The Problem With Feudalism

Later historians say the concept doesn't match reality

National Assembly session for the abolition of privileges and feudal rights, Versailles, August 4, 1789

De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

Medieval historians generally aren't bothered by words. The intrepid medievalist is always ready to leap into the rough-and-tumble milieu of Old English word origins, medieval French literature, and Latin Church documents. Icelandic sagas hold no terror for the medieval scholar. Next to these challenges, the esoteric terminology of medieval studies is mundane, no threat to the historian of the Middle Ages.

But one word has become the bane of medievalists everywhere. Use it in discussing medieval life and society, and the average medieval historian's face will screw up in revulsion.

What word has this power to annoy, disgust, and even upset the ordinarily cool, collected medievalist?

Feudalism.

What Is Feudalism?

Every student of the Middle Ages is at least somewhat familiar with the term, usually defined as follows:

Feudalism was the dominant form of political organization in medieval Europe. It was a hierarchical system of social relationships wherein a noble lord granted land known as a fief to a free man, who in turn swore fealty to the lord as his vassal and agreed to provide military and other services. A vassal could also be a lord, granting portions of the land he held to other free vassals; this was known as "subinfeudation" and often led all the way up to the king. The land granted to each vassal was inhabited by serfs who worked the land for him, providing him with income to support his military endeavors; in turn, the vassal would protect the serfs from attack and invasion.

This is a simplified definition, and many exceptions and caveats go along with this model of medieval society. It is fair to say that this is the explanation for feudalism you'll find in most history textbooks of the 20th century, and it is very close to every dictionary definition available.

The problem? Virtually none of it is accurate.

Description Inaccurate

Feudalism was not the "dominant" form of political organization in medieval Europe. There was no "hierarchical system" of lords and vassals engaged in a structured agreement to provide military defense. There was no "subinfeudation" leading up to the king. The arrangement whereby serfs worked the land for a lord in return for protection, known as manorialism or seignorialism, was not part of a "feudal system." Monarchies of the early Middle Ages had their challenges and their weaknesses, but kings didn't use feudalism to exert control over their subjects, and the feudal relationship wasn't the "glue that held medieval society together," as had been said.

In short, feudalism as described above never existed in Medieval Europe.

For decades, even centuries, feudalism has characterized our view of medieval society. If it never existed, then why did so many historians say it did? Weren't entire books written on the subject? Who has the authority to say that all those historians were wrong? If the current consensus among "experts" in medieval history is to reject feudalism, why is it still presented as reality in nearly every medieval history textbook?

Concept Questioned

The word feudalism was never used during the Middle Ages. The term was invented by 16th- and 17th-century scholars to describe a political system of several hundred years earlier. This makes feudalism a post-medieval construct.

Constructs help us understand alien ideas in terms more familiar to our modern thought processes. Middle Ages and medieval are constructs. (Medieval people didn't think of themselves as living in a "middle" age—they thought they were living in the now, just like we do.) Medievalists might not like the way the term medieval is used as an insult or how absurd myths of past customs and behavior are commonly attributed to the Middle Ages, but most are confident that using Middle Ages and medieval to describe the era as between the ancient and early modern eras is satisfactory, however fluid the definition of all three timeframes might be.

But medieval has a fairly clear meaning based on a specific, easily defined viewpoint. Feudalism cannot be said to have the same.

In 16th-century France, Humanist scholars grappled with the history of Roman law and its authority in their own land. They examined a substantial collection of Roman law books. Among these books was the Libri Feudorum—the Book of Fiefs.

'Libri Feudorum'

The Libri Feudorum was a compilation of legal texts concerning the proper disposition of fiefs, which were defined in these documents as lands held by people referred to as vassals. The work had been put together in Lombardy, northern Italy, in the 1100s, and over the intervening centuries, lawyers and scholars had commented on it and added definitions and interpretations, or glosses. The Libri Feudorum is an extraordinarily significant work that has been barely studied since 16th-century French lawyers gave it a good look.

In their evaluation of the Book of Fiefs, the scholars made some reasonable assumptions:

  1. The fiefs under discussion in the texts were pretty much the same as the fiefs of 16th-century France—that is, lands belonging to nobles.
  2. Te Libri Feudorum was addressing actual legal practices of the 11th century, not simply expounding on an academic concept.
  3. The explanation of fiefs' origins in the Libri Feudorum—that grants were initially made for as long as the lord chose but were later extended to the grantee's lifetime and afterward made hereditary—was a reliable history and not mere conjecture.

The assumptions might have been reasonable, but were they correct? French scholars had every reason to believe they were and no real reason to dig any deeper. They weren't so much interested in the historical facts of the time period as they were in the legal questions addressed in the ​Libri Feudorum. Their foremost consideration was whether the laws had any authority in France. Ultimately, French lawyers rejected the authority of the Lombard Book of Fiefs.

Examining Assumptions

However, during their investigations, based in part on the assumptions outlined above, scholars who studied the Libri Feudorum formulated a view of the Middle Ages. This general picture included the idea that feudal relationships, wherein noblemen granted fiefs to free vassals in return for services, were important in medieval society because they provided social and military security at a time when the central government was weak or nonexistent. The idea was discussed in editions of the Libri Feudorum made by legal scholars Jacques Cujas and François Hotman, who both used the term feudum to indicate an arrangement involving a fief.

Other scholars soon saw value in the works of Cujas and Hotman and applied the ideas to their own studies. Before the 16th century ended, two Scottish lawyers—Thomas Craig and Thomas Smith—were using feudum in their classifications of Scottish lands and their tenure. Craig apparently first expressed the idea of feudal arrangements as a hierarchical system imposed on nobles and their subordinates by their monarch as a matter of policy. In the 17th century, Henry Spelman, a noted English antiquarian, adopted this viewpoint for English legal history.

Although Spelman never used the word feudalism, his work went a long way toward creating an "-ism" from the ideas over which Cujas and Hotman had theorized. Not only did Spelman maintain, as Craig had done, that feudal arrangements were part of a system, but he related the English feudal heritage with that of Europe, indicating that feudal arrangements were characteristic of medieval society as a whole. Spelman's hypothesis was accepted as fact by scholars who saw it as a sensible explanation of medieval social and property relations.

Fundamentals Unchallenged

Over the next several decades, scholars explored and debated feudal ideas. They expanded the meaning of the term from legal matters to other aspects of medieval society. They argued over the origins of feudal arrangements and expounded on the various levels of subinfeudation. They incorporated manorialism and applied it to the agricultural economy. They envisioned a complete system of feudal agreements running throughout Britain and Europe.

But they didn't challenge Craig's or Spelman's interpretation of the works of Cujas and Hotman, nor did they question the conclusions that Cujas and Hotman drew from the Libri Feudorum.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, it's easy to ask why the facts were overlooked in favor of the theory. Present-day historians engage in a rigorous examination of the evidence and clearly identify a theory as such. Why didn't 16th- and 17th-century scholars do the same? The simple answer is that history as a scholarly field has evolved over time; in the 17th century, the academic discipline of historical evaluation was in its infancy. Historians didn't have the tools, both physical and figurative, taken for granted today, nor did they have the example of scientific methods from other fields to incorporate into their learning processes.

Besides, having a straightforward model by which to view the Middle Ages gave scholars the sense that they understood the time period. Medieval society becomes so much easier to evaluate and comprehend if it can be labeled and fit into a simple organizational structure.

By the end of the 18th century, the term feudal system was used among historians, and by the middle of the 19th century, feudalism had become a fairly well-fleshed-out model, or construct, of medieval government and society. As the idea spread beyond academia, feudalism became a buzzword for any oppressive, backward, hidebound system of government. In the French Revolution, the "feudal regime" was abolished by the National Assembly, and in Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto," feudalism was the oppressive, agrarian-based economic system that preceded the industrialized, capitalist economy.

With such far-ranging appearances in academic and mainstream usage, breaking free of what was, essentially, a wrong impression would be an extraordinary challenge.

Questions Arise

In the late 19th century, the field of medieval studies began to evolve into a serious discipline. No longer did the average historian accept as fact everything that had been written by his or her predecessors and repeat it as a matter of course. Scholars of the medieval era began to question interpretations of the evidence and the evidence itself.

This wasn't a swift process. The medieval era was still the bastard child of historical study; a "dark age" of ignorance, superstition, and brutality, "a thousand years without a bath." Medieval historians had much prejudice, fanciful invention, and misinformation to overcome, and there was no concerted effort to shake things up and re-examine every theory ever floated about the Middle Ages. Feudalism had become so entrenched that it wasn't an obvious choice to overturn.

Even once historians began to recognize the "system" as a post-medieval construct, its validity wasn't questioned. As early as 1887, F.W. Maitland observed in a lecture on English constitutional history that "we do not hear of a feudal system until feudalism ceased to exist." He examined in detail what feudalism supposedly was and discussed how it could be applied to English medieval law, but he didn't question its existence.

Maitland was a well-respected scholar; much of his work is still enlightening and useful today. If such an esteemed historian treated feudalism as a legitimate system of law and government, why should anyone question him?

For a long time, nobody did. Most medievalists continued in Maitland's vein, acknowledging that the word was a construct—an imperfect one, at that—yet going forward with articles, lectures, treatises, and books on what feudalism had been or, at the very least, incorporating it into related topics as an accepted fact of the medieval era. Each historian presented his or her own interpretation of the model; even those claiming to adhere to a previous interpretation deviated from it in some significant way. The result was an unfortunate number of varying, sometimes conflicting, definitions of feudalism.

As the 20th century progressed, the discipline of history grew more rigorous. Scholars uncovered new evidence, examined it closely, and used it to modify or explain their view of feudalism. Their methods were sound, but their premise was problematic: They were trying to adapt a deeply flawed theory to a wide variety of facts.

Construct Denounced

Although several historians expressed concerns over the indefinite nature of the model and the term's imprecise meanings, it wasn't until 1974 that anyone thought to point out the most fundamental problems with feudalism. In a groundbreaking article titled "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe," Elizabeth A.R. Brown leveled a finger at the academic community, denouncing the term feudalism and its continued use.

Brown maintained that the feudalism construct, developed after the Middle Ages, bore little resemblance to actual medieval society. Its many differing, even contradictory, definitions had so muddied the waters that it had lost any useful meaning and was interfering with the proper examination of evidence concerning medieval law and society. Scholars viewed land agreements and social relationships through the warped lens of the feudalism construct and either disregarded or dismissed anything that didn't fit into their version of the model. Brown asserted that, even considering how difficult it is to unlearn something, continuing to include feudalism in introductory texts would do readers a grave injustice.

Brown's article was well received in academic circles. Virtually no American or British medievalists objected to any part of it, and almost everyone agreed: Feudalism wasn't a useful term and really should go.

Yet, it stuck around.

Hasn't Disappeared

Some new publications in medieval studies avoided the term altogether; others used it sparingly, focusing on actual laws, land tenures, and legal agreements instead of on the model. Some books on medieval society refrained from characterizing that society as "feudal." Others, while acknowledging that the term was in dispute, continued to use it as a "useful shorthand" for lack of a better term, but only as far as it was necessary.

But some authors still included descriptions of feudalism as a valid model of medieval society, with little or no caveat. Not every medievalist had read Brown's article or had a chance to consider its implications or discuss it with colleagues. Additionally, revising work conducted on the premise that feudalism was a valid construct would require the kind of reassessment that few historians were prepared to engage in.

Perhaps most significantly, no one had presented a reasonable model or explanation to use in place of feudalism. Some historians and authors felt they had to provide their readers with a handle by which to grasp the general ideas of medieval government and society. If not feudalism, then what?

Yes, the emperor had no clothes, but for now, he would just have to run around naked.