Medieval historians have traditionally understood feudalism to be a sociopolitical system that dominated European societies from the fall of the Roman Empire to the start of the Renaissance. This definition however has been thrown into question by myriad incongruous details, among which is the notable absence of the word feudalism from the medieval vocabulary.
For although terms such as the Old High German words fehu “cattle,” “property,” or “money”; the Old English feoh, feo, fee; and the Latin feodum, all of which are precursors to our word fief, appear commonly in medieval sources, feudalism does not appear. It was first employed by 16th-century French and English jurists and legal historians to explain anachronistic property laws in their own societies. To them it denoted a framework in which political and military power were decentralized, private, and local.
The system as they envisioned it was based in large part on the concept of the feudal contract, in which land, the fief, was granted by the upper echelons of the military aristocracy to free nobles below them, their vassals, in return for fidelity or homage. This vision of medieval European society as a pyramid structure based on the exchange of land for services and fidelity continues in large part to dominate popular imagination.
In the 1970s historians began to highlight the conceptual flaws of the feudalism theory, pointing out that it existed not all over Europe, but only in a handful of locales, and only between the 10th and 13th centuries. It did not, therefore, dominate all of Europe for the better part of 10 centuries.
When Roman imperial organization collapsed in the fifth century, political authority fragmented. In this early period as numerous groups such as Vandals, Goths, Vikings, and Muslims threatened to invade former Roman territories, features of what would later be called feudalism emerged.
The first of these was a type of contract in which, in return for rewards and war booty, an armed retainer offered military aid to a lord. This was advantageous for the lord, since private armies were extremely expensive to raise and maintain. Without a central government to organize and pay soldiers the onus fell to individuals or family groups to muster as much force as possible.
Such techniques of dealing with a decentralized political situation were probably familiar to people on some level. In many ways, they were an amalgamation of preexisting Roman and Germanic customs. Romans, for example, had engaged in a system of patronage, in which powerful patrons would offer protection and services to clients in exchange for political support, loyalty, or gifts. This clientelism became mixed with a Germanic military custom in which an elected chief, after conquering territory with his army, distributed land and booty among his men in exchange for their continued allegiance.
While the armed retainer of the early Middle Ages was useful in situations of war and conflict, lords were eventually faced with the problem of housing and maintaining the young men in their service. A logical solution was to offer them a plot of land, on which they could live, and off which they could make a living other than war.
It was in the eighth century that Charles Martel made the first land grants in exchange for military service. In theory, the feudal system was based on this type of land tenure in which a landowner, or suzerain, granted rights to a piece of land (a fief, or Latin feudum) to a vassal in return for specific obligations. In addition to land, rights or honors could also be granted as fiefs.
While the first fiefs were small, by the 12th century they were often estates employing large numbers of peasants. The vassal receiving the fief had the right of ban, or command, over the peasants. The fief became inheritable property, and the vassals, as a result, became a landed aristocracy, meaning that their wealth was based in land. Upon inheriting a fief however the new tenant might have had to pay a fee, called a relief, before assuming it.
The relief could be large, up to a year’s income. In other cases the tenant might just seek written confirmation of his property rights to ensure, or to make public, his continued status. If the deceased vassal’s heir was a child, the lord could take him as a ward and collect the income from the property until the child matured, or he could bestow such rights on another vassal.
If the child was female, the lord could choose her husband. Since many men were eager to marry propertied heiresses, the lord could profit financially by offering her in marriage to the highest bidder. In some cases the heiress herself offered the lord substantial sums of money to avoid marrying a disfavored suitor.
By the high Middle Ages in some places in Europe, a ceremony had evolved by which lords and vassals formalized their ties. In this highly symbolic ceremony the vassal knelt before the lord, bowed his head, and put his hands, palms together, between the hands of his lord. After swearing an oath, the vassal became his lord’s man or in French, homme. For this reason this ritual became known as homage.
The lord then kissed the vassal on his lips and raised him to his feet. In addition the vassal might also be asked to swear fealty (a derivation of the Latin fidelitas, meaning faithfulness) to the lord, by which he contractually agreed to offer him auxilium et consilium, or military service and legal counsel. The latter he did by appearing in the lord’s court, which functioned both as a court of justice and as an administrative council. The vassal also agreed to offer “feudal aids.”
These were monetary contributions for specific situations such as crusade, ransom, the knighting of his eldest son, or the marriage of his daughter. These contributions could become quite substantial if the lord went on an extended military campaign. Finally the vassal could be expected to hand over a portion of his harvest to his lord, or even to grind his wheat and bake bread in the ovens owned and taxed by the lord.
The lord had reciprocal responsibilities toward his vassals. First among these was maintenance. While the vassal was entitled to the fief’s revenues, the lord was obliged to ensure that the land be maintained. Equally important was the responsibility the lord bore for offering the vassal physical protection and security. This he did by marshalling his military force when needed.
The feudal relations between vassal and lord as described probably did exist in medieval Europe, yet only in a handful of locales for limited periods of time. Surely more common were the innumerable variations on the classical model, some of which varied to such a degree that they could hardly be called feudal.
Some instances have been found, for example, in which lords demanded feudal aids from nonfiefholding commoners rather than fiefholding nobles. In other instances, feudal aids were asked of newcomers to a region and not of longstanding inhabitants.
In addition, there were high levels of regional variation such that the classical model appears to have applied only to a small region of France during the 12th and 13th centuries. The king of France had little central authority and little or no power over the great land owning lords. In France therefore feudalism implied a fragmentary and localized structure whose reciprocal bonds of loyalty and protection did not extend to the very top of society.
By the ninth and 10th centuries Italy from Rome northward exhibited similar characteristics to some French regions, but the growth of the commercial trading cities such as Florence and Venice in the 11th and 12th centuries introduced a money economy and an urbanized merchant class that did not fit the classic feudal model.
Still the region north of the Po River, particularly the area around Milan, continued to adhere closely to the French pattern of feudal relations. Without a centralizing monarchy, northern Italian lords remained powerful and independent of royal authority.
Unlike in France and northern Italy the king in England was, from the 11th century on, the pinnacle and nucleus of the political hierarchy. All lords held their fiefs directly from him, and in return they owed him military and court service, and on occasion, financial aid.
English feudalism was therefore much more an integrated system than elsewhere. Yet even here there were elements deviating from the classical model, for even though the great lords swore fidelity to the king, they did not perform homage to him. And since even in this circumstance peasants did not partake in the feudal contract, the feudal structure did not, in any explicit sense, permeate the lower rungs of society.
Societies with expansive open borders to defend, such as the German lands east of the Rhine and the frontier between Christian and Muslim Spain, developed different social structures generally marked by weak monarchies and powerful local nobilities. In some Slavic kingdoms, serfdom, in which peasants are tied to the land, became the dominant phenomenon.
In other frontier societies such as Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, enterprising barons could set up semi-independent lordships, though even there they were not entirely free from the king’s authority. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Crusader States in the Levant exhibited a kind of purified feudal tenure wherein the lords held supreme power in their local realms. Until its fall in the mid-13th century, the Norman kingdom in southern Italy exhibited a variant of French Norman feudal relations.
Medieval historians have revealed wide disparities over distance and time in the structure of social hierarchies and practices of land tenure. Caveats such as these have made them question whether the term feudalism is still useful for understanding medieval history.
Since most historians now use the term with caution, feudalism is probably best used in a narrow sense to describe the relationship between lords and noblemen when they ritually exchanged protection for military and legal support. Despite more than a decade of debate, medieval historians still vary in their conclusions about the accuracy of the term feudalism for describing and understanding medieval European society.