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What was feudalism?

Feudalism is often regarded as a term to avoid, an outdated word that misrepresents the structure of medieval society. But what has it meant in the past, and how can we understand its meaning today? Professor Charles West explains more…

Workers reaping and binding sheaves, from the Luttrell Psalter c1330
Published: March 22, 2022 at 10:45 am
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“Britain is becoming feudal in its disparities”. When The Guardian newspaper published an opinion column with this subtitle in January 2022, many historians took to social media to express their dismay – not about British inequality, but about the column’s casual use of terminology. Did the columnist not know, they marvelled, that historians tend to avoid the term ‘feudalism’ these days?

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This wasn’t always the case. In fact there are three distinctive historiographical traditions within which feudalism has played a major role – or, put differently, three slightly different answers to the question: ‘What was feudalism?’ The first, and the oldest, is a legal tradition, stretching back to the French philosopher Montesquieu (d1755). This thinks of feudalism as a post-Roman legal system, based on the fief (Latin: feodum). A fief was typically a landed estate which was granted by a lord to someone, sometimes called a vassal, in exchange for a promise of loyalty, sometimes termed homage. From the later Middle Ages, lawyers piled elaboration after elaboration on this basic relationship, exploring all the implications in great technical detail. Could a vassal sell their fief to a third party? Was a fief hereditary? What could a lord reasonably ask their vassal to do? Did vassals have obligations to their lord’s lord? And so on. Many of these questions were first aired systematically in a work known as the Libri Feudorum (‘Books of Fiefs’), a mid 12th-century legal compilation made in northern Italy.

A vintage engraving of a medieval lord receiving a grant of land from a king
A vintage engraving of a medieval lord receiving a grant of land from a king. In the oldest understanding of feudalism, explains Prof Charles West, a landed estate would be granted by a lord to someone, sometimes called a vassal, in exchange for a promise of loyalty. (Image by Getty Images)

From this original concept of feudalism, historians developed two other approaches. The first to emerge was a Marxist understanding. Here feudalism refers not so much to the legal technicalities of fiefs and vassalage, but to the economic circumstances which underpinned them. Feudalism in this tradition became a label for an economy where most work was done not by enslaved people (as Karl Marx imagined had been the case in the ancient world), nor by wage labourers (as is the case in industrialised societies), but by tenant farmers. These tenants, or peasants, were constrained by various extra-economic ties to their landlords, but retained a great deal of autonomy in how they organised their labour within a family structure. By this definition, many parts of the world for much of recorded history could be defined as feudal, not just medieval Europe.

The second variant is most often associated with the great French historian and Second World War resistance fighter, Marc Bloch (d1944), who wrote a celebrated book called Feudal Society (La Société Féodale) in 1939. For Bloch, feudalism referred neither to a legal system nor to a way of organising economic production, but was rather a convenient label for a particular kind of society: one characterised by a militarised elite, an absence of wage labour, a lack of salaried officials, the fragmentation of authority, and the rise of private justice, amongst other features. For Bloch, this kind of society gradually developed in Europe after the fall of the Carolingian Empire c900, and ended with the rise of administrative states in the early modern period. But as an ideal type, it could also be applied to a wide range of times and places, with Bloch himself suggesting ‘medieval’ Japan.

All three of these approaches to feudalism are linked, and they often overlap in practice. And though historians undoubtedly talk about feudalism less than they used to, all three are still around in one form or another in scholarly work (for instance, Chris Wickham has recently published an article on feudalism as an economic system in the journal Past and Present). In short, there is more than one understanding of feudalism in historiographical circulation. This can create confusion if people aren’t being clear what they are talking about. For instance, it is sometimes argued that the Norman Conquest brought feudalism to England in 1066: but is this an argument about the legal system, the economy, or society in general?

There is more than one understanding of feudalism in historiographical circulation

It was partly in response to this confusion that in 1994 Susan Reynolds published a remarkable book, Fiefs and Vassals: the medieval evidence reinterpreted. At one level, the book was an extraordinarily detailed empirical study, showing that the distinctive terminology of feudalism was used less, and less consistently, in Europe in the Middle Ages than historians had believed, misled by the theoretical speculations of later medieval lawyers. Medieval elites did not always think of their lands as ‘fiefs’, and when they did, it wasn’t clear that this entailed any specific kind of obligation to their superiors. At another level, Reynolds’ book made an argument for a revised view of medieval European society, in which collective action and public order were always at least as significant as private legal arrangements based on conditional landholding. Reynolds thus suggested that ‘feudalism’ never really existed. At a third level, the book urged a degree of scepticism about historical generalisations: society in the Middle Ages was not a system, and so cannot be properly understood through models.

Reynolds was not the first to express doubts about the value of the label of feudalism, but the wariness of historians today, especially in the English-speaking world, about the term is largely a legacy of her work. Yet historians elsewhere, particularly in France, continue to find the concept useful, especially once efforts are made to correct its blind spot for religion and the church. While it’s true that social orders are always messy, and models like feudalism always therefore simplify more complex realities, sometimes methodical simplification can be helpful, even necessary, for grasping structures and change beyond individual case studies.

As for the popular understanding of feudalism, which expresses a sense of unfettered inequality, the centrality of personal relationships amongst the elite, and the essentially unaccountable exercise of public power for private interest, this is not such a terrible shorthand for how much of pre-modern society worked, as opposed to the ideals of modernity focused on equality, citizenship and democratic governance (even though reality has seldom fully lived up to these ideals). So historians’ sniffiness around this popular usage is a little dispiriting. If the general public still find feudalism to be a meaningful and evocative term, maybe it’s time for professional historians to stop dismissing it, and start engaging with it?

Charles West is professor in medieval history at the University of Sheffield, specialising in European history, c700 – 1150


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Listen | Dan Jones explores the similarities and differences between the medieval experience and our lives today, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

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