The Problem with Feudalism

The F-Word

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

De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

Medieval historians aren't generally bothered by words. In fact, 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, and no threat to the historian of the Middle Ages.

But there's one word that has become the bane of medievalists everywhere. Use it in discussing medieval life and society, and the average medieval historian will screw up his face in revulsion. There might be some sighs, some head shaking, and perhaps even some hands thrown in the air.

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


Every student of the Middle Ages is at least somewhat familiar with "feudalism." The term is 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.

Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition, and there are many exceptions and caveats that go along with this model of medieval society, but the same could be said of any model applied to a historical period. Generally, 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.

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 may have had their challenges and their weaknesses, but kings did not use feudalism to exert control over their subjects, and the feudal relationship was not the "glue that held medieval society together."

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

We know what you're thinking. 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 for so long? Weren't there entire books written on the subject? Who has the authority to say that all those historians were wrong? And if the current consensus among the "experts" in medieval history is to reject feudalism, why is it still presented as reality in nearly every medieval history textbook?

The best way to answer these questions is to engage in a little historiography. Let's begin with a look at the origin and evolution of the term "feudalism."

A Post-Medieval What, Now?

The first thing to understand about the word "feudalism" is that it 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.

There's nothing inherently wrong with "constructs." They help us understand alien ideas in terms more familiar to our modern thought processes. The phrases "Middle Ages" and "medieval" are constructs, themselves. (After all, 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 may 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 the use of "middle ages" and "medieval" to describe the era as in between the ancient and early modern eras is satisfactory, however fluid the definition of all three time frames may 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, in depth, a substantial collection of Roman law books. Among these books was something called the Libri Feudorum—the Book of Fiefs.

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 course of the intervening centuries, many lawyers and other scholars had commented on it and added definitions and interpretations, or glosses. The Libri Feudorum is an extraordinarily significant work that, to this day, has been barely studied since the 16th-century French lawyers gave it a good look.

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

  1. That 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. That the Libri Feudorum was addressing actual legal practices of the 11th century and not simply expounding on an academic concept.
  3. That the explanation of the origins of fiefs contained in the Libri Feudorum—that is, 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 may have been reasonable—but were they correct? The French scholars had every reason to believe they were, and no real reason to dig any deeper. After all, 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 or not the laws even had any authority in France—and, ultimately, the French lawyers rejected the authority of the Lombard Book of Fiefs.

However, during the course of their investigations, and based in part on the assumptions outlined above, the 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 the legal scholars Jacques Cujas and François Hotman, both of whom used the term feudum to indicate an arrangement involving a fief.

It didn't take long for other scholars to see some value in the works of Cujas and Hotman and apply the ideas to their own studies. Before the 16th century was over, two Scottish lawyers—Thomas Craig and Thomas Smith—were using "feudum" in their classifications of Scottish lands and their tenure. It was apparently Craig who first expressed the idea of feudal arrangements as a hierarchical system; moreover, it was system that was 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, as well.

Although Spelman never used the word "feudalism," either, his work went a long way toward creating an "-ism" from the handful of 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 wrote with authority, and his hypothesis was happily accepted as fact by scholars who saw it as a sensible explanation of medieval social and property relations.

Over the next several decades, scholars explored and debated "feudal" ideas. They expanded the meaning of the term from legal matters and adapted it 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 that ran throughout all of Britain and Europe.

What they did not do was challenge Craig's or Spelman's interpretation of the works of Cujas and Hotman, nor did they question the conclusions that Cujas and Hotman had drawn 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 a theory (at least, the good ones do). 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; and in the 17th century, the academic discipline of historical evaluation was in its infancy. Historians did not yet have the tools—both physical and figurative—we take for granted today, nor did they have the example of scientific methods from other fields to look to and incorporate into their own 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 in use 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. The idea spread beyond the cloistered halls of 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 inequitable, industrialized, capitalist economy.

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

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 predecessors and repeat it as a matter of course. Scholars of the medieval era began to question interpretations of the evidence, and they began to question the evidence, as well.

This was by no means 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 a great deal of prejudice, fanciful inventions and misinformation to overcome, and there was no concerted effort to shake things up and reexamine every theory ever floated in the study of the Middle Ages. And feudalism had become so entrenched in our view of the time period, it wasn't an obvious choice of target to overturn.

Even once historians began to recognize the "system" as a post-medieval construct, the validity of the construct 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 never did he question its very existence.

Maitland was a well-respected scholar, and 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 think to question him?

For a long time, nobody did. Most medievalists continued in Maitland's vein, acknowledging that the word was a construct, and an imperfect one at that, yet going forward with articles, lectures, treatises and entire books on what exactly 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 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 and even 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, as far as they went, but their premise was problematic: they were trying to adapt a deeply flawed theory to such a wide variety of facts.

Although several historians expressed concerns over the indefinite nature of the well-worn model and the term's many imprecise meanings, it wasn't until 1974 that anyone thought to stand up and point out the most basic, fundamental problems with feudalism. In a ground-breaking article entitled "The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe," Elizabeth A. R. Brown leveled an unwavering finger at the academic community and roundly denounced the term feudalism and its continued use.

Clearly, feudalism was a construct that was developed after the Middle Ages, Brown maintained, and the system it described 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. The construct was actually 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 chosen version of the model. Brown asserted that considering how difficult it is to unlearn what one has learned, to continue to include feudalism in introductory texts would do readers of those texts a grave injustice.

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

Yet, feudalism stuck around.

There were improvements. Some new publications in medieval studies avoided using the term altogether; others used it only sparingly, and focused 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 there were still authors that included descriptions of feudalism as a valid model of medieval society with little or no caveat. Why? For one thing, not every medievalist had read Brown's article, or had a chance to consider its implications or discuss it with his colleagues. For another, revising work that had been conducted on the premise that feudalism was a valid construct would require the kind of reassessment that few historians were prepared to engage in, especially when deadlines were drawing near.

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.