Feudalism is not a simplistic topic, by any means. It is very easy to be confused over, and there are many misconceptions. To complicate matters even further, there is absolutely no simple definition for it. Feudalism, basically, is a conglomarate of various social, economic and governmental aspects. It must be noted, however, that while Feudalism was an aspect of society and economy
, it was not in fact a system of either. Feudalism was, in all shapes and forms, a system of government
That being said, Feudalism is not a homogenous government, such as Monarchy is. It is not, therefore, easily defineable. The only way to define it is to describe its history.
Feudalism did not, in fact, derive from any Roman system. In antiquity, feudalism is a very rare concept. However, it is believed that forms of Feudalism did exist in Ancient Egypt1, as well as in Aztec society. It has also existed in Japan and in Russia, however, the most common form, and indeed the form that people are usually referring to when they speak of Feudalism, is European Feudalism.
In the case of the latter, it did not give rise until the late "Dark Ages"2, if you will, or early Medieval period. However, the form of government that had been imposed by Charlemagne was not Feudalism. Undoubtedly, it was a step towards it, forming a system of land ownership that would eventually develop into Feudalism; but at the time it was not Feudalism, and so we can not attribute its origins to Charlemagne. Nor can Anglo-Saxon England be the origin of English Feudalism,3 as some historians claim.4 It is in fact the legacy left behind by the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire5 that we can trace its origins to.
By the 11th Century the Western Kingdom had devolved into numerous powerful kingdoms through the jockeying of power between the most powerful nobles and due to stresses placed on the monarchy by the increasing raids from Vikings in the north, Magyars in the east and Muslims in the south. By this stage, commonly referred to as the beginning of the Medieval period, the kingdom of France only consisted of a stretch of land from Paris to Orleans. This was the royal domain, and without lay the considerably larger and more powerful counties and duchies of Anjou, Maine, Burgundy, Flanders, Normandy and many, many more. Over the years the nobles retained the Carolingian tradition of relegating land to lesser nobles, whom would hold the land in lieu of the benefactor. As it stood, however, it was not sufficient, as the system led to rampant corruption, the insecurity of the land (due to no legalities) and, most importantly, its inability to rally local defence. With the collapse of the monarchy, defense of the land was left to the local lords, and so a formalized system of defence was required. Hence, over the period from the 9th to the 11th century, the formal system of Feudalism arose in France.
Upon the arisal of the first instance in France, Feudalism consisted of four key aspects that continued to define until very recent times. Those aspects are the following;
- Vassalic Commendation: The ceremony of Vassalic Commendation was a formalisation of the allotment of land. The noble receiving land would attend to the lord whom was awarding him land to pay homage. Then the noble, upon having his hands clasped by the lord, would swear an oath of fealty upon holy relics, and seal the agreement with a kiss. The ceremony was both legally and spiritually binding; with legal and spiritual consequences for breaking it. Hence, the system of land allotment became secure through this ceremony.
- Fiefs: Fiefs were, simply, an allotment of land given in the above Vassalic Commendations. The evolution of the fief was the formalization of the land allotment, again, making it more secure through legal means.
- Professional fighters: All European feudal systems consisted of an entire caste of professional fighters. In the Medieval period they are simply referred to as Knights.
- Castles: Upon receiving a fief, its owner would immediately construct a castle upon it, if one did not already exist. This was both for a place of residence and the purpose of creating a solid point of defence.
In return for the fief, a vassal owed service to his lord. Generally, the service entailed raising an army of Knights, though could, especially in later ages, simply entail a contribution of money. This could only be called upon yearly, and in the case of military service, was only obliged for forty days, after which the vassal could claim his duty absolved and return home. Apart from this, the only other obligations of the vassal was to entertain his lord for as long as he requested to holiday at his manor; to act as an advisor to and personal bodyguard of his lord if requested; to attend his lord's feudal court upon request; and to pay homage to his lord yearly. As the vassal was a free man, usually of noble birth, a lord could never demean his vassal by requesting of him an unbefitting task, such as plowing the land. Doing so was a feudal crime, and a vassal could renounce his lord, claiming the land for himself, in such a case.
Once a man had aquired a fief, it was his to do as he wished, so long as he did not try to sell it or give it away, undermining the authority of his lord - this was a feudal crime. What it meant was that a vassal could, in turn, become a lord by dividing his land up and alloting the fiefs to his own vassals. This tradition arose due to territories of the lord's growing larger, and so requesting more Knights from their vassals. When a vassal was obliged to provide a large number, for example, five hundred Knights, it was easier to request ten Knights from fifty vassals than it was to raise them all himself. In this way, the feudal system grew increasingly complex as the levels of the system etched out like a spiderweb.
The liege lord:
Furthermore, a vassal could have more than one lord. In fact, it was exceedingly common for it to be the case. A vassal would search for more lords in order to acquire more land. This became an incredibly complicating factor, and so the law of liege lord was formed. This law stated that the first lord a vassal aquired became his liege lord, and to him he owed priority. If all his lords were to call upon him at once, he was obliged to ignore all save for the liege lord. This rarely arose, however.
The system of Vassalic Commendation had a key feature that left peasants out of the feudal system; this feature was that Vassalic Commendation was an agreement between two free men. It was entered into freely, and it did not designate servitude nor indenturing. Hence, the feudal system did not include peasants, as is commonly believed, for peasants were already owned, and had no freedom to willingly enter into any such agreement. Undoubtedly, peasants were a part of the underlying economic system, known as manorialism, but this is not to be confused with feudalism.
Feudalism could work in tandem with Monarchy, however it was by no means necessary for it to do so. Examples of Feudal Monarchies can be seen in Medieval England, and later France, where the King was at the top of the feudal ladder, owning all land without exception, and thus all land owners within the kingdom were vassals of the king. Moreover, the King was the liege lord of all vassals, no matter whether the King gave the vassal his land directly, or whether the vassal acquired it from another lord. This greatly empowered the Monarch of a country.
Examples of non-Monarchical feudalisms can be seen in early France and later Holy Roman Empire. In these cases the Monarch was by no means at the top of the feudal ladder alone, as there were many nobles who held lands outright and had their own vassals which were not vassals of the King. All land owners in the kingdom were still subject to the King's sovereignty, but dodged the far more binding suzerainty gained by a feudal bond. Thus, non-Monarchical feudalisms undermined the power of the Monarch.
Nations that adopted feudalism:
Feudalism, as established, orginated in France, and here it remained isolated for many years. It was introduced to England with the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE; and by the same people it was it was introduced to southern Italy when the Pope invited the Normans to Sicily. Later the nobles of the Holy Roman Empire adopted the practice, though the royalty never did. Finally, Tancred of Sicily established the feudal state of Antioch during the crusades, spreading feudalism throughout the crusader states for their entirety. Apart from these nations, no others, during the Medieval period, adopted it. Although the Byzantine Empire had a system that was, perhaps, close to feudalism, it was not feudalism. During the Renaissance the use of feudalism spread throughout Europe like a wild fire.
The decline of feudalism:
Actually, feudalism never declined. The system certainly changed rapidly after the Medieval period, but it was never eradicated. It was very popular during the Renaissance, but it was during this period that it developed into more of a title than any real significance. Examples in the Renaissance world include Brittagne (Brittany), a vassal of France, Prussia, a vassal of Poland-Lithuania, and both Sweden and Norway as vassals of Denmark. During this period, as can be seen, it was more common for entire nations to be vassals, as opposed to smaller agreements between nobles. It was also quite often a term of peace; for example, the English turned Scotland into a vassal as such term.
It continued to persist into the modern period, but relegated back to smaller noble to noble agreements. By this stage, the obligation of military service was all but gone, and the ceremonies had changed so much they were almost unrecognisable. The utter vitalness that the sealing kiss held in the Medieval period was lost, and eventually excluded entirely, and the ceremony eventually became nothing more than the signing of documents. In this form, feudalism even exists today; for example, if one were to purchase a castle holding a title of nobility in England, the property obtained with it one would own in lieu of the Queen, and thus as her vassal, though the term would not be used.
1 Coulborn, Rushton, Feudalism in History
2 It is disputed by historians whether, with the fall of Rome in c. 476 CE, the so called Dark Age began, or whether it was indeed the beginning of the Medieval period, and not c. 1000 CE as previously considered.
3 Brown, R.A., Origins of English Feudalism
4 Barlow, F., The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216
5 In the 9th Century A.D., a Frankish noble, Charlemagne, expanded across all of France, Germany, Italy and some eastern European states. With his death in 814 CE, it fell to his three sons, leaving the chaotic East, Middle and West Kingdoms. The East stood the test of time, becoming the Holy Roman Empire, the Middle was dissoluted, and the West became France.