What is Feudalism?
A series of contractual relationships between the upper classes, designed to maintain control over land.
Feudalism flourished between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in western Europe. At its core, it was an agreement between a lord and a vassal. A person became a vassal by pledging political allegiance and providing military, political, and financial service to a lord. A lord possessed complete sovereignty over land, or acted in the service of another sovereign, usually a king. If a lord acted in the service of a king, the lord was considered a vassal of the king.
As part of the feudal agreement, the lord promised to protect the vassal and provided the vassal with a plot of land. This land could be passed on to the vassal’s heirs, giving the vassal tenure over the land. The vassal was also vested with the power to lease the land to others for profit, a practice known as subinfeudation. The entire agreement was called a fief, and a lord’s collection of fiefs was called a fiefdom.
The feudal bond was thus a combination of two key elements: fealty, or an oath of allegiance and pledge of service to the lord, and homage, or an Acknowledgment by the lord of the vassal’s tenure. The arrangement was not forced on the vassal; it was profitable for the vassal and made on mutual consent, and it fostered the allegiance necessary for royal control of distant lands.
The bond between a lord and a vassal was made in a ceremony that served to solemnize the fief. The vassal knelt before the lord and placed his hands between those of the lord as a sign of subordination. Immediately afterward, the lord raised the vassal to his feet and kissed him on the mouth to symbolize their social equality. The vassal then recited a predetermined oath of fealty, and the lord conveyed a plot of land to the vassal.
In the seventeenth century, more than three centuries after the death of this particular social practice, English scholars began to use the term feudalism to describe it. The word was derived by English scholars from foedum, the Latin form of fief. The meaning of feudalism has expanded since the seventeenth century, and it now commonly describes servitude and hierarchical oppression. However, feudalism is best understood as an initial stage in a social progression leading to private ownership of land and the creation of different estates, or interests in land.
Before feudalism, the European population consisted only of wealthy nobility and poor peasants. Little incentive existed for personal loyalty to sovereign rulers. Land was owned outright by nobility, and those who held land for lords held it purely at the lords’ will. Nevertheless, the feudal framework was preceded by similar systems, so its exact origin is disputed by scholars. Ancient Romans, and Germanic tribes in the eighth century, gave land to warriors, but unlike land grants under feudalism, these were not hereditary.
In the early ninth century, control of Europe was largely under the rule of one man, Emperor Charlemagne (771–814). After Charlemagne’s death, his descendants warred over land ownership, and Europe fell apart into thousands of seigniories, or kingdoms run by a sovereign lord. Men in the military service of lords began to press for support in the late ninth century, especially in France. Lords acquiesced, realizing the importance of a faithful military.
Military men, or knights, began to receive land, along with peasants for farmwork. Eventually, knights demanded that their estates be hereditary. Other persons in the professional service of royalty also began to demand and receive hereditary fiefs, and thus began the reign of feudalism.
In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England from France and spread the feudal framework across the land. The feudal relationship between lord and vassal became the linchpin of English society. To become a vassal was no disgrace. Vassals held an overall status superior to that of peasants and were considered equal to lords in social status. They took leadership positions in their locality and also served as advisers for lords in feudal courts.
The price of a vassal’s power was allegiance to the lord, or fealty. Fealty carried with it an obligation of service, the most common form being knight service. A vassal under knight service was obliged to defend the fief from invasion and fight for a specified number of days in an offensive war. In wartime, knight service also called for guard duty at the lord’s castle for a specified period of time. In lieu of military service, some vassals were given socage, or tenure in exchange for the performance of a variety of duties. These duties were usually agricultural, but they could take on other forms, such as personal attendance to the lord. Other vassals were given scutage, in which the vassal agreed to pay money in lieu of military service. Priests received still other forms of tenure in exchange for their religious services.
A lord also enjoyed incidental benefits and rights in connection with a fief. For example, when a vassal died, the lord was entitled to a large sum of money from the vassal’s heirs. If the heir was a minor, the lord could sell or give away custody of the land and enjoy its profits until the heir came of age. A lord also had the right to reject the marriage of an heiress to a fief if he did not want the husband as his vassal. This kind of family involvement by the lord made the feudal relationship intimate and complex.
The relationship between a lord and a vassal depended on mutual respect. If the vassal refused to perform services or somehow impaired the lord’s interests, the lord could file suit against the vassal in feudal court to deprive him of his fief. At the same time, the lord was expected to treat the vassal with dignity, and to refrain from making unjust demands on the vassal. If the lord abused the vassal, the vassal could break faith with the lord and offer his services to another lord, preferably one who could protect the vassal against the wrath of the defied lord.
Predictably, the relationship between lord and vassal became a struggle for a reduction in the services required by the fief. Lords, as vassals of the king, joined their own vassals in revolt against the high cost of the feudal arrangement. In England, this struggle culminated in the Magna Charta, a constitutional document sealed by King John (1199–1216) in 1215 that signaled the beginning of the end for feudalism. The Magna Charta, forced on King John by his lords, contained 38 chapters outlining demands for liberty from the Crown, including limitations on the rights of the Crown over land.
Other circumstances also contributed to the decline of feudalism. As time passed, the power of organized religion increased, and religious leaders pressed for freedom from their service to lords and kings. At the same time, the development of an economic wealth apart from land led to the rise of a bourgeoisie, or middle class. The middle class established independent cities in Europe, which funded their military with taxes, not land-based feudal bonds. Royal sovereigns and cities began to establish parliamentary governments that made laws to replace the various rules attached to the feudal bond, and feudal courts lost jurisdiction to royal or municipal courts. By the fourteenth century, the peculiar arrangement known as feudalism was obsolete.
Feudalism is often confused with manorialism, but the two should be kept separate. Manorialism was another system of land use practiced in medieval Europe. Under it, peasants worked and lived on a lord’s land, called a manor. The peasants could not inherit the land, and the lord owed them nothing beyond protection and maintenance.
Feudalism should also be distinguished from the general brutality and oppression of medieval Europe. The popular understanding of feudalism often equates the bloody conquests of the medieval period (500–1500) with feudalism because feudalism was a predominant social framework for much of the period. However, feudalism was a relatively civil arrangement in an especially vicious time and place in history. The relationship of a vassal to a lord was servile, but it was also based on mutual respect, and feudalism stands as the first systematic, voluntary sale of inheritable land.
The remains of feudalism can be found in contemporary law regarding land. For example, a rental agreement is made between a landlord and a tenant, whose business relationship echoes that of a lord and a vassal. State property taxes on landowners resemble the services required of a vassal, and like the old feudal lords, state governments may take possession of land when a landowner dies with no will or heirs.
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