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.