J.P.Sommerville

 

 

Feudalism

 

The Definition of Feudalism

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The very definition of feudalism is debated, but roughly speaking a feudal society is one where:
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Land is held in exchange for service

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Obedience is rendered in exchange for protection

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Society is 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 England).

 

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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.

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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."

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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.

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In 1974, the American historian E.A.R. Brown argued in 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."

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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.
{Reviews of Reynolds' ideas].

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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.

 

Feudal economy

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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.)

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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 capitalism. 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.

The 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 payment."

(Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

By 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.

(Christopher Hill, The English Revolution)

 

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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".)

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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 E.A.Freeman).