This is part of the Medieval European History Metanode.

There were four basic elements of feudalism:

Personal Relationship

This was known as the "vassalage". It grew out of the relationships between the potentates and comitatus of the late Roman era (see the fall of the Roman Empire). Both the vassal and the lord were of the noble class. One became a vassal through a ceremony of commendation: the vassal declared his homage, plead an oath of fealty, and exchanged a kiss with his lord. This was a legal act of placing oneself under another person's authority. The vassal pledged 40 days of military service each year, and received protection and economic support from the lord in return.

Property Element

The vassal also received property, also known as a "benefice" or a "fief". Early in the history of feudalism, the vassal was tied to his fief at commendation. The Carolingians handed out fiefs in order to strengthen support for the government. Fiefs later became hereditary; the heirs of the vassal were expected to be offered the opportunity to pledge commendation to the same lord. This became law under Charles the Bald with the Capitulary of Quierzy in 877. Not much later, we see evidence of the first instance of a plurality of lords: one vassal pledged fealty to several different lords, creating quite a brouhaha when the lords wanted to fight against one another.

Possession of a Horse

Horses were a necessary element of warfare in the Middle Ages; they were the heart of the feudal army, and vassals were expected to be knights. Horses were very expensive in those days. The war horses were very large, comparable in size to the Clydesdale horses of today (unlike the horses you see in most movies about knights, which are far too small to carry all of that armor). The lords gave their vassals a horse for the purpose of warfare.

Private Possession of Governement Powers

Through feudalism, the lords eventually took powers once reserved for kings. They held armies, administered justice, imposed law, and held court. The monarchs of France took advantage of feudalism to keep their nobles from having such power by granting fiefs themselves.

The feudal system was based on a bond of loyalty between the king and his vassals. In exchange for land (a fief), which was just about the only fortune in those days, they pledged loyalty to their king. Since these vassals in their turn could give away land to others (or each other) in exchange of their loyalty, these bonds of loyalty quickly became rather complicated. In some cases, someone could be a vassal to two enemies and would, in theory have to be loyal to both of them and supply them both with soldiers in their war against each other. In some cases, a vassal could become more powerful than the king he served if he had enough land and soldiers. He would still have to be loyal to his king though. (And then there's that thing with the king of England being vassal to the king of France.)

The feudal system emerged when the large European kingdoms had problems with raiding peoples such as the Vikings and Magyars. When the raiders plundered one part of the country and the king was in another part it was very hard for him launch a counter-attack in time, considering the bad communications of that time. In order to deal with this problem, the king would give a piece of land to a person who, in exchange pledged to defend it and its inhabitants and to be loyal to him. This system was sometimes also used to deal with troublemakers by bribing them, such as in the case of Normandy where the king gave the Vikings a large piece of land in order to gain their loyalty and to stop their plundering.

The lords lived in castles in which they and the people who lived around them protected themselves during enemy attacks. The peasants who cultivated the lands where serfs and where not allowed to move without being granted to do so by their lord. They where also required to pay tax to both their lord and to the local priest (tithe).

The feudal system resulted in that people moved much less than earlier. Trade almost ceased outside the cities. Since there wasn't any schools or similar things, all "research" took place inside the monasteries.

Why the feudal system fell

During the end of the medieval ages, large changes took place in farming that made it possible for fewer persons to grow more food on a given piece of land. One of these changes was a change in climate during this period that made it warmer and thus it became easier to grow crops. Thanks to the invention of the collar, the horse was also beginning to be used in the fields. Earlier, oxen who where much slower than horses had been used. The problem with horses was that they where very choosy about what they ate compared to the oxen who ate pretty much anything. Another thing that increased the ability to grow crops more efficiently was the double and triple shift. In the double shift system half of the fields where laid fallow while the other part was cultivated. This way the field wasn't leached out. In the triple shift system, the double shift system was made more efficient by letting one third of the field lay fallow instead only one half.

All these changes meant that the work on the farms could be performed by a smaller number of people, leading to more people moving in to the cities, making them grow in size. The growth of the cities meant increasing trade which made the merchants rich. This led to a transition to a currency-based economy and one no longer had to own land in order to be rich. This was one of the reasons for the fall of feudal system in Europe. (Another major reason for the fall of the feudal system was the plague, but I don't know very much about that.)

The Origins of Feudalism

The first evidence of the beginnings of a feudal system stems all the way back to the Roman Republic with their patrician-client relationship. During military conquests the Romans would take slaves back to work their estates. Soon the patricians found a better use for these slaves, and they would free them, creating an entirely new class in Roman society known as libertini, or simply freedmen. These libertini were given a simple offer, they would be free of their slavery if they were to return the favour to the patrician who gives them this privilege.

Upon being freed, the libertini were given a house of their own to live in, which was on the patrician's land. They did not own it, and were tied to the land, but they were fed and clothed well by their patrician. They gained the right to apply for Roman citizenship, and could even gain representation in the senate. In return they were required to fight for Rome during war time, work on their Patrician's land without pay, always vote for their Patrician in the senate, and were not allowed to testify against him in court. In this way, libertini were somewhat similar to the Villeins of the later feudal system.

The Rise of Feudalism

The rise of Feudalism as it is known today, began in the late 8th - early 9th Century A.D. in Gaul (France). The Frankish Empire had been dissoluted recently, and it was now a collection of squabbling Barons, Lords and Nobles, warring for land and attempting to unite the Empire beneath them. Charlemagne, an ambitious young Noble, saw this squabbling and had a desire to end it. However, Charlemagne was faced with a problem: the Frankish civilians were unwilling to be united, and the Barons, Lords and Nobles would listen to no one man. How then, was Charlemagne to secure their loyalty?

After the collaspse of the Roman Empire, the money system as it was known collapsed, and thus money was a useless commodity. Hence, Charlemagne could not buy the loyalties of the Barons. Charlemagne devised a plan and raised an army. He marched into a Baron's lands, defeating him and gaining control. However, rather than leaving it at that and marching onwards, he offered the land back to the Baron in return for his loyalty, some revenue and more troops for his army. The Baron accepted, and onwards Charlemagne marched, his army bolstered and backed with funds. The next Baron fell, and was offered back his lands, accepting once again, and so on... soon he had united the lands beneath with a Feudal system keeping things under control. Hence, the previous money based economy was replaced with a land based economy.

Feudalism in Practice

Charlemagne had been succesful, he now lorded over the entire realm of the Franks and had hardly any work to do. However, the Barons were now presented with the same problems, similar to Charlemagne: how to keep the populace under control, and how to recruit troops without causing dissent. The solution: Lords; but again, the Lords were faced with problems of their own, and so the Feudal chain was created:

  • King/Emperor: The King/Emperor was at the top. He owned all the lands in the realm and controlled the armies.
  • Barons: Barons were given a fiefdom by the King/Emperor, and although they did not own it, they controlled it and could do what they wished with it. In return, they recruited troops for the King's/Emperor's army and were required to give the King a place to stay as he travelled.
  • Lords: Lords, Knights chosen by the Barons, were given a castle to live in, and dominion over the area around them. In return they sent the Barons one of their best Knights (that would in turn be sent to the King/Emperor), and would appoint tax collectors for the Barons. They were required to collect the taxes of produce from the peasents and send them to the King.
  • Villeins: Villeins were serfs chosen by the Lords to live on a plot of land near their castle. They did not own the land, and could not sell it, but they had a better life than your average serf. In return they worked on the Lord's manor.
  • Serfs: Serfs were not given any land, they were tied to the land they were born on and they were required to work for their Lords. During times of war they were conscripted into the peasent militia with little more than some leather armour (if any) and a common farming implement as a weapon.

At the top, the King/Emperor lived an easy life, often travelling the country side to make his presence known, he never stayed in one area long however. The Barons prospored, Lords were fairly well off, but Villeins were downtrodden, and Serfs were utterly oppressed. In principle, the Feudal system worked because it was a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" system. The Lords were generous enough to allow Serfs and Villains to live on their lands, so they had to work, the Barons were generous enough to give the Lord's castles, so they had to keep control and send money and knights, and the King/Emperor was generous enough to allow the Barons' fiefdoms, so they had to bolster his army and pay him his dues. Since all the lower classes did was work for the upper classes, they were supposed to be provided for by the upper classes. This usually wasn't the case, however.

Serfs were expected to go to war, and their Lords were expected to outfit them. The only problem was, it is much easier to outfit hundreds of peasents with old leather armour, than newer ring mail or chain mail. Similarly, rather than spending time to ensure that the Serfs' did not live in squalor, it was much easier to simply ensure they had a dwelling, and to leave it at that. Thus, the Feudal system only worked for short periods of time, and wasn't very productive. Over time, the lower classes would become restless unless something was done to keep them in control, and there was always problems with succession in a Feudal system. This is shown with the collapse of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire and its division into three kingdoms.

The Decline of Feudalism

As time progressed and the Dark Ages gave way to the medieval age, a new economy began to emerge. These squabbling Barons were replaced by national identites: Britons, French, Germans etc. and these countries began minting again. Around the time of the first crusade, another factor came about that conflicted with Feudalism: the need for specialized production. The third factor was the development of agriculture. Feudalism just didn't work with any of these factors, as it discouraged individualism and specialization, and only required the Serfs to toil endlessly on basic farms.

Once these national identities had formed, land was less important to Barons. They belonged to a nation, and the King owned all the land, they simply lived on it. The Barons still needed to be more important than Lords and Serfs, however, and so they turned to new means: money. With the return of the money system, the Barons had more money than Lords and Serfs, and so they were more important. Similarly, Lords had more money than Serfs, and so they were more important. Thus, this heirachal class system based on land was obsoleted, and the King could no longer hold sway over them by offering lands (nor did he have to by this stage).

As the crusades began, they found themselves in need of specialized suits of armour and weapons; and as the crusades returned, they brought with them treasures of the East. Trade also began to open up, and a question became evident: who would specialize in these areas, who would carry out the trade? The answer came through guilds, a Lord would renounce his Knighthood and begin making a very lucrative profit as a guildmaster of a trading company, and the best smiths in the land found themselves constantly accosted for these specialty items, getting rich from the business and founding guilds of their own. This happened in many other professions, and the feudal system was broken as Serfs ascended to a middle class of merchants and guildmasters that had no place in feudalism.

Finally, the agriculturual system began to develop beyond the basic farms used in feudal society. collars were invented, crop rotation implemented and irrigation began to find a place. These were not cheap to implement, however, and Lords of the feudal system were not willing to pay for them, and so only non-Feudal farmers could carry out these agricultural reforms, and they had increased production, while the feudal system continued to get poorer and poorer, and others flourished. Thus the Feudal system was abandoned and gave way to monarchism blended with a very early form of capitalism.

Note: This describes the rise and fall of Feudalism in Medieval Europe. Eastern Feudalism declined much later, and it Russia, peasents were never fully emancipated until Tsar Alexander II freed them in 1861.

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.

The system:

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.

Feudal Monarchy:

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.

Feu"dal*ism (?), n. [Cf. F. f'eodalisme.]

The feudal system; a system by which the holding of estates in land is made dependent upon an obligation to render military service to the kind or feudal superior; feudal principles and usages.


© Webster 1913.

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