Richard Abels



“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 earliest and in some ways most enduring definition of “feudalism” is the legal framework for the possession and descent of “fiefs,” that is, estates held as dependent tenures either from the Crown or from some other lord. 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.'  Alvarotto and his contemporaries drew upon twelfth- and thirteenth-century compilations of land law and customals dealing with the descent of fiefs, most notably the Italian Libri Feudorum (mid to late twelfth century), the German Sachsenspiegel of Eike von Repgow (1220s), the thirteenth-century Norman Summa de legibus, Philippe de Beaumanoir’s Coutumes de Beauvaisis (1280/1283), and the English legal treatises (mistakenly) attributed to Glanvill (late twelfth century) and Bracton (second quarter of the thirteenth century).  The English Common Law of real property as expounded in the eighteenth century by the great English jurist William Blackstone (1723-1780) in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769) finds its roots in Glanvill and Bracton and derives much of its technical vocabulary from “feudal” law. The conception of 'feudalism' as the law of fiefs was subsequently extended to cover the aggregate of institutions connected with the support and service of knights as well as with the descent of their tenures. 


 Traditionally, 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 Western Europe between ca. 1000 and ca. 1300. This "system," it is asserted, only gradually took shape, and differed in detail from region to region. Its key institutions were lordship, vassalage, and the fief. Lordship and vassalage represent the two sides of a personal bond of mutual loyalty and military service between nobles of different rank that found its roots in the Germanic war-band. The superior in this relationship was termed a lord, and the subordinate, who pledged loyalty and military service to his lord, was his “vassal.” A “fief” (Latin feudum) was a grant of land tenure or of revenues held by a vassal from a lord, whose property, in theory, the tenements remained, in return for specified services, which were usually a combination of military and social duties (e.g. attendance at the lord's court, hospitality to the lord and his men) and miscellaneous payments (“feudal incidents”) that reflected the lord's continued rights over the property. The most important of the services required from a fief-holder was knight service.  When summoned to war by his lord, the holder of a fief was obliged to send to the lord’s host or retinue the quota of knights owed from his fief. These knights were then to render the lord military service for a period of time fixed by custom, which amounted to forty days in thirteenth-century France and England.  British and American historians have traditionally regarded knight service as the raison d’etre of “feudalism.” “Feudalism,” as defined in this fashion, can be thought of as a military recruitment system in which land tenure was exchanged for the service of heavily armed warriors on horseback. 

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.” (p. xvi).


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 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 8th century Western Europe that made such a private pledge of mutual protection and support necessary. The breakdown of central authority in the west (due to the abandonment of the Roman cities for the countryside; the breakdown of central administrative institutions, including the army and bureaucracy; decay of roads, communications, etc.) led to dangerous times. Lordship became the dominant societal bond--or at least the dominant vertical bond (kinship and friendship remained powerful ties)--in the tenth century because of the Viking invasions that shattered the remaining vestiges of central authority of the Carolingian kings of West Francia (soon to be France).

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.

  Fief (feudum) 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 England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy the term was used to describe a dependent tenure held from a lord by a vassal in return for a specified amount of knight service and occasional financial payments. These payments are sometimes termed “feudal incidents,” because earlier historians saw them as 'incidental' to the fundamental obligation of military service. (But see below on the problem of regarding military service as the essence of the lord/vassal relationship.)

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 Montpellier analyzed by historian Frederic Cheyette that suggests that the same land could be granted in alodio, that is, as property, repeatedly by the same donor to the heirs of the original recipient, and then granted back to the donor as a feudum. As Cheyette observes, this "practice raises far more questions than that: it suggests that an analysis of the rights one or another individual might hold in the property is here simply beside the point. What seems to be important for the participants is the entire ritual of donation, return grant, and oath of fidelity, a ritual that served to implant a personal relationship, what the document from Pignan refers to as "love," into the landscape. The particular words that the scribe scratched on parchment were of less importance than the action and the words that were uttered."

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 England's use of the concept of royal liege lordship to enhance his rights and power as king transformed these incidents into important sources of royal income and patronage. Baronial discontent with royal claims to arbitrarily assessed "reliefs" and other feudal payments under Henry's son King John led to Magna Carta in 1215.

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 France in the 12th and 13th century military service for fiefs was limited for offensive campaigns to forty days for a knight.  In England before 1066 landowners were required to supply and send one soldier to the king’s army (fyrd) for every five “hides” of land—i.e. from every estate rated for taxation as possessing 600 acres of arable—for a period of sixty days. This limitation on military service highlights an irony about 'feudalism': there seems to have been no period in which feudal obligation was the chief form of military recruitment. Military historians of Anglo-Norman England not only emphasize the central role played by the military households of the king and his barons in warfare but recognize that voluntary and stipendiary military service existed side by side with feudal obligation from at least the eleventh century on.  In pre-Conquest England and Normandy, many nobles would have answered a king’s summons to war with a retinue appropriate to their rank and dignity, even if it exceeded the number of thegns or knights owed from their lands.  By the twelfth century English and French kings and barons were already commuting military service for cash payments (scutages), with which they could purchase the service of mercenaries.

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 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 twelfth-century England were expected to help to defray the lord’s expenses incurred through knighting his eldest son, the marriage of his eldest daughter, or for ransoming his person. Escheat was the reversion of the fief to the lord in default of an heir.





            The 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 Normandy in 1066, or whether the origin of these institutions is to be sought in Edward the Confessor’s England. Those wish to portray the Norman conquerors as the architects of the feudal system have minimized the resemblance of the royal army of pre-Conquest England to the Anglo-Norman host, Anglo-Saxon commendation to Norman vassalage, and Anglo-Saxon land tenure to that found in Domesday Book (1087). Others have argued with vehemence that the Anglo-Saxons developed dependent military tenures at least a century before Hastings. The argument extends back to the seventeenth century when the antiquary Sir Henry Spelman first recognized the applicability of the feudal terminology formulated by early modern French legal writers to describe the laws governing the descent of fief to the situation of medieval England.  The modern debate, however, began in 1891 with the publication of an essay by John Horace Round on the introduction of knight service into England. Taking exception to Edward A. Freeman’s argument for continuity in English tenurial and political history, Round represented the Conquest as a dividing line between a pre-feudal and feudal England. According to Round, William the Conqueror revolutionized the military organization of England by imposing upon the fiefs he distributed to his followers precisely defined quotas of knight service. Round, who had previously argued that 1066 marked a tenurial revolution, posited that the Norman Conquest marked a dramatic and absolute break with English traditions of military service, which he saw as arising from a public duty incumbent upon all free men.  The most prominent advocate of Round’s thesis was Sir Frank Stenton, who rejected Round’s animus against the Anglo-Saxons but who embraced his view that 1066 marked the beginnings of English feudalism. Not everyone, however, was persuaded. Round’s distinguished contemporary, the legal historian Frederic Maitland (1850-1906), remarked, tongue firmly in cheek, “Now if an examiner were to ask who introduced the feudal system into England? one very good answer, if properly explained, would be Henry Spelman. … If my examiner went on with the question and asked me, when did the feudal system attain its most perfect development? I should answer, about the middle of the last century.” Whereas Maitland argued for tenurial continuity, others discovered evidence of “feudal” institutions in pre-Conquest England. Eric John in the 1960s revived the arguments of the late nineteenth-century historian H. Munro Chadwick for Anglo-Saxon royal armies made up of noble warriors who were personally commended to the ealdormen under whom thy fought.  C. Warren Hollister both argued for elements of continuity between the military organizations of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England, and, more radically, demonstrated that “feudal” military service never constituted the main source of warriors for the Norman kings. John Gillingham followed Hollister by critically reexamining the evidence for William’s sudden imposition of knight quotas, and David Bates demonstrated that Normandy before 1066 was not as “feudal” as Round had supposed.  The author of this article demonstrated that in 1066 English armies were organized according to the principle of lordship and raised, in part, through the obligation of those who held their lands freely, “with sake and soke,” to render military service to the Crown, the extent of which was determined by a rough approximation of the value of their lands. Since around 1990 the debate has died down, in large part because of increasing doubts of the validity of the feudal paradigm itself.  The consensus at present is that both England and Normandy possessed rudimentary elements of a “feudal system”—dependent tenures, lordship, and dependent military tenures—before 1066 but they coexisted with other forms of tenure and military obligation, and English feudalism as exemplified in the works attributed to Glanvill and Bracton was the result of an evolutionary process that had much to do with the unsettled conditions that followed the Norman Conquest.




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, within 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. (2:446)

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 palisades 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.

            Bloch’s 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 Europe consolidate power, as feudal monarchies arose that were to be the basis of the modern European nation states.  These economic changes also led to a transformation of feudal relations and the definition of nobility. The knightly class became a hereditary nobility by the year 1100. The influx of wealth led to an increasing emphasis upon expenditure and conspicuous consumption as a reflection of nobility. Since this was also an age of rampant inflation, the aristocracy found itself continually pressed for money, which led, in many instances, to attempts to increase the economic exploitation of manorial resources through the use of professional bureaucratic staff in noble households and on manors. By the thirteenth century, aristocrats in England, France, Germany, and Italy tended to be literate, at least in the vernacular, and all great landowners had professional administrators to look after their affairs. (Here is where the universities became especially important in the secular history of medieval Europe).  The aristocracy, faced by the emergence of the merchant class, began to define itself as a special order with the help of the Church. This led to chivalry and to the rituals of knighthood (e.g., dubbing ceremony, courtly love, etc). Though still defining itself as a warrior class, the military value of knights in the Second Feudal Age declined due to the rigid customary limitations on service. Already by the middle of the twelfth century English and French kings were relying on mercenaries, many of whom were poor or landless knights. The aristocracy, however, continued to display its martial prowess in games (tournaments) as well as in war. Feudal incidents began to displace military service as the most important render owed by a feudal tenant to his lord.




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 France underwent a “feudal transformation” around the year 1000.  His study of the charters of the abbeys of Cluny and St Vincent of Mâcon persuaded him that between the years 980 to 1030 the Mâconnais experienced a breakdown in public law and order coincident with the emergence of a 'new and harsh regime of lordship' based on castles and knights. Lords, according to Duby, imposed new obligations on the peasants, both those of servile and free descent, who became a new class-the serfs. Public law and order gave way to violence, custom and violent custom. J.Fr Lemarignier (1957) added to this by chronicling the devolution of power in the late Carolingian period, as kingdoms fractured into principalities, counties, and, by the end of the tenth century, into castellanies. The Capetian idea of kingship was weakened and finally, by the 1020s, swamped in the 'seignurial tide and lost its public character.' Pierre Bonnassie found the same process in the Spanish March, discovering that in the 1020s 'an old public order based on Visigothic law preserving peasant property and slavery was smashed by castle-generated violence,' which produced a revolutionary change in the social order. Duby further linked this new form of domination to the development and popularization in the 1020s of the paradigm of the three orders-the heaven sanctioned obligation of the many who work to serve those who fight and those who pray.  A summary of this view was offered by J-P Poly and Eric Bournazel, The Feudal Transformation, 900-1200 (French 1980, trans 1991). This feudal transformation (mutation) or 'revolution' described a cluster of changes: 1) collapse of public justice, 2) new regimes of arbitrary lordship over recently subjected and often intimidated peasants, 3) the multiplication of knights and castles, and 4) a new ideology of the three orders. Thus while fiefs and vassals could be found in the eighth and ninth centuries, 'feudalism' arose only around the millennium. The most extreme statement of this view is by Guy Bois (1989) who saw the persistence of the antique order-characterized by private property and slave labor--lasting until around the year 1000 when it was swept away.

The reaction against the “Feudal Transformation” thesis was not slow in coming. Dominique Barthélemy'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 Barthélemy 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 county of Maine have echoed Bathelemy’s for the Vendomais. Recently David Bates, a specialist in early Norman history, has considered whether England experienced something akin to Bisson’s “Feudal Revolution” of the year 1000. Unsurprisingly given his area of specialization, Bates focuses on the impact of the Norman Conquest and in doing so touches on many of the same issues raised by the insular debate over the introduction of feudalism into England. Bates argues that, despite the “massive tenurial change, violence and castle-building” associated with the Norman Conquest, “when the whole is set in a broad context, continuity and evolution are the predominant characteristics” (p. 633) of English society, economy, and politics not only over the course of the eleventh century but between c.850 to c.1200.   “The main messages from England for French historiography,” he concludes, “are that feudalism, castle-building and cultural violence can co-exist with power which for the sake of convenience we can call public.”(p. 646) Bates also finds that the evidence for Normandy “points to a paradigm which acknowledges evolutionary change.”

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 Barthélemy 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.




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.” (p. 1078).  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." (p. 1088).

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 France, Italy, and Germany, but in pre-Conquest England as well.  If defined narrowly, as in Ganshof's definition (see above), “feudalism” remains a useful short-hand term to describe vertical social and political relations among the aristocracies of England and France from the mid eleventh through thirteenth centuries (and of Germany in the thirteenth century).  Susan Reynolds is right in noting that vassalage and fiefs were not the only—and perhaps not even the most prevalent—political and material ties among the European nobility of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Nonetheless, lords, retainers, and dependent tenures did exist in France, Italy, and England during those centuries and were to become ubiquitous by the early thirteenth century. This development probably had less to do with professional Italian lawyers systematizing feudal law than with the realization by rulers that they could enhance their authority by defining themselves as royal liege lords of all free men and as the fount of all landholding in their realms. It is telling that the most “feudalized” societies of the twelfth century were Norman England, Norman Sicily, and the Crusader principalities, all polities established through conquest.  William the Conqueror’s distribution of lands to his followers was on the basis of fiefs. Domesday Book describes the lands of England’s tenants-in-chief in 1087 as held de rege (“from the king”), and Henry II’s Cartae Baronum of 1166 enumerates the military obligations attached to them fifty years later. Whether Normandy (or Anglo-Saxon England) was “feudal” or not in 1066, it is indisputable that William structured the Norman settlement of his newly acquired kingdom upon the principle of dependent military tenures.  One must, however, always be aware that an ideal construct only approximates reality; the danger is mistaking the construct for reality, and either interpreting source evidence through the construct or judging the actual social, political, and tenurial relationships in a particular society, whether medieval European or not, against this ideal. The question, “was this society feudal?,” is less important than understanding the institutions and relationships of that society in their historical context.


Abels, Richard. 1988. Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England. University of California.


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. University of Chicago.


Brown, Elizabeth A. R. 1974. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe.” American Historical Review 79: 1063-1088.


Cheyette, Frederic L., ed. 1975. Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: Selected Readings. Robert E. Krieger.


……. 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 England.” Anglo-Norman Studies 4: 53-64.


Herlihy, David (ed.). The History of Feudalism. 1970. Humanities Press.


Hollister, C. Warren. 1965. Military Organization of Norman England. Oxford University.

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.

Milsom, S.F.C. The Legal Framework of English Feudalism. 1976. Cambridge University.

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. Oxford University.


Round, J. H. 1895. Feudal England. Swan Sonnenschein.& Co. (includes the essay, “The Introduction of Knight Service into England,” English Historical Review vol. 6, 1891: 417-43, 625-45).


Stephenson, Carl. 1942 Mediaeval Feudalism. Cornell University.


Stenton, Frank M. 1932. The First Century of English Feudalism 1066-1166. Oxford University.


Ms. Fijavan Brenk has posted a Finnish translation of the above web article on her blog:


Ms. Marie Stefanova has posted a Polish translation of the above web article on her blog: