The Feudal System







Short version.

1) The political and social system found in Europe in the first two or three centuries of the last millennium: the king owned all the land; he allowed subordinates to have it in exchange for military support; they in turn let some of it to their subordinates on the same terms. It implied a social hierarchy. In England it went: King, Dukes, Earls, Barons, Knights, Esquires, freeholders, Villeins (Serfs) - slaves. Each piece of land and the peasants on it were supposed to support a knight (armored horse soldier). This system broke down in most western countries when trade revived and military technology (gunpowder) made the knight obsolete. The rise of the towns and free merchants with the revival of trade also weakened the self-sufficiency which had made feudalism necessary.

However, serfdom continued in eastern Europe and Russia into the 19th century, perhaps because trade never developed as much as in western Europe.

The Black Death (Plague) killed off the laborers in the 14th century, which made the survivors unwilling to return to serfdom (in the west).

2) the modern condition in which a few landowners control the state and the economy and keep the mass of the population in poverty. Characteristic of Central America, the Philippines, Ethiopia before the revolution. Burundi and Rwanda could have been be classified as feudal states until recently. Pakistan is often described as a feudal state, as even the allegedly Socialist party - the PPP - has a hereditary leadership of big landowners.

It has something in common with Mafia, as a means of preventing capital accumulation.

3) Egypt in the Middle Kingdom is also sometimes said to have had a feudal system, as well as Greece in the Homeric period. It may be a recurring condition whenever the circumstances are right.

4) Was the Communist system in the Soviet Union a form of feudalism? Perhaps it was evolving in this direction before it collapsed. Peasants could not leave the farm easily; the Party controlled all land and business; the leaders of the party were becoming a closed caste.

5) Pure feudalism - military self-sufficiency - may have arisen in Somalia after the state collapsed.

All types of feudalism exclude free elections.

Longer version

1. The Later Roman Empire
The western European feudal system grew out of the system of the later Roman Empire (after Diocletian).

There was a state bureaucracy controlled ultimately by the emperor, divided into civil and military powers. The civil hierarchy had at the top a Praetorian Prefect in charge of a Prefecture, a number of Dioceses each headed by a Vicarius (= deputy or representative of the emperor). Britannia was a Diocese; Gallia was another; Hispania, Italia, Roma and Africa came under the western Emperor at the top. Each Diocese was made up of a number of provinces, headed by a governor - but these are seldom documented.

The military structure included ranks not known to the early Roman state: Comes and Dux (probably reflecting the change of the role of commanders: to control barbarian - non-Roman - soldiers). In the last days of the empire in the west the Comes (plural Comites) was a superior commander to the Dux (=leader). Thus in Britannia the military commander in charge of coordinating defense against the raids of the Saxons was the Comes Litoris Saxonica (usually translated as Count of the Saxon Shore). Dux was the commander of groups of soldiers answerable to the overall control of the Comes. These Late Roman military ranks came to be used later as Dukes and Counts (French Comte), reversing the command ranking.

The Christian church was to provide an alternative hierarchy in parallel to the civil and military. The term Diocese was appropriated to refer to the area supervised by an Episcopus (Bishop = Overseer) - though these were smaller and more numerous than the civil Dioceses. The church hierarchy was to survive the demise of the Empire itself. Throughout the feudal period the church was a means for someone of low status to rise by education in a world where most of the powerholders were illiterate. Church policy was to soften the barbarian brutality with the rituals of chivalry..

 Numbers of people

We must always remember when thinking about medieval history that the numbers of people who lived then were a tiny fraction of modern populations. Europe included large areas of forest where few people lived, and shared it with wolves, bears and other animals. Hunting the various kinds of deer was an important source of protein (for the owners).

Towards the end of the Roman empire numbers had declined and the waste land had increased.

2. The breakdown of the state
The empire in the west was occupied by the German tribes (see J.P.Bury) who formed a number of kingdoms headed by German kings. These grew gradually from the practice of the Roman Empire of recruiting its soldiers in the west mainly from German tribes and settling German peoples in the frontier provinces as Auxiliaries with the duty of guarding the frontiers (from the German peoples outside). At the beginning of this process the institutions of the Roman state, the officials, the town councils and so on continued in being, but gradually faded as the cities lost their wealth. The Roman law and courts continued in being, in theory, but gradually lost their ability to function. The new settlers came to live in places where the native (e.g. Celto-Roman) population had declined. Further weakening of the state occurred when whole tribes (up to 20,000 people) crossed the frontiers and were not seriously opposed.

In the modern world the situation of the empire, especially in the West, resembled that of such states as modern Congo where the state exists only in theory but not in practice "on the ground".

One factor to be remembered here is that an epidemic, probably similar to the 14th century Black Death occurred in 541-2 in the time of Justinian. (see Volcano) Thus large areas were depopulated.

As the state weakened, the army itself dissolved. In its place at first were the war bands of the semi-nomadic German tribes. As there were no longer regular taxes this army had to be paid by other means. At first this was by more or less arbitrary plunder, no doubt justified as "taxes". At the height of the Feudal system the military were paid by requiring landowners to provide mounted soldiers for the superior lord's army. Money itself had become so rare (see Henri Pirenne) that almost all payments were made in kind - the king had to travel round the country to "eat his rents". So did the Counts and other lords.

The first recorded example of a German tribal king assigning land on feudal terms was probably Alboin, first king of the Lombards (Longobardi = Long Beards), who had invaded and occupied parts of northern Italy in 568. In 572 he assigned provinces to his associates. He granted the land on condition of military service to his associates to whom he gave titles of "Prince" or "Duke". This act suggests that it had been the practice earlier. But this was really an extension of the previous practice of the imperial government settling tribes in an area on condition they provided soldiers to defend it. This can be seen as early as Honorius (395-422).

 When we consider land ownership we need to remember that there was an important change in land ownership before the Empire was formed. After the conquest of Carthage by Scipio Africanus in 146 BCE large number of slaves were imported to Rome (the defeated people) and the typical farm became a Latifundia - an estate worked by slaves and belonging to a wealthy Roman aristocrat. Smaller independent family farms could not compete with the free labor of the slaves and the farmers went out of business and had to move to the City as landless persons. It can be argued that this change was the real origin of the feudal method of landholding.

In a time of uncertainty and insecurity each landowner had to make arrangements for the security of his estates. This meant he had to maintain a private army from his own tenants and slaves, or, as was the practice of the later Roman Empire, to pay others to do it - mercenaries, usually Germans or Illyrians (Albanians).

Personal Relationships
Marc Bloch emphasises that the State, where relationships were to an abstract entity, had been replaced by a society where relationships were personal. That is, the ceremonies by which one man swore allegiance to another were taken seriously. The duties were mutual and were to the person rather than to the office, as is the case in the modern state. Thus if a vassal rebelled against his liege lord it was a breach of morals and was condemned as such, rather than as a political act. Instead of the word vassal "friend" was often used instead (ami or dru).

The oaths sworn were explicit.

If my dear lord is slain, his fate I'll share
If he is hanged, then hang me by his side
If to the stake he goes, with him I'll burn
And if he's drowned, then let me drown with him

(See Marc Bloch)

The oaths suggest that the heart of relations between these leaders of society was ritualised friendship, going back to the tribal custom of the wandering German tribes. The modern state is sometimes idealised as "a government of laws rather than men" - an explicit rejection of aristocracy and feudalism. Feudal society was emphatically a society of personal relationships rather than laws. The oaths were influenced by the Church, anxious to modify the tribal brutality of the invaders.

Despite these oaths, rebellions against one's feudal superior were common.

(The Science Fiction novel by C.M. Kornbluth - The Syndic imagines a replacement of the modern bureaucratic state by a personal state, derived from the Mafia.)

When the lord died a new oath had to be sworn to his successor. When the vassal died his heir had to swear an oath to the lord. Succession was not automatic.

Payments to the king and other superior lords were called "benevolences" or "aids" - expressions of friendship rather than of law. But they were payments one could not refuse.

Early in the film "the Godfather" Mr Bonasera, an undertaker, comes to Don Corleone and asks for his protection and revenge against the rape of his daughter. The ceremony of kissing hands with Don Corleone is directly related to the customs of the Feudal Period. (Yes, it's fiction but that was the spirit of vassalage.)

3. The end of trade (see Henri Pirenne)
After the Muslims gained control of the Mediterranean, trade by that sea became impossible. After the state ceased to guarantee the safety of the roads, trade on land also faded away. Goods that had to travel long distances became very expensive. This meant that each area had to live on the produce they could grow or make locally. Money became very rare. The variety of consumption declined to a very basic level. Almost all exchange of produce was "in kind" that is, by barter or custom. (Until well into the Mediaeval period the kings collected their revenues - rents and taxes - by travelling round the country and eating them on site - English King John died while on one of those journeys.)

The basic unit became the Manor - a group of villages and farms that could produce at subsistence level. Instead of taxes to the no longer existing State there were Rents and Obligations paid to the landowner (Lord of the Manor). The surplus of the Manor went to the Lord to enable him to fulfill his obligations to his superior, the next person up in the hierarchy. The Lord of the Manor was usually a Knight - someone trained to fight on horseback.

There wasn't much left to support the peasants - the people who did the actual work. Everyone, even the lords, lived at a fairly low standard of living - basics but few luxuries. If the weather prevented a harvest in one area, people died because food could not be transported.

The chief military expenditure was on equipping horses and on building castles. A Castle could be quite small, or very elaborate. King Edward the first built huge castles in conquered Wales. These were the equivalent of a modern aircraft carrier.

4. The status of people
Already the great men of Rome had had huge estates manned by workers of very low status - slaves. These had replaced the small family farms of free workers of the period of the Republic. Gradually the status of the slaves changed, as they acquired the rights of serfs - the right not to be ejected from the land they lived on, in return for physical service on the landowner's home farms.

"Free" workers and farmers, where they survived, lost their freedom as they had to seek "protection" from the landowners.

Thus slaves and free men alike gradually became serfs.

But the status of landowners also changed. When there was no longer a state to protect them, smaller landowners needed the protection of (and from) the greater landowners. Thus the ancient Roman practice of Clientage grew into a formal obligation.

5. The hierarchy of landholding
As the state disappeared, all land was assigned, at least in theory, from above, and the landholder owed obligations as a vassal to a superior. The peasant, as a serf, owed service to his immediate lord. However, the Customs of the Manor gave him security of tenure on his land - the landowner could sell or assign the overlordship but the peasants went with the land and their children could inherit it. These customs required the peasant to work on the lord's land a certain number of days a week and make various payments in money or in produce. They also gave him rights: such as estovers, to collect firewood, wood for house repairs and tools; pannage, to allow his pigs to collect the acorns in the woods and to collect berries; various categories of grazing. These were regulated by the manorial courts and by collective resistance against arbitrary seizures by the lord.

As time passed all these obligations tended to become money payments, like a modern system of rent.
 Bastard feudalism One stage in the evolution of feudalism - its slow change towards the modern state - was Bastard Feudalism. At this stage, associated with technological change as armies began to use gunpowder in the form of artillery, calling out the feudal levy wasn't much use to the king. Instead he needed money to fight his wars and hire soldiers who would fight for pay. Thus money became more important and rents tended towards money rather than personal service (except for the common people, of course).

 Ius primae noctis was almost certainly not a "law" or custom but merely the collective memory of the Squire's son behaving badly, from time immemorial. The Church would certainly have frowned on it and condemned it, if it had existed as a formal law, even at Manorial level.

See Droit de seigneur wikipedia and
Google droit de seigneur
Snopes deals with this question nicely.

We would not today talk of the "Footballer's Right" when today's rich behave in the same arrogant way, as reported in the tabloid press.

Old Song

She was poor, but she was honest,
Pure unstaind was her name,
Till the local squire came courting,
And the poor girl lost her name.

But the Lord of the manor owed service to his superior (liege lord), usually in the form of supplying armed men for fighting his superior's battles, or to supply labor for building and maintaining the lord's castle. The next step up might be called a Baron. The Barons themselves owed allegiance to a superior also: in France to the Count; in England to the Earl. With his castle and army the Baron might have to serve the superiors of the Count, perhaps the Duke, ultimately the king. When the king was weak, or even the Dukes and Counts were weak or in dispute with one another the Baron might have latitude. (The period of the war between King Steven and Queen Matilda was notorious in English history for feudal lawlessness.) In the earlier days of feudalism the Counts could not easily make the barons obey them. Politics, cunning and muscle were needed to keep their allegiance. An example of these might be keeping a subordinate's sons as hostages.

Each landholding with obligations was called a fief. Some of these fiefs were held directly from the king.

6. The System in France (see Marc Bloch - Feudal Society)
King - the kingdom of modern France began when Hugh Capet, Count of Anjou, was elected king by the barons (Counts and Dukes) and churchmen. In theory all the lower landholders had to report to him (offer allegiance in an act of Fealty). In practice he had little influence over them. The history of the French kingdom is the story of the process by which the king increased his power over the subordinate rulers, bringing the anarchic feudal system to an end. Successive kings accumulated the power to control these subordinates.

Dukes (Le Duc) - the rulers of large provinces, such as Aquitaine or Bretagne (sometimes the actual duke was the king of England). A duke usually controlled one or more counts.

Counts - Counts (les comtes) the rulers of smaller provinces, such as Blois or Anjou, with several castles.

Barons - rulers of small areas round a castle.

Seigneur - French for lord

Other titles, such as Vicomte derive from the positions created by Charlemagne when he attempted to build a state structure to reinvent the Roman Empire, as he hoped.

7. Feudalism in England
Although there were some aspects of feudalism in Anglo-Saxon England before 1066 (see Frank Stenton - Anglo-Saxon England), William the Conqueror systematised it when he assigned all the land in his kingdom to his followers, who ignored most of the rights and customs of the previous English kingdom. This is set out in the Domesday Book, a survey of all the land in the kingdom made in 1086, and showing the owners in 1066 (under King Edward) and in 1085 after William and his Normans had dispossessed nearly all the Anglo-Saxon owners. This is the main difference from the arrangement in France: the villeins at the bottom of the social pyramid were Anglo-Saxon speakers and were, for example, forbidden to marry the Norman-speaking rulers. Thus there were some features similar to apartheid. It was to take two hundred years before the rulers began to use English - a new language derived by the influence of French on Anglo-Saxon. One sign of the situation is that the names of farm animals are derived from Anglo-Saxon: Cows, sheep, pigs, calves; the names of the meat are in French: beef, mutton, pork, veal. The peasants produced them but the Normans ate them.



 Modern food
 Bouef  Cow  beef
 Veau  Calf  veal
 Mouton  Sheep  mutton
 Porc  Pig  pork

Food names

The king (William the Conqueror and his descendants) claimed to own all the land in England, by right of conquest. He assigned it to his associates, companions and assistants, keeping some under his direct control. In return they had to supply him with soldiers. How they provided them was up to them. Each of the new landholders (who could in theory be dispossessed by the king at any time) built castles - strongpoints from where he could control the surrounding countryside and protect himself from attack by other barons and the Anglo-Saxon peasants. If the king had assigned a province to one of his followers, as a Duke, in turn he assigned lands to his associates. The basic unit of manors and groups of manors was each to supply one knight. Each knight was assigned enough land to provide him with the means of turning out to fight for his superior. (The equipment of a Knight was a major undertaking, like a modern Tank). The hierarchy was:

Rare. Usually the close relatives of the king (wife-Duchess).

Earls (Counts) (In Latin "comes" but in English Earl from Anglo Saxon or Danish, rather than Count from French). His wife was called Countess.

Marquess (guardian of the frontiers or Marches: e.g. Welsh Marches (wife-Marchioness)

Barons - owners of one or more castles, and "protector" of Manors (wife-Lady).

Knights - someone trained in the warlike arts: sword use, horsemanship, armor wearing and so on. In the early Mediaeval period a knight could be made by any superior, later only by the King. After he was "made" a knight he could use the title "sir". A knight was usually the lord of one or more manors - he needed its produce to maintain his expensive armor. (Wife - lady)

Squires - assistants and apprentices to knights.
By the 18th century Squire was a category of country landowners. He might be a Mr or a Sir.
See such literature as Henry Fielding - Tom Jones or the novels of Jane Austen.

Baronet (not a feudal rank) King James the first of England wanted to raise some easy money. He offered a hereditary title "Sir" to anyone willing to pay. The title conferred no rights to attend the Lords but made the owner feel good. The last person to obtain this title was probably the late husband of Mrs. Thatcher and it descended to her son Mark when Sir Denis died. His title is Sir Mark Thatcher, Bart.

At first any superior person. The word itself comes from Anglo-Saxon when it meant supplier of bread - Hlaford=loaf holder. Later it had the special meaning of someone called to Parliament as a great vassal. (Except for Lord of the Manor, just meaning owner and power holder).

Because the king asserted ownership of the whole kingdom it means that, although the structure looked like that in France, the king was never as powerless as the king of France at that time. 100 years later during the struggle between Stephen of Blois and Matilda the firm hand of the king was relaxed and so the barons all became free to behave as they wished, but order was restored by Henry II and feudal anarchy never came back. He ordered many of the new castles to be dismantled, and enforced his order. Those who wanted freedom of action migrated to Wales and Ireland.

Younger sons
The eldest son inherited the land and rights. However, he had to be approved by the superior lord. If the eldest son was a minor - too young to bear arms - the superior would appoint a guardian, often himself, and take a proportion of the profits. Before being installed the new baron had to pay a large sum to his superiors, including the king. These "fines" were an important source of revenue. If there was no son but a daughter, she would be put under guardianship and married off.

Younger sons did not inherit. Thus if trained as knights they had to find their own living, by fighting, perhaps hoping to conquer a nice fief. They were a problem in early feudal society - partially solved by encouraging them to go on Crusade. Some might join the Church and learn to read and write. Others might hire out as mercenaries (study Sir John Hawkwood), or go on Crusade. Daughters were to be married, to increase the landholding of the husband if possible, or they went into Nunneries.

Serfs (Villeins)
At the bottom of society was a large class of people who were not free to move where they liked. (Actually, in Domesday Book there is a class of slaves who had even fewer rights. Possibly they were descendants of the Welsh from whom the Anglo-Saxons had conquered the land.) The ordinary peasant did not own his land but held it from a landlord. In return he had to work on the landlord's main farm - often called the demesne (in Scotland the Mains). His obligations were many. They were listed in the records of the Manor. They included a set number of days' work a year, the provision of certain items of produce - rents in kind, such as fowls, pigs or grain. The manorial records show even whether he had to bring his own food as he worked or whether the landowner would provide. He also had to pay a tithe of his produce to the Church. A serf could not leave his land without permission. As well as obligations he had rights: to collect firewood from the lord's woodlands (estovers), the right to graze his animals on the common land (pannage). Rights and duties were decided by the manor courts and were frequently disputed in cases, whose records often survive.

The Customs of the Manor were very varied. Thus they might define exactly what the landowner had to provide for workers: such as a certain quality of beer for some kinds of work, especially at harvest. It was a network of obligations and rights, differing from Manor to Manor, as complicated as modern Trade Union negotiations or employment contracts. (see Marc Bloch).

We can tell from Domesday Book that some landholders who in 1066 had held their land on their own as free men had become by 1086 subject to a Norman landlord.

 The Church
The German tribes moved into the territory of the empire. They found there not just a decaying political state but also a religious organisation with branches everywhere.

Gradually the new people were converted to the late Roman religion.

As the new system became established, the church adapted to feudalism. Pious lords would donate land to the church, for building monasteries, or supporting priests, even in village churches. We should note that money had become very rare. The only way to pay anyone, whether priest or king, was "in kind", that is, with actual physical objects, such as food. Thus the priests were paid with tithes, in theory a tenth of the harvest of the produce of the parish.

Monasteries were endowed with land when kings and lords assigned them land from their estates. In the early days this was worked by the monks, thus giving them a subsistence. Later, it was worked mostly by serfs.

One consequence of this system was that priests were no longer to be married - as in the Orthodox east. The pope knew that if a priest had legitimate children these would try to inherit the Glebe (church land), which would no longer be available to support the next priest in the parish. It became church law that priests should not be married, mainly in order to keep the church land in corporate hands. In the Byzantine empire money and trade did not die out so local priests could be paid a salary and so they could continue to be married - only monks had to be celibate (unmarried) and only monks could be bishops. Nevertheless, in the west many priests continued to have unofficial wives and children. (In Ireland the children of priests received the name MacEntaggart, of Bishops McAnespie, and of Abotts MacNab). Ref the Guardian 17/08/10 Guardian article)

The great monasteries became rich and their heads - Abbots - were important people in the kingdom.

The lands belonging to the monasteries and church dioceses were administered in much the same way as the land of the lords. There were serfs, and duties and fines of the same kind. Possibly to be a tenant of a church property was not as onerous as belonging to a baron. The Abbots had the same obligations as secular lords to provide men and knights for the feudal army.

The monasteries had the only schools where people could learn to read and write. Churchmen then became essential as advisors and clerks for the usually illiterate lords and kings. That is why in England the king's chief minister was called the Chancellor. His original office was in the king's private chapel, and he came to look after the written records, then to write letters. King Henry the second made his Chancellor, Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury hoping he would continue to work for him. Thomas then became the spokesman for the priests and resisted the king's plan to control them (and tax them). We should note that by the 15th century manorial records show that many peasants were literate and able to argue their own cases in the courts.

Also the monasteries were the equivalent of modern health and welfare services.

When the king needed advice, or a parliament, he called his great lords but also his abbots and bishops. This is the origin of the presence of the bishops in the British House of Lords.

The second and other sons of a lord might join the church. Thus the church was staffed by members of the ruling nobility.

The Church was also the supervising body of the Universities that were another cause of the end of feudalism. Schools for the training of priests were established in Cathedrals. The scholars became interested in the philosophy of the past and went to Toledo in Spain where they read and translated the Arabic texts to be found there. Gradually, Oxford, Cambridge and Paris became independent of the Bishops.

8. How it ended
Feudalism came to an end as the kings increased their power and forced the lesser landowners to obey their orders. The economy in Europe grew again as trade revived. One factor in this was the growth of a trans-national organisation that moved its produce about the continent under armed guard. It was the religious Order of Knights Templar which owned land in every state, had a centralised management and soon became richer than the kings because it bought in one place and sold in another at a higher price. It also operated the first bank able to operate across the conventional boundaries (using a modification of the Middle Eastern Hawala system). Its wealth helped finance the building of the new Cathedrals around which grew the new cities. The Cistercians also revived the economy by opening up unused land and developing monastery industries. (Forget the fake history about the Templars' alleged beliefs).

As economic activity revived the towns grew again and provided the kings with taxable wealth. The towns did not fit into the classic feudal structure and undermined it as soon as they appeared. Nevertheless a lord would want to encourage towns on his land to increase his income. In Italy they superseded the Feudal lords with a collective government - Republics ruled not by Lords but by merchants.

Rebuilding the state
In England a formal, non-feudal state gradually came into being. One sign of this is Magna Carta (1215). This document sets out laws which the barons wanted the king to agree to. The rights confirmed in Magna Carta are those the barons thought they were entitled to in the feudal situation but the Charter itself is the foundation of a post-feudal system of enforcing those rights. Even more so was the calling of what is regarded as the first Parliament by Henry the third (1258). Parliament began to include representatives of the towns - merchants who were expected to pay taxes. Laws made by the King in Parliament began to supersede feudal custom and became the Statutes by which modern Britain is governed. The hierarchy of land holding gradually ended. Some people became ordinary tenants, paying for the right to remain with a simple money rent. The small landowners ceased to have obligations to higher landholders, other than the king. The king's rights to land evolved into the rights of the Crown (that is, the state, an impersonal body). Unlike in France the English king had to ask for money and the assembled representatives could negotiate.

Henry the seventh (England)
He came to power as the result of a military coup in 1485 against his predecessor Richard the third. In fact his victory in battle (Bosworth) was the last act of the Wars of the Roses in which the fact that various great landowners controlled their own armies was a major cause. He called these "overmighty subjects" and banned the private ownership of armies, making it a monopoly of the king and therefore of the state. This ended military feudalism in England, though it continued in parts of Scotland (the Highlands and Islands) until the 18th century.

Black Death - a serious epidemic of an infectious disease disrupted the feudal system by reducing the number of peasants able to support the superiors in the hierarchy. Many serfs moved to the towns to become free. Those who remained on the land were reluctant to work for nothing.

However, the leaders of Feudal Europe passed on their privileges and personal codes of honor to become an aristocracy. Did their codes of honor create the patriotism that gave rise to the British Empire? The code of an "Officer and Gentleman" is the descendant of the Knightly virtues.

Technological change
By the 15th century armies were largely paid soldiers. The king might still call out his feudal vassals - but they could send money instead, and in fact the king preferred that (the words called for his vassals; the meaning changed to a demand for money). This period is sometimes called "bastard feudalism". The invention of gunpowder rendered the Castles useless, except by very expensive rebuilding, and made the feudal army pointless.

Philosophical change
The 13th century changes in the church and universities also played a role in this period. The works of such people as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon changed the intellectual climate and the attitude of the Church to politics. Aquinas in particular introduced the idea of popular sovereignty which eventually led to democracy.

9. Legal Remnants
In Scotland the remnants of the feudal system persisted as a financial device in that many householders had until recently to pay feu duty to a landowner. Until recently in Britain the descendants of Feudal lords had hereditary seats in the House of Lords. In France the fossilised remains of feudalism were abolished by the Revolution of 1789; in England they faded away in a long gradual process.

Some remnants can be found in the Channel Islands - the fragments of the Duchy of Normandy still owned by the British Crown. The island of Sark only gave up hereditary membership of its tiny "parliament" - the Chief Pleas - on 10 December 2008. Its government officials still have feudal names - Seneschal for chief judge and speaker of the parliament. Its system of government had been ruled incompatible with human rights by the Court of Human Rights of the Council of Europe and elections were held for a new parliament.

In England some of the peasant rights were removed by the landowners, especially by the 18th century Enclosures when thousands of people lost their rights and were forced to move to the industrial towns. The rights to firewood (Estovers) still exist but even in October 2008 there are rumours that the Forestry Commission would like to extinguish these rights, first confirmed by the Forest Charter, shortly after Magna Carta.

Poaching - the taking of animals for food - on the landowners' estates went on until the present day. In the 18th century especially the Commoners dispossessed by the Enclosures took deer, birds and rabbits from the land where they used to have rights. (See E.P.Thompson) The landowners, who controlled Parliament, passed ferocious laws against poaching. Thus some of the original disputes of the feudal period have never ended but were continued by the aristocratic landowners.

69% of land in Britain is still owned by 0.3% of the population

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.


10. Outside Europe
Wherever the state is weak its functions are liable to be assumed by the Big Men, the landowners. Spanish colonists took feudalism to the New World and to the Philippines. The king was far away and his officials had to work with the landowners who wanted the same power that they had in Spain itself, or more.

Japan is perhaps the best example of a feudal system outside Europe. As in Europe the state was usually weak and the regional landowners were strong in their local areas. The Samurai class had many similarities to the Knights of European countries. They were professional soldiers and highly ritualised - even more so than European knights.

In those colonies where the system of plantations became entrenched, democracy usually failed to emerge, even after Independence. Most of Central America provides numerous examples.

There are today "failed states" where there is a lack of government. In these too the outlines of feudalism emerge. The "lords" are usually called Warlords in the news items from such countries as Congo Kinshasa or Somalia.

Street gangs
It can be argued that street gangs show how feudalism or tribalism can grow, if there is lack of attachment or allegiance to the State - lack of what Ibn Khaldun called "group feeling". (But what they lack is the code of honor expressed in the oaths).

In the modern world Corporations often have more power over people than the state has, and often control more money than any but the largest states - and try to make themselves immune from democratic controls. Their owners dislike paying taxes and influence governments to reduce their taxes. Is this a modern version of the Overmighty Subjects that the English king Henry the seventh complained of at the end of the Wars of the Roses? But they operate not in one of the historic states or nations but in the world as a whole. Classic feudalism came to an end as the kings regained the power that the Roman Empire once had. Could a worldwide power grow up to control trans-national corporations?

Medieval feudalism can be seen as a kind of "protection racket" and a means of acquiring the lion's share of wealth to the owners. Modern neo-feudalism extracts the wealth through "investment banks" and hedge funds. What perhaps these institutions and individuals lack is the sense of obligation expressed in the oaths and code of honour. Perhaps the Templars (see Crusades) as a business would be a better model than the joint stock company (derived from the piratical East India Company). The antidote to merchant bank neo-feudalism would be cooperatives, credit unions and mutually owned building societies - the devices of the British 19th century working class movement. Now that the banks have collapsed, perhaps we all ought to start these devices up again? See Gilk and this page. Ownership still matters. Does democracy work if most of people's lives are controlled by people with almost as much power as the Feudal Lords?

See also Crusades.

Will Hutton on why Billionaires aren't a good thing.

 Former Soviet Central Asia

Feudal industry Quote from a Wikileaks cable:

Azerbaijan - feudalism The same cable talks disparagingly of Azerbaijan's political elite. "Observers in Baku often note that today's Azerbaijan is run in a manner similar to the feudalism found in Europe during the Middle Ages: a handful of well-connected families control certain geographic areas, as well as certain sectors of the economy." These families "collude, using government mechanisms" to keep out foreign competitors, it asserts.

Interesting reading

Edward Gibbon - Decline and Fall

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Verfall und Untergang des Römischen Reiches

Histoire du déclin et de la chute de l'Empire romain d'Occident

J B Bury - The Later Roman Empire

Stephen Mitchall - A History of the Later Roman Empire

Marc Bloch - Feudal Society
The classic historian's account of feudalism

Die Feudalgesellschaft

La Société féodale

Zoe Oldenbourg - The Crusades
Essential reading

Henri Pirenne - A History of Europe

Geschichte Europas von der Völkerwanderung bis zur Reformation

Histoire de l'europe: des invasions au XVI siecle la formation de la civilisation occidentale et son expansion de l'empire français a la premiere guerre ... de versailles au pacte atlantique 4 volumes

E.P. Thompson - Whigs and Hunters -The origin of the Black Act
the war of the enclosing landowners against Poachers.

G W Barrow - Feudal Britain

Feudal Britain

C.M.Kornbluth - the Syndic

William Langland - Piers Plowman
What was life like for ordinary people?

Langland: Vision of Piers Plowman:

Piers Plowman

Barbara Hanaway -Ties that bound

Terry Jones - Chaucer's Knight
(Monty Python member but a serious reassessment of Chaucer's story, showing the knight to have been present at some of the worst atrocities of medieval warfare)

Chaucer's Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary

Mario Puzo - Godfather

The Godfather

Der Pate


The Godfather Trilogy [Blu-ray] [1972]

The mixture of "protection" and bullying is the essence of Feudalism.
After feudalism
Trevor Royle - Wars of the Roses

Wars of the Roses

(and the war in France)
Norman - Cohn - Pursuit of the Millennium

The Pursuit Of The Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages

Die Sehnsucht nach dem Millennium. Apokalyptiker, Chiliasten und Propheten im Mittelalter.
Les fanatiques de l'Apocalypse
There were many religious dissidents in this period.
Some aspects of village self-sufficiency lingered on in some areas, such as rural Spain in the 1920s
Gerald Brenan - South from Granada

Südlich von Granada

Nancy Goldstone - The Maid and the Queen

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc and Yolande of Aragon

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc

How did medieval politics work?


Vassal - subordinate landholder, someone who has sworn allegiance, .
Fealty - oath of swearing allegiance, not to rebel against the superior lord
Fief - the land and obligations of a vassal, the means of paying subordinates
Domaine - French for Manor, the land controlled directly by a Lord of the Manor

 Was it really a "system"?
No-one sat down to devise this arrangement of governing. It is just the sort of thing that arises when there is no state. Trade stopped. Taxes stopped. Law and order stopped. People, especially the well-off, did what they thought was necessary. In Europe society went back to a quasi-tribal organisation in the ruins of the Roman Empire.

Some aspects of feudalism can arise in many situations. Even in developed countries the poor and unemployed may revert to this way of living, as in the gangs that form in housing estates for the poor, when the jobs have gone. It is reported that in some of these areas the youth have divided the land into quasi-tribal zones, and many of them simply never cross the borders, thus recreating the conditions of Europe 1200 years ago.

The gangs that try to control the trade in illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin fight each other much as mediaeval barons did. They do not recognise the authority of the legitimate state which they see as an enemy.

Modern Zimbabwe has reverted to serfdom in some areas (such as the diamond fields of the east see Channel 4 Unreported World - Blood diamonds)

In Europe the freedom to travel was restored by means of Pilgrimage and War (crusades) and later by the trade promoted by the Templars and others. Gradually things evolved into the modern system of states, and continues to evolve into the association of states known as the European Union.

There never was a "system" remaining stable and unchanged. It was always evolving, first from the Roman Empire; later into the historic state system. Perhaps, indeed the modern financial system is also a development as can be seen in the City of London.

Useful links

 On late Roman Britain

 A useful article describing the features of feudalism
 Useful article

 Wikipedia survey

Last revised 5/06/12



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