AskDefine | Define feudalism

Dictionary Definition

feudalism n : the social system that developed in Europe in the 8th C; vassals were protected by lords who they had to serve in war [syn: feudal system]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • IPA /ˈfju.dɫ̩ɪzm/


feudalism (uncountable)
  1. A social system based on personal ownership of resources and personal fealty between a suzerain (lord) and a vassal (subject). Some social-evolutionary theories hold that mankind is evolving through several stages that started with communism and will ultimately return there, having passed through classical society, feudalism, and capitalism, although these phases seem more characteristic of Europe than elsewhere. Defining characteristics are direct ownership of resources, personal loyalty, and a hierarchical social structure reinforced by religion.

Related terms


social system
  • Croatian: feudalizam
  • Finnish: feodalismi
  • French: féodalisme
  • German: Feudalismus
  • Japanese: 封建制度
  • Polish: feudalizm
  • Slovak: feudalizmus
  • Spanish: feudalismo

Extensive Definition

Feudalism, a term first used in the early modern period (17th century), in its most classic sense refers to a Medieval Europe political system comprised of a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs. It often occurs alongside Manorialism.
Although derived from the Latin word feodum (fief), then in use, the term feudalism and the "system" it purports to describe were not conceived of as a formal political system by the people living in the Medieval Period.
Defining feudalism requires qualifiers because there is not a broadly accepted agreement of what it means. In order to understand feudalism, a working definition is desirable and the definition described in this article is the most senior and classic definition still subscribed to by many historians.
Other definitions of feudalism exist. Since at least the 1960s, many medieval historians have included a broader social aspect, adding the peasantry bonds of manorialism, referred to as a "feudal society". Still others, since the 1970s, have re-examined the evidence and concluded that feudalism is an unworkable term and should be removed entirely from scholarly and educational discussion (see Revolt against the term feudalism), or at least used only with severe qualification and warning.
Outside of 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. However, some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing it in places as diverse as Ancient Egypt, Parthian empire, India, to the American South of the nineteenth century. The term feudal 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. Ultimately, the many ways the term feudalism has been used has deprived it of specific meaning, leading many historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.


The earliest known use of the term feudal was in the 17th century (1614), when the system it purported to describe was rapidly vanishing or gone entirely. No writer in the period in which feudalism was supposed to have flourished ever used the word itself. It was a pejorative word used to describe any law or custom that was seen as unfair or out-dated. Most of these laws and customs were related in some way to the medieval institution of the fief (Latin: feodum, a word which first appears on a Frankish charter dated 884), and thus lumped together under this single term. "Feudalism" comes from the French féodalisme, a word coined during the French Revolution.


The social and economic system which characterized most European societies in the Middle Ages goes by the name of feudalism. The system, in its most basic essence—the granting of land in return for military service—has appeared all over the world in many different kinds of society—Japan under the shogunates in the 16th century, for example.
The center of the feudal system in medieval Europe was the king, and a medieval king was, above everything else, a warrior. From the 9th to the 14th centuries—the heyday of feudalism—the most important element in making war was the armored and mounted knight. To maintain a retinue of knights was, however, very expensive. In return for providing the king with warriors, tenants-in-chief were granted large holding of land. A grant of land was known as a "feud" or a "fief": hence the term "feudalism". The tenants-in-chief (commonly called barons in England) received their lands directly from the king and, in turn, leased parts of their estates to the knights, who in their turn gave leases to yeomen. That, at any rate, was the theory. There were places where feudalism scarcely gained a hold, and where men held with no obligation to anyone else: such unfettered ownership of land, known as an allod, was, for instance, prevalent in the south of France and Spain.
Feudalism, by its very nature, gave rise to a hierarchy of rank, to a predominantly static social structure in which every man knew his place, according to whom it was that he owed service and from whom it was that he received his land. In order to preserve existing relationships in perpetuity, rights of succession to land were strictly controlled by various laws, or customs, of entail. The most rigid control was provided by the custom of primogeniture, by which all property of a deceased landholder must pass intact to his eldest son.
Every man was the vassal, or servant, of his lord. He swore homage to him, and in return the lord promised to give him protection and to see that he received justice. In theory, then, feudalism was the expression of a society in which every man was bound to every other by mutual ties of loyalty and service. In fact, feudal society was marked by a vast gulf between the very few, very rich, great landholders and the mass of the poor who worked for the profit of the nobility. (The nobility included bishops, for the Church was one of the greatest of medieval landowners.) At the bottom of the social pyramid were the agricultural laborers, or villeins, and beneath them, the peasants, or serfs.
Until the rise of powerful monarchies with central bureaucracies, it was the lord of the manor who was the real ruler of society. The peasant worked the land for him and owed him a number of feudal dues (more and more commuted to money payments as time went by); justice was dispensed in the manorial courts. Customs varied, but it was common for a peasant to have a small plot, or to share a communal plot, on which to grow food for himself and his family and to be entitled to gather firewood from forest land for the hearth fire. More common than single plots, however, was the system of dividing the land into strips, with each household's strips scattered about the manor.
Western feudalism, evolving in turbulent eighth-century France, offered aristocratic landowners potential security in the absence of law and order. By concession or usurpation, major landowners assumed substantial legal and governmental power from the central government and proceeded through private arrangements with lesser landowners to create local militias for defensive purposes. Inherently particularistic and initially undisciplined, feudalism enveloped the monarchy itself. Feudalism evolved its own system of law and code of ethics for its members as it spread throughout Europe to assume a dominant role in the political and cultural history of the Middle Ages. Introduced to England in 1066 by William the Conqueror, who substantially curbed the powers of all feudal vassals while retaining considerable central authority, feudalism incorporated three elements: personal, property, and governmental. All members, including the monarchs who headed the feudal system, enjoyed specific rights but were also bound by feudal law to perform fixed obligations.


See also Feudal society and Examples of feudalism
Three primary elements characterized feudalism: lords, vassals and fiefs; the structure of feudalism can be seen in how these three elements fit together. A lord was a noble who owned 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 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 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 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. 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. 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's principal obligation was 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's principal obligation to the lord was 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 the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal sometimes had to fulfill other obligations to the lord. One of those obligations was to provide the lord with "counsel", so that 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 vassal may have been required to yield a certain amount of his farm's output to his lord. The vassal was also sometimes required to grind his own wheat and bake his own bread in the mills and ovens owned and taxed by his lord.
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.
There were thus different 'levels' of lordship and vassalage. The King was a lord who loaned fiefs to aristocrats, who were his vassals. Meanwhile the aristocrats were in turn lords to their own vassals, Knights who were in turn lords of the manor to the peasants who worked on the land. Ultimately, the Emperor was a lord who loaned fiefs to Kings, who were his vassals. This traditionally formed the basis of a 'universal monarchy' as an imperial alliance and a world order.

History of feudalism

In order to understand better what the term feudalism means, it is helpful to see how it was defined and how it has been used since its seventeenth-century creation.

Invention of the concept

The word feudalism was not a medieval term but an invention of 16th century French and English lawyers to describe certain traditional obligations between members of the warrior aristocracy. Not until 1748 did it become a popular and widely used word, thanks to Montesquieu's De L'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws).

Enlightenment thinkers on feudalism

In the 18th century, writers of the Enlightenment wrote about feudalism in order to denigrate the antiquated system of the Ancien Régime, 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.

Karl Marx on feudalism

Karl Marx also used the term in political analysis. In the 19th century, Marx described feudalism as the economic situation coming before the inevitable 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. “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Marx thus considered feudalism within a purely economic model.
Marxian theorists have been discussing feudalism for the past 150 years. A renowned example is the extensive debate over feudalism and capitalism between the noted Marxian economist Paul Sweezy and his British colleague Maurice Dobb. (See also mode of production.)

Historians on feudalism

Among medievalists, the term feudalism is one of the most disputed concepts.

Debating the origins of English feudalism

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 imported feudalism, while Maitland contended that its fundamentals were already in place in Britain. The debate continues to this day.

Ganshof and the classic view of feudalism

A historian whose concept of feudalism was highly influential in the 20th century is François-Louis Ganshof. Ganshof defines 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 and also the easiest to understand: simply put, when a lord granted a fief to a vassal, the vassal provided military service in return.

Marc Bloch and sociological views of feudalism

One of Ganshof's contemporaries, a French historian named Marc Bloch, was arguably the most influential 20th century medieval historian. 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). 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 hierarchal relationship between lords and vassals, but Bloch saw as well a similar relationship obtaining between lords and peasants.
It is this radical notion that peasants were part of the 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. (See Feudal society.)

Revolt against the term feudalism

In 1974, U.S. historian Elizabeth A. R. Brown 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. In Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted (1994), Susan Reynolds expanded upon Brown's original thesis. Although some contemporaries questioned Reynolds's methodology, other historians have supported it and her argument. Note that Reynolds does not object to the Marxist use of 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. Ultimately, critics say, the many ways the term feudalism has been used have deprived it of specific meaning, leading many historians and political theorists to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.

External links

feudalism in Afrikaans: Feodalisme
feudalism in Tosk Albanian: Feudalismus
feudalism in Azerbaijani: Feodalizm
feudalism in Bosnian: Feudalizam
feudalism in Bulgarian: Феодализъм
feudalism in Catalan: Feudalisme
feudalism in Chuvash: Феодалисăм
feudalism in Czech: Feudalismus
feudalism in Danish: Feudalisme
feudalism in German: Feudalismus
feudalism in Estonian: Feodalism
feudalism in Modern Greek (1453-): Φεουδαρχία
feudalism in Spanish: Feudalismo
feudalism in Esperanto: Feŭdismo
feudalism in Basque: Feudalismo
feudalism in French: Féodalité
feudalism in Galician: Feudalismo
feudalism in Korean: 봉건 제도
feudalism in Croatian: Feudalizam
feudalism in Icelandic: Lénsskipulag
feudalism in Italian: Feudalesimo
feudalism in Hebrew: פיאודליזם
feudalism in Georgian: ფეოდალიზმი
feudalism in Latvian: Feodālisms
feudalism in Luxembourgish: Feudalismus
feudalism in Lithuanian: Feodalizmas
feudalism in Hungarian: Feudalizmus
feudalism in Macedonian: Феудализам
feudalism in Malay (macrolanguage): Feudalisme
feudalism in Dutch: Feodalisme
feudalism in Japanese: 封建制
feudalism in Norwegian: Føydalisme
feudalism in Norwegian Nynorsk: Føydalisme
feudalism in Polish: Feudalizm
feudalism in Portuguese: Feudalismo
feudalism in Romanian: Feudalism
feudalism in Russian: Феодализм
feudalism in Slovak: Feudalizmus
feudalism in Slovenian: Fevdalizem
feudalism in Serbian: Феудализам
feudalism in Finnish: Feodalismi
feudalism in Swedish: Feodalism
feudalism in Vietnamese: Phong kiến
feudalism in Turkish: Feodalizm
feudalism in Ukrainian: Феодалізм
feudalism in Urdu: جاگیر دارانہ نظام

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