A medieval theory in which society was deemed to be held together by ties of loyalty and obligation between persons in a hierarchy. The essential currency was land and military service, the former held in return for the latter.
Feudalism was a hierachy of lords and vassals, and it was possible to be both in relation to different persons.
Those at the bottom of the hierachy (serfs) had an excess of duties over rights.
David Miller, ed., The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)
There is no commonly accepted modern definition of feudalism, at least among scholars. The adjective feudal was in use by at least 1405, and the noun feudalism, now often employed in a political and propagandistic context, was coined by 1771, paralleling the French féodalité (feudality).
According to a classic definition by François-Louis Ganshof (1944), feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility and revolved around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs, though Ganshof himself noted that his treatment was only related to the “narrow, technical, legal sense of the word”.
A broader definition, as described in Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society (1939), includes not only the obligations of the warrior nobility but the obligations of all three estates of the realm: the nobility, the clergy, and those who lived off their labor, most directly the peasantry which was bound by a system of manorialism; this order is often referred to as a “feudal society”, echoing Bloch’s usage.
Outside its European context, the concept of feudalism is often used by analogy, most often in discussions of feudal Japan under the shoguns, and sometimes in discussions of the Zagwe dynasty in medieval Ethiopia, which had some feudal characteristics (sometimes called “semifeudal”). Some have taken the feudalism analogy further, seeing feudalism (or traces of it) in places as diverse as China during the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE), ancient Egypt, the Parthian Empire, the Indian subcontinent and the Antebellum and Jim Crow American South.
The term feudalism has also been applied—often inappropriately or pejoratively—to non-Western societies where institutions and attitudes which are similar to those which existed in medieval Europe are perceived to prevail. Some historians and political theorists believe that the term feudalism has been deprived of specific meaning by the many ways it has been used, leading them to reject it as a useful concept for understanding society.
The root of the term “feudal” originates in the Aryan word pe’ku, meaning “cattle”, and possessed cognates in many other Indo-European languages: Sanskrit pacu, “cattle”; Latin pecus (cf. pecunia) “cattle”, “money”; Old High German fehu, fihu, “cattle”, “property”, “money”; Old Frisian fia; Old Saxon fehu; Old English feoh, fioh, feo, fee. The term “féodal” was first used in 17th-century French legal treatises (1614) and translated into English legal treatises as an adjective, such as “feodal government”.
In the 18th century, Adam Smith, seeking to describe economic systems, effectively coined the forms “feudal government” and “feudal system” in his book Wealth of Nations (1776). The phrase “feudal system” appeared in 1736, in Baronia Anglica, published nine years after the death of its author Thomas Madox, in 1727. In 1771, in his History of Manchester, John Whitaker first introduced the word “feudalism” and the notion of the feudal pyramid.
The term “feudal” or “feodal” is derived from the medieval Latin word feodum. The etymology of feodum is complex with multiple theories, some suggesting a Germanic origin (the most widely held view) and others suggesting an Arabic origin. Initially in medieval Latin European documents, a land grant in exchange for service was called a beneficium (Latin). Later, the term feudum, or feodum, began to replace beneficium in the documents. The first attested instance of this is from 984, although more primitive forms were seen up to one-hundred years earlier. The origin of the feudum and why it replaced beneficium has not been well established, but there are multiple theories, described below.
The most widely held theory was proposed by Johan Hendrik Caspar Kern in 1870, being supported by, amongst others, William Stubbs and Marc Bloch. Kern derived the word from a putative Frankish term *fehu-ôd, in which *fehu means “cattle” and -ôd means “goods”, implying “a moveable object of value”. Bloch explains that by the beginning of the 10th century it was common to value land in monetary terms but to pay for it with moveable objects of equivalent value, such as arms, clothing, horses or food. This was known as feos, a term that took on the general meaning of paying for something in lieu of money. This meaning was then applied to land itself, in which land was used to pay for fealty, such as to a vassal. Thus the old word feos meaning movable property changed little by little to feus meaning the exact opposite: landed property. It has also been suggested that word comes from the Gothic faihu, meaning “property”, specifically,”cattle”.
Another theory was put forward by Archibald R. Lewis. Lewis said the origin of ‘fief’ is not feudum (or feodum), but rather foderum, the earliest attested use being in Astronomus’s Vita Hludovici (840). In that text is a passage about Louis the Pious that says annona militaris quas vulgo foderum vocant, which can be translated as “Louis forbade that military provender (which they popularly call “fodder”) be furnished..”
Another theory by Alauddin Samarrai suggests an Arabic origin, from fuyū (the plural of fay, which literally means “the returned”, and was used especially for ‘land that has been conquered from enemies that did not fight’). Samarrai’s theory is that early forms of ‘fief’ include feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others, the plurality of forms strongly suggesting origins from a loanword. The first use of these terms is in Languedoc, one of the least Germanic areas of Europe and bordering Muslim Spain. Further, the earliest use of feuum (as a replacement for beneficium) can be dated to 899, the same year a Muslim base at Fraxinetum (La Garde-Freinet) in Provence was established. It is possible, Samarrai says, that French scribes, writing in Latin, attempted to transliterate the Arabic word fuyū (the plural of fay), which was being used by the Muslim invaders and occupiers at the time, resulting in a plurality of forms – feo, feu, feuz, feuum and others – from which eventually feudum derived. Samarrai, however, also advises to handle this theory with care, as Medieval and Early Modern Muslim scribes often used etymologically “fanciful roots” in order to claim the most outlandish things to be of Arabian or Muslim origin.
Feudalism, in its various forms, usually emerged as a result of the decentralization of an empire: especially in the Carolingian Empire in 8th century AD, which lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure[clarification needed] necessary to support cavalry without allocating land to these mounted troops. Mounted soldiers began to secure a system of hereditary rule over their allocated land and their power over the territory came to encompass the social, political, judicial, and economic spheres.
These acquired powers significantly diminished unitary power in these empires. However, once the infrastructure to maintain unitary power was re-established—as with the European monarchies—feudalism began to yield to this new power structure and eventually disappeared.
The classic François-Louis Ganshof version of feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations which existed among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. In broad terms a lord was a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and protection by the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord. There were many varieties of feudal land tenure, consisting of military and non-military service. The obligations and corresponding rights between lord and vassal concerning the fief form the basis of the feudal relationship.
Before a lord could grant land (a fief) to someone, he had to make that person a vassal. This was done at a formal and symbolic ceremony called a commendation ceremony, which was composed of the two-part act of homage and oath of fealty. During homage, the lord and vassal entered into a contract in which the vassal promised to fight for the lord at his command, whilst the lord agreed to protect the vassal from external forces. Fealty comes from the Latin fidelitas and denotes the fidelity owed by a vassal to his feudal lord. “Fealty” also refers to an oath that more explicitly reinforces the commitments of the vassal made during homage. Such an oath follows homage.
Once the commendation ceremony was complete, the lord and vassal were in a feudal relationship with agreed obligations to one another. The vassal’s principal obligation to the lord was to “aid”, or military service. Using whatever equipment the vassal could obtain by virtue of the revenues from the fief, the vassal was responsible to answer calls to military service on behalf of the lord. This security of military help was the primary reason the lord entered into the feudal relationship. In addition, the vassal could have other obligations to his lord, such as attendance at his court, whether manorial, baronial, both termed court baron, or at the king’s court.
It could also involve the vassal providing “counsel”, so that if the lord faced a major decision he would summon all his vassals and hold a council. At the level of the manor this might be a fairly mundane matter of agricultural policy, but also included sentencing by the lord for criminal offences, including capital punishment in some cases. Concerning the king’s feudal court, such deliberation could include the question of declaring war. These are examples; depending on the period of time and location in Europe, feudal customs and practices varied; see examples of feudalism.
The “Feudal Revolution” in France
In its origin, the feudal grant of land had been seen in terms of a personal bond between lord and vassal, but with time and the transformation of fiefs into hereditary holdings, the nature of the system came to be seen as a form of “politics of land” (an expression used by the historian Marc Bloch). The 11th century in France saw what has been called by historians a “feudal revolution” or “mutation” and a “fragmentation of powers” (Bloch) that was unlike the development of feudalism in England or Italy or Germany in the same period or later: Counties and duchies began to break down into smaller holdings as castellans and lesser seigneurs took control of local lands, and (as comital families had done before them) lesser lords usurped/privatized a wide range of prerogatives and rights of the state, most importantly the highly profitable rights of justice, but also travel dues, market dues, fees for using woodlands, obligations to use the lord’s mill, etc. (what Georges Duby called collectively the “seigneurie banale“). Power in this period became more personal.
This “fragmentation of powers” was not, however, systematic throughout France, and in certain counties (such as Flanders, Normandy, Anjou, Toulouse), counts were able to maintain control of their lands into the 12th century or later. Thus, in some regions (like Normandy and Flanders), the vassal/feudal system was an effective tool for ducal and comital control, linking vassals to their lords; but in other regions, the system led to significant confusion, all the more so as vassals could and frequently did pledge themselves to two or more lords. In response to this, the idea of a “liege lord” was developed (where the obligations to one lord are regarded as superior) in the 12th century.