Feudalism - A Political System of Medieval Europe and Elsewhere

How Feudalism Affects Power and Farming in the Ancient and Modern World

English King Henry V's Secret Chapel in Westminster Abbey
A coat of arms on the alter of Henry V's secret chapel at Westminster Abbey on September 15, 2015 in London, England. To mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, Westminster Abbey will conduct special tours of Henry V's chantry chapel. Ben Prouchne / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Feudalism is defined by different scholars in different ways, but in general, the term refers to a sharply hierarchical relationship between differing levels of landowning classes.

Basically, a feudal society had three distinct social classes: a king, a noble class (which could include nobles, priests, and princes) and a peasant class. The king owned all the available land, and he portioned out that land to his nobles for their use.

The nobles, in turn, rented out their land to peasants. The peasants paid the nobles in produce and military service; the nobles, in turn, paid the king. Everyone was, at least nominally, in thrall to the king; and the peasant's labor paid for everything.

A Worldwide Phenomenon

The social and legal system called feudalism arose in Europe during the Middle Ages, but it has been identified in many other societies and times including the imperial governments of Rome and Japan. American founding father Thomas Jefferson was convinced that the new United States was practicing a form of feudalism in the 18th century. He argued that indentured servants and slavery were both forms of yeoman farming, in that access to land was provided by the aristocracy and paid for by the tenant in a variety of ways.

Throughout history and today, feudalism arises in places where there is an absence of organized government and the presence of violence.

Under those circumstances, a contractual relationship is formed between ruler and ruled: the ruler provides access to the required land, and the rest of the people provide support to the ruler. The entire system allows the creation of a military force that protects everyone from violence within and without.

In England, feudalism was formalized into a legal system, written into the laws of the country, and codifying a tripartite relationship between political allegiance, military service and property ownership.

Roots

English feudalism is thought to have arisen in the 11th century AD under William the Conquerer, when he had the common law altered after the Norman Conquest in 1066. William took possession of all of England and then parcelled it out among his leading supporters as tenancies (fiefs) to be held in return for services to the king. Those supporters granted access to their land to their own tenants who paid for that access by a percentage of the crops they produced and by their own military service. The king and nobles provided aid, relief, wardship and marriage and inheritance rights for the peasant classes.

That situation could arise because Normanized common law had already established a secular and ecclesiastical aristocracy, an aristocracy that relied heavily on the royal prerogative to function.

A Harsh Reality

The upshot of the takeover of the land by the Norman aristocracy was that peasant families who had for generations owned small farmsteads became renters, indentured servants who owed the landlords their allegiance, their military service and part of their crops.

Arguably, the balance of power did allow for long-term technological progress in agricultural development and kept some order in an otherwise chaotic period.

Just before the rise of the black plague in the 14th century, feudalism was firmly established and working across Europe. This was a near-universality of family-farm tenure by conditionally hereditary leases under noble, ecclesiastical or princely lordships who collected cash and in-kind payments from their subject villages. The king essentially delegated the collection of his needs--military, political and economic--to the nobles.

By that time, the king's justice--his ability to administer that justice--was largely theoretical. The lords dispensed the law with little or no kingly oversight, and as a class supported each other's hegemony.

Peasants lived and died under the control of the noble classes.

The Deadly End

An ideal-typical medieval village was comprised of farms of 25-50 acres (10-20 hectares) of arable land managed as open-field mixed farming and pasturage. But, in reality, the European landscape was a patchwork of small, medium and large peasant holdings, which changed hands with the fortunes of the families.

That situation became untenable with the arrival of the Black Death. The late-medieval plague created catastrophic population collapse among rulers and ruled alike. Between 30-50% of all Europeans died between 1347 and 1351. Eventually, the surviving peasants in most of Europe achieved new access to larger land parcels and gained enough power to shed the legal shackles of medieval servility.

Sources

Clinkman DE. 2013. The Jeffersonian moment: Feudalism and reform in Virginia, 1754-1786: University of Edinburgh.

Hagen WW. 2011. European yeomanries: a non-immiseration model of agrarian social history, 1350-1800. Agricultural History Review 59(2):259-265.

Hicks MA. 1995. Bastard Feudalism: Taylor and Francis.

Pagnotti J, and Russell WB. 2012. Exploring Medieval European Society with chess: An engaging activity for the world history classroom. The History Teacher 46(1):29-43.

Preston CB, and McCann E. 2013. Llewellyn slept here: A short history of sticky contracts and feudalism. Oregon Law Review 91:129-175.

Salmenkari T. 2012. Using feudalism for political criticsm and for promoting systemic change in China. Studia Orientalia 112:127-146.