even terms such as 'fief', 'benefice', 'vassal' lacked any technical meaning until the late twelfth century when they were given legal definition by the Italian lawyers who produced the Liber Feodorum. In essence, Reynolds argued that in the early Middle Ages custom rather than law ruled, and that this custom was both highly localized and mutable. There is no evidence, to her mind, for precise 'feudal' institutions or obligations in the tenth or eleventh centuries. If anything, dependent tenures were less important than inheritable family lands and horizontal bonds of association more important than the vertical bonds (lordship) that historians have traditionally emphasized. Reynolds argues for the persistence of public power and the centrality of community in the eleventh century. The “feudalism” of history textbooks owes far more to the Libri Feudorum of late twelfth-century professional Italian lawyers than to the institutions and practices of earlier centuries. Reynolds’ book pays far more attention to fiefs than to vassals, but her work has inspired others to challenge received wisdom about the latter.
Paul Hyams’ “Homage and feudalism: a judicious separation” makes an important contribution to the debate by demonstrating that another of the favorite terms of medieval historians, “homage,” had a broader meaning than traditionally believed. Hyams, a self-pronounced sceptic of the utility of feudalism as an analytical model, demonstrates in a carefully argued paper that the ritual of “intermixed hands” was not specific to “the creation of honourable lordship,” as usually believed, but was used for various purposes to make manifest “an act of submission, the conveyance of self into some state of dependence.”
I am more
ambivalent. The pendulum has threatened
to swing too far in the other direction, away from vertical ties and power
relations toward horizontal bonds, consensus making, and community. Both types of social bonds appear in the
sources for the tenth and eleventh centuries, not only in
Abels, Richard. 1988. Lordship and Military Obligation in
Bisson, Thomas. N. 1994. “The Feudal Revolution.” Past and Present 142: 6-42 (followed by: Debate: the 'feudal revolution.' - response to by Dominique Barthélemy and Stephen D. White and reply from Thomas N. Bisson. Past & Present, vol. 152 (1996): 196-223; Debate: the 'feudal revolution.' - response to by Timothy Reuter and Chris Wickham and reply from Thomas N. Bisson, Past & Present, vol. 155 (1997): 177-225).
Bloch, Marc. 1939 (French edn.),
1964 (English trans.). Feudal
Society. Trans. L. A. Manyon.
Brown, Elizabeth A. R. 1974.
“The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval
Cheyette, Frederic L., ed. 1975. Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe:
……. 1996. Review of Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals. Speculum 71: 998-1006.
Ganshof, F.L. 1944 (original French edn), 1964 (rev. English trans.). Feudalism. Trans. P. Grierson. Harper-Torch.
Gillingham, John. 1982. “The
Introduction of Knight Service into
Hollister, C. Warren. 1965. Military Organization of Norman England.
Hyams, Paul. "Homage and Feudalism: A Judicious Separation." 2003. In Die Gegenwart des Feudalismus, ed. Natalie Fryde, pp. 13-49. Vanderhoeck and Ruprecht: Marx-Planck-Insrtitut fur Geschichte.
Poly, Jean-Pierre, and Bournazel, Eric. 1980 (French edn.), 1991 (English trans.). The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200. Trans. Catherine Higgit. Holmes & Meier.
Reynolds, Susan. 1994. Fiefs and Vassals: The
Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted.
Round, J. H.
Stephenson, Carl. 1942 Mediaeval Feudalism.
Stenton, Frank M. 1932. The First Century of English Feudalism