Introduction to Feudalism

Feudalism, the prevailing form of political organization in western and central Europe from 900 to 1300. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D. it had become increasingly difficult for any government to rule effectively over a large area. Feudalism—a special method of local, rather than central, government—saved Europe from anarchy.

Feudal government depended on personal agreements between a number of individuals who possessed military power. These individuals usually had landed estates. They owed loyalty not to a nation, but only to those individuals with whom they had made agreements. The methods by which they received the products of their estates and ruled their workers constitute another aspect of feudalism, called the manorial, or seignorial, system.

Many historians believe that the term feudalism cannot be restricted to the government of medieval Europe. Russia, China, the Byzantine Empire, India, and, particularly, Japan had at certain times institutions resembling those of European feudalism.

Features of Feudalism

Feudal practices varied in different regions of Europe and at different times. The features of feudalism listed below are characteristic of 11th- and 12th-century France, and are considered typical.

Lord and Vassal

The feudal hierarchy was an arrangement of rank resembling a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid was the king. In the feudal relationship the king was the suzerain, or lord, of a group of dukes and counts who were his vassals. Each of these vassals was in turn lord to lesser vassals, who had even less important vassals. At the bottom of the pyramid were the knights, who had no vassals.

Lord and vassal owed certain obligations to each other. The vassal pledged to perform certain services for his lord, and in return the lord granted him a fief, or fee.(The fief was also called a feud, or feod, from which historians derived the term feudalism.)

The Fief

A fief was anything that was considered useful or valuable. Usually, a fief was a piece of land, jurisdiction over the peasants who lived on the land, and ownership of the goods they produced. All fiefs were technically owned by the king, but a vassal held, in effect, all the rights of ownership of the fief as long as he performed the services required by his lord. (This method of holding another's land is called feudal tenure.) The entire kingdom was divided into fiefs, except for the land held by the king personally.

Feudal tenure was hereditary. When a vassal died, his heir did homagefor his fief and swore an oath of fealtyto his lord, promising to be faithful and render service. In the ceremony of investiture, the lord handed his vassal some symbol—such as a sword or a clod of earth—in token of title, and promised to defend the vassal's fief.

If a vassal died leaving a minor heir, the lord usually became the guardian of the fief and managed it. If the heir was an unmarried daughter, the lord could select a husband for her because only a male could perform the services of the fief.

Feudal Services

The services that a vassal owed his lord varied, but the following were common:

  • Military, or Knight, Service. A vassal was expected to serve his lord in war. Usually he served 40 days a year at his own expense if engaged in an offensive action against his lord's enemy. In a defensive action the term of service was unlimited. A knight was expected to furnish only his horse and armor, but great vassals had to supply hundreds of knights and men-at-arms.
  • Court Service. Vassals had to serve, when summoned, in the lord's court. They were called upon to give the lord advice. They also met in assembly to settle disputes between vassals. This was the origin of the principle of trial by a jury of peers, or equals. (Commonly, however, disputes between vassals were settled by combat.) Vassals were also summoned for ceremonial occasions, such as investitures.
  • Financial Obligations. They included:
  • A relief, or gift, to the lord when the fief passed to an heir. It amounted usually to a year's income.
  • Aids, payments made by vassals when their lord needed additional resources. A common aid was to help ransom the lord when he was taken prisoner in war. Other aids were given when the lord's eldest daughter was married and when his eldest son became a knight.
  • Obligation to entertain the lord when he paid a visit.

A great lord would sometimes ennoble officials in his household and give them fiefs in return for their services. Among these officials were the sheriff, steward, bailiff, constable, marshal, butler, and chamberlain of a large estate. Their obligations consisted of the fulfillment of their responsibilities as household officials. They enjoyed the same feudal rights as other vassals. This type of tenure was called sergeanty.

Feudal Warfare

A powerful vassal who did not fulfill his obligations could usually withstand his lord's wrath if he owned a strong castle, since medieval castles were almost impossible to overrun. Forty days' service—the usual limit for knights in the attacking force—left insufficient time for siege operations.

Private warfare between nobles who were neither lord nor vassal to each other was common in France, since the king could not control the vassals of his vassals. The church sought to limit strife by forbidding warfare on certain days of the week and during church festivals. Chivalry developed as a code of conduct for knights.

The Manorial, Or Seignorial, System

The social and economic organization of a fief was based upon the manor, a district held by a feudal lord (seigneur). A manor could be an entire fief or only part. Generally, it included a village and fields, barns, mills, granaries, and sources of water. From the manor's production, a lord derived the resources he needed to support his family and to meet his obligations to his lord. For peasants, the manor provided protection and basic necessities.

The non-noble residents of a manor belonged to two main classes, freemanand serf.Various classes of peasants, at different times and in different places, were called villeins.Depending on time and place, a villein's status ranged from that of freeman to that of slave.

  • Freeman. Freemen were tenants of the manor who paid rent, usually in produce. Sometimes they had to perform labor service for the lord. They were free to leave the manor, but while living there were subject to the lord's jurisdiction.
  • Serf. Serfs were semifree peasants who worked a feudal lord's land and paid him certain dues in return for protection and the use of land. They were subject to the lord's jurisdiction at all times. A serf could not be married or leave the manor without the lord's consent. A serf's personal possessions could be taken by the lord as taxes. However, serfs were not slaves and could not be sold. Most peasants in western Europe during the Middle Ages were serfs.

The Manorial Economy.The manor was a self-sufficient economic unit. Artisans made essential goods. The land was divided into closed(fenced) and common(shared) lands.

Closed Lands

consisted of two or three fields, one of which was left fallow in rotating order. The lord's land, called the demesne, was between one-third and one-half of the total. Serfs usually owed from one to three days a week labor on the demesne. The remaining area was divided into many strips and distributed among the serfs so that they could farm it for themselves. In all a typical serf had perhaps 30 acres (12 hectares) of farmland. A certain amount of the serf's crops went to the lord as rent.

Common Lands

included the meadows, pastures, and forests. The serfs harvested hay from the meadow for the lord's livestock and, in return, were permitted to harvest some for their own use. A similar arrangement existed for the gathering of firewood. If a serf's cow grazed on the pasture, the serf paid a fee to the lord in the form of meat or dairy products.

The lord owned all the mills and ovens in the village. Operating a private mill or oven was illegal. Thus, peasants had no choice but to grind their grain in the lord's mills and bake their bread in his ovens. For each of these services, they had to pay a fee in the form of grain or bread.

The standard of living on a manor was poor, even for nobles. Castles and manor houses were damp and poorly heated. Peasants lived in flimsy huts with dirt floors and no windows. Diet varied, but if the harvest was bad, the entire manor suffered.

Seignorial Jurisdiction

The lord was the sole authority over the residents of the manor. He presided over the manorial court, where disputes between serfs were settled and individuals accused of committing crimes were tried. The rank of a feudal lord was reflected in the types of punishments he was permitted to impose; low justicemeant that the lord was limited to ordering punishment for misdemeanors, while high justiceallowed him to order punishment for serious crimes. Lords in France could impose the death penalty. In England, only royal courts could impose this sentence.

Origin and Development of Feudalism

Feudalism had its origin in Roman and early Germanic practices. The Romans employed methods of land tenure other than simple ownership. Precariumwas a land grant by a landowner to someone who offered service in return for protection. Beneficiumwas precarium for a fixed time, often for life. Vassalage, the holding of another's land in return for homage and fealty, and immunity, a powerful individual's exemption from the king's jurisdiction, also existed. Commendationwas a practice among Germanic warriors of voluntarily surrendering land and freedom to a more powerful warrior in return for protection.

The absence of any lasting, central authority after the decline of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century required many individuals to make personal arrangements for their safety. The need for such arrangements became acute because of raids during the 5th through the 11th centuries by Germanic tribes, Vikings, and Saracens. The chaos created by the raids helped the practices of precarium, vassalage, immunity, and commendation to evolve into feudalism.

Feudal France

Feudalism first took definite form in France during the 9th and 10th centuries. Wealthy landowners and warriors built castles to protect themselves and their followers. Beneficia became hereditary fiefs as kings were no longer powerful enough to reclaim land grants. Nobles also proclaimed rights of seignorial jurisdiction and immunity from royal authority.

English Feudalism

Anglo-Saxon England was not a feudal society, although large landowners, called earls, had extensive powers. William the Conqueror introduced feudalism in 1066, but maintained royal authority by requiring all intermediate and lesser vassals to swear fealty directly to him. Important vassals were given scattered tracts of land to keep them from controlling a region.

German Feudalism

Otto I (reigned 936–73) strengthened the German throne at the expense of the nobles, and in 962 he was crowned first Holy Roman Emperor. However, several factors weakened royal power: the elective nature of the German throne, the involvement of German kings in Italian affairs, and the ongoing struggle between various emperors and popes. The end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in 1254 ended prospects for strong royal rule, and German feudalism endured for centuries.

Other Countries

The early revival of trade in northern Italy created a league of city-states that became virtually independent of both royal and feudal authority. Southern Italy and Sicily were conquered by the Normans in the 11th century and became a feudal kingdom.

Feudalism was introduced by conquest into Palestine by the Crusaders, and into the Baltic lands by the Teutonic Knights. The Scandinavian nations adopted certain feudal customs but remained largely non-feudal.

The Church and Feudalism

During the early Middle Ages, the church was in disarray because of political disorder in Europe. Powerful nobles seized church lands and divided them into fiefs for their supporters. Many of these nobles claimed the right of investing high church officials with the symbols of office, in effect becoming their overlords. Attempts by the church to end this practice led to the Investiture Controversy (1075–1122). The controversy ended in a compromise and the church regained some authority.

Decline of Feudalism

The success of the feudal system resulted in a new age of prosperity and progress, during which feudal institutions became outmoded. By 1500 little remained of feudalism in western Europe.

Growth of Trade and Towns

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the use of money, rather than goods, as a means of exchange led to a revival of commerce. A merchant class developed, renting land in places suitable for trade, often near a castle or abbey. These settlements often became thriving marketplaces for all sorts of goods. For a fee, a commercial settlement could obtain a charter from the local lord, establishing it as a town and giving it the authority to govern itself. Many lords were willing to grant charters to ensure a market for agricultural produce nearby.

Decline of Serfdom

The revival of commerce and the widespread use of money altered the relations between feudal lord and serf. Lords began to rent out their lands to tenant farmers. Some serfs, by engaging in trade, were able to substitute a money payment for their feudal obligations and become tenant farmers. The labor shortage and the rise in wages caused by the Black Death in the 14th century led some nobles to temporarily forbid the substitution of money payments for feudal obligations. By the end of the Middle Ages, however, many serfs had become able to purchase their freedom and most feudal lords had become landlords.

Rise of Royal Power

As stability and security in Europe were gradually restored during the Middle Ages, the demand for a feudal knight's military service declined. At relatively low cost, monarchs were able to assemble large mercenary armies, which they used to conquer feudal domains and to reestablish royal authority.

All of these factors led to the end of feudalism as a system of government. In France royal authority increased steadily after 1200. In England the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485) weakened the nobility and led to the establishment of strong monarchial rule by the Tudor dynasty. In Germany no strong monarchy developed. Feudalism was succeeded by a system of hundreds of small princely states until Prussia unified the country in the 19th century.

Remnants of Feudalism

Aspects of feudalism remained in practice after the Middle Ages. Feudal land tenure was not abolished in England until 1660 and in France until the French Revolution in 1789. The nobility, after losing its feudal powers, continued as an aristocracy. The French Revolution and the rise of liberalism in the 19th century swept away most feudal privileges. The last country to abolish serfdom was Russia, in 1861.

Although the feudal system no longer exists, certain feudal customs have survived —even in republics such as the United States. The idea of government as an agreement between ruler and ruled owes much to the lord-vassal relationship. Political units such as counties and parishes, and local offices such as sheriff, constable, and bailiff, reflect feudal origins. Many rules of etiquette originated as part of the feudal knight's code of chivalry.