The Definition of Feudalism
The very definition of
feudalism is debated, but roughly speaking a feudal society is one
Land is held in exchange
Obedience is rendered in
exchange for protection
hierarchically ordered with a military class of highly-trained and
expensively-equipped warriors supported by a mass of peasants who
provide labor and are tied to the land.
The Historical Debate
"A Feud is
the right which a vassal hath in land, or some immoveable thing
of his lord's, to use the same and take the profits thereof
hereditarily: rendering unto his lord such feudal duties
and services as belong to military tenure: the mere propriety [property] of
the soil always remaining unto the lord".
(Sir Henry Spelman, The original, growth,
propagation and condition of feuds and tenures by knight-service
In the early seventeenth century an English
historian, Sir Henry Spelman introduced the concept of "feudalism" to
explain the disparate changes brought about in English law and society
by the Conquest.
In his History of the Norman Conquest
(1867-76), E.A. Freeman argued that English institutions had in fact
changed little after 1066: Anglo-Saxon magnates already expected
to render military service in return for their land.
Freeman's views were violently attacked by J.H. Round, who insisted
that a Norman lord's "military service was in no way derived or
developed from that of the Anglo-Saxons, but was arbitrarily fixed by
the king, from whom he received his fief."
In the 1960s the French social historian
Marc Bloch grounded his account of Feudal Society on the notion that the feudal
bond permeated all medieval culture - "lordship" permeated literature
and religion, just as it did law and agriculture.
In 1974, the American historian E.A.R. Brown
The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and historians of Medieval
Europe that the concept of feudalism was
counterproductive, encouraging "concentration on oversimplified
models" and "insufficient attention to recalcitrant data."
Brown's arguments were developed and
expanded by S. Reynolds in Fiefs and Vassals. (1994). This book argued
that historians had been too eager to read back feudal legal and
social relationships into earlier periods before they actually
developed in the 11th and 12th centuries.
of Reynolds' ideas].
The crux of historians' and medievalists'
debate lies in the question of whether the social system of medieval
Europe revolved around grants of fiefs by lords in exchange for service from their
vassals. However, another sense of "feudalism"
became current in 19th and 20th Century economic history because of the
theories of Karl Marx.
Karl Marx argued that there were three
phases in the development of society, each marked by different modes of production -
tribal, feudal and capitalist. The feudal landlord exploited the
peasants under his control by seizing a portion of their produce.
However, the feudal lord did allow his work-force to retain direct
contact with the means of production - the land. (In contrast,
capitalism alienated the worker from the means of production.)
Marx argued that societies naturally pass
from feudalism to capitalism before the inevitable emergence of the
classless socialist society. Marxist historians therefore earnestly
endeavored to discover and document this transition from feudalism to
English Marxists sometimes opted for the mid 17th century. At this point, they
argued, Charles I
and the "feudal nobility" were overthrown by Oliver Cromwell and a
proto-bourgeois gentry of rising agrarian capitalists.
bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end
to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has
pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to
his "natural superiors," and has left remaining no other nexus
between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash
(Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)
feudalism I mean a form of society in which agriculture is
the basis of economy and in which political power is monopolised
by a class of landowners. The mass of the population consists of
dependent peasants subsisting on the produce of their family
holdings. The landowners are maintained by the rent paid by the
peasants, which might be in the form of food or labour, as in
early days, or (by the sixteenth century) in money.
The English Revolution)
This thesis sparked another debate amongst
English historians - notably Christopher Hill, R.H. Tawney, Lawrence
Stone, and H.R.Trevor-Roper - on the existence of a rising gentry, and
(if it did exist) whether it played a key role in the overthrow of a
feudal aristocracy, and whether it was itself the bourgeoisie. At issue was whether the 1640s and 1650s
were best characterized as an "English Revolution" or a "Civil War" (or
even just a "great Rebellion".)
Related to this debate is the
work of Alan Macfarlane on The Origins of English Individualism:
he argued that England's economy had never really been feudal and
that the English rural population had never been "peasants" in the
European sense. Rather, English society was distinguished by continuity over a long period - the most precocious
free-market society in the world.
(Hardly surprisingly - to return to our starting-point - Macfarlane is
an admirer of