What Is Feudalism?

Depiction of socage on the royal demesne in feudal England, c. 1310
Depiction of socage on the royal demesne in feudal England, c. 1310

What Is Feudalism?

Feudalism was a socio-political and economic structure used during the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Under this system, people were granted land in return for certain services. Feudalism was practiced throughout every social class level.

For example, the king held the highest social class and divided all of the nation’s lands among several barons. In exchange for this land, the barons promised loyalty and soldiers to the king. These large tracts of land were known as fiefs. The Barons maintained armies and further divided their land among lords. The lords were knights and owed military service to the barons in the event of war. They also ran manors, large houses or castles, on their lands. These manors were central to life in the countryside and provided a place for both celebrations and protection for the villagers. The lords provided plots of land to the peasant class for farming and producing food. Some of the peasants had businesses like metalwork or bakeries. They paid taxes to the lord in exchange for land holding. Lords and Barons are also referred to as vassals.

History Of Feudalism

The practice of feudalism in Europe is believed to have begun around the 8th century AD in the Frankish kingdom. Previously, land grants had been permanent with full ownership. Around this time, however, the Kings decided to keep ownership of the land and grant only its use. This idea soon spread throughout other areas of Europe, including Spain, Germany, Italy, and Slavic lands. Sometime around 1066 AD, feudalism made its way to England with the Norman invasion. From here, it spread to Scotland and Ireland.

Although feudalism began as a bond between the king and vassal, over time, this also changed. Land holdings became hereditary rather than based on an agreement between two parties. When it became a largely hereditary system, feudalism began to take power away from the monarch as local dynasties began to grow. These dynasties established territorial states. In some cases, this led to the privatization of once-public goods or right. Landholders began charging taxes for traveling by roads, selling in markets, and using the forests. This gave significant power to the vassals.

Decline Of Feudalism

Feudalism began to decline due to several factors. The Black Death rampaged European communities, leaving fewer individuals of lower social classes to be ruled by the upper class. Labor became a scarce commodity, thus having more value and leading to a system of monetary reimbursement for work. Additionally, the monarchy began to rely on paid and trained armies rather than the forces provided by vassals. With this move, the monarchs were able to strip vassals of some power.

Countries also saw a rise in the number of cities over rural settlements. Cities could often offer more protection than countryside living, with their moats and walls. These cities grew in importance, contributing to the overall economy and often forming armies. Urban areas became more powerful than the landholding vassals.

With these changes, the economies of most countries began to run on money rather than land and agriculture. As this occurred, peasants sought to make new lives in the cities, where they could eventually gain their freedom. People from all levels of society began to demand representation for taxes paid.

Throughout most of Western Europe, feudalism ceased to exist by the 1500’s. It did, however, leave behind a legacy that has influenced present-day forms of government.


More in Society