Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Feudalism
Feudalism is the name given to the dominant set of legal and economic customs which defined European life largely from the 9th to 14th centuries. In the most general sense, feudalism structured all of society around relationships between land owners and those who work the land. Although there is not single, ultimate definition of feudalism, the word is used to describe the reciprocal military and legal obligations between three parties: the lord, the vassal and the fief. The lord was the land-owning member of the nobility and the vassal was the person granted possession of a portion of the land (the fief) in exchange for service to the lord. The service could either take the form of military service or manual labor in the upkeep of the land's agriculture. In an era where there was no real sense of what would become known as the market economy, feudalism became an effective way to organize labor and structure economic life.
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. It derived from "feodal" which was used in seventeenth-century French legal treatises (1614) 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). In the 19th century the adjective "feudal" (i.e. "the feudal government") evolved into a noun: feudalism.
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). Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents. The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below.
The most widely held theory is put forth by historian Marc Bloch. Bloch said it is related to the Frankish term fehu-ôd, in which fehu means "cattle" and -ôd means "goods", implying "a moveable object of value." Another theory was put forward by Archibald R. Lewis. Lewis said the origin of 'fief' is not feudum (or feodum), but rather foderum (fodder). Another theory by Alauddin Samarrai suggests an Arabic origin, from fuyū (the plural of fay, which literally means "the returned", and was used especially for 'land that has been conquered from enemies that did not fight').
There is no broadly accepted modern definition of feudalism. The adjective "feudal" was coined in the 17th century; although the noun "feudalism," often used in a political and propaganda context by radicals during the French Revolution and developed by Marxist historians, was not coined until the 19th century. By the mid-20th century, François Louis Ganshof's Feudalism, 3rd ed. (1964; originally published in French, 1947), became a standard scholarly definition of feudalism. Since at least the 1960s, when Marc Bloch's Feudal Society (1939) was first translated into English in 1961, many medieval historians have already included a broader social aspect that includes not only the nobility but all three estates of the realm, adding the peasantry bonds of manorialism and the estates of the Church; this is sometimes referred to as "feudal society" since it encompasses all members of society into the feudal system. 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.
Outside a European context, the concept of feudalism is normally used only by analogy (called semi-feudal), most often in discussions of feudal 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, the Parthian empire, the Indian subcontinent, and the Antebellum and Jim Crow American South.
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. Some historians and political theorists believe that the term feudalism has been deprived of specific meaning by the many ways it has been used, leading them to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.
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 regime or a period dominated by lords who possess financial or social power and prestige, became widely held in the 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). In the 18th century, writers of the Enlightenment wrote about feudalism 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. 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 labour services owed by serfs to landowning nobles.
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. Marx thus defined feudalism primarily by its economic characteristics. Many later Marxist theorists (e.g. Eric Wolfe) have generalized this characterization to include non-European societies, grouping feudalism together with Imperial Chinese and pre-Columbian Incan societies as 'tributary.'
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, historian François-Louis 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 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, French historian Marc 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.
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.
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 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. 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.