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The term feudalism is used to describe a variety of social, economic, and political obligations and relationships that were prevalent in medieval Europe, especially from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, though the feudal system existed before and well after that period in several cases. For instance, serfdom was not abolished officially in czarist Russia until 1861. Feudalism also has been used to describe ancient or former social and political systems in Japan, China, India, the Middle East, and North Africa. The term is controversial and has been said to be overapplied or misapplied by historians and social scientists.
Feudalism was never a single monolithic system practiced by all societies in Europe. There was a great deal of variation across societies in the practice and rites of the feudal order in nations such as France, the German states, England, Spain, and Russia. Although feudalism in Japan, India, China, and Africa had a few common elements, those systems differed significantly from the European varieties. Nonetheless, the term feudalism has been applied most regularly and commonly to many medieval European systems of social, economic, and political organization.
The Origins of Feudalism
Feudalism emerged as a form of social, economic, and political organization after the fall of the Roman Empire between 300 and 500 CE and especially after the death of the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne in 814. The origins of feudalism are numerous and debated but tend to be identified as an intermixture of Germanic and Roman law as well as Catholic doctrine. However, its origins were as practical as they were legal or philosophical. Repeated invasions and attacks from the north and east had made the lands of the former Roman and Holy Roman empires insecure. New patterns of governance and security were required to protect crops, animals, and persons.
The feudal system was one of hierarchy in which nobles, who were sovereign over the most valuable commodity of that time—land—ruled over peasants (serfs) who were tied permanently to the land. The system was social in that it distinguished between classes: nobility and peasantry; economic in that it divided the major means of production—land for agriculture—among the elite nobility; and political in that it created a hierarchical power structure than ran from kings and other high nobles down to middle and lower nobles and finally to peasants, who had limited or no social, economic, and political power.
The Feudal Constitution
The feudal system was based on what later would be called a contract, or constitution, encompassing the obligations and allegiances that bound king to lord. The feudal contract consisted of homagium and investitures, in which a tenant offered his fealty and a commitment of support by paying homage to a lord and the lord would grant the tenant an investiture, or title over the land, for a specific tenure in return for payments. Thus, it was a mutual relationship: The lord extended his protective services to his new vassal and his lands, and the tenant agreed to pay dues of wealth, food, arms, and military service to the lord.
The lowest rung on the feudal ladder was occupied by the peasantry. Before the tenth and eleventh centuries most farmers held tenancy of their own land through contracts with regional lords or nobles. However, as invasion and attack became more significant and the costs of security increased, lords began making higher demands of their tenants. This forced more tenants into direct servitude as serfs: peasants tied to the land and in service to the lord for an extended and perhaps permanent period. Although slavery generally had disappeared from medieval Europe, the economy was dominated by labor-intensive agricultural production, and peasants were needed to perform those tasks.
The Rise and Fall of Feudalism
The feudal system expanded and became the dominant form of social, economic, and political organization in Europe because of both its success in providing security and stability and its promotion by the Catholic Church. The feudal order received strong support in the church and among the clergy, who saw its social and political hierarchy as a desirable form of governance and its economic organization as one of potential profit. The sovereignty and legitimacy of kings and nobles were tied closely to the Catholic Church, which thus was able to prosper by supporting and expanding the feudal order in Europe. The ascendancy of the church to great wealth and power coincided with the expansion of feudalism.
Feudalism began to decline in parts of western Europe by the fourteenth century as a result of pressure from a number of interrelated events. The Renaissance (starting in the late fourteenth century), the Reformation (beginning in 1517), and the Industrial Revolution (beginning in the mid-1700s) led to significant philosophical, social, economic, and political transformation across western Europe. The Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) challenged and upended the Catholic Church’s monopoly of spiritual and political authority, and the Industrial Revolution made the feudal agricultural order an anachronism. City-states and other feudal arrangements no longer were capable of providing social, economic, and political order and security in a more individualist and industrialized western Europe. The emergence of the modern state system based on nationality and the conceptions of popular and state sovereignty replaced that of the feudal state. The French Revolution of 1789 often is cited as supplying the death blow to the remnants of the ancient feudal regime. Although feudalism all but disappeared from western Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, it survived in eastern Europe and Russia, which were affected far less by the progressive influences of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution.
Feudalism has remained a topic of debate and study in the social sciences. In his early works, Karl Marx (Marx and Engels 2006) argued that feudalism, as a mode of production, was a necessary condition of societies on their way to capitalism and eventually communism. Some elements of feudal thought can be found in modern Catholic political doctrine and the principles of Christian democracy in many European societies and political parties. In addition, the feudal order has had long-standing social implications for class division, hierarchy, and identity in many European societies to the present day.
Beyond Europe, feudalism has been widely used to describe systems of elite-peasant socioeconomic and political arrangements in China, India, Japan, and especially Latin America. In the latter, latifundia relationships between landlords and peasants established during Spanish colonization survived the independence of the Latin American states. While resembling the European model imported from Spain, the feudalism of Latin America was also characterized by racial divisions between the white Spanish elite and the Indian or mixed-race peasantry, as well as imported African slaves. This, as well as other differences, have led to these systems being described as “semi-feudal” or “proto-feudal.” In conclusion, while feudalism has primarily been used in the European context, there have been numerous comparable systems in Latin America, East Asia, South Asia, and elsewhere, where the concept of feudalism may be applicable.
- Laclau, Ernesto. 1977. Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism. London: New Left Books.
- Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 2006. The Communist Manifesto, ed. Garth Stedman Jones. New York: Penguin. (Orig. pub. 1848.)
- Stephenson, Carl. 1942. Mediaeval Feudalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Vinogradoff, Paul. 1924. Feudalism. In Cambridge Medieval History, Vol. 3. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Wiarda, Howard J. 1995. Latin American Politics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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