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Feudalism is a much-contested term in world history. Scholars most often use it to describe certain political (and sometimes economic) systems in the preindustrial world, but they have not agreed on the characteristics that define a system as feudal. As a term that is paradoxically both too vague and too precise, an increasing number of historians consider it best avoided except in very restricted historical fields of study.
Feudalism has most often been used to describe the political fragmentation and arrangements for raising military manpower that allegedly arose in Europe around the ninth century and theoretically persisted for many centuries thereafter. Most historians of medieval Europe, however—especially military historians, for whom the term should ostensibly be most germane— now consider it a misleading term that does more to obscure than to illuminate our view of the past.
History of the Term
Though based on the medieval word feudum (Latin for fief), reformers in the eighteenth century coined the word feudalism to describe (unfavorably) the system of rights and privileges enjoyed by the French aristocracy, especially with regard to their landholdings and their peasant tenants. This broad socioeconomic meaning was taken up and extended by Marxist historians, for whom the “feudal mode of production” succeeded the classical mode and preceded the capitalist mode. For military historians, this definition has always been far too broad. Indeed, if a privileged landholding class and a subject peasantry constitutes feudalism, then most civilizations before the industrial revolution were feudal, and the term loses its analytic usefulness. In this sense feudalism also becomes conflated with manorialism (the organization of rural production into manors held by lords and worked by subject peasant labor).
Feudalism and Military History
Military historians have usually taken a more restricted view of feudalism. For them, it is the system of raising troops in which a lord grants a fief—typically a piece of land—to a vassal (Latin vassus). In return, the vassal gave the lord a defined and limited term of military service, usually forty days a year and usually as a knight—a fully armed and armored horseman. Sometimes the lord provided the armor and weapons, but often the vassal provided his own. The fief was the payment for service and was also known as “the knight’s fee.” Feudalism in this sense has often been taken as the sign of a weak central authority with limited cash resources, forced to substitute land for cash and to devolve local power to its aristocracy; in fact feudal is often used simply as (somewhat misleading) shorthand for “decentralized polity dominated by a powerful warrior aristocratic class.” But not all decentralized polities raised troops using land-for-service arrangements, nor were all polities that did utilize such arrangements weak, poor, or decentralized.
Indeed, these arrangements did not even characterize what has been regarded as the prototypical feudal society of northwestern Europe from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. Recent research has traced modern conceptions of feudal service to the terms and definitions of the Libri Feudorum, an Italian legal handbook written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Its academic view of fiefs and vassals became the basis for the sixteenth-century interpretations of feudal institutions that have held sway ever since. However, this picture of feudal service and the legalistic hierarchy of landholding rights associated with it does not fit the medieval evidence. Feudum and vassus were vague and mutable terms, and European military systems from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries were far more varied, flexible, and rational than conventional interpretations have supposed.
Restricted service in return for granted land was inherently limited as a basis for a military force—leaders always needed soldiers available for more than forty days a year, at the least—and this system has been overrated as the source of medieval European armies. Soldiers did serve for land, but often they were “household knights”—young men who lived with their lord and served him in military and nonmilitary capacities—who were rewarded for long service with land of their own and served in anticipation of this reward. Even service for land already granted was far less defined and restricted than the traditional “forty days a year” formula implies. “Feudal” service (unpaid service by the vassals of a lord) worked best on an informal basis: a lord in need of armed support in his local disputes and in serving his own lord (if he had one) called together the young men who were his friends, relatives, hunting and drinking companions, and social dependents, and they campaigned together, sharing the risks and rewards of warfare. Social cohesion in the lord’s military household (Latin familia) translated into military cohesion, and constant hunting and fighting together imparted smallunit skills. Restrictive and legalistic terms of service played almost no role in such arrangements.
There are also problems, however, with defining feudalism more generally as a landed support system for unpaid military service. First, individuals and groups also served for pay in medieval Europe from an early date, wherever economic conditions made it possible and even when they owed “feudal” service. Paid service became increasingly common in the period after 1050. Second, in a global context there have been many forms of “soldiers’ lands” in different times and places, in combination with paid and unpaid service. Some involved the granting, not of possession of a particular piece of land, but of income rights over the land. Income rights were often, in fact, granted from several different pieces of land. Arrangements such as these, which entailed no direct link between the military manpower supported by landed income and the peasant manpower working the lands, differ fundamentally in type from arrangements in which the warrior who was granted the land assumed legal control over the peasant population and managerial control over the output of the estate. Indeed, in some cases the military manpower supported by designated “soldiers’ lands” was not in a position of social and political dominance—it was not, in short, a warrior aristocracy, but instead constituted a sort of militia. Arrangements such as these also differ in type from those that were set up for a dominant warrior elite.
Therefore, to call all land-for-service systems of supporting military manpower “feudal” is to arrive again at an overly broad definition, akin to the problem of the Marxist definition of feudalism, which makes no useful distinctions between systems and their individual characteristics. To try to distinguish some such systems as “feudal” while excluding others has inevitably involved privileging the characteristics of the European model in order to arrive at criteria for inclusion, for no reason than that it was studied (and called feudal) first—a pernicious instance of Eurocentrism. Military historians are thus increasingly avoiding the term, and are turning instead to functional descriptions of the world’s (and Europe’s) varied military systems of landed support, militia service, and the social hierarchies that accompanied them.
Feudalism and Legal History
Legal historians of high medieval Europe, on the other hand, can more confidently lay claim to the term feudal in their sphere of inquiry: in the more settled European conditions of the twelfth century and later, the informal arrangements of an earlier age tended to crystallize into formal legal arrangements with defined terms of service and inheritance rights on the part of the vassal. This process marked the decline of “feudalism” as a viable military system, but the rise of feudalism as a fundamental legal system. Indeed, the lord-vassal tie of landholding became crucial as one of two key bonds (along with marriage, which it resembled) among the European aristocracy. The twelfth-century English system of fief law became the basis of most later English estate law and thence of modern American property law.
Feudal property law has a definite history, but perhaps because that history is so clearly tied to the specific times, places, and legal systems that generated it, legal historians—whose stock-in-trade tends to be particulars rather than generalities—have not been tempted to see feudal property law as a transcultural historical phenomenon. The mistake for nonlegal historians is to read the legal history of high and late medieval Europe back into the political, military, and economic spheres of early medieval Europe, and then to extend that misreading to other areas of the world in the search for a general type of society.
Feudalism and Comparative History
An example of such a historical misreading is provided by the study of “feudalism” in Japan between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. The dominance in Japan from Kamakura times of a rural warrior aristocracy in the context of somewhat weak central government has long invited comparison of Japan with medieval Europe, where similar conditions prevailed. Such comparisons have almost always been cast in terms of feudalism: since the traditional model of feudalism arose from the study of western Europe, looking for feudalism elsewhere risks shoehorning non-European histories into a European mold. This raises the possibility of misreading the evidence to find anticipated feudal characteristics, or, if a different trajectory is seen, of explaining what went “wrong” in the non-European case.
This tendency has afflicted Western views of Sengoku Japan, the period during the sixteenth century when Japan was divided into warring domains headed by daimyos, or local lords. The feudal model has led many historians to see the Sengoku age as the epitome of feudal breakdown and anarchy. Daimyo domains are equated with the small castellanies and lordships of northern France, the feudal kingdom (French and Japanese) taken as the unit of comparison because of the prominence of weak central authority in the feudal model. By emphasizing the division of the larger political unit, however, this view obscures important forces of unity and political cohesion that were developing within the daimyo domains during this period. Without the feudal preconception, daimyo domains appear more readily as independent polities within a Japan that is more akin to Europe as a whole than to any one kingdom within Europe.
At a lower level of the feudal model, the European norm has inspired numerous comparisons of the structures of warrior society—for example of Japanese landed estates with manors, and of Japanese income rights, granted to warrior families by the central government in exchange for military service, with fiefs—that often obscure the important differences between the two societies more than they illuminate their commonalities. This problem, too, is most critical in the Sengoku age, when massive daimyo armies must be explained, in the context of the feudal model, in terms of a more “impersonal and bureaucratic feudalism” than existed in Europe (J.R. Strayer, cited in Morillo 2003). “Bureaucratic feudalism” is a self-contradictory concept that dissolves on close inspection.
Application of the feudal model to Japan has also invited the equating of terms that occupy apparently analogous places in the model but that may not be so similar. The comparison of samurai to knights is the best example of this: the terms knight and samurai do not designate closely similar phenomena; the class connotations of the former make it closer to the bushi of pre-Tokugawa Japan. Equating samurai and knights also implies similarities between the fighting styles and techniques of the two kinds of warrior, when in fact their tactics differed significantly—especially, again, in the Sengoku age, with its samurai armies of disciplined massed infantry formations. The case of so-called feudalism in Japan thus serves as a caution against the hasty comparison of terms and models derived too narrowly from one culture.
A Term in Decline
In short, “feudalism” in world history is a historiographical phenomenon, not a historical one. “Feudal” and “feudalism” are terms that have failed to cohere into agreed-upon concepts. They purport to describe a type of society that is valid across cultures; but describing the fundamental elements of such a society entails imposing a Eurocentric privileging of a European model that itself does not conform well to the most basic elements usual to a definition of the term. The alternative to clarity seems to be a broad definition of feudalism that fails to make useful conceptual distinctions among the societies to which the term is applied. As a result, it has become a term in decline.
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